“I want to get shredded but not get small.”
“I like my current size but I want my abs to show.”
“I’m now 160lbs and 15% body fat and I want to get to 180lbs and 8% body fat.”
I email with a lot of people and many of them tell me they have goals like the ones above. And although they don’t realize it, what they actually want is to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
But is this possible? And if it is, why do we even bother with distinct cutting and bulking phases?
The truth about Body Recomposition
The truth is you CAN drop body fat and gain muscle at the same time. BUT the rate at which you can do it depends very much on your training experience and the body fat percentage you start with.
There are only 4 situations in which you can lose a lot of fat and gain a significant amount of muscle simultaneously in a short period of time:
- Fat Beginners (above 18% body fat) and Out-of-shape Beginners (13%-18% body fat)
- People who return to weightlifting after a layoff
- People who have been eating and training incorrectly for a long time and switch to a good nutrition and training program
- People on steroids
Outside of these situation, you can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same time at a rapid rate. You can still do it, but the changes in body composition are very slow. This is the reason why most people who don’t fit those 4 categories will make better progress using distinct cutting and lean bulking phases.
So from this article you’ll learn two things:
1. How to lose a lot of fat and gain a good amount of muscle if you fit one of the first 3 categories. (We’re not going to discuss steroids obviously)
2. How to lose body fat and gain lean mass at the same time over a long period of time if you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter.
We’ll also explain why body recomposition is so difficult to achieve and why in certain situations it is easier.
Ready? Let’s get started.
What Body Recomposition means
First of all I think it’s important to tell you how I define Body Recomposition.
I call Body Recomposition any situation where a person’s body fat percentage decreases and muscle mass increases no matter what happens to their weight. So there are 3 possible scenarios:
A. You lose weight but you gain muscle at the same time.
In this case a larger amount of body fat is lost compared to the amount of muscle that is gained. The total weight of the person goes down.
B. You maintain your weight but you replace an equal amount of body fat with muscle mass over a long period of time.
This is how most people define body recomposition.
C. You gain weight but you lose fat at the same time.
In this case a larger amount of muscle mass is gained compared to the amount of fat that is lost. The total weight of the person goes up.
Why some people say body recomposition is impossible
Before we move on, let’s see why it’s so difficult to achieve simultaneous fat loss and muscle gains.
Fat loss depends on a caloric deficit. Only when the body no longer receives enough energy from food will it start to burn body fat for fuel.
On the other hand, muscle growth is maximized only when the body receives a slight caloric surplus. When we feed the body more nutrients than it needs for maintenance and repair, it can use the surplus of nutrients to create new tissue (muscle and/or fat). Eating a surplus of calories is the only way to gain weight.
You can see what the problem is. These two goals are almost completely opposite. Eating less than maintenance is necessary for fat loss but doesn’t support muscle. It causes a decrease in protein synthesis rates, reduces anabolic hormones, and negatively affects training performance. A caloric deficit creates a predominantly catabolic environment (break down of tissue) and gaining weight and muscle requires a predominantly anabolic environment (build up of tissue).
At first glance you’d also be tempted to say it’s impossible to have both at the same time.
But it is possible in certain situations. Let’s look at each body recomposition scenario individually to explain why.
The Chances of Success of each Body Recomposition Scenario
Scenario A. You lose weight but you gain muscle at the same time.
The most common scenario for body recomposition is Losing Weight and Gaining Muscle at the same time.
Almost all out-of-shape beginners can do this without much effort. When working with beginner clients I actually believe this to be normal. Even some intermediates can gain muscle and strength while cutting if they start from a higher body fat percentage.
Fat is basically stored energy so even in the case of a caloric deficit, a high body fat percentage ensures pretty good energy availability.That means the energy obtained from body fat may actually support muscle growth in the first few weeks or months of training.
Lyle McDonald explained this phenomenon very well. Because of the insulin resistance that develops with fat gain, nutrients from food are actually pushed away from cells in order to prevent further fat gain. If you combine that with regular exercise which improves insulin sensitivity in muscle cells you get a situation where nutrients are pushed away from fat cells which are very insulin resistant and are absorbed by muscle cells which are depleted after training.
