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Gaining muscle mass whilst simultaneously burning body fat, is the holy grail of health and fitness. In fact it’s it’s the goal around 80% of my online personal training clients ask me to help them achieve.
This achievement is best referred to as ‘recomposition’ as it’s literally the pursuit of changing the composition of your body, i.e having more muscle and less fat, lowering your overall body fat percentage. This is not to be confused with weight loss, because the gaining of muscle is actually adding weight to the body, but in a positive way, as just having more muscle mass will increase your basal metabolic rate, or the amount of calories your body burns to sustain itself. That's not to say you won't lose weight, but likewise you might gain a little it all depends where you start, but by continuing to focus on weight, you'd really have missed the point of composition, as we are focusing entirely on body fat percentage as our marker of success.
Think of it like this, take your body right now, if you were to gain 1kg of muscle mass your body fat would be lower as a percentage, even without losing any body fat, because it's a ratio. Likewise, as long as you consolidate your muscle, and lose body fat, your body fat percentage would go down. So if you are able to do these at the same time, you can see how quickly you might stand to see excellent results.
As a word of warning, If you focus on weight whilst training for recomposition, it's going to be very frustrating for you. So please make sure you are clear on how to measure the success of your recomposition attempts before beginning a training program.
Is recomposition possible?
For a long time recomposition was generally considered impossible for those that were training without the help of drugs and supplements that would change an individuals hormone levels, but I believe that's because the conversations were being had by highly trained bodybuilders and athletes, who had been training for years, if not decades, so consistently, that they were very close to what their bodies were ever going to be able to achieve. Therefore it makes sense that at that stage of development they were now settling for marginal, incremental improvements year on year.
Because they obviously knew what they were doing, these conclusions filtered into the mainstream understanding of fitness and wanting to be like those they admired a whole generation of fitness enthusiasts, looked to ‘cutting’ and ‘bulking’ as the only route forward to achieve an aesthetic physique.
The problem is that when most people try to gain muscle, they gain body fat with it, and then when they try to lose the the fat they’ve gained, there is an over-correction and a lot of muscle is lost, it’s very frustrating, I know because I lived those frustrations too in my own training, before figuring out the unique set of factors that would allow for a positive body recomposition.
I outline my journey with recomposition in the video here:
Who is body recomposition for?
The conventional wisdom I alluded to above misses a crucial factor, which is that 99% of people are nowhere near their generic potential for muscualrity, nor can they say in all honestly that they have done everything perfectly for the last 30 days, let alone months or years, of course there are some exceptions, but 99% of the population including myself are in the first category, which means that recomposition can work for almost everyone, and the degree to which it’ll be fruitful depends on how much low hanging fruit is currently on the table.
Is it going to work for a professional bodybuilder or fitness model, probably not. Is it going to work for you? Well, the chances are that it will, after all it worked for me, and at the time I found this methodology, I was at the early stages of my career as a personal trainer and I had already been training for years, so there is a great deal of opportunity for almost everyone.
How to tell if body recomposition will work for you
Body recomposition can work for near enough anyone, but it is more effective for some than others, let’s take a brief look at some hard and fast guidelines:
- 1. You are seeking to stay in shape year round, happy to take a slower route to muscle gain whilst maintaining a lean physique
- 2. You are currently undertrained and are about to embark on a new health initiative
- 3. You are beginning your fitness journey quite overweight and don't have a long history of weight training
- You feel like you’ve lost a lot of muscle with aggressive dieting or cutting and need a more maintainable solution
Potentially avoid if:
- 1. You are close to your genetic potential with regards to muscle gain
- 2. Are a ‘hard-gainer’ or ‘ectomorph’ - You would probably be best with longer gaining cycles, losing body fat is not really your challenge.
- 3. In your teens or 20’s and are new to training entirely - you might see more utility in taking advantage of the muscle that can be gained in the early days of lifting, you’ll never have that time again so make use of it!
