Body recomposition Building muscle and losing fat at the same time

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As a bodybuilder do you have to bulk and cut, or can you also do all-in-one: build muscle and lose fat at the same time, aka body recomposition?

Key points:

1.   You don’t necessarily have to bulk and cut to get muscle definition. Physiologically you are able to build muscle and lose fat at the same time: body recomposition. This is because your body can extract energy for muscle growth from already present fat reserves.

2.   Muscle building in an energy deficit is way more difficult, compared to an energy surplus: due to an increased activation of catabolic reactions and reduced activation of anabolic reactions, muscle protein synthesis can be increased less easily.

3.   In practice, body recomposition is therefore especially feasible if the physiological conditions are extremely favourable, namely: if you are a beginner, if you have not trained for a long time, if you have never trained properly and/or if you are overweight. Body recomposition is then often preferred over bulking and cutting.

4.   Nevertheless, research shows that even people with some training experience (intermediates) can achieve body recomposition. The extent to which this is possible depends on several factors, in particular: training program, nutrition, sleep, hormone levels, physique and muscle growth potential. Bulking and cutting may be more efficient, but that depends on personal circumstances and preference.

5.   For (advanced) natural bodybuilders, body recompostion does not seem an efficient method and usually even impossible, especially if there is a low fat percentage (≤ 10% in men, ≤ 15% in women). Bulking and cutting is then usually much more efficient. Limit the increase in fat mass in the bulk by using only a small calorie surplus (10-15% of the maintenance level).

6.   A successful body recomposition rests on a number of pillars: a relatively small energy deficit (5-20% of the maintenance level), a higher protein intake than usual (~2.5 g/kg/d), sufficient sleep and a well-considered training program according to the principle of progressive overload. Optional is calorie cycling, which ensures that you have more calories to spend on training days. See also our step-by-step plan .

WHAT EXACTLY IS BODY RECOMPOSITION?

Body recomposition refers in bodybuilding jargon to increasing muscle mass and at the same time reducing fat mass. As a result, you get more lean muscle mass, regardless of how your body weight changes. And that, in fact, is the main goal of the vast majority of men in the gym: to create muscle definition, or to get toned .

Now you can achieve the latter by bulking and cutting. In the bulk you eat in a (small) calorie surplus, which facilitates muscle building. Because there is always some fat mass added during a period of calorie surplus, you will then cut: burn fat mass, while preserving the built-up muscle mass, this by maintaining a calorie deficit. That means that you have to take two steps, while with body recomposition you do everything in one go: you see your body improve visibly. Moreover, bulking and cutting often go wrong: in the bulk too much fat mass is added and in the cut one loses muscle mass.

Below is an example of what body recomposition can look like.

Body recomposition is therefore the ideal scenario. Many coaches still believe though that this scenario is only feasible for specific groups, such as beginners, overweight people and steroids users. But is that really so? Can’t you also achieve body recomposition as a more experienced natural bodybuilder?

THE FIRST LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS

The principle of bulking and cutting is actually based on the assumption that muscle growth and fat loss are two completely opposite goals that are physically incompatible. The first law of thermodynamics is usually invoked for this: energy cannot be created from nothing and energy is never lost i ] .

The argument then goes like this:

  1. To build muscle, you need to store energy. To lose fat, you need to burn energy.
  2. When you have an energy surplus, your body stores energy. When you are deficient, your body loses energy.
  3. That is why you must have an energy surplus for muscle growth and an energy deficit for fat loss.

The first two points are correct: to create new mass, whether that is fat or muscle mass, you need energy. You cannot create something out of nothing, as the first law of thermodynamics dictates.

The third point, however, is only partially correct. For fat loss you do indeed, undeniably, need an energy deficit ii ] . But muscle growth does not necessarily require an energy surplus. To understand that, you first need to know how our bodies divide the nutrients we ingest over different tasks: nutrient partioning.

NUTRIENT PARTIONING

Nutrient partioning, also known as calorie partitioning, determines where the energy from your food goes: it can be used as fuel, stored as fat or absorbed by muscle tissue for muscle building.

How your body distributes the energy between those three different goals depends on several factors.

First of all, your energy balance. For example, with a negative balance, i.e. an energy deficit, logically no energy will be stored as fat.

Second to the distribution of macronutrients in your diet: proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

In a calorie surplus, the body prefers to store fats as body fat. Carbohydrates are first and foremost used as fuel (glucose), but if there is a surplus, these are also stored as fat.

