Some of the most common questions I get from people are these:
“How do I get ripped without getting small?”
“I like the size I’m at right now, but I want to get leaner, how do I do that?”
Essentially what people want to do is to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously. But, is this possible? And if so, why do we even bother setting up bulking and cutting cycles?
Well, let’s find out in this post:
Can you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Yes, you CAN lose body fat and gain muscle mass at the same time. But the speed at which you can do so depends on your training experience and the body fat percentage you start out with.
The phenomenon of losing body fat and gaining muscle mass simultaneously is called “body recomposition”. And even though it’s possible to achieve this, it’s a much slower process than taking distinct bulking and cutting phases.
In this post we’re looking at what body recomposition is, when it can be a smart thing to do, and how to best set it up. Let’s go.
Table of Contents
What is Body Recomposition?
First of all, let’s get the definition of body recomposition set in stone.
In this great post (and video) Radu Antoniu define body recomposition as any scenario where a person’s body fat percentage goes down while muscle mass goes up no matter what happens to their body weight, and this could occur in three different ways:
1. You gain weight while losing body fat at the same time
In this case a larger amount of muscle is gained compared to the amount of fat lost. So, you’d go up in weight while becoming leaner at the same time.
2. You maintain your weight while replacing an equal amount of fat weight with muscle weight over a prolonged period of time
This is the most common definition of body recomposition.
3. You lose weight while gaining muscle at the same time
In this case a larger amount of body fat is lost compared to the amount of muscle mass gained. So, you’d lose weight while building muscle at the same time.
The 4 Scenarios When Rapid Body Recomposition Can Occur
First of all, the reason why it’s possible to lose body fat and build muscle at the same time is that fat loss and muscle growth uses different systems in the body. People often believe that it’s not possible to do body recomposition because you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose body fat, and be at maintenance, or preferably in a calorie surplus to gain muscle mass.
But, this is not true. It’s possible to achieve both simultaneously because fat loss uses the fat metabolism system in the body, while muscle growth uses the muscle protein synthesis system in the body. These two systems can work independently of one another, hence that making it possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
With that said though, body recomposition is only a quick and effective strategy during these four circumstances:
- In beginners – People that are new to training can build muscle and lose fat very effectively at the same time because the stimulus to training is so fresh.
- In overweight and obese – These individuals have a large surplus of stored energy on their body, which effectively can be used as energy by the muscle building process.
- In de-trained – People that have been laying of their training for a while and become de-trained has increased their number of myo-nuclei within the muscles during the training they previously did. This myo-nuclei stay in the muscle far longer than actual muscle tissue do, ready to return it to the previous condition ones the training continues. This is known as the bro-term “muscle memory”
- In steroid users – Individuals that take supraphysiological doses of androgens effectively ramp up their amounts of myo-nuclei within the muscles, and will experience the “muscle memory” effect that de-trained individuals do, while not being de-trained at all!
Assuming you want to stay natural, then the more training experience you gather, the leaner you get, and the less de-trained you become, the slower it’ll be for you to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
And even if you currently fall under any of the four circumstances above, you will still see slower results than if you choose to focus on one of the goals at a time, i.e. doing bulking and cutting cycles.
In fact, here’s a great illustration of the difference between choosing to do bulking and cutting cycles as opposed to body recomposition:
The Three Different Body Recomposition Scenarios
Rather watch video? Check out this one:
Scenario 1: You gain weight while losing body fat simultaneously
Gaining body weight while losing fat at the same time is a very uncommon scenario. But apparently it can be done, however I’ve never seen it myself.
The people who successfully achieve this are usually those who were very big once, stopped training, and then return to lifting after this time off.
These people will see such quick muscle growth while being in a slight calorie deficit that their gain in muscle mass will be quicker than their loss in fat, leading to their body weight going up while they’re body fat going down.
The reason this works is because of muscle memory. It’s a lot easier to regain atrophied muscles than what it is to build them in the first place.
Another category of people who can pull this off are those who’ve trained and eaten incorrectly for a long period of time. For example, one situation where people see quick muscle growth is when they change their training from doing high rep isolation exercises to doing low-medium rep compound exercises instead.
The bottom line of this scenario is that gaining weight while losing body fat depends A LOT on what you’ve been doing in the past. For most people I don’t recommend pursuing this goal intentionally because it usually becomes a waste of time.