How to train for recomposition
For the most part, everyone should be able to achieve some kind of positive body recomposition with consistent effort, by focusing on the core principles listed below. Actual workouts, exercises and meals can all change, those are the details, it is the wider framework working in unison that is the key to successfully losing fat and gaining muscle. I’ve included exercise examples of training programs I’ve used myself as highlighted in the video above.
1. Calorie Cycling
Conventionally to gain muscle we must be on a caloric surplus, and to lose weight we must be on a deficit. Typically these cycles can last anywhere from a few weeks to 6 months or more depending on the goal.
However to achieve positive recomposition we’re going to have to change the rules a little bit. Firstly we’re going to shift the focus away from calories per day over to the number of calories across the week. This shift in focus allows us to maintain an overall caloric deficit over the course of a week, whilst eating a break even or small surplus caloric intake on the days in which we are engaged in intensive weight training, this will allow us to have long periods of maintaining protein symphysis meaning that muscle gain is going to be possible as a direct response from our training despite being in a very modest deficit for the week.
2. Progressive overload
Progressive overload must be utilised because A vital element of recomposition is, of course, gaining muscle mass. This means you’ll need to be engaged in regular intensive resistance training (which we’ll define as any resistance workout that is demanding enough to force an adaptation).
The key here is that you must be making progress in your weight lifting efforts, it is the element of progressive overload which will confirm that we are benefitting fully from the training and that strength (indicative of muscle) is not being lost. All you need to do to maintain progressive overload is move up in weight by the next incremental weight you have available to you, though never at the cost of exercise technique, that wouldn’t count.
The great additional bonus you get from progressive overload is that you you establish the habit of workout tracking, which alone can massively impact the success of your training, as you're able to keep an excellent read on how you are progressing at an time.
- 3. A Focus On Holistic Health
If I could condense my 12 years as a personal trainer into one tip that could save you weeks, months even years of frustration with poor results, not to mention all the money you might save on gym fees, supplements and coaching over that period it would be this:
If your mind or body is compromised by stress (in its many forms) you will not get optimal results even from the same workout and nutritional intake as you would if you were better managing stress. This is why I never provide a training program that doesn’t have some form of stress management accompanying it.
Whilst it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into the deep science of muscle gain and fat loss (muscle protein synthesis, Mtor protein & the AMPk enzyme) suffice to say that the chemical and hormonal processes that regulate muscle growth and fat loss will be less efficient in a compromised body, and what I mean by compromised is one negatively effected by stress and inflammation.
Taking care of your general health and wellness is paramount to achieving such an ambitious training goal as recomposition, oxidative stress, lack of sleep, poor nutritional content, low protein intake, overtraining & failing to properly manage stress can all hold you back, so a health centred approach to exercise is necessary both for it’s own sake (this isn’t a rehearsal) and because how it’ll influence your results.
The Recomposition Program
Caloric Intake - First things first you’ll need to calculate your caloric intake so that you can benefit from manipulating your break-even points on training days and your small deficit on your resting (not intensive weight training) days.
How to calculate your caloric intake:
One of the most frequently used calculations is this one, the Harris-Benedict equation:
BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) + 5
BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) - (5 × age in years) - 161
This gives you your basal metabolic rate, which means the number of calories that is needed to maintain your current bodyweight. But that doesn’t factor in the number of calories you burn over the course of your daily activities, so here is one last step to account for that:
Sedentary or light activity
Office worker getting little or no exercise
BMR x 1.53
Active or moderately active
Construction worker or person running one hour daily
BMR x 1.76
Agricultural worker (non mechanised) or person swimming two hours daily
BMR x 2.25
Once you have your calculated calories you will opt for:
Break even or +10% surplus on training days
-10 - 20% deficit on resting / active rest days
Body recomposition is a an intricate process and everybody is different so close monitoring of your progress is essential, you can observe changes in a mirror or use an electronic device to measure the changes in your body composition more accurately.
