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The video below will outline the most common mistakes people make when trying to achieve positive body recomposition and exactly how to overcome them.
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How To Avoid The 4 Most Common Recomposition Mistakes
First of all, let's define the concept of recomposition. Recomposition is essentially aiming to gain lean muscle mass and lose body fat simultaneously. Most people arrive at a recomposition goal because they feel neither lean enough to pursue muscle gain exclusively nor muscular enough to feel like they should dedicate time to getting lean.
Not knowing which route to take can lead to a lot of guesswork and indecision, which in turn can lead to long periods of frustration where you're not really making much progress in either direction, but there is certainly a solution to all of that.
I'm going to outline a way of pursuing recomposition which allows you to avoid some common mistakes and pretty much guarantees your success.
Recomposition is actually my favourite goal to help people achieve because it was the fitness challenge that I struggled with personally. I started training quite early on in my life in my early twenties and I gained quite a lot of muscle mass, but I was never lean; I would accumulate body fat as I went up in muscle mass. Then, when I decided I had enough muscle that I could risk trying to look lean with, I started to try to lose body fat, but in doing so it was very restrictive, very drawn out, and I lost quite a lot of muscle mass on the way down. These cycles went on and on. Sometimes they crossed over and I looked how I wanted to for a short period of time, but it was never sustainable. I made it my sole purpose to figure out the solution, and that's what I would like to share with you here.
During the period of research I went on and in my experience as a personal trainer since, I have noticed that there are four major mistakes you can make when it comes to pursuing recomposition, so I devised a solution to each one of them which I'll outline below.
Firstly, whilst this body recomposition framework will basically work for anyone, there will be some people who are in a better position to benefit from it than others these categories are:
- 1. Those that are starting out or new to fitness
- 2. Those that are returning to exercise or are temporarily ‘deconditioned’
- 3. Those willing to accept a steady, but permanent route to a leaner, more muscular physique.
Mistake #1: Unsuccessful Bulking & Cutting Cycles
The first mistake I see people make when it comes to pursuing a lean, toned and muscular physique is that they embark on long periods of bulking and cutting.
It is easy to see why it would happen because a lot of information and advice comes down from fitness influencer and bodybuilding circles, so most advice is of this cyclical nature. Put yourself in the shoes of most influencer and bodybuilders; they live amongst the bodybuilding sub-culture and they are usually looking to be in peak physical condition on a given set of days each year, which might be a photo shoot, a competition or a sponsorship event of some kind. These events may take place on just a handful of days each year, and because bodybuilding is their sport, their hobby and their profession, they will tolerate being out of peak condition for longer periods than you and I might find comfortable as long as it results in marginal gains. They have to do it that way because they are so close to their natural potential, that marginal gains each year are all they can reasonable expect.
However, you and I lead busy lives in which we’d love to be in great shape year round - not like a bodybuilder perhaps, but the kind of shape where you feel confident on a beach and like what you see in the mirror. Knowing that our goals are rather different, we’re relieved of the necessity of these long bulking and cutting cycles.
Unfortunately, what tends to happen with long bulking and cutting cycles for most people is that you can end up spending most of the year pretty out of shape. Firstly long bulks, unless they are done 100% and immaculately tend to accumulate more and more body fat as their duration. Then when the level of body fat that's been accumulated becomes too uncomfortable to keep going, most people tend to take quite aggressive cutting phases, and unless done perfectly, usually loose a lot of muscle as they get more restrictive, which then undermines the point of tolerating the discomfort of the bulk to gain muscle in the first place. Its a very frustrating cycle and unfortunately most people interested in strength training find themselves falling for it.
A lot of people would see far better results and feel comfortable with their conditioning far more consistently if they were to adopt a recomposition approach and aim to move in both directions simultaneously. The major benefit of this is that, although it might be a steady or slower journey, you are looking better aesthetically with every incremental progression. This is because each time you gain an ounce of muscle mass, you don't go up in body fat and every ounce of body fat lost, does not bring with it a loss of muscle mass. Which means that although it's quite slow on the scale, judged by side by side pictures, and how you look at feel in your clothes, you are actually fast tracking your results in a way you can actually keep.
