Building a great body is straightforward:
You need to lose fat and you need to build muscle.
Body recomposition refers to accomplishing both of these goals simultaneously, and it’s a controversial concept.
Some people say that you can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same time under any circumstances. Others claim that while body recomposition is possible, it’s a slow process that takes meticulous planning and “advanced” dietary strategies. And others claim that if you follow the right body recomposition plan, you’ll never have to cut or bulk to get the body you want.
I have a slightly different take (which is also supported by the weight of the scientific evidence):
People who are new to proper dieting and training can easily achieve body recomposition, and this doesn’t require any special “hacks,” strategies, or supplements. You just have to maintain a moderate calorie deficit, eat enough protein, and lift weights.
After a year or so of this, though, muscle gain becomes much more difficult, and you’ll make better progress by focusing on either muscle gain or fat loss. You can still achieve some “recomp,” but it becomes an uphill battle that’s not worth fighting.
In this article, you’ll learn who can and can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, the best body recomposition diet and macros, how long body recomposition takes, and more.
Table of Contents
What Is Body Recomposition?
First, let’s quickly define what we mean by body recomposition.
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.
This can be accomplished in three ways:
- Reducing fat mass and maintaining lean body mass (cutting, basically)
- Minimizing fat gain and increasing lean body mass (lean bulking, basically)
- Reducing fat mass and increasing lean body mass at the same time (what most people think of as “recomp”)
Typically, when people use the term “body recomposition,” though, they’re referring to the last method—reducing fat mass and increasing lean body mass at the same time.
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Is Body Recomposition Possible? What Science Says
Some people say that body recomposition, aka “recomp,” is only possible during your first year or two of weightlifting, after which it becomes more or less impossible.
When you have little to no weightlifting experience, your muscles are hyper-responsive to the muscle-building effects of resistance training. In your first year of weightlifting alone you can expect to gain anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds of muscle as a guy and about half that as a woman, a phenomenon known as “newbie gains.”
And in most cases, you can pull this off while gaining very little body fat or even losing fat—thus achieving “recomp.”
What’s more, you can even do this while losing body fat if you also restrict your calories. While calorie restriction normally puts the brakes on muscle gain for more experienced weightlifters, when you’re new to strength training, your body “powers through” a calorie deficit and builds muscle anyway.
After your newbie gains are exhausted (usually after the first 6-to-12 months of weightlifting), it becomes much harder to build muscle, much less while losing fat.
And here’s where opinions diverge.
Some people say that your ability to recomp disappears at this point entirely. From here on out, they say, you’ll need to focus on either gaining muscle or losing fat, but you can’t expect to achieve both at the same time.
Others say that while recomp becomes more difficult, you can still pull it off with the right diet and training techniques. If you have the patience and discipline, it’s possible.
Well, they’re both sort of right but mostly wrong.
Let’s start with what’s correct about this line of thinking: many studies have found that people who are new to weightlifting can experience profound body recomposition.
People who have been weightlifting properly for a year or less can experience significant body recomposition.
The most impressive example of body recomposition in greenhorn weightlifters comes from a study conducted by scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital on 38 overweight, sedentary, middle-aged police officers. The average age of the participants was 34 years old, none of them had any previous weightlifting experience, and they were all around 27% body fat on average.
After 12 weeks of maintaining a 20% calorie deficit and eating 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, the participants lost 9-to-15 pounds of body fat and gained 4-to-9 pounds of muscle on average.
In other words, after three months they only gained a few pounds of body weight, but they were much leaner and more muscular. They’d achieved near perfect recomp.
(On a side note, the participants who consumed some of their protein in the form of a casein protein supplement lost the most body fat and gained the most muscle—more than the group taking whey).
Here’s a chart from the study showing the clear body recomposition effect experienced by the participants who maintained a calorie deficit, lifted weights, and ate sufficient protein:
As you can see, the groups that maintained a calorie deficit, lifted weights, and ate sufficient protein lost a substantial amount of fat while gaining muscle.