This is the reason beginners (especially those above 13% body fat) can gain muscle and strength just fine even in a caloric deficit.
Now, as you get leaner or you build more muscle, the rate of fat loss and muscle gain starts to decrease. At some point the body will start to fight against fat loss and muscle growth slows down as you get closer and closer to the genetic ceiling. That’s why we no longer see amazing transformations at the intermediate or advanced level.
B. You maintain your weight but you replace an equal amount of body fat with muscle mass over a long period of time.
At the intermediate and advanced level the most common body recomposition scenario is that where you maintain your weight but lose fat and build muscle at the same time over a long period of time. An intermediate might gain two pounds (1 kg) of muscle and lose two pounds of fat over a period of 3-5 months while maintaining his weight.
The reason for that is because the rate of muscle growth is much slower than the rate of fat loss. For example 12 lbs (~5kg) of fat can be dropped in 7-8 weeks but building 12 pounds of muscle might take a year or more at the intermediate level.
A lot of guys tell me they want to go from looking like the first picture, to looking like the second picture without getting small or fat. Well, that would mean dropping about 12 lbs of fat and gaining 12 lbs of muscle without changing your weight. While it is possible to do from a physiological standpoint, the process would likely take 2-3 years or more. And this assuming the person would actually stick to their diet and training regimen without getting demotivated.
On the other hand if they just took 8 weeks to drop the body fat first and then focus on building muscle by going into a surplus, the whole process might only take 1 to 1.5 years. Only half the time.
C. You gain weight but you lose fat at the same time.
And finally, the scenario of body recomposition that almost never happens is gaining weight and losing fat at the same time. I’ve seen stories where people apparently did it, but I never met or talked to someone who did.
The people who pull this off are usually those who return to lifting after a layoff. It is much easier to restore atrophied muscle than it is to build it in the first place. Muscle memory is real so these people will see rapid muscle growth with no body fat gain or sometimes loss of body fat when they resume lifting.
Another category of people who can achieve this are those who have trained and ate incorrectly for a long time. A situation where guys see rapid muscle growth is when they change from doing high rep isolation exercises to low-medium rep compound exercises. Some people do this while on the Greek God Program.
At any rate, gaining weight while losing fat depends very much on what you’ve been doing in the past. For most people I don’t recommend ever pursuing this goal directly because it’s usually a waste of time.
As a general rule, the leaner you are, the harder it is to lose fat without losing muscle. And the more muscle mass you have, the harder it is to gain muscle without gaining fat. Doing both at the same time becomes very slow and difficult when you get to an advanced level.
How to lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time as a Beginner
Ok, now that we covered the theoretical part, let’s see how to achieve body recomposition while maintaining your weight.
So if you are beginner above 13% body fat, gaining muscle while cutting happens almost automatically. There was one study that showed overweight women could build muscle even on 800 calories a day just because they started training. Out-of-shape beginners can gain muscle very easy while getting lean.
Here’s what you have to do:
1. Set a moderate calorie deficit. In order to lose body fat you must eat fewer calories than your body requires but no so little as to impair training performance and muscle recovery. Click here to learn how to do this.
2. In order to support muscle growth, hormonal balance, and gym performance you must take in the right amounts of macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs). The most important thing is to eat about 1g of protein per pound of body weight (2.2g of protein per kg). Please read the Master of Macros PDF to learn how to set up your cutting plan or check out Greg’s Warrior Shredding Program for an exact nutrition protocol.
3. Get stronger in the gym. Read the article Weight Training while Cutting and Best Training Split for Muscle and Strength Gains to learn how you need to train. Or follow the routines from the Warrior Shredding Program.
You don’t need to worry about nutrient timing, fasted cardio, supplements, and fancy weightlifting techniques. Lose weight and get stronger and you will achieve body recomposition.
