When it comes to transforming your body, its simple, on paper that is.
All you need to do is lose body fat and build muscle.
I’m sure you have heard that in order to lose body fat you just need to eat less and be in a calorie deficit.
On the other hand, in order to build muscle I’m sure you have heard that you need to be in a surplus and lift.
Then there is a third party out there that says you can build muscle and lose body fat at the same time.
I’m sure if you asked 100 people which option to choose, they would choose the third one 100% of the time.
I mean, you get both at the same time. You stay lean or get lean and build muscle. I’m sure that sounds too good to be true.
And usually, when things sound too good to be true, that means they are.
However, is this the case here?
Well yes and no.
You can build muscle and lose body fat at the time. BUT there are some circumstances that make this more likely than others. And it may not be a great idea for you.
This is what we call “body recomposition”
Here are some examples of clients recomping:
Before we dive into things, there are a few mistakes I see made with this concept:
- Thinking it can’t happen
- Thinking it can always happen
- Not paying attention to the smaller details and the role they can play as you become more advanced (sleep, diet choices, stress etc.)
It’s important to note that this isn’t a black or white thing.
Your body isn’t doing either one or the other, its probably on a spectrum.
But there are some things/circumstances that can put your body on different ends of the spectrum
So read on to see how you can build muscle and lose body fat at the same time and if it’s a good idea for you.
What is Body Recomposition Exactly?
Mike Matthews from Legion Athletics describes body recomposition as this:
“Body recomposition is the process of simultaneously decreasing the proportion of body weight that is body fat and increasing the proportion that is lean body mass.“
There are 2 common ways you can recomp.
- Gaining muscle while maintaining your leanness.
- Losing fat and building muscle at the same time.
We are going to mostly hit on #2 in this article. Since that is what is talked about the most.
Building Muscle/Losing Fat Overview
To lose body fat/weight you need to be in a calorie deficit. This means that the amount of energy you take in throughout the day (anything you eat) has to be less than the amount you burn throughout the day. This forces your body to break down its own fat stores for energy. If you eat sufficient protein, you can lose fat while maintaining or increasing your muscle mass.
To build muscle you need to keep muscle protein build up consistently above muscle protein breakdown, and the best way to do this is to lift weights, eat sufficient calories and protein, and get enough sleep.
While these two seem compatible they actually arent.
Having and building new muscle is very energy-intensive, so being in a calorie deficit can make this tough.
Restricting your calorie intake also decreases the rate at which you can build muscle and the more you restrict calories, the worse the effects become.
After a certain point, restricting calories too much can cause muscle loss even if you’re doing everything else right (eating enough protein, lifting weights, etc.). But, you still need to restrict calories atleast somewhat if you want to lose fat.
Dr Eric Helms has said that “Hypertrophy [muscle growth] may occur during weight loss,”
He goes on to state that “the overall magnitude is limited with greater gains seen in novices, the untrained, and those who are overweight/obese.”
So certain people are at more of an advantage to build muscle while losing body fat.
Here Are People Who Are More Likely to Lose Fat/Build Muscle at the Same Time
- New to weight training: When you first start lifting weights your muscles are hypersensitive to muscle growth. So literally anything you do will cause muscle growth. However, over time this wears down.
- Higher body fat levels: With higher body fat levels, your body is going to use those fat stores for energy. This can help with being in a deficit and building muscle.
- You are coming off a long layoff OR coming off an injury: Have you ever seen those people who take some time away from the gym but once they get back into it they are bigger than ever? Thats muscle memory for you, and it s a real thing.
- You have had a poor diet or training routine. For example, maybe someone has been lifting for quite some time and is NOT overweight, but they haven’t been eating very much protein. This person could theoretically go into a deficit and focus on getting an adequate amount of protein for their body and see muscle gain/fat loss.
Or take someone who has been lifting for a while but has had a suboptimal routine. Once you get them on a proper weight training routine they could theoretically be in a deficit and build muscle.
So focusing more on your diet or getting on a proper weight training routine makes body recomp possible, even if you have been lifting for sometime.
People Who Are Less Likely to Lose Body Fat and Build Muscle at the Same Time
- Have been weight training for some time. The longer you lift weights, the less sensitive you become to muscle growth. So the more you need to go out of your way to build it. AKA being in a calorie surplus.
- You have a lot of muscle. The more muscle you have, the tougher it is to maintain and build. Therefore, restricting your calorie intake also decreases the rate at which you can build muscle. Another note here, the lower your calories go, the tougher it is to maintain muscle.
- You are already pretty lean. If you are under 10-12% BF for men and 16-18% for females. Building muscle in a deficit is going to be challenging. Again, building muscle is energy-intensive and your body does not like having a lot of muscle. So it will fight this.
Not to mention the leaner you are, the tougher it is to maintain muscle mass if you are in a deficit.
So in order to recomp in this group, your calorie deficit would have to be so small that it would slow down your fat loss progress (to avoid muscle loss), and by being in a deficit you are halting muscle growth.
What eventually happens here is that your progress is so tiny that you are basically maintaining.
So your time is better spent going through dedicated fat loss and building phases.
If you are wanting to add more muscle, download this free guide here.
You can achieve body recomposition when you’re new to weightlifting, but your ability to “recomp” grows smaller and smaller the more advanced you get and the longer you are dieting and lifting correctly.
You can continue to do it over time, but the longer you diet and the more you lift weights/build muscle the less your magnitude of gains will be over time.