These results are impressive, but not uncommon for beginners.
For example, here are a few guys and gals who’ve achieved similar results following my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men and my Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women:
People who’ve been weightlifting properly for 1-to-3 years can recomp, but not very effectively.
What about people who’ve already exhausted their newbie gains? Can they recomp?
Despite what naysayers claim, they too can achieve body recomposition.
For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, the researchers had 24 elite male and female athletes lift weights four days per week and lose weight either slowly or quickly. The participants who aimed to lose weight slowly maintained a moderate 500-calorie deficit, and the participants who aimed to lose weight quickly maintained an 800-calorie deficit.
On average, the slow weight loss group lost about 0.7% of their body weight per week, and the fast weight loss group lost about 1% of their body weight per week.
Here’s where things get interesting.
At the end of the study, the slow weight loss group decreased their body fat by 8% (relative) and increased their overall muscle mass by 2%. They achieved body recomposition, although not much. The fast weight loss group didn’t fare so well: they reduced their body fat by 4% and lost a small amount of muscle mass.
You can see the differences between the groups in this chart:
(Specifically, the slow weight loss group reduced their total fat mass from 15.5 to 10.5 pounds, and the fast weight loss group reduced it from 17.6 to 14.4 pounds).
There are two important takeaways from this study:
1. Despite following a sound diet and training plan, the highly trained athletes in the slow weight loss group were only able to increase their muscle mass by 2% after 10 weeks of training.
For comparison, the sedentary police officers with no weightlifting experience in the study you learned about a moment ago were able to increase both muscle mass and reduce body fat by about 8% over the same timeframe.
Thus, athletes closer to their genetic potential for muscle gain probably can’t achieve significant recomp (at least naturally).
2. The fast weight loss group didn’t gain any muscle and didn’t lose as much body fat as the slow weight loss group.
What’s more, if you look at the results by gender, the men in the fast weight loss group lost about four pounds of muscle on average, whereas the women gained a small amount of muscle (probably because they had less resistance training experience).
One problem with this study was that we don’t know exactly how much resistance training experience the athletes had, how much protein they were eating, or how much exercise they were doing outside the gym. That said, it seems unlikely any of these changes would explain just how slowly they gained muscle mass compared to the sedentary police officers.
The most likely explanation for their relatively lacklustre body composition results?
They had exhausted their newbie gains, and simply couldn’t gain muscle as fast as they used to.
People who’ve been weightlifting properly for 3+ years basically can’t recomp.
Body recomposition and muscle growth in general becomes much more difficult the closer you get to your genetic potential.
If you look at other studies conducted by scientists at University of Jyväskylä, St. Francis Xavier University, and the National Research Institute of Poland, you find the same result. Well-trained athletes can indeed gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously, but only in very small amounts.
The best example of this is highly trained bodybuilders, who devote more or less all of their training time (and a good chunk of their lives) to getting as big, strong, and lean as possible. Despite this, muscle gain grinds to a halt after just a few years, and stays vanishingly slow for the rest of their careers.
As Dr. Eric Helms, a member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, puts it, “ . . . highly trained bodybuilders who achieve a great deal of muscularity may not make measurable improvements in muscle mass even over the course of a six month period.”
For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern, scientists found that advanced male and female bodybuilders were only able to squeeze out a small, insignificant, almost immeasurable increase in biceps size after 24 weeks of training (that’s six freaking months!). And this was with a lot of intense training while they were bulking.
Based on my conversations with Dr. Helms and other bodybuilding coaches, it’s clear that after your first three-to-four years of proper weightlifting, you’ll be lucky to gain more than a pound or two of muscle mass per year until you reach your genetic potential.
After you reach this point, you’re basically stuck with what you’ve got.
For example, the athletes in the study I mentioned a moment ago had 4 years of training experience and primarily played endurance-based sports, so they likely had a greater potential for “newbie gains.”
