BowTied Ox

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Recomp – Building Muscle and Losing Fat At The Same Time

I have actually never been more hesitant to write a post. Not because this is controversial, but because many of you will try this and spin your wheels in the same place for a long time.

However, some of us have very different goals and would rather take this approach than cutting and bulking, which is completely understandable. Just know, at the end of the year, the person cutting and bulking will see much more substantial progress—maybe you don’t care about this, which again, is fine. It’s your body, your decision and goals, and I will simply lay out some guidance.

What Is A Recomp?

Our definition of a Body Recomposition (Recomp) is simply improving the body in the most favorable way, meaning losing fat and building muscle at the same time.

This is the dream and goal of every single person who has ever lifted weights—I know it is for sure my goal.

In theory, it makes a lot of sense. Build more muscle, metabolism increases, fat falls off because of this, plus you’re working out. Both SHOULD happen.

How we achieve this becomes a completely different beast—your body has built in mechanisms that make this not only difficult, but improbable.

There are times this can happen, and happen well:

  • You’re new to working out (first year).
  • You haven’t trained in a few months.
  • You’re using anabolic steroids (even then, still harder than the above 2).

There is an additional group, that many of you will fall into, that we will break down in detail — Those who haven’t been training optimally or even properly.

The common theme here is you’re adding a novel stimulus to the body, and because of this new stimulus, your body must adapt for its perceived survival.

All of these periods are associated with substantial muscle growth—much more so than compared to someone who has been training for years. It doesn’t take much to fuel this growth.

Why Recomps Are Hard To Accomplish

We have a net energy balance: this is the exact calories your body requires to maintain current energy (caloric) balance in your body. This is also known as your caloric maintenance. Your body has certain responses in relation to what side of this scale you lean towards in this balance.

Energy can be neither created nor destroyed—if you apply a need for energy, it must be met. This is where it will either come from stored energy, or energy provided via diet. In short, energy will either be used or stored for (hopefully) later use in the body.

A net negative energy balance is known as a caloric deficit, meaning your body has less calories than it needs to maintain a neutral energy balance. When we are in a caloric deficit, our bodies will actively use stored energy to compensate for this. This is where fat loss comes from: your body will use the stored fat (among other things) to compensate for this energy balance.

When we are in a net positive energy balance, this is known as a caloric surplus. Your body no longer needs this energy, so it will be stored or used to repair and grow muscle tissues—this is where muscle growth comes into play.

The issue with growing muscle is it is very energy expensive to the body. Muscle not only needs calories to be built, but it also costs our bodies calories to maintain once it’s built. It is metabolically active, so each new ounce of muscle actually increases our net energy balance requirements.

If we are not in a net positive energy balance, our body will simply not use the energy to grow the new muscle—it will maintain what it already has to maintain— homeostasis.

However, in a caloric surplus, we do have the energy required to build more muscle. We have enough building blocks (calories) and our basic caloric needs are met (we are eating above maintenance).

As you can see, fat loss—the usage of stored energy—is going to happen in a caloric deficit, and muscle growth is going to require a caloric surplus to use the extra calories to grow new muscle.

Both of these goals are completely contradictory.

Some Considerations With The Above

Someone who is overweight has a chance to actually use the fat as energy to compensate this energy balance to allow muscle growth.

This is typically going to be someone on the plus size of 20% body fat.

As the body burns the fat and places the stimulus for muscle growth, you can actually use some of the fat to build the muscle. Note, you cannot turn muscle into fat, but you can use the energy from the fat to build muscle—key distinction here.

I will assume most of you will not be taking anabolic steroids, so our focus will be on new trainees, people coming off a long break from the gym, and another group that is often overlooked—those who haven’t been training properly.

New Trainees

Congratulations for making the decision to lift—this was one of the smartest things you’ve EVER decided to do, and congratulations for entering the most productive time of your lifting journey.

You are going to experience what is known as “newbie gains”. Your body has never experienced stimulus like you are placing on your body now, before—your adaptive response to this will be absolutely immense.

You have a few factors working for you: one is the new stimulus as mentioned above, the other is actual adaptations happening in your brain. Your nervous system is actually going to learn how to operate more efficiently. This directly translates to strength gains.

These strength gains will then add more mechanical tensions and thus demand for muscle growth. Not only will your muscles be growing at a fast rate, you will also be getting much stronger which will fuel even more growth.

Your first year of lifting will by far be the most muscle growth you will ever see. For this, it’s crucial we do this right and you can completely transform your appearance to a new physical human.

I have 2 typical routes of suggestion here depending on your starting body composition:

  1. If you are a skinny guy with little body fat, eat your face off and focus on getting adequate protein intake and calories. Your chance of getting fat in this period if you are already skinny are slim-to-none.
  2. If you are overweight and above 15% body fat, focus on eating close to estimated caloric maintenance. If you can get the diet part down, you will absolutely melt fat off and build muscle. Again, focus on adequate protein intake and eat enough to fuel the body, but not too much that you gain fat. A couple hundred calories below or even above maintenance will get the job done, depending on how much you prefer fat loss (small deficit) to muscle gain (small surplus).