How to lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time as an Intermediate or Advanced Lifter
First of all, you should only do this if you’re willing to look more or less the same as you look now for the following 5-12 months. Body recomposition is slow after the beginner stage so it’s important for you to know that.
This protocol is very useful however for models, actors, or physique competitors who must look good year round but still want to make small improvements in their physique. This is also a very good protocol to follow if you are skinny-fat.
1. Eat Maintenance Calories (a weekly average)
By eating maintenance calories and getting stronger in the gym, you can build muscle and lose fat simultaneously over long periods of time. The reason for that is because our bodies are always in a fluctuating state, we’re experiencing surplus and deficit of calories over the course of each day. After a meal you are anabolic for a few hours and then you catabolic for a few hours until you have your next meal.
This is the way the human metabolism functions and it allows for constant change and repair. If you eat at maintenance, train hard, and get progressively stronger you will build muscle and lose fat over of time while maintaining your weight.
Eating at maintenance is most important, but it’s not the whole story. You can improve nutrient partitioning even further by timing your calorie intake strategically.
2. Cycle Calories throughout the week
Unlike the usual setup where we eat the same amount of calories every day, for recomp it’s best to time our nutrient intake strategically to improve nutrient partitioning: less food on rest day and more food on training day.
The weekly average is still the same but we alternate surplus days and deficit days. On training days we eat a surplus of calories to support muscle growth and repair and on rest days we eat a deficit of calories to allow for some fat loss. By doing this, our body composition should improve every day by a few grams; less fat and more muscle mass. In time these changes add up and you’ll be able to see them in the mirror as well.
How to set calories
- Rest Days (4 days a week) – 300kcal under maintenance
- Training Days (3 days a week) + 400kcal over maintenance
*If you don’t know what your maintenance is, a rough estimate is 14-15 calories x Body Weight in pounds (31-33 calories x BW in kg).
** If you train more than 3 days a week, have the surplus days on 3 of the workouts you feel are most difficult.
Big calorie swings between lifting/rest days aren’t optimal. It’s best to use a modest calorie surplus/deficit on lifting/rest days.
If you go too low in calories on rest days, muscle recovery and growth will be compromised. As well going too high in calories on training days will inevitably lead to fat spill over. So instead of building a little muscle on training days and losing a little fat on rest day you will be gaining muscle and fat on training days and losing muscle and fat on rest days.
How to set the macronutrients
The calorie difference between rest days and training should come from carbs. Protein is kept the same every day at 1g per pound of BW (2.2g per kg) and fats at 25% of maintenance calories.
Example for a 180lbs male (80kg)
- Rest Days 2400 calories – 180g protein, 75g fat, 250g carbs
- Training Day 3100 calories – 180g protein, 75g fat, 425g carbs
The reason we eat more carbs on lifting days is because they support training performance. In addition, carbs are harder to convert to body fat compared to dietary fat. Before a surplus of carbs will be stored as body fat, they will first be used to replenish muscle and liver glycogen and even after that the conversion of carbs into body fat (lipogenesis) is an inefficient and costly process. On the other hand, a surplus of dietary fat is stored very easily because fats have nothing else to do in a surplus.
So it makes sense to get our surplus of calories from the nutrient that will best support training performance and prevent fat gain.
Another big advantage of high carb intake on lifting days is that protein synthesis is improved when muscle glycogen is full or almost full. Conversely fat oxidation is improved when glycogen stores are depleted (which might happen on rest days).
3. Use daily Intermittent Fasting
The basic idea of a recomp diet is to improve nutrient partitioning by placing most of our calories around training, when the nutrients are more likely to be used for growth and repair. This is the reason we alternate high and low calorie days. We strategically place calories throughout the week.
But it may be possible to improve partitioning even further by placing calories strategically over the course of a day.
We previously said that our bodies are always in a fluctuating state, alternating between a surplus and a deficit depending on our meal pattern. After a meal you are anabolic for a few hours (depending on the size of the meal) and then you are catabolic until you have your next meal.
This brings a very interesting question. Can we set our meals in a way that will improve fat burning in one part of the day and improve muscle growth in another part of the day? In theory, yes.