Even so, they still only increased their muscle mass by about 2% after 10 weeks.
Now, I’ve been lifting weights for close to 16 years, and have been following well-designed training programs and diet plans for about half that time.
What do you think my chances are of gaining muscle while losing fat? Slim to nil.
“Hypertrophy [muscle growth] may occur during weight loss,” writes Dr. Helms, “however, the overall magnitude is limited with greater gains seen in novices, the untrained, and those who are overweight/obese.”
In other words, once you’re flirting with your genetic ceiling for muscle growth, any kind of body recomposition you might experience is going to be so small that you’d never be able to notice it.
Why is this the case?
To understand the answer to that question, you first have to understand a bit about muscle growth and fat loss.
The Simple Science of Body Recomposition
Why is it so much harder to recomp as you become more advanced, and what can you do to improve your odds?
To answer this question, you have to understand the grammar of muscle growth and fat loss.
The Beginner’s Guide to Muscle Growth
Muscle growth is the result of the creation of new muscle proteins being added to muscle cells, which makes them bigger and stronger.
This is known as muscle protein synthesis, and it’s triggered by strength training and consuming protein and calories.
Muscle protein synthesis is decreased by inactivity, inadequate protein and calories, and lack of sleep. More specifically, these factors increase what’s known as muscle protein breakdown, which is the other side of the coin from muscle protein synthesis.
The relationship between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown is known as muscle protein balance, which works similarly to energy balance:
- When muscle protein synthesis and breakdown rates are more or less equal, you don’t gain or lose any muscle mass.
This is known as neutral muscle protein balance.
- When muscle protein synthesis rates exceed muscle protein breakdown rates, you gain muscle mass.
This is known as positive muscle protein balance.
- And when muscle protein synthesis rates are lower than muscle protein breakdown rates, you lose muscle mass.
This is known as negative muscle protein balance.
When your goal is to gain muscle, you want to spend as much time as possible in positive muscle protein balance.
There are a few levers you can pull to bump up protein synthesis, but the most powerful one is resistance training. More specifically, progressive tension overload, which refers to forcing your muscle fibers to produce more and more tension over time.
Showing up to the gym and lifting the same weights day after day isn’t enough, either, because your muscles become resistant to the effects of strength training over time. That is, bench pressing 135 for 5 reps might rev up muscle protein synthesis significantly the first few times you do it, but the effects diminish over time. Thus, you have to continue to expose your muscles to greater and greater amounts of tension over time.
You can increase tension levels in your muscles in a few ways, but the two most effective ways are lifting heavier weights (increasing the intensity) and doing more sets (increasing the volume).
You also need to do enough sets each week and lift sufficiently heavy weights in each set order to “trigger” a significant increase in muscle protein synthesis. More on this in a moment.
There’s one more important thing you need to know about muscle building: it’s a very, very slow process.
We don’t need to get into the nitty gritty of why this is (it involves a lot of tongue-twisters like mammalian target of rapamycin, prostaglandins, and 3-phosphoinositide dependent protein kinase-1), but the long story short is this:
Lifting weights and eating food triggers a long series of molecular and hormonal changes in the body that, slowly but surely, leads to small, incremental increases in muscle mass over time.
The only time when this isn’t true is during your first year or so of weightlifting, where muscle building is fast and easy.
After this “honeymoon” phase is over, though, building muscle is like constructing a house out of LEGOs. Show up and add a little bit week after week and month after month, and you’ll see progress eventually, but it’s a long row to hoe.
For example, the only time you can expect to gain 10-to-20 pounds of muscle and lose about the same amount of fat over the same time period is during your first 6-to-12 months of weightlifting.
After your first year or so of proper weightlifting, you’ll always be able to lose fat much faster than you can gain muscle, which significantly changes the body recomposition results you can expect (you’ll always lose fat a lot faster than you can gain muscle).
The Beginner’s Guide to Fat Loss
To lose fat, you must expend more energy than you consume.
