Body recomposition…the Holy Grail of fitness. How does it really work? Who can succeed at it and who can’t, and why? Read on to find out…
Nothing drives more people into gyms and GNCs than the pursuit of building muscle while losing fat, or body recomposition, as people “in the know” like to call it.
It sounds so simple that it must be possible, right? People always talk about “shifting fat” with the right exercises, diet, and supplements, don’t they? You can lose fat but not weight, right?
Well, I have good news and bad news.
- The good: yes, it’s possible to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
- The bad: it’s only possible under certain (unalterable) conditions.
- The ugly: the majority of advice on how to actually do it is piss poor.
Yes, those “gurus” that swear their overpriced bundles of PDFs contains the real secrets to making “lean gains” are almost always full of shit. And I can prove it.
In this article, we’re going to dive into how the body actually builds muscle and loses fat and then look at what it takes to do both at the same time.
Let’s start with muscle-building 101.
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- The Physiology of Muscle Growth
- The Physiology of Fat Loss
- How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time
- The Bottom Line on Body Recomposition
- What are your thoughts on body recomposition? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Table of Contents
Every day, two vital chemical processes occur in your muscles. One is protein degradation and the other protein synthesis.
- Protein degradation refers to the breakdown of proteins into their smaller components, peptides and amino acids.
- Protein synthesis refers to the creation of new proteins from their smaller components.
When you’re in good health and your diet is fundamentally sound, muscle tissue remains fairly stable. That is, the scale of synthesis and degradation remains more or less balanced and you don’t lose or gain significant amounts of muscle in your day-to-day life. (Technically speaking, you do slowly lose lean mass as you age, but you get the point.)
For muscles to grow larger over time, muscle protein synthesis rates must exceed protein degradation rates.
That is, your body must create more muscle proteins than it loses. Every day that it does this, your muscles grow a little larger.
How do you cause protein synthesis rates to exceed degradation rates, though?
Well, you have to take certain actions to create and maintain this state. Muscle tissue is metabolically expensive–it costs quite a bit of energy to maintain–and your body won’t build it up unless it has to.
The most important of these actions is, of course, training your muscles. Resistance training damages muscle cells, which tells the body it needs to ramp up protein synthesis rates to repair the tissues.
It doesn’t just repair them to their previous state, though. It wants to adapt to better deal with the stimulus–the training–and so it adds new muscle cells, increasing the muscles’ size and strength.
This is why research shows that progressive overload is the primary driver of muscle growth.
And what is progressive overload, you ask? It’s simply a progressive increase in tension levels in the muscle fibers. As you continue to place your muscles under heavier and heavier loads, they continue to adapt to get bigger and stronger.
This is why, as a natural weightlifter, you must get stronger if you want to get bigger.
Yes, muscles can get stronger without growing bigger (due to improved neuromuscular activity), but that can only go so far–there’s a point where more muscle fibers are needed to meet the demands of your training.
Getting massive pumps is fun and can be included in a weightlifting routine, but high-rep, “burnout” sets should never be the focus. Such training does cause significant amounts of metabolic stress, which contributes to muscle growth, but not nearly as powerfully as progressive overload.
This is why the biggest people in the gym are usually the strongest as well, and why the majority of people chasing pumps with supersets, drop sets, giant sets, and so forth don’t have much of a physique to show for it.
So, your primary goal in your weightlifting should be adding weight to the bar over time.
If you don’t, you lose the benefits of progressive overload and will build little muscle regardless of anything else you do (well, anything that doesn’t involve chemical enhancement).
Training hard and progressively overloading your muscles doesn’t guarantee they’ll grow, though. You have to eat enough as well.
You’ve probably heard that you have to “eat big to get big,” and like many age-old bodybuilding maxims, there’s some validity to this advice.
You have to eat enough protein, which provides the raw materials needed for growing muscle tissue, and you have to eat enough calories, which ensures that protein synthesis can occur at maximal efficiency.
Before we review those dietary points further, however, let’s change gears and look at the other side of the body recomposition coin: fat loss.
Losing fat is much simpler than you’ve been led to believe.
- You don’t have to obsess over “eating clean.”
- You don’t have to avoid carbs or any other food, really.