Proteins have another role. Although proteins contain the same number of calories per gram as carbohydrates, the body is not efficient at converting them into glucose. It only works if no other energy source is available. Protein is the most difficult macronutrient to store as fat iii ] . Proteins are much more important as a supplier of amino acids, which in turn serve as building blocks for the protein in your body cells. Protein is therefore indispensable for building tissues, including muscle tissues. Without protein, no muscle building, no matter how many calories you eat.

There are other factors that influence nutrient partioning. Hormones for example. Testosterone promotes the distribution of nutrients in favor of muscles, while the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol has the opposite effect. A high cortisol level can even lead to muscle breakdown and increased fat storage. The hormone insulin and its sensitivity also play a role, as do genetics and unexplained factors.

So you can never completely control nutrient partitioning. And supplements that would improve nutrient partioning (for the benefit of muscle growth) have never been proven to work.

NUTRIENT PARTIONING AND MUSCLE GROWTH

Muscle building not only requires proteins (amino acids), but also water and energy (glycogen and triglycerides) i ] [ iv ] .

Protein
Proteins are the building blocks of your muscles. They contain chains of amino acids. Your body breaks these chains down into individual amino acids, which in turn serve as building blocks for the protein in your body cells. Compare it to a child who breaks down a LEGO building and builds something else with the same bricks. About 70% of the amino acids from the proteins in your food end up in your cells. These cells together form tissues, such as muscle tissue, but also organs such as your heart and lungs. In addition to a (muscle) building function, proteins also play a role in numerous hormonal and other processes.

The production of muscle protein from amino acids is also called muscle protein synthesis. Muscle growth requires a positive balance of muscle protein synthesis. That is, the production of muscle protein must be greater than its breakdown. You achieve that positive balance by taking in sufficient protein on a daily basis, in combination with effective strength training, of course. In the absence of sufficient amino acids, no muscle growth can take place. In addition, the timing of protein intake, its spread over the day and the quality of protein sources can also help to stimulate protein synthesis and inhibit muscle breakdown. And perhaps unnecessarily, sufficient sleep is also important.

Instead of protein balance or muscle protein synthesis balance, one sometimes speaks of nitrogen balance. The nitrogen balance is the ratio of the amount of nitrogen absorbed and excreted during a certain period of time. Nitrogen is an important part of proteins. When more nitrogen enters the body through food than it leaves through sweat, urine, or feces, we speak of a positive nitrogen balance. Now as a bodybuilder you don’t have to have your nitrogen balance measured. If you keep track of how much protein you almost consume in a day, if necessary with a calorie app, you know enough. For bodybuilders, they should consume about 1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight daily. In case of a calorie deficit, it is better to take a little more (~1.8 g/kg/d).

Energy
Energy is needed to be able to build a house with the building blocks, i.e. the proteins, i.e. the muscle. Your body gets that energy from the food you eat and – if necessary – from the energy that is stored in the fat tissue.

In short, through nutrient partitioning, our body sends nutrients to fat cells and muscle cells independently of each other. With sufficient growth stimuli through your strength training, your body sees a need to reserve energy for building muscles. If necessary, it can use existing energy in the fat cells for this purpose. Therefore, at least in theory, it is also possible to achieve muscle growth in the event of an energy deficiency. Logically, this is more difficult if you are very slim and therefore have few fat reserves.

BODY RECOMPOSITION: THE PRACTICE

In theory, it is therefore possible to build muscle mass with an energy deficit (and therefore lose fat at the same time). But how easy is that in practice for a natural bodybuilder? That question is still a matter of debate.

TYPICAL RECOMPERS

Most coaches agree on one thing: body recomposition is perfectly possible if you are a beginner or returner, and/or if you are (a lot) overweight.

For an absolute beginner, the growth stimuli from training are completely new to the body and are therefore so powerful that relatively little energy is needed to facilitate muscle growth v ] . As a result, you can build muscle relatively easily even with an energy deficiency, something that has even been demonstrated in men and women of sixty years vi ] .

Even if you haven’t trained for a while and start training again, you probably need less ‘back-up’ from food – on the one hand because the growth stimulus is relatively new, on the other because your body can make use of the phenomenon of muscle memory. Even then, body recomposition is a real possibility, which you may have experienced yourself after resuming your training after the corona period.

People who have been training for a long time, but never on the basis of a thorough training program and diet (the so-called slackers) can also achieve body recomposition as soon as they do start with a serious program.