Yes, it comes down to calories in versus calories out.
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 calorie deficit.
Scientists suspected this for centuries (even the ancient Greeks prized physical exercise and moderate food consumption to achieve an aesthetic physique), and it’s been confirmed by the past 100 years of controlled weight loss studies.
This is why research shows that reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize.
This is still true if your goal is body recomposition: you can only lose fat in a calorie deficit.
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.
When your goal is to lose fat and build muscle—to recomp—the rules are a bit different. You have to be smart about how much you restrict your calories (fewer isn’t better) and where those calories come from. Specifically, you need to ensure you eat enough protein so that your body has the raw materials needed to build muscle mass.
Research shows that when restricting calories, a high-protein diet is more effective at reducing body fat, preserving muscle, and increasing satiety.
How much protein should you eat?
We can look to a review conducted by scientists at Auckland University of Technology (including Dr. Helms) for an answer. Here’s what they 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.”
For most people, that works out to around 1-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
The Problem with Body Recomposition
Let’s take a moment to review what we’ve covered so far:
- To build muscle, you need to follow a strength training program that includes sufficient intensity and volume and you need to eat enough calories and protein to maintain a positive muscle protein balance.
- To lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn and sufficient protein to support muscle growth.
If you’ve been reading carefully, though, you’ve probably noticed that this creates a problem when it comes to body recomposition:
If you need to maintain a positive muscle protein balance to build muscle . . . and you need to maintain a calorie deficit to lose fat . . . and a calorie deficit reduces muscle protein balance . . . how in the heck are you supposed to build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
Well, people who claim that anyone can recomp without a hitch have a neat explanation for this problem.
They rightfully point out that while your body needs sufficient energy to build muscle, that energy doesn’t necessarily have to come from food. In fact, you probably have far more calories than you need to fuel muscle building in the form of stored body fat.
For example, I’m about 10% body fat and weigh 195 pounds. Men can only get down to around 3-to-4% body fat before they die, so realistically we can say I have 6% of body fat that’s available to be used for energy, or in my case around 12 pounds of body fat.
As one pound of body fat contains around 3,500 calories of energy, this means I have about 40,000 calories of body fat that my body can use to build muscle.
So, on paper, as long as I eat enough protein, lift weights, and am still above around 3-to-4% body fat, my body should have no trouble building muscle and losing fat at the same time, right?
You see, this neat little explanation overlooks the way your body adapts to calorie restriction.
We don’t need to get into the specifics, but the long story short is that when you restrict calories, your body deprioritizes other energy intensive processes like muscle growth. Although you may still have plenty of stored energy in the form of body fat, your body sees calorie restriction as a form of starvation (and it is, technically).
Thus, hormone levels dip, protein breakdown rises, protein synthesis decreases, and it becomes difficult just to hold onto your muscle mass, much less gain any.
This is why even elite bodybuilders who are doing everything “right” often still lose muscle mass when they get ready for competitions (and it’s often the most experienced who lose the most muscle).
What’s more, the larger your calorie deficit (and thus the faster you can lose fat), the more your protein balance decreases.
As you’ll recall from the weight loss study we covered earlier in this article, the athletes who lost 1% of their body weight per week lost muscle, whereas the athletes who lost 0.7% of their body weight per week were able to gain a small amount.
The bottom line is that, while body recomposition is possible, it’s a lot more tricky than it looks on paper.
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How Long Does Body Recomposition Take?
Circling back to the question I posed a moment ago . . . how are you supposed to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?
The correct answer is verrrrrry slowwwwwwly.
As I alluded to in the previous section, another problem with the idea of body recomposition as most people understand it—the idea that you can gain muscle and lose fat without changing your body weight (or changing it very little)—is that you can lose fat much faster than you can build muscle.