- You don’t have to eat so many meals per day or eat on a rigid schedule.
- You don’t have to try to manipulate your hormones.
If you want to escape the suffocating miasma of bad weight loss advice found in articles, magazines, and books everywhere, you need to fully understand the mechanics involved.
The first, and most fundamental, of these mechanics is energy balance.
This refers to the relationship between the energy you give your body through eating food and the energy it expends through cellular and physical activity. It’s often measured in kilocalories.
The absolute immutable truth about meaningful weight loss…as demonstrated by thousands of controlled weight loss trials conducted over the last 100 years…is this: you must burn more energy than you consume.
You’ve probably heard this before but if you’re shaking your head in disappointment, thinking I’m nursing a stale cup of Kool-Aid, allow me to explain.
When you eat food, you provide your body with a relatively large amount of energy in a short period of time. It burns a portion of this energy and stores a portion as body fat for later use.
The scientific term for this period of nutrient absorption and processing is “postprandial. Post means “after” and prandial means “having to do with a meal.” While in this postparandial or “fed” state, no fat burning occurs–the body is in “fat storage mode.”
The reason for this is simple: why should the body burn fat for energy when you’ve just provided it with all it needs plus quite a bit more?
Eventually your body finishes processing and absorbing the food, which can take several hours, and enters what scientists call the “postabsorptive” state.
The energy provided by food is now gone but the show must go on. What can your body do to meet its energy demands?
That’s right–it can burn body fat. Your body must now shift to “fat burning mode” to survive while it waits for its next meal.
Every day your body moves in and out of postprandial and postabsorptive states, storing and burning fat. Here’s a simple graph that shows this visually:
The light portions show what happens when you eat food: insulin levels rise to help process the nutrients and fat burning shuts down.
The dark portions show what happens when your body runs out of energy from food: insulin levels drop, which tells the body it’s running out of energy and needs to start burning fat.
Now, what happens if these light and dark portions more or less balance out every day? You got it–you body fat levels stay the same. Your body is burning more or less as much fat as it’s storing.
What happens if the light portions outweigh the dark? Yup, you’ve stored more fat than you’ve burned and thus your total fat mass rises.
And what happens if the dark portions are collectively greater than the light? You’ve burned more fat than you’ve stored, which means your total fat mass decreases.
This is why meaningful fat loss requires that you burn more energy than you eat.
It doesn’t matter how many “unclean” foods you eat or when you eat them or anything else. Your metabolism runs on the first law of thermodynamics, which means fat (energy) stores can’t be increased without you providing a surplus of energy and can’t be decreased without you restricting energy intake, creating a deficit.
- This is why research shows that reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.
- This is why Professor Mark Haub was able to lose 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Little Debbie cakes, Oreos, Doritos, and Twinkies.
When talking pure weight loss, a calorie is a calorie. Your body only burns so much energy and if you feed it less than it needs, it has no choice but to continue tapping into fat stores to stay alive.
The goal isn’t to lose weight, though. It’s to lose fat and not muscle. And when that’s the goal, a calorie is not a calorie. Certain types of calories are more important than others.
I’ve written about this extensively in my books and elsewhere, but here’s the long story short:
When you’re restricting your calories to lose fat, you must ensure you’re eating enough protein.
How much protein should you be eating, exactly?
Instead, I prefer to follow the advice of scientists at AUT University, who concluded…
“Protein needs for energy-restricted resistance-trained athletes are likely 2.3-3.1g/kg of FFM [1 – 1.4 grams per pound of fat free mass] scaled upwards with severity of caloric restriction and leanness.”
To keep it simple, my general recommendation is eating 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight when restricting calories for fat loss.
If you have quite a bit of fat to lose (if you’re a man with 20%+ body fat or if you’re a woman with 30%+), you can reduce intake to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight and you’ll be fine.
So, now that you understand how the body builds muscle and stores and burns fat, let’s see what it takes to do both at the same time.
When it comes to building muscle and losing fat at the same time, opinions are all over the place.
People selling pills, powders, and PDFs say it’s easy if you follow their super-secret “ninja” techinques. Skeptics say it’s impossible. The truth, however, isn’t black and white. Some people can “recomp” and some can’t.