People who are overweight (fat percentage > 25%), finally, can also recomp more easily, as has been shown by research vii ] . This is regardless of their training status, as their fat reserves can provide sufficient energy for muscle building.

EXPERIENCED BODYBUILDERS

But how real is body recompostion for more experienced natural bodybuilders? So, for example, if you already have one or two years of consistent training on the counter?

Many coaches preach that body recompositon is usually a utopia, or you have to have angelic patience. However, a new scientific review by Barakat et al., which is freely accessible, provides a more nuanced picture viii ] .

After analyzing a dozen studies on body recomposition in “trained individuals” (most with at least one year of training experience), the scientists involved conclude:

Despite the common belief that building muscle and losing fat at the same time is only plausible in novice/obese individuals, the literature provided supports that trained individuals can also experience body recomposition. Individuals’ training status, the exercise interventions, and their baseline body composition can influence the magnitude of muscle gained and fat lost. vii ]

According to the authors, the extent to which body recompostion can take place depends on factors such as training status, training program, body type, metabolism and hormone levels. According to them, a number of conditions must be met for successful body recompostion:

  • a well thought-out training program according to the principle of progressive overload, with a minimum of three training sessions per week;
  • tracking and adequately anticipating progression and recovery;
  • a high protein intake (~2.5 g/kg/d)*, possibly with the help of protein supplements, where timing and distribution of intake is also important (immediately after training, for example)**;
  • optimizing sleep, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

* The recommended protein intake is much higher than the 1.6 g/kg/d normally recommended for optimal muscle building. However, research suggests that high protein diets are ideally suited for body recompositon, as coach Jeff Nippard explains in this video. It is still not entirely clear why, but it may have to do with the fact that proteins have the highest thermic effect and therefore the highest metabolic energy consumption. Nippard recommends protein intakes of 2 to as much as 3.5 g/kg/d. But in order not to have to sacrifice too much on carbohydrates and fats, we take 2.5 g/kg/d as a target.

** Coach Jeremy Ethier explains in this video why nutrient timing, especially of proteins, is particularly important in body recomposition.

WHICH ENERGY DEFICIT?

Just like in a cut, you use an energy deficit with body recompostion, which means that over a certain period (usually a day) you eat fewer calories than you burn. During a cut, however, it is all about muscle preservation , while with body recomposition you strive for muscle growth .

Because of the latter, you apply a slightly smaller energy deficit in a recomp than in a cut. Coach Jermey Ethier recommends a deficit of 5-20% of the maintenance level ix ] , which for most people equates to 100-500 kcal below maintenance. By way of comparison: in a cut you can safely use an energy deficit of 20-30%.

You determine the exact size of your energy deficit (partly) based on your (estimated) fat percentage: people with a high fat percentage (>25%) are more likely to aim for 20% or even more. If you are already on the lean side (<15%), go for an energy deficit of 5-15%. In practice, this amounts to only a few hundred calories, which is why you will have to track your food consumption quite meticulously by means of a calories app.

Optionally, you can use calorie (or carb) cycling. This means that on training days you create a somewhat smaller energy deficit (for example 200 kcal) than on rest days (for example 600 kcal). However, the question is to what extent you actually benefit from this. On training days, you eat more anyway because you use up energy with your strength training. In addition, muscle growth does not only occur on the training day itself, but at least during the next 24 hours. Calorie cyling therefore only seems to make sense for people who ‘only’ train three to four times a week.

BULKING AND CUTTING PASSÉ?

Barakat’s recomp review is grist to the mill of more progressive coaches who preach body recomposition and don’t like the old-fashioned bulking and cutting. But that review, in turn, also requires some nuance.

WHAT IS ‘EXPERIENCED’?

Concepts such as ‘trained’ or ‘experienced’ are very broad. Someone who has been training seriously for two years and has reached about fifty percent of his natural muscle growth potential (an intermediate) cannot be compared with someone who has been training seriously for five years and is close to his potential (an advanced). For the latter, it is much more difficult to build muscle mass, let alone to do so with a calorie deficit. We even dare to say that this is almost impossible, no matter how well thought out training, nutrition and fatigue management are. The majority of the studies in Barakat’s analysis involved people who had no more than one or two years of training experience, ie intermediates.

Moreover, those studies involved more or less recreational strength athletes. A series of case studies among competitive bodybuilders (also included in the review) shows that body recompensation is much more difficult for them, or even impossible, because they operate under much stricter conditions, for example with extremely low fat percentages.