While both men and women can lose 1-to-2 pounds of fat per week without losing muscle, men can only gain around 0.5 pounds of muscle per week in their first year of lifting (and that’s assuming they’re in a calorie surplus), and about half of this every subsequent year (0.25 pounds in year two, 0.125 pounds in year three, and so on). Women can cut those numbers in half. And once you reach your genetic potential for muscle growth, muscle gain becomes almost immeasurably small.
If you’re restricting calories, you can expect to gain significantly less muscle than this.
Based on my experience with my own body and working with thousands of men and women through my books, blog, and podcast, I’d say most people in a calorie deficit can gain muscle at about a quarter the rate they would while in a calorie surplus.
That is, if you could normally gain a pound of muscle per month in a calorie surplus (roughly the rate a man could expect in his second year of lifting), he could expect to gain about a quarter pound per month while in a calorie deficit.
And this is assuming he does everything right with his diet, training, and sleep habits.
Thus, even when you’re brand new to weightlifting, you’re probably going to lose fat about two to four times faster than you’ll build muscle. While this is technically body recomposition, the results aren’t what many people expect.
For example, let’s say you’ve been following a sound weightlifting program for two years. At this point, you can expect to gain around 0.5 pounds of muscle per month under ideal circumstances and about 0.125 pounds (that’s 2 ounces) when cutting. Of course, you can still lose about 1-to-2 pounds of fat per week when cutting.
After three months of maintaining a calorie deficit and lifting weights, you’ll have gained a little less than a half-pound of muscle and lost 12-to-24 pounds of fat.
Not exactly the “replace all of your fat with muscle” effect that many people expect.
What’s more, you can lose fat this fast for the rest of your weightlifting career, whereas muscle gain will become more or less nonexistent after several years of proper training and dieting. For instance, after 5 years of consistent training you can still lose 1-to-2 pounds of fat per week when cutting, but you’ll be hard pressed to gain that much muscle all year while lean bulking.
Eventually, you’ll reach a point in your weightlifting journey where you can still increase or decrease your body fat levels quickly, but your muscle mass will remain more or less unchanged.
So, while body recomposition is possible, you need to temper your expectations. Your chances of, say, gaining 10 pounds of muscle and losing 10 pounds of fat after three months of eating and training properly are low.
After your first year of weightlifting, the best you can hope for is basically “gain a few ounces of muscle while getting lean.”
That said, just because you can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same rate, doesn’t mean body recomposition isn’t worth pursuing. If you want to stay about the same body fat percentage or you’re okay cutting for longer than you would otherwise if it means you can make small strength and muscle gains, body recomposition is a worthwhile goal.
How to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time
As you learned a moment ago, calorie restriction is an obstacle to building muscle, but it’s not an insurmountable one.
If you know what you’re doing with your diet and training, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, at least until you reach your genetic potential for muscle growth.
- Do lots of heavy weightlifting
- Maintain a small calorie deficit
- Eat sufficient protein
- Get enough sleep
Let’s go over each one in turn.
Do lots of heavy weightlifting.
Whether your goal is to lose fat or build muscle, what you do in the gym shouldn’t really change.
That is, the best way to stimulate muscle growth, regardless of what you do with your diet, is still to lift heavy weights for multiple sets per muscle group per week. Whether you’re in a calorie surplus or deficit or eating at maintenance simply changes how well your body responds to your training.
Thus, when your goal is to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, you need to lift weights with the appropriate intensity and volume for maximizing muscle growth.
Scientists are still debating the “optimal” intensity and volume for maximizing muscle growth, but a good starting place seems to be around 60+% of your one-rep max (1RM) and 10-to-20 sets per muscle group per week.
If you’re looking for an effective strength training program that matches these guidelines, check out this article:
The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength
Maintain a small calorie deficit.
Calorie restriction hinders muscle growth, 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.). That said, you still need to restrict calories to some degree if you want to lose fat.
To recomp effectively, you have to thread the needle between restricting calories enough to cause fat loss, and not restricting your calories so much that you shut down muscle growth.