Mistake #2: Using weight Loss Methodology
The next biggest mistake I see people making when approaching recomposition is using weight loss methodology. Just as I was talking about the perils of using bodybuilding methodology, but the same goes for weight loss. What tends to happen is that when people are approaching a recomposition goal, they would say to themselves or say to a coach, "I want to lose body fat and gain muscle", or "I want to lose body fat, feel leaner, but gain size in my glutes or my arms on my shoulders". These two goals coexist, and that works when we're going to do things through the recomposition framework, because recomposition is its own goal, its own style of training, its own lifestyle and its own methodology. If we then talk about having a recomposition goal but use weight loss methodology, we're going to run into big problems.
With that being the case, you have to trust the methodology. You have to have faith that you can have a calorie surplus on your strength training days, but the recomposition is still going to take care of your fat burning and you'll actually be losing body fat because of the way everything works together. This is going to be very difficult or uncomfortable to do if you're still running weight loss methodology in your mind, because weight loss methodology is all working on calorie deficits. You can't then come into a recomposition program and say "I want to gain muscle and lose body fat", but just not have the mathematical building blocks available to be able to gain muscle. You can do strength training and you might get stronger for it, but if you're not willing to be on a surplus or a very, very modest deficit for the week, then you're just making it mathematically impossible to achieve those two things.
This is a really important nuance when it comes to recomposition because we are on a calorie deficit for the week, but it's a very modest one and one that allows us to still gain muscle because of our surplus on our strength training days. It's completely different to weight loss or traditional weight loss methods where people are just trying to create as much of a deficit as possible; more is not better when it comes to a deficit and that applies to weight loss, but it really applies to recomposition. It's all very finely tuned. It's a nuanced goal and you have to trust the whole framework to pull it off.
Mistake #3: Using The Wrong Workouts
The next big mistake I see people make when it comes to recomposition is using the wrong workouts, which usually come form one of the two camps that we've already explored.
You see, recomposition is a very nuanced goal and it's a big lifestyle framework that works together; you can't approach it with endless cardio, aiming to burn as many calories as you can as if you were on a weight loss goal, because you're going to run yourself into a big caloric debt, a big deficit of calories, and also accumulate quite a lot of fatigue, essentially rendering it mathematically impossible to gain muscle.
Likewise, you can't be living in the gym like a bodybuilder doing strength training at high volume five, six or seven days a week, as you might if you were dedicating your whole life to gaining muscle, because you're going to run into the same problems; huge amounts of fatigue and poor recovery as you’ll be on such a calorie deficit.
In my view and my experience, the optimal way to approach recomposition is to have 2-3 strength training sessions per week plus 1-2 HIIT training sessions each week, and then augment all of that with as much steady state cardio or light activity as you can.
Let's talk about how to put all of that together and the purpose each one of these different types of exercise serves. A good way to think about putting these three elements together is to consider them like railway tracks; the tracks or the rails will remain the same, but you can change the trains that run along them. So your strength training workouts will change over time, your HIIT training workouts will change over time, the kind of activity you do will change over time, but the rails remain the same and the rails are the framework for recomposition.
The purpose of strength training is that we are going to convince the body that it needs to make an adaptation. That adaptation is going to be get bigger and stronger, and the way to do that is to convince it that you're going to be lifting heavy things frequently enough and doing it in a way that challenges it. The way to do that is to add a bit more every session, which is know as progressive overload. This way the body is always ‘confused’ enough to make an adaptation, which of course is a gain in muscle mass.
Then we need to optimise our cardio efforts. You see what’s interesting about recomposition, or just cardio in general, is that most people go for the wrong types of cardio in the pursuit of fat loss, seeking to exercise as hard as possible and burn as many calories as possible, however the trouble is that this is usually at a heart rate and level of intensity that simply burns your stored glycogen (carbohydrate) for long periods and with it accumulates a lot of fatigue, not burning much fat all all.
