Most people venturing into the fitness world have two distinct goals: building muscle and losing fat. Without knowing much about the physiology of these two goals, it would seem that just eating healthy and training hard would do the trick.
However, when attempted simultaneously, losing fat and building muscle is a little complicated.
Losing fat and building muscle at the same time is known as “Body Recomposition” within the fitness industry, and it happens to draw a lot of controversies.
A lot of experts believe that body recomposition is a waste of time, and you can reach your goals easier by focusing on one goal at a time. Others will point out the efficacy of body recomposition found in research when recommending it for the masses.
But, what matters is whether or not body recomposition is the right choice for you!
Get the basics right
Boiling everything down to the simplest terms possible, if you want to build muscle efficiently, it requires a calorie surplus (eating more calories per day than your maintenance caloric requirements).
Losing fat turns the opposite direction, requiring a calorie deficit (eating less than maintenance calories) to lose it efficiently.
So, it is the simplest terms; these goals don’t seem to fit well together.
However, the human body is anything but simplistic!
Everything from physical activity levels, training modalities, sleep habits, training experience, calorie partitioning, and your current physique all affect the processes of losing fat and building muscle.
That’s probably why research shows that body recomposition can be accomplished by basically everybody, from untrained individuals to professional bodybuilders (1, 2, 3, 4).
Yes, calorie intake is the main driver of fat loss and muscle gain. However, there is a multitude of other factors to account for, making body recomposition not only possible; it’s effective!
How to lose fat
Regardless of the macronutrient ratio, a calorie deficit is the most important factor in maximizing fat loss (5). The larger your deficit, the more weight you are going to lose.
This part of the process is quite basic. While there are “experts” that argue that calorie balance isn’t the most important factor in fat loss, science doesn’t agree with them.
However, other factors improve the rate of fat loss, relative to total body weight loss. You don’t want to be losing muscle, so optimizing your calorie deficit and other factors to maximize fat loss only is of high importance.
One of the most important things for fat loss beyond calorie intake is your overall protein intake. Research shows that when utilizing a calorie deficit, a protein intake of about 0.82g/lb of body weight will be enough to reduce the risk of muscle loss and maximize fat loss (6).
While you might think that your training has to be the next priority, it can’t come before optimizing your sleep habits.
Studies show that a lack of optimal sleep increasing calorie intake throughout the day (7) and also reduces the amount of weight loss coming directly from fat stores (8). Getting in at least 7 hours a day is crucial to your fat loss success!
Next, it’s important to hone in your training tactics to maximize fat loss. While traditional aerobic exercise works well to burn calories, it does little to help retain muscle mass.
That’s why it’s important to focus your training on regular resistance training. This will burn calories just like cardio to lose weight, but will also help to partition calories more towards your muscles, meaning more of the weight you lose will be from fat (9).
Ensuring you stay in a calorie deficit, eat enough protein, optimize your sleep habits, and regularly include resistance training in your exercise program will lead to great fat loss results!
How to build muscle
Building muscle is easiest when your body is putting on weight. That means utilizing a moderate calorie surplus will be the best course of action to maximize hypertrophy (10).
Eating too much will increase fat stores more than muscle, so this isn’t the time to eat everything in sight in the hope of more muscle!
After calorie intake, protein intake needs to be optimized. If you stick with the 0.82g/lb of bodyweight shown to be effective in those who are losing weight, you are good to go.
When losing weight, the body needs more energy than it is receiving, meaning it must delve into fat and muscle stores to balance out. When gaining weight, your body is getting ample amounts of energy through the diet alone, meaning the muscles aren’t getting wasted for the sake of energy, and the dietary protein consumed can be siloed into the actions of muscle growth more readily.
Just like sleep affects fat loss, it also affects the rate of muscle growth. A lack of optimal sleep can make a calorie surplus turn more towards fat storage than building new muscle (11).
Finally, optimizing your training techniques to maximize muscle growth is crucial. Resistance training that includes progressive overload is the best way to train for muscle hypertrophy.
Eating a calorie surplus, eating ample protein, getting the right amount of sleep, and following a high-quality training program that includes progressive overload are the main factors to induce muscle growth.
How to lose fat and build muscle
Looking back at the previous sections, many of the factors for losing fat and building muscle align well:
- Eating enough protein, roughly 0.82g/lb per day.
- Ensuring optimal sleep habits, making sure that you are getting at least 7 hours a night.
- Following a progressively-more-difficult resistance training program.
This looks great, but you can’t forget that the main factors in fat loss and muscle growth are contradictory. You need a calorie deficit to maximize fat loss and you need a calorie surplus to maximize muscle growth.
There are a few ways to make this work:
- Completely separate fat loss and muscle gain phases in mini-cycles, usually lasting 3-4 weeks at a time.
- Eating around maintenance calories every day and relying on all the other factors to induce recomposition.
- Follow a cyclical calorie intake
While it’s certainly feasible to follow bulking and cutting phases to achieve your goal of better body composition, that isn’t the focus of this article. Instead, we are looking at achieving these goals simultaneously, so the traditional bulking and cutting cycles just won’t do.