The sweet spot here is probably something like a 10-to-15% calorie deficit per day.
This range is based on several studies that have looked at the relationship between calorie restriction, fat loss, and muscle growth, which have found that if you restrict your calories much more than this, it’s very difficult to build an appreciable amount of muscle, much less maintain it.
The leaner you are, the smaller your calorie deficit should be. This is because your risk of muscle loss increases (and chances of building muscle decreases), as your body fat levels drop.
If you’re at or below 10% body fat as a man or 20% as a woman, aim for the lower end of this range (a 10% calorie deficit). If you’re above 10/20% body fat, aim for the upper end of this range (a 15% calorie deficit).
If you’d like to learn how to set your calories and macros for recomping, check out the Legion Macronutrient Calculator.
Eat sufficient protein.
As you learned earlier in this article, your protein needs increase when you’re restricting your calories for fat loss.
Specifically, when you’re in a calorie deficit you want to eat around 1-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is true whether you’re solely focused on fat loss or chasing body recomposition.
You can use the same calculator I shared a moment ago to figure out your protein intake.
(And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.)
Get enough sleep.
Sleep is often the last thing people think about when it comes to improving their body composition, but that’s a mistake.
Aside from sapping your energy to train and hampering your workout recovery, sleep deprivation also directly inhibits muscle growth and decreases fat loss.
The best example of this comes to us from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago on overweight adults who followed a calorie-restricted diet for two weeks.
One group slept 8.5 hours per night on average (about how long research shows is optimal for most people), and one group slept 5.5 hours per night (about how long 40% of Americans sleep per night).
The researchers found that the insufficient sleep group lost 55% less fat and 60% more lean mass than the sufficient sleep group. In other words, they experienced near perfect body recomposition . . . but in reverse, gaining fat and losing muscle in equal proportions.
Specifically, the group that slept 5.5 hours per night lost a little over one pound of fat and over five pounds of lean mass, whereas the group that slept 8.5 hours per night lost three pounds of fat and three pounds of lean mass.
If you want to achieve successful body recomposition, make sure you get at least 7-to-9 hours of sleep per night.
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A Better Alternative to Body Recomposition
At this point you’re probably thinking, where are all the fancy strategies I’ve heard about?
What about calorie cycling, intermittent fasting, and special body recomposition workouts?
Are you saying I should just restrict calories, lift weights, and let my body take care of the rest?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
First of all, calorie cycling is overrated.
You can read this article to understand why, but the gist is that it may help you stick to your diet more easily and slightly minimize fat gain while bulking, but it won’t help you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.
Second, here’s the real lesson from this entire article:
- If you follow a calorie-restricted diet with sufficient protein and lift weights, you can absolutely build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
- Aside from avoiding mistakes that can stunt your ability to recomp (losing weight too fast, not eating enough protein, not training hard enough or with enough volume, not sleeping enough), there are no diet hacks, training protocols, or special supplements that will improve your ability to recomp.
- Although you can build muscle while losing fat, you’ll almost certainly build less muscle than you would if you spent that time lean bulking.
- You’ll pretty much always be able to lose fat at a much faster rate than you can build muscle, and this effect becomes more pronounced as you near your genetic potential for muscle gain.
And finally, here’s my biggest beef with most of the body recomposition protocols you’ll find online (including the one I shared a moment ago):
They aren’t superior to the traditional approach of cutting and lean bulking I’ve described elsewhere, and in some cases are just plain inferior.
That is, alternating between periods where you gain muscle and body fat (lean bulking) and periods where you maintain (or gain a little) muscle and lose body fat (cutting), tends to produce better results in the long run than trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, all the time.
Body Recomposition vs. Bulking and Cutting
Here’s an example to illustrate why I think body recomposition is inferior to traditional bulking and cutting cycles.
Let’s say John has been weightlifting and dieting properly for a year, so he’s a solid intermediate weightlifter.