I highly recommend counting your calories to get an understanding and doing this properly, but if you are adamant you won’t, focus on eating whole foods and base all of your meals around a protein source. You have slight flexibility here as you are in a very unique place in terms of body composition changes.

If you’re slightly overweight, its worth considering a carbohydrate cut-off. Not because carbs are evil, but because this can limit calories and increase insulin sensitivity even more. Simply do not eat any carbs except trace amounts from vegetables after 6-8pm (pick a time and be consistent) unless your post workout window is after 6-8pm, then eat carbs at this time, but not after.

Coming Back After Considerable Time Off

You are pretty much in the same place as the guys with newbie gains, with an added bonus—Muscle Memory.

Your body retains myonuclei from satellite cells even after periods of detraining (time off), in layman’s terms, you still have the building blocks for your previous muscle mass floating around in your muscle cells.

This will allow you to get back to your old size much quicker, with the same general factors that affect newbie gains (novel stimulus and strength gains).

The same general recommendations for diet as given above will apply to you as well:

  1. If you are a skinny guy with little body fat, eat your face off and focus on getting adequate protein intake and calories. Your chance of getting fat in this period if you are already skinny are slim-to-none.
  2. If you are overweight and above 15% body fat, focus on eating close to estimated caloric maintenance. If you can get the diet part down, you will absolutely melt fat off and build muscle. Again focus on adequate protein intake and eat enough to fuel the body, but not too much that you gain fat. A couple hundred calories below or even above maintenance will get the job done, depending on how much you preference fat loss (small deficit) to muscle gain (small surplus).

You can expect the muscle to come on at an extremely faster rate than you put on originally, and expect massive body recomposition. (See Kevin Levrone — though he was on a large amount of anabolic steroids, nonetheless great example as he completely stopped training until around competition time).

Recomp By Correcting Training?

This simply comes down to the principles of applying a new, novel stimulus. If you have been training at 50% or with incorrect technique or form, your muscles have to an extent been left “untrained”.

A huge key here is going to fix your loading and exercise execution—actually using the target muscle properly.

If you’ve been using a suboptimal program, or coming from more volume based training to intensity based training, you will provide a massive stimulus shock to your body. I have seen this happen first hand with myself.

Your results will not be as substantial as the above groups, but nonetheless a recomp is possible here.

When it comes to diet, I would still follow a typical diet goal of a caloric deficit or a caloric surplus—I would keep the deficit/surplus small (300-500 calorie range above or below maintenance depending on goal) and let this happen on its own without particularly aiming for this result.

Now What If You Don’t Fit Either Group

This decision will ultimately come down to you and your goals. I personally have experimented with what is known as “gaintaining” (eating at a small caloric surplus or even deficit and recomping), and I can tell you I stopped after a few months of very little progress.

It’s not to say it is impossible, it’s just simply not as efficient as bulking to an acceptable body fat while gaining appreciable muscle mass, then slowly dieting back down without losing the mass.

You will see changes—they will just be way slower than the traditional cut and bulk models. I don’t actually like the concept behind this and would simply call it a lean bulk (a bulk with a very small caloric surplus).

If I were to try this route, it again would depend on my current body composition.

If I were 13-15% body fat, I would simply eat in a 200-300 calorie deficit and slowly lose fat with hopes of building some muscle mass.

If I were sub 12% body fat, I would eat at a 200-300 calorie surplus and build muscle while (hopefully) slowly losing body fat.

Muscle only takes about 200-300 calories to grow, but note, if you’re only eating 200-300 above maintenance, and you have some increased activity for any reasons, you can easily erase this caloric surplus.

Same goes for fat loss, if you are only in a 200-300 calorie deficit, not moving as much, or downregulation of metabolism can sneak its way in and erase your deficit and thus demand for fat loss.

This is why I suggest a 500 calorie surplus or deficit as it gives us some margin of error and room to play with to counteract factors that can be out of our control.

Successfully Recomping

Now that I have gone over the drawbacks and potential benefits, how do we achieve this?

Small changes.

That is the complete name of this game, and you will have to be very vigilant of visual feedback from the mirror, the numbers on the scale, and the numbers on your lifts.

You must adjust on the feedback, dropping/adding 100-200 calories here and there in response to the changes or lack thereof.

Again, the same principles apply as mentioned in the above section—choose your preference and run a small surplus or deficit depending on these preferences.

You will need to try to be as consistent with your activity, diet, and training as you can be, otherwise you WILL end up spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, slowly.

You will have to be ever more diligent because of the difficulty of what you’re trying to achieve.