Eating around maintenance calories and relying on exercise and recovery to induce body recomposition sounds easy enough. However, maintenance calorie intake is an ever-changing factor that could throw you into a deficit or surplus every single day.
This, in addition to the lack of the inclusion of manipulating the most important factor of body weight, calorie intake, usually leads to spinning your wheels more than actually achieving results.
This leads to following a cyclical pattern with your calorie intake. On some days you are bulking and on others, you are cutting. This may sound confusing, but it’ll make more sense in The Nutrition section.
Utilizing a cyclical calorie intake, as discussed previously, means that a specialized training program is required. The best way to do this is to have your resistance training workouts fall on calorie surplus days and rest days become calorie deficit days.
We are going to build a simple program that trains your whole body 3 times per week.
Day One – 3 Sets, 3-6 Reps/Set On Each Exercise
- Barbell Squats
- Barbell Bench Press
- Barbell RDL
- Bent-Over Barbell Rows
- Military Press
- Weighted Chin-Ups
Day Two – 5 Sets, 7-12 Reps/Set On Each Exercise
- Dumbbell Lunges
- Dumbbell Incline Chest Press
- Glute Ham Raises
- One Arm Rows
- Seated Dumbbell Press
- Lat Pulldown
Day Three – 3 Sets, 13-18 Reps/Set On Each Exercise
- Leg Press
- Machine Chest Press
- Good Mornings
- Chest-Supported Machine Rows
- Machine Shoulder Press
- Narrow Lat Pulldown
The easiest way to ensure progressive overload is to simply up the weights you use once you can hit all the sets at the high end of the rep range. Example – if you can do 3 sets of Barbell Squats for 6 reps each set with 185 lbs, it’s time to go up to 195 lbs.
Simply follow this rule for each exercise.
If you are looking to include cardiovascular exercise, simply do it on your off-days. HIIT or steady-state cardio can be utilized, as long as it isn’t programmed in a way that will hinder muscle recovery and growth.
While you can use this training program every other day, research shows that consecutive day training doesn’t hinder results (12).
Using this information, we’ll develop a cyclical nutrition plan to be most effective with this training program. All 3 days will be trained consecutively, like Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Thursday through Sunday would be rest days.
Now let’s look at how this evolves into the nutrition plan.
You’ll be training 3 days a week, and those days are consecutive. Your body needs about 24 hours to properly recover from a workout to maximize muscle growth.
To make things less nuanced, we’ll also make the day after training a calorie surplus to ensure optimal recovery. That means 4 days of the week are in a surplus and 3 are in a deficit.
Since a calorie deficit can be more drastic than a calorie surplus, you can equate the total calories over the week to average out to your maintenance intake. If you use a 300 calorie surplus for 4 days a week, you can use a 400 calorie deficit on the other 3 days, which balances out.
You can shift these numbers up and down over time after you see how you react to the cyclical nature of the program.
This diet plan equates to total body recomposition, meaning you shouldn’t be gaining or losing weight, but have ample time spent in muscle growth and fat loss phases.
Again, if you ensure you hit your daily protein goal and keep good sleeping patterns, this cyclical diet, and training program will cause body recomposition in most users!
Top tips and other considerations
The #1 thing that you have to consider before embarking on a body recomposition program is that adherence is much more important on a day-to-day basis than traditional bulking and cutting cycles.
A few days off of a bulking or cutting program won’t hinder results, but body recomposition requires more dedication daily. A few days off can completely throw off the mini-bulk or cut cycle that you go through during a week.
That’s why it’s important to know your level of dedication. Body recomposition works, but it takes patience and determination. Be honest with yourself.
Another thing to note is that traditional methods of tracking progress won’t be very effective during body recomposition.
Weighing yourself won’t show any progress, outside of water weight changes with calorie level, since the overall calorie balance is around your maintenance levels.
Since you are building muscle and losing fat, tape measurements won’t be very telling since you might lose fat in a spot you gained muscle, equalling out to no change on the tape.
Instead, you have to use a combination of measurements to track body recomposition:
- Scale weight – it should be staying about the same weekly. Weigh yourself in the morning, before eating and after using the restroom, without clothes and on the same day of the week at the same time.
- Tape Measurements – By itself, this won’t be able to tell you much. However, if you lose inches in your stomach/waist area, that’s a good sign of fat loss, since most people carry more fat in that area compared to muscle.
- Bodyfat Caliper Measurements – These might not change much weekly. However, also use these to compare with the tape measurements. If you find a tape measurement that stayed the same, but the caliper measurement is small, that’s the perfect sign that there is localized fat loss and muscle gain. This is the pattern you are looking for!
Looking for those caliper and tape measurement changes while keeping the same scale weight is the best way to track body recomposition progress. If you aren’t seeing changes with these measurements over time, you need to make adjustments.
The bottom line
If you are truly interested in losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, you now have the plan to help you accomplish your goal.
It will take time and test your patience in a multitude of ways. However, it can easily be done if you keep yourself accountable, train hard, eat right, recover well, and track your progress!
The art of body recomposition is no longer a secret. It’s simply a matter of adherence to this or any other specialized program!