If you fall in the first group, body recomping is a GREAT goal to have and probably something worth pursuing.
However, if you fall in the second group, you must ask yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze, as this method will slow fat loss and muscle growth.
How-to Body Recomp:
A little bit ago you found out who is more likely to have a body recomp and who is less likely and you decided it was a worthwhile goal to you.
This is how we have online clients effectively recomp:
- Lift Weights.
In order to effectively recomp you need to build muscle, the number 1 thing you need to do for that is to send the proper stimulus to the body, which is to lift weights.
Without weight training you will NOT grow muscle.
Here is a preview of some example training programs we have online clients follow:
2. Maintain a Small Calorie Deficit.
As we talked about earlier, the more intense your calorie deficit the more it can hinder muscle growth. So we want to make sure that the calorie deficit is not too much to where you risk muscle loss.
Ideally, we set a 10-20% reduction in calories from their maintenance level.
You can find your maintenance calories by multiplying your bodyweight by: 14-16 or 16-18 if you are very active.
For example if you are 170lbs and fairly active you could multiple by 15.
170lb x 15 = 2550 calories.
If you are on the leaner side, say 12-15% body fat for men or 20-24% for females you would stay closer to the 10-15% reduction range.
Lets go with 12% to be safe.
2550 x .12= 306. Round to 300 to make it simple.
2550 – 300 = 2250.
This would be your starting calories if you were trying to recomp.
Now if you are more than 15-20% body fat for men, or 25-30% for females then you can go closer to the 15-20% calorie reduction from your maintenance calories and you will be fine.
No matter what you are doing fat loss, building, or maintaining, you need sufficient protein to maintain and build muscle mass.
When you are in a deficit this becomes even more important.
So when recomping we make sure online clients protein intakes are around .8 – 1.2g per pound of body weight.
For example, the 170lb person would aim for 136g- 204g per day.
Do you need more than .8-1.2g per lb of bodyweight?
Recently there has been talk that going super high protein (think levels about 1.2g per lb of bodyweight and higher) can make recomp even more likely.
Unfortunately, this doesnt seem to be the case.
Not only will going higher take away from carbs and fats, getting that amount of protein in just seems very challenging to hit.
Once you hit that .8-1.2 mark, you’re going to get all of the benefits of protein in terms of fat loss and muscle gain. Anything more is really just down to preference.
Studies have shown that people who are on calorie-restricted diets and get poor sleep are more likely to have lean mass (muscle) loss.
Since you will be in a small deficit, its important to get quality sleep to ensure you are recovering and maintaining/building as much muscle as possible.
Here some things we work on with online clients to ensure they improve their quality of sleep:
- Consistency: Keep a relatively consistent bedtime and wake time. Staying up late and sleeping in on weekends can disrupt your routine during the week.
- Light: Keep the bedroom extremely dark, to tell the body’s light-sensitive clock that it’s time to sleep.
- Noise: Keep the bedroom extremely quiet or use a white noise generator (such as a fan).
- Relaxation/routine: Develop a pre-bed routine that is relaxing and familiar. Television, work, computer use, movies and deep/stressful discussions late at night can disrupt sleep.
- Temperature: Keep a slightly cool temperature in the room, between 66-72 F or 18-22 C.
- Stimulants: Eliminate stimulants like caffeine/nicotine, especially later in the day.
5. Step goal (updated 2022)
I added a step goal to this because this can play a large role, ESPECIALLY if you are someone who has normally been pretty sedentary.
However, another common issue here is people who train intensely or just weight train and then because you do those things you think you dont need to be active outside of those activities, and because of this your overall activity levels fall.
Listen to this podcast HERE with Brandon DaCruz on the importance of a high energy flux.
Increasing your overall activity levels can do a few things:
- Increase your total daily energy expenditure.
- Help you regulate your appretie better.
I go over the importance of NEAT and steps for fat loss goals HERE.
(updated 2022) If you fall in the category of someone who has weight trained for a while what to do:
In this updated version I also wanted to go over an option for people who have lifted for a while, but they may have been doing it suboptimally, but you do still have a decent level of muscle. AND/OR you already are under 13-15% body fat.
For you, you are already probably lifting weights. So continue that.
But I wanted to go over things for you to specifically focus on:
- Improving workouts through programming and execution: Getting on a better overall program can be something that you can build muscle on without having to be in a surplus. Or focusing more on recovery methods like deload weeks.
As far as execution goes, sometimes people go into the gym and have no focus and/or their technique is off. So improving your execution in your workouts can be a big game changer.
2. Nutrition: Dialing in your nutrition if you haven’t before can make a big difference. This can either be adding in more protein to get to the .8-1.2g per lb of bodyweight range, or it can be adding more things like carbohydrates. But optimizing your diet quality can cause some recomposition for a period of time.
3. Sleep: Just getting better sleep can be a game-changer. This is probably the most overlooked one on this list for people who have been training for a while.
4. Smaller calorie deficits: The biggest mistake people make here is going with too large of a deficit. When you have a substantial amount of muscle already, the larger the deficit the less likely you will be able to build muscle in said deficit.
As you can see body recomp is totally possible. But it must be done right and is more likely for certain people.
If you decided body recomping wasnt best for you and you want to add more muscle, download this free guide to learn the ins and outs of nutrition for building muscle.
If you decided body recomping is a good goal for you but you need some extra guidance, then apply for coaching here.