The major determining factors are training state and experience. Here are the rules of thumb:
- If you’re new to weightlifting or are getting started again newly, you shouldn’t have any trouble building muscle and losing fat simultaneously.
- If you have at least 6 to 8 months of weightlifting under your belt and aren’t coming off a long break, you probably can’t recomp.
The exception to the second point is the person that has been lifting weights for some time but has never emphasized heavy compound weightlifting. It’s very likely that he or she will experience a surge of “newbie gains” in the beginning that can include building muscle while in a calorie deficit.
Why are those the rules, you wonder? Why can’t everyone, no matter their circumstances, succeed in a body recomposition?
Because, physiologically speaking, fat loss and muscle growth have “irreconcilable differences.” Their mutual incompatibility stems from their relationship to the body’s energy balance.
You see, when you place your body in a negative energy balance (calorie deficit), it reduces total fat mass but it also comes with an unwanted side effect: it impairs the body’s ability to synthesize proteins.
This is why you tend to lose muscle while dieting to lose fat–your body isn’t able to synthesize enough proteins to balance production with degradation rates.
Thus, when your goal is to maximize muscle growth, you need to make sure you’re not in a calorie deficit. And as total daily energy expenditure is a fuzzy, moving target, this is why people looking to build muscle will intentionally overshoot their energy needs and keep their body in a slight energy surplus. (“Bulking” in bodybuilding lingo.)
This is the scientific underpinnings of the “eat big to get big” cliche. A more accurate statement is you have to “eat slightly more energy than you burn to get big.” This primes the body for muscle growth.
Now, this dietary “yin and yang” dynamic between fat loss and muscle growth is why it’s so hard to do both at the same time. You restrict your calories and lose fat but also restrict your body’s ability to build and repair muscle tissue and thus fail to build muscle.
As you’ve probably concluded, building muscle while in a calorie deficit requires protein synthesis rates to be very high (or protein breakdown rates to be very low, or a combination of both). In short, anything you can do to increase your body’s ability to create proteins and decrease the amount of proteins it loses is going to help you tremendously when you are trying to recomp.
This is why people new to weightlifting, new to heavy weightlifting, and newly starting again can successfully build muscle while losing fat. Their bodies are “hyper-responsive” to their training and this outweighs the protein synthesis handicap imposed by the calorie deficit.
Eventually these “newbie gains” fade, however, and the obstacle looms bigger and bigger until, eventually, it’s insurmountable. You simply can’t boost synthesis and blunt degradation rates enough to keep the scales tipped for muscle growth. This is why experienced weightlifters know the goal is to maintain muscle and strength while losing fat, not increase them.
So, now that we’ve fully covered the theory of body recomposition, let’s get to the practical. Here’s how you go about it:
Maintain a Moderate Calorie Deficit
This is the backbone of the body recomp. You must be in a calorie deficit to lose fat but you don’t want to eat so little that muscle loss is dramatically accelerated.
Instead, you want to use a moderate (20 to 25%) calorie deficit, which allows you to lose fat rapidly while preserving muscle.
If you’re not sure how to do this, here’s a simple formula I give in my books that results in about a 20% daily calorie deficit if you’re exercising 4-6 hours per week:
- 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, per day
- 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, per day
- 0.2 grams of fat per pound of body weight, per day
This is a good starting point for most people, but may need to be modified if you exercise more than 4 to 6 hours per week or if you’re a relatively lean woman (you may need to reduce carbs to the 0.75 g/lb range and increase fats to 0.25 g/lb).
Once you’ve worked out your numbers, you simply take them and create a meal plan that you’ll enjoy following every day.
Emphasize Heavy Compound Weightlifting
The idea that isolation exercises and high-rep training really “shred you up” is one of the many broscience myths propagated by gym rats everywhere.
Get your body fat low enough and you’ll look shredded. One style of weightlifting doesn’t “bring out definition” more than another.
Ironically, when you’re in a calorie deficit, you want to do the opposite of what many people think: you want emphasize heavy compound weightlifting. Especially if you want to build muscle while you lose fat.
You should be squatting, deadlifting, military and bench pressing every week, and you should be doing most of your work with 80 to 85% of your 1RM (4 to 6 or 5 to 7 rep range).