Under ideal circumstances he could probably hope to gain around 1 pound of muscle per month while lean bulking. Of course, he’s cutting, which means his rate of progress will be significantly slower.
Remember that in a calorie deficit you can expect to gain muscle at about a quarter the rate you would while in a calorie surplus, which would mean John can gain around 0.25 pounds of muscle per month.
Let’s also say he starts out at 180 pounds and 15% body fat, which means he has 153 pounds of lean body mass and 27 pounds of fat mass.
Since he’s above 10% body fat, he’ll maintain a fairly small calorie deficit (15%), so he’ll only be losing around 0.5 pounds of fat per week, or about 2 pounds per month.
If he were to recomp, here’s what his progress would look like over six months:
After six months, John would be 170.5 pounds and 9% body fat, with 155.5 pounds of lean body mass. In other words, he’s gained about two pounds of muscle and lost ten pounds of fat.
Of course, this is assuming John sticks to the plan perfectly and his body responds the same way throughout the entire process.
In reality, maintaining a 10% calorie deficit is difficult. There’s no room for error, and it’s easy to under or overestimate how much you’re eating, which can prevent you from losing fat or gaining muscle as consistently as you’d like.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s say the plan pans out as detailed above.
How would his results compare if he were to spend three months cutting followed by three months lean bulking?
Let’s say that if John were to maintain a 10% calorie surplus, he could gain about 1 pound of muscle per month along with 1 pound of fat (a reasonable goal for a guy in his second year of weightlifting).
Then, when he switches to cutting, let’s say he’s able to lose 1 pounds of fat per week (4 pounds per month) while maintaining (but not gaining) muscle.
Here’s what his progress would look like:
In the end, he winds up at 174 pounds and 10% body fat with 156 pounds of lean body mass.
Now, like the previous example, this is an oversimplification. In reality, John would lose slightly less fat every week as he got leaner, and he may not gain muscle quite this fast throughout the entire lean bulk, but overall it’s more accurate than not.
The bottom line is that, over the long-term, most people will make faster progress if they alternate between dedicated cycles of cutting and lean bulking than if they try to lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
While many people say that recomping allows you to stay leaner than you would cutting or lean bulking, this isn’t necessarily true, either.
In fact, if you cut down to a low body fat percentage and then carefully lean bulk afterward, you’ll actually be leaner on average than you would with recomping.
Case in point, using the examples above, John’s average six-month body fat percentage while recomping was 11.5%. His average six-month body fat percentage while cutting and bulking? 10.3%.
Now, you could argue that these differences are too miniscule to matter (and they are pretty small). Basically, by recomping John winds up about 1% fatter and with about 1 less pound of muscle than if he were to cut and lean bulk.
That said, these small differences add up over time, especially when you consider that the biggest benefit of cutting and lean bulking is the simplicity and sustainability of it. You can focus your efforts on a single goal, and don’t need to be quite as careful about eating just enough to allow for muscle growth but not too much to sabotage your fat loss.
This isn’t to say that body recomposition is a bad idea for everyone, though.
Who Should Try Body Recomposition?
During your first 6-to-12 months of weightlifting, you’ll experience significant body recomposition by just following a calorie-restricted diet and lifting weights.
Thus, trying to recomp when you’re new to proper weightlifting and dieting is not only possible, it’s inevitable. Just eat fewer calories and lift weights, and you’ll build muscle and lose fat like clockwork. (Of course, if you’re skinny and trying to gain muscle, then you should just focus on maintaining a calorie surplus and getting stronger).
After your first year or so of weightlifting, you have to more carefully micromanage your calorie intake to successfully recomp, and even then, your rate of muscle gain will slow down substantially.
And at this point, you’re better off switching to cutting and lean bulking.
Most of the people I’ve worked with who’ve tried to recomp after their first year of weightlifting ended up frittering away months of time and energy only to be disappointed with what they saw in the mirror.
Eventually, they wound up switching back to the tried-and-true method of cutting and lean bulking.
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