Scenario 2: You maintain your weight while replacing an equal amount of fat weight with muscle weight over a prolonged period of time
People who are at the intermediate to advanced level of development are most commonly to experience this body recomposition scenario. An intermediate trainee might gain 2 lbs (1 kg) of muscle and lose the same amount of fat over a period of 4-6 months while maintaining his body weight.
Now the problem with this approach is that it’s a very outdrawn process. This is true because the rate of muscle growth is much slower than the rate of fat loss. By taking this approach you would seriously limit the time it takes you to build muscle simply because you need a calorie surplus to maximize muscle growth.
For example, you can drop 12 lbs (5 kg) of fat in 7-8 weeks, but building 12 lbs of muscle might take you a year or more at the intermediate level, and that rate of development is when using cutting and bulking cycles.
Scenario 3: You lose weight while gaining muscle at the same time
Out of the three this is the most common scenario of body recomposition. Almost all out of shape beginners can achieve this without much effort. Even some intermediate trainees can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time if they start out with a higher body fat percentage.
Body fat is essentially stored energy, so even in the case of a calorie deficit, a high body fat percentage ensures good enough energy availability for muscle growth even. This energy acquired from body fat can actually support growth for a few weeks up to a couple months of training in a calorie deficit.
Lyle McDonald explained this concept very well:
“When we gain fat we develop insulin resistance. And at some point it almost looks as if the body is trying to push fat away from fat cells to prevent a further increase in body fat. Then when an individual with a higher body fat percentage start training, especially weight training (which depletes muscle glycogen and enhances specific skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity) they seem to see this amazing situation where they lose fat and gain muscle.”
This is the reason why beginners to early intermediates (especially those above 13-15% body fat) can gain muscle and strength just fine even though they’re in a calorie deficit.
Now, as you get leaner or you build more muscle, the rate of muscle gain and fat loss starts to decline. At some point your body will start to fight fat loss and muscle growth slows down as you get closer to your natural genetic limit. That’s why we no longer see incredible transformations at the intermediate to advanced level. At this point it’s all about tiny improvements longer periods of time.
Why Someone Would do Body Recomposition
Even though I’m personally more inclined towards using bulking and cutting cycles, since it’s a much quicker way to get ripped and it’s easier to stay motivated (More in-depth on why bulking and cutting cycles could be necessary), I still think that during some circumstances going for body recomposition is worth it.
1) If you can’t stand adding body fat to your physique
This is an aspect that I don’t think should be taken lightly. A lot of people say, fuck what you feel, bulking and cutting is much faster so that’s what you should do!
Now, even though it’s a fact that cutting and bulking is faster, this doesn’t mean body recomposition is a useless strategy, no far from it. As we just covered, during your beginner to intermediate years, especially if you’re a bit on the fluffier side then losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time actually occurs rather rapidly.
But even above the “honeymoon” phase of training and once you’ve gotten leaner it still occurs. And here’s the deal; some people feel fine taking 1-2 years longer to get the physique they want as long as they can stay lean always.
2) Body recomposition is a bit healthier
It’s no secret that pending up and down in weight is a bit unhealthy, especially if you gain body fat too quickly during your bulking cycles. But the truth is that even a small calorie surplus is a bit unhealthy.
So, for some people doing a body recomp just makes more sense from a health standpoint.
3) If you gain fat easily
Some people have the genetic make-up to gain fat easily. This means that even the slightest calorie surplus goes mostly to fat storage.
What usually happens when you go on a bulk is that you become a bit complacent with your food choices and intake, what this can do for someone who gains fat easily is putting them in a surplus that’s far above what’s needed to only support muscle growth, leading to excessive fat gain.
In this case it’s usually smarter to go with a recomposition protocol in order to control fat gain better.
How to Lose Body Fat And Gain Muscle Simultaneously as a Beginner Trainee
Okay, so let’s see how to achieve body recomposition while maintaining your body weight.
If you are a beginner above 13% body fat, gaining muscle when cutting happens almost automatically. In fact, there was one study that showed that overweight women could build muscle even on 800 calories per day simply because they started training. So, beginners that’s out of shape can gain muscle very easy while losing body fat.
Here’s how you do that:
1. Set a moderate calorie deficit – In order to lose body fat you must take in fewer calories than what your body burns but not too little so that you’re impairing training performance and recovery. You can read more about setting up your calorie deficit here.
2. Set up the correct amounts of macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) – In order to support muscle growth, gym performance and hormonal balance getting your macros right is very important. Most importantly you should eat around 0.8-1 gram of protein per lb of body weight (1.8-2 gram per kg). Read the post how to set up your macros or check out Radu’s ShredSmart Program for an exact diet protocol.