The solution lies within a combination of short bursts of HIIT training, which is highly intensive interval training, and LISS training, which is low intensity, steady state cardio. The idea is that we're using these two forms of cardio and working at both ends of the cardiovascular continuum.
The purpose here is to use HIIT exercise to oxidise fat, which means we're going to make our stored body fat available or shuttled into a position where it can be used as fuel for activity. We’ll then move to light activity to work at a low heart rate and directly burn stored body fat as fuel, short infrequent bursts of HIIT in unison with frequent bouts of steady state cardio make for a fantastic fat-burning solution.
Mistake #4: Not Managing Lifestyle Factors
The next biggest mistake I see people make when it comes to recomposition training is not optimizing their lifestyle to support their goals. You see, recomposition is more than just a combination of workouts and meals. It’s a lifestyle choice, that naturally burns fat, or at least naturally burns more fat than it accumulates.
So on a long enough timeline, you'll be as lean as you'd like to be and be able to maintain that conditioning. First, let's look at sleep. If you become just a little bit sleep deprived, you can put yourself in a situation that's going to interfere with a hormone called leptin. Now, leptin is responsible for telling you when you're full, so if you don't have a proper read on that hormone, it's going to make it very difficult for you to know when to stop eating which could mean you reach for the wrong things just to feel satiated.
Also, if you're allowing yourself to become sleep deprived, you're going to be fatigued, irritable, and just have less energy and recovery resources available to recover from your workouts. Of course, we'd be looking for 8 hours of quality sleep, but we have to be realistic. You may have a busy lifestyle, family responsibilities, a business to run, or a high pressure career, or just be in a state where you're a little bit stressed and run down making it difficult to sleep well. You can also improve your sleep environment using black out blinds and maintaining a sleeping room temperature of 18c throughout the night, which will induce restful sleep.
The next biggest lifestyle factor that could really impede your efforts towards recomposition if you don't have it handled, is failing to manage the level of stress you have in your life. You see, If you're in a stressed state, your body is drip-fed hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which are your ‘fight or flight’ response triggers. These are natural, and are just your body's natural response to a stressful situation, (importantly though, not just a stress situation, but a life or death situation, like being attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger, evolutionarily speaking).
Just as with sleep, you have to be realistic about how much stress you can actually mitigate. I mean, you might be in a situation where things are just stressful, but there are still things that you can do to help. For example you could put in place, a stress managing routine which incorporates meditation, mindfulness, even things as simple as taking a piece of paper, writing out a list of the things that bring you joy and then making sure you do them regularly.
Beyond this, you could start looking at recovery methods that might stack the odds in your favour which could include things like breath work, cold exposure, heat exposure, sports massage or remedial therapies.
Putting it all together
Once all of this is in place, recomposition is actually one of the easiest goals to achieve because everything just works so seamlessly together as a maintainable lifestyle without accumulating fatigue or needlessly robbing you of your energy through restriction.
However, it often requires a little faith, and trust in the process as it’s an unconventional goal with unconventional methods. You can see what we're trying to do here is put all of these lifestyle measures in place to create a positive or virtuous cycle that naturally lead to body recomposition. We're trying to get more quality sleep, which is going to give us more energy, which in turn is going to make us make better food choices, which then helps us in our workouts, subsequently reducing stress, which leads right back to further improved sleep.
This is my framework for achieving positive body recomposition. It's the way I live myself and it's the way I encourage the vast majority of my clients to put their health and fitness efforts together as well. The reason for that is that it's completely non-restrictive, so it lends itself to working even within a busy, stressful lifestyle because you are never doing anything restrictive with nutrition nor over-exercising, so it's not taking away from your energy stores.
If anything, this system actually gives you more energy while you go up in muscle mass and come down in body fat. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that you start from where you are today and as soon as you achieve anything in either direction muscle gain or fat-loss, you start to see visual improvements which means you're going to feel more confident looking in the mirror, you're going to feel more confident in your clothes and that's going to reduce the mental chatter from all the guesswork or not really feeling like you know what to do with your health & fitness. I really think recomposition is the way to go if you want to permanently change your body composition and want to be able to stay in shape year-round.