Through Intermittent Fasting we could make our daily surplus and deficit look like this:
IF as explained in this article is a pattern of eating where you don’t eat over the morning hours, and get all your calories in the second part of the day, usually in a 6-10 hours window.
Combined with Calorie Cycling, a few days might look like this:
Let’s say the orange line is your maintenance. When we eat above the line, we’re in a surplus. When we don’t eat and we are below the line, we’re in a deficit. What you can see is that not only are most of the calories placed on training days throughout the week, they are also placed around training throughout the day. With a normal eating plan you would oscillate around the orange line several times a day because your meals would be spread out but with Intermittent Fasting we only have two distinct phases: we’re in a high surplus for a few hours around training and catabolic for the rest of the day.
The big caloric surplus should help with muscle growth as protein synthesis starts to climb about 3-4 hours post-workout, reaches a peak at the 24-hour-mark and returns close to baseline values 36-48 hours post-workout. On the other hand, in the fasting period of the day fat burning should be improved, especially on rest days.
I do believe Intermittent Fasting improves the results of a recomp. However, the improvements (if there are any) will still be very small compared to a normal eating plan. The human body is usually too “smart” to be tricked by these types of strategies. But if IF can improve results by as little as 10% I think it’s worth it.
Depending on your preferences you could use IF like this:
1. One meal before working out (20% of calories). Example: first meal 1-2 PM, workout 3-4PM, second meal 5-6 PM, last meal 8-9PM.
2. Two meals before working out (20% of calories each). Example: first meal 1-2 PM, second meal 4-5PM, workout 6-7PM, last meal 8-9 PM.
Training for Recomp
Depending on your current training experience the optimal training style changes. Check out this article to learn which training split will help you make the fastest progress depending on your training experience and goals.
Cardio for Recomp
Fasted cardio on non-lifting days may help with fat loss.
Fasted cardio doesn’t burn more fat but it can increase the mobilization of free fatty acids from stubborn body fat.
For most people getting FFAs into the bloodstream is not a problem. They have a high enough body fat percentage to have plenty of FAAs in the blood at any time. So even if they do fasted cardio and get more FFAs in the blood, the amount that gets burned still depends on the energy deficit. The fatty acids that don’t get burned will get stored back into the fat cells so at the end of the day it makes no difference.
Here’s a good analogy for this: A car doesn’t burn fuel faster if it has a full tank. The amount of fuel it burns depends only on how much energy the engine needs, not on fuel availability.
However, when the person reaches a very low body fat percentage (under 7%) the body has only stubborn body fat left and mobilising fatty acids and transporting them through the bloodstream becomes much harder to achieve. The risk of muscle loss is increased in this situation because the body will burn muscle tissue if free fatty acids aren’t around.
During fasting, the fat cells release more fatty acids and cardio can help increase blood flow to stubborn body fat areas transporting them to a place where they can be burned. That’s why fasted cardio can lead to better fat loss in certain situations.
See this article to learn what types of cardio I recommend.
With the strategies presented in this article you can make small improvements in your physique while staying the same weight (or while losing weight if you’re a beginner).
Remember than body recomposition after the beginner level takes a lot of time so I only recommend you do it if you’re more or less happy with the way you look now but you’d still want to improve. If you have a lot of fat to lose or you must gain a lot of muscle, I recommend using distinct cutting or lean bulking phases instead.
If you have any questions, feedback, or something to add, leave a comment below. I read and answer all comments. Thanks for reading until the end!
Holy Grail Body Transformation by Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto’s Holy Grail Body Transformation Program – Product Review
Adding Muscle While Losing Fat – Q&A
AMPK: Master Metabolic Regulator
Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?
Peeling Back a Layer Episode 2: “Is a Caloric Deficit Different than a Surplus?”
How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat…at the Same Time
Alan Aragon’s Research Review November 2008 and January 2009
Do you want to build a body like Ryan Reynolds in Blade?
Then the Warrior Shredding Program would help you a lot. It has been designed to help you build proportionate mass and incredible strength while getting lean.