3. Make sure you get stronger in the gym – This is very important, as muscle growth follows improved training performance. Read the training part of the guide How to build an aesthetic physique to find out how you should train
Don’t worry about doing fasted cardio, taking supplements, nutrient timing/frequency, and fancy weightlifting techniques. Lose body fat and get stronger in the gym and you will achieve body recomposition.
How to Lose Body Fat And Gain Muscle Simultaneously as an Intermediate or Advanced Trainee
First of all, this strategy should only be used if you’re fine with looking pretty much the same as you look now for 6 months up to 2 years depending on your genetics and training experience. Body recomposition becomes extremely slow after the beginner stages, it’s important that you know that.
With that said, this protocol is useful for actors, models, or physique competitors who must look good year round but still want to make small improvements overtime with their physique. This can also be a good protocol to follow if you have the skinny fat physique.
Here’s how to achieve body recomposition at the intermediate to advanced stage:
1. Eat at maintenance calories (weekly average)
By eating at maintenance, where you’re not gaining or losing body weight, while getting stronger in the gym, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time over a longer period of time. The reason why this works is that out bodies are always in a fluctuating state, where we’re experience both surplus and deficit periods over the course of each day.
After a meal you’re anabolic for a few hours and then you’re catabolic for a few hours until you eat your next meal. Eric Helms explained this perfectly in this video.
Here’s a visual of this phenomenon:
This is the way the human metabolism works as it allows for constant change and repair. So, as long as you eat at maintenance, train hard, and focus on getting progressively stronger then you will be able to lose fat and build muscle simultaneously overtime.
Making sure that you eat at maintenance on a weekly basis is the most important thing to successfully recomp your way to an aesthetic physique. With that said though, to improve your results significantly you can take advantage of calorie cycling.
2. Cycle your calories throughout the week
The way this strategy works is by eating at a calorie surplus on training days and a calorie deficit on rest days. This will still keep you at maintenance on a weekly basis, but significantly improve muscle growth and fat loss.
The reason this works so well is because you increase nutrient partitioning towards muscle growth on training days, which means that more of your calorie surplus will go towards muscle growth. While on your rest days, you’ll burn off the additional fat that you might’ve gained during your training/surplus days.
How to set up your calories:
- Rest days (4x per week) -300 calories under maintenance
- Lifting days (3x per week) +400 calories over maintenance
This amounts to a weekly calorie surplus of 0 calories.
*If you don’t know where your maintenance is, a rough estimate is 14-15 calories x Body Weight in lbs (31-33 calories x BW in kgs).
** If you train more than 3 days per week, place the surplus days on 3 of the workouts you feel are most difficult.
When doing this approach it’s best to use a modest calorie surplus on lifting days and a modest calorie deficit on rest days. Eating too many calories on training days will inevitably lead to fat spill over. While eating too few calories on rest days will lead to compromised muscle recovery and growth.
So, don’t use bigger calorie swings than the 300-400 calorie surplus/deficit outlined above as doing so will just lead to you gaining muscle and fat on training days and losing muscle and fat on rest days.
How to set your macros:
The difference between calories on training days and rest days should should come from carbs. Protein should be kept the same every day at 0.8-1 gram per pound of body weight (~2g per kg/bw) and fats at 25% of maintenance calories.
Example for a 175 lbs male (80 kg)
- Rest days – 2300 calories – 175g protein, 72g fat, 312g carbs
- Training days – 3000 calories – 175g protein, 72g fat, 412g carbs
The reason why we adjust the carbs is because on training days they support training performance. Not only that, carbs are also much harder for the body to convert to body fat. Before a surplus of carbs turn into fat they must first replenish muscle and liver glycogen and after that also go through a very demanding process of converting carbs into body fat through a process called De Novo Lipogenesis.
While on the other hand, a surplus of fat is stored very easily as body fat, simply because fats have no other task to do in the body. So, it makes sense to increase our calories with the nutrient that’ll best support our goal of building muscle mass and prevent fat gain.
Another big benefit of a high carb intake on training days is that muscle protein synthesis is improved when muscle glycogen is topped off. Furthermore, fat oxidation is improved when glycogen stores are low, which might happen during short times on your rest days when you’re in a deficit.