For successful body recomposition you will need to maintain a slight deficit over the course of a week. If muscle gain is more of a priority then consume a slight surplus on your training days and if fat loss is more of a concern have a larger deficit on your rest days and break-even on training days. You can vary these ratios over the course of the program or as you see fit if priorities change.
Calories vs Content
The calorie content debate is a contentious one in the health & fitness industry, with one argument being that you cannot scientifically disprove the calories in vs calories out numbers, i.e a calorie is a calorie and on the other hand, another school of thought is to do away with the numbers and focus on nutrient diversity.
There are clearly good points on both sides, to me the logical solution is to work within both, the method I’ve used to achieve a positive body recomposition on my own body and many of my clients is to respect and work within the caloric intake recommendations, but use a common sense approach to the quality of the nutrients that are being introduced into the body, after all there is a lot to be said for the old adage you are what you eat.
As I touched on before, both nutrient availability and the overall state of health, inflammation and free radicals in the body are going to influence the extent to which our body can make the intended adaptations in the body, what i’m drilling home here essentially is that even if you eat the right amount of calories and do the right training you will get sub-optimal results if your overall level of health (even down to the cellular level) is compromised.
A great place to start from for a positive recomposition is the following split:
30% Protein 30% Fat 40% Carb
Protein - Protein is essential for muscle growth, if your protein intake falls too low you may not be able to achieve muscle protein synthesis and will not only not be able to gain muscle, you’ll also stand to lose your existing muscle mass, particularly when on a caloric deficit, of course this doesn’t happen overnight but its worth conscious effort to keep optimal.
Various studies have suggested that for the most part grams of protein from different high protein foods sources are or equal value, but I would suggest opting for leucine-rich foods because The combination of leucine-enriched nutrients and resistance exercise enhances both mTOR signalling and muscle protein synthesis. Suggested foods would include chicken, beef, nuts, seeds, beans, pork, fish.
Fat - Fat is essential for healthy hormone balance and all kinds of other aspects of health including maintaining healthy skin and hair. When we factor this into a recomposition training goal, it’s going to be essential because without healthy hormone regulation it is going to be very difficult to gain muscle. Dietary cholesterol is also important, especially for men in regulating testosterone, so if you are engaged in heavy training and maintain a low sugar intake do not fear a reasonable intake of dietary fat and cholesterol, it’s the sugar that makes us fat and causes inflammation, not the fat.
Carbs - Let’s start off by saying that ketogenic diets can also be used for recomposition, but for the purpose of this article we’ll be utilising a moderate carb intake as it’s the more easily maintainable approach to nutrition for the vast majority of people. Ideally we keep the the carb intake clean, avoiding refined sugars and heavily processed foods and having a clear preference for lower glycemic index carbohydrates. Great choices would be rooted vegetables, low G.I fruits and possibly the slower release grains like oats, quinoa and buckwheat.
As we touched on above, the most essential element of the resistance training in a recomposition program is that you maintain progressive overload, I.e you have to be making consistent progress to force your body to react with an adaptation, the adaptation being muscle growth.
Progression doesn’t just have to be measured in terms of lifting more weight, for example if you are limited by the amount of weight you have access to, you could also reduce rest time, slow the cadence of your repetitions, increase volume or raise intensity by super setting.
As a hard and fast rule you’ll want to be training 3-4 times per week (I generally suggest 3 because its an easier way to have a slight surplus on training days and still be at a deficit due to the 4 days of deficit). You’ll also want to focus on big multi-joint, compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, rowing and pressing movements.
You can use a number of training programs and protocols for body recomposition. However, I lean toward HST or ‘hypertrophy specific training’, for two reasons. Firstly the whole system is build around compound movements and utilising progressive overload in each workout and secondly, because it works on the concept of minimum necessary muscle stimulation for growth, which means that despite being in a caloric deficit, performance remains high, which would be more tricky to achieve with a shock and awe style high volume program like german volume training for example. A close second I would use would be the 5x5 stronglifts program.