This type of training is the key to building muscle and strength as a natural weightlifter. The big “secret” that makes high-rep, high-volume training work so well for fitness models and competitors is drugs. End of story.
If you, as a natural weightlifter, follow their routines, you will not get anywhere near the gains.
If You’re Going to Do Cardio, Do HIIT
You don’t have to do cardio to get lean, but there is a point where you have no choice but to include it in your weight loss regimen. Eventually you just need to burn more energy every week to keep the fat loss going and you can only do so much weightlifting before you wind up overtrained.
When that time comes, don’t bother with the typical routine of 1 to 2 hours of low-intensity cardio 5 ot 7 days per week. Sure, this burns energy and helps you lose fat, but it’s also a recipe for losing muscle and feeling miserable.
Instead, do 1 to 2 hours of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) per week. Yes, you read that correctly: you can get ripped doing no more than 2 hours of cardio per week.
Don’t believe me? Here’s my “summer look,” which I achieve and maintain with 4 to 5 hours of weightlifting and 2 hours of HIIT per week:
There aren’t many shortcuts or “hacks” in health and fitness, but HIIT sure feels like one for losing fat. Use it.
Get Enough Sleep
This point is overlooked by many people but is vitally important for building muscle and losing fat.
A week of reduced sleep is enough to reduce testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-1) levels, which all play important roles in building and maintaining lean mass and burning fat.
Sleep needs are variable but the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours per night to avoid the repercussions of sleep deprivation.
Take the Right Supplements
I saved supplementation for last because it’s only worthwhile when you have your diet, training, and sleep on point.
And to be clear: you don’t need supplements to succeed in your body recomposition efforts but the right ones can really help.
Specifically, you’re looking to achieve three things with your supplementation:
- You want to maintain training intensity, which helps you maintain muscle and strength.
- You want to improve your body’s ability to preserve and build muscle and strength.
- You want to lose fat as quickly as possible, which minimizes the amount of time you need to spend in a calorie deficit.
Fortunately, there are a handful of safe, natural molecules that can deliver on each of those targets, and you’ll find them in the supplements below.
Supplement #1 for Body Recomposition
RECHARGE is a post-workout recovery supplement that contains two ingredients in particular that help you in your body recomposition efforts:
Creatine is compound of two amino acids and is found in the body and in food.
It’s the most researched molecule in all of sports nutrition and the evidence is abundantly clear: it helps you build muscle and strength, even when in a calorie deficit, and it reduces exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation.
The bottom line is if you lift weights, you should be supplementing with creatine.
Carnitine is a molecule comprised of the amino acids lysine and methionine and it’s involved in the production of cellular energy.
Research shows that supplementation with carnitine reduces muscle damage and soreness resulting from exercise and improves muscle recovery.
Supplement #2 for Body Recomposition
PHOENIX is a caffeine-free fat burner helps you burn fat in three different ways:
- it dramatically increases metabolic speed;
- it amplifies the power of fat-burning chemicals produced by your body, and;
- it increases the feeling of fullness from food.
It accomplishes this through clinically effective dosages of synephrine, naringin, hesperidin, forskolin, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), hordenine, salacin, and 5-HTP.
Furthermore, PHOENIX’s caffeine-free formulation means you get to continue drinking your favorite caffeinated beverages like pre-workout and coffee.
The research is crystal clear: when combined with a proper diet and exercise routine, PHOENIX will help you lose fat faster.
Supplement #3 for Body Recomposition
PULSE is a pre-workout drink that contains clinically effective dosages of 7 ingredients that are 100% scientifically proven to enhance energy levels, increase focus, and improve performance.
The better you can maintain training intensity while dieting, the easier you can maintain muscle and strength. It’s that simple.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that caffeine directly helps you burn more fat and also amplifies the fat-burning effects of PHOENIX.
You now know the whole story of building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
It’s not nearly as mysterious or special as many “gurus” want you to believe. And there aren’t any “biohacks” or “weird tricks” that get it done.
Maintain a moderate calorie deficit, eat plenty of protein, train hard and heavy, do HIIT cardio, and take the right supplements, and the rest is in your body’s hands.
And even if you’re too well trained to successfully recomp, you can still use everything laid out in this article to maximize fat loss and minimize muscle loss.