3. Take advantage of intermittent fasting
The basic idea behind a recomposition diet is to improve your nutrient partitioning by placing most of your food around your training, at a time when the nutrients you ingest are more likely to be used for repair and muscle growth. This is the reason for alternating high and low calorie days as outlined under step 2.
Previously I covered that your body is always in a fluctuating state, alternating between anabolism and catabolism depending on your eating pattern. In other words, after a meal you’re anabolic for a few hours (length depending on the size of the meal) and then you are catabolic until you have your next meal.
And this is where you can further improve your nutrient partitioning by taking advantage of daily intermittent fasting. In fact, some interesting research shows that intermittent fasting can cause better nutrient partitioning in combination with resistance training if it’s placed before or under your feeding window.
Let’s see how this works:
By using intermittent fasting we could make our daily surplus and deficit periods look like this:
As you can see, when you’re using intermittent fasting you first create a large catabolic environment (deficit) in your body during your fasted window (the red area). Then once you start eating, you create a large anabolic environment (surplus) instead (the green area).
After your body has been in a prolonged period of catabolism, i.e fasting for 14-18 hours, the sensitivity of different hormones get up-regulated in your muscles. In other words, your muscles become extremely hungry, which is natural since you haven’t eaten anything for a long time.
If you place your training either right before your feeding window or somewhere in it, more of the nutrients you eat during your feeding window might go towards muscle growth. This should work in theory, since you provide your body with nutrients only during times when your muscle building process is mostly activated.
This means that the majority of nutrients you eat will go towards repairing and building new muscle tissue instead of being stored as body fat!
Now, I’m not saying that all your calories will go towards muscle growth, but a larger portion of it might. I’m emphasizing might because research isn’t completely clear if this really is the case. More data must be available before making any definite assumptions.
However, it’s still a cool benefit and even if the partitioning effects are small, it might still make a significant difference seen over years of training. If you want to learn more about this concept I’ve written about it in this post.
Not only is this good for gaining predominantly muscle mass and not fat, it’s also great for fat loss during your rest/deficit days. Both in the sense that it makes it easier to stay in a calorie deficit, but it can also help improve your fat loss on rest days by shifting your body into a catabolic, fat burning state quicker.
Training And Body Recomposition
When going for a recomp protocol, training should be no different than when bulking and cutting. Your goal is always to get stronger and more durable in the gym overtime in order to force the body to build muscle.
Now, the way you should train to consistently get stronger however, will change with training experience. Check out the training part of this guide to learn more about how to set up your journey all the way from your starting point to your goal physique.
Body Recomposition With Fasted Cardio
Before finishing up this post I want to shine some light on fasted cardio.
There’s been a lot of controversy around fasted cardio, a lot of people claim that it works well for fat loss while others say that it doesn’t. But, the truth is that doing fasted cardio on non-lifting days can help with fat loss slightly, but not in the way people think.
Now it’s important to mention that fasted cardio doesn’t burn more fat than regular cardio, or by simply being in a calorie deficit created by the diet directly. But it can increase the mobilization of free fatty acids from stubborn body fat which then might lead to additional fat loss.
For most people, once they reach 10% body fat it gets increasingly harder to lose body fat. The reason for this is that your body is getting close to it’s lowest natural “set point” level, which for most people is around 7-8% body fat.
The way that fasted cardio can help with fat loss is by increasing the mobilization of free fatty acid via an enzyme named Lipase. When you’re in a fasted state and start moving, i.e. cardio, then your body enters a state where it requires energy to fuel the process.
Here’s my very rough attempt of explaining this process:
When you have no energy coming in from food when you do cardio, while also having a low body fat percentage, that’s when the enzyme Lipase enters all the fat cells in your body and convert the stored fat into free fatty acids and releases them into your blood stream, where it can be used as energy. This process also saves your muscle mass, simply because the body will burn muscle tissue if free fatty acids aren’t around.
As you can see, fasted cardio is a very powerful strategy to improve fat loss once you’re getting closer to your goal body fat percentage. Now, this is probably overkill if you’re not yet close to 8-10% body fat. So, if you’re just starting out there’s no need to worry about implementing this strategy yet, but definitely keep it in mind for later!
Whether you choose to do bulking and cutting cycles or a recomposition protocol I always recommend that you start out lean first. If you want to learn more about why I recommend that you get lean before you start building muscle, read this post next.
If you want a step by step guide to follow where you don’t need to piece all the information together yourself, then I definitely recommend getting your hands on the ShredSmart Program:
You can learn more about the ShredSmart program here.