A modified HST program I like to use looks like this:
BB = Barbell
DB = Dumbbell
KB = Kettlebell
BB Squat 2 x 15
KB swing 2 x 15
BB Bench Press 2 x15
Close Grip Lat Pulldown 2 x 15
BB Military Press 2 x 15
BB Upright Row 2 x 15
BB Bicep Curl 2 x 15
Overhead DB Tricep Extension 2 x 15
BB Deadlift 2 x 15
Leg Press 2 x15
Inc Bench DB Bench Press 2 x 15
BB Barbell Row 2 x 15
Seated DB Press 2 x 15
BB Shrug 2 x 15
Preacher Curls 2 x 15
Tricep Pull Down 2 x 15
You would perform the workouts in the following sequence:
Week 1 - A,B,A
Week 2 - B,A B
For 2-3 weeks at 15 reps, meaning you would do each workout three times. At the end of which you would skip two weight classes and perform 2-3 cycles of the A and B workout, at 10 reps before finally skipping two more weight classes again and move to 5 reps.
Rest periods should be 60 seconds. Only move on to the next weight if you successfully achieve the stated rep count, you can then repeat the cycle entirely, or change the exercise selection, effectively making the training program a completely new one, or indeed move forward on the strong-lifts protocol.
On a program like this, cardiovascular training can be implemented to help accelerate fat loss, ideally in the form of short, sharp high-intensity workouts on your resting days (remember we are defining rest by the absence of heavy weight training not by the absence of a workout) My go to cardio for recomp is 4 x intense Tabata drills.
Tabata is a cardio protocol developed in Japan specifically for fat loss, as it was found to help weight class athletes change weight classes without a drop in muscle mass or performance, i.e it’s perfect for the minimum viable stimulus that targets fat loss. The drill itself works on the basis of 8 sets of 20 seconds work vs 10 seconds rest.
You can also implement LISS/steady state cardio training and an overall active lifestyle, but don’t go overboard with the higher heart range cardio as you might start to impair your recovery.. Remember that as much as we seek to achieve our fitness goals, we should always be doing so from a place of improving our health rather than sacrificing it for the short term, cardio is an important element of overall health so do try to keep your hand in this arena even in the presence of intensive resistance workouts.
Intermittent fasting (optional)
Personally, accompanying this training program, I utilise a 16:8 intermittent fasting protocol alongside it. There are numerous health benefits associated with IF, including an enhanced ability to shed body fat and the fact that your natural growth hormone levels are able to stay elevated for longer than they usually would which is conducive to muscle protein synthesis. Incidentally, it’s generally advised that women use a slightly shorter period of fasting for example 12-14 hours.
This style of program can help you significantly shed body fat and gain muscle over a period of 6-24 weeks and at times might feel like it’s a slow burner, but that’s only because you’re going in both directions at the same time. But if you stick with it, you will see recomposition and it will be most apparent visually rather than on the scale.
The greatest benefit is that by it’s very nature for it even be feasible for this style of program to work it can’t be restrictive, which means that if you stay with the framework long enough you’ll be able to keep what you achieve and walk around in shape year round, think of it like the Pareto principle, whilst recomposition training might not get you to your genetic potential of muscle gain, or as shredded as you might with a long, hard cutting phase, it could allow you to walk around at 80% of both of those at the same time without restriction, that’s a trade off I’ve chosen for my own life which affords a relaxed approach to travel, social settings and maintaining a work life balance, it’s a system that has worked well for hundreds of my online personal training clients aswell.
So if you’re looking for a permanent solution to walking around in shape year round, confident in your clothes and comfortable taking a beach holiday at a days notice, perhaps you should put an end to
the endless bulking vs cutting cycle and give recomposition training a try, it might be exactly what you’ve been looking for.
Of course this is a very broad guide to recomposition, and many of the parts can be modified to fit particular schedule, restrictions and preferences, so if you would prefer to outsource the decision making to me, and have me build a recomposition program that’ll work for you, let’s discuss working together on a free consultation call.