MUSCLE BUILDING IS POSSIBLE, BUT (MUCH) MORE DIFFICULT

The fact that muscle building in an energy deficit is possible, even with more experienced bodybuilders, does not mean that it is the most efficient method for changing your body composition. Menno Henselmans in a conversation about this with Men’s Health:

In a negative energy balance, your body is less inclined to build muscle mass. We see this in research, for example, in increased activation of catabolic reactions and decreased activation of anabolic reactions. This leads to less protein synthesis in your muscles. x ]

According to the coach, as an advanced player, recomping is a difficult card to achieve, if not impossible:

If you are advanced, it becomes virtually impossible at a certain point: everything has to be perfectly adjusted to your body in order to be able to build new muscle mass. x ]

And everyday life simply does not always allow for perfection: stress, a bad night’s sleep, sometimes sin with food, sometimes too little time to train, … One such factor can be enough to shatter a recomping dream. .

Coach Mike Israetel also thinks that body recomposition with a body fat percentage of 10% or lower (for women 15% or lower) is simply impossible, because your body will no longer give up an ounce of fat to facilitate muscle growth xi ] . If you are advanced with a low fat percentage, you can completely forget about recomping.

Henselmans therefore says, finally:

As you get more advanced, you will benefit more from bulking to get bigger. x ]

And yes, when bulking you have to take some extra fat into the bargain. But if you only use a small calorie surplus, at most 10-15% of your maintenance level, that fat gain will be limited and then easy to cut away.

STILL GIVE IT A TRY?

Of course, if you are an advanced player, you can try to ‘recomp’.  Set aside a relatively short period of time (6-12 weeks), use only a minimal energy deficit (~10% of your maintenance level) and eat more protein than normal (~2.5 g/kg/d). This in combination with a progressive training program could make you, albeit very slowly, a little more toned.

But whether you actually realize significant muscle growth is questionable, especially if you are quite lean. For (advanced) advanced users with a low fat percentage, body recompostion usually manifests itself as a refined maintenance phase.

CONCLUSION AND ADVICE

Body recomposition means building muscle and losing fat at the same time: the holy grail of bodybuilding. Something that is perfectly physiologically possible, because the body, through nutrient partioning, can reserve energy for muscle growth – even if there is a calorie deficit with food intake and therefore a negative energy balance.

In theory anyone can achieve body recompostion, in practice it mostly works

  • in beginners;
  • at ‘slackers’;
  • in people who are (much) overweight;
  • after a period of detraining .

But intermediates (natural bodybuilders with one to two years of training experience) can also ‘recomp’, as several studies have shown. To this end, they should, more than beginners, optimize their training, nutrition and rest. An extra high protein intake also seems advisable.

If you’re advanced, you’re relatively close to your natural muscle growth potential, making building muscle difficult. In that case, body recompostion is usually no longer feasible, especially if you also have a low fat percentage. The method of bulking and cutting is then much more efficient. In short we can say:

The more experienced you are as a bodybuilder and the less fat you have, the harder it is to recomp.

Update 18-4-2022 : This corresponds to what coach and researcher Eric Trexler concludes following a new meta-analysis:

Simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain is indeed possible, although it becomes less feasible as an individual’s body-fat level decreases and training status increases. xii ]

Bulking and cutting is and remains a proven method fo

Bulking and cutting is and remains a proven method for those who already have some training experience and want to build muscle mass quickly. However, you must ensure that you bulk as (c)lean as possible, in other words a calorie surplus of no more than 10-20% of your maintenance level. And in order to cut successfully (with so little loss of muscle mass) you will have to program your nutrition and training in a specific way.

STEP-BY-STEP PLAN BODY RECOMPOSTION

Finally, a little practicality: how exactly to tackle body recomposition?

STEP 1: DETERMINE WHETHER BODY RECOMPOSTION IS FEASIBLE/SUITABLE FOR YOU

Are you a beginner, ‘slacker’ or returner and/or are you very overweight? Then body recompostion is feasible and probably preferable to bulking/cutting;

Are you an intermediate with a fairly high fat percentage and do you strive for more muscle definition in the long term? Then body recomposition is worth a try, unless you have experienced in your last bulk that muscle building is very slow (assuming your training, nutrition and rest were in order). In the latter case, you will probably get results much faster with a well-executed bulk and cut.

Are you an (advanced) natural bodybuilder and do you still want to build some muscle mass? Then you benefit from bulking and cutting, since muscle growth with a calorie surplus is difficult enough – let alone with an energy deficit. Usually body recomposition at this stage is simply impossible, or you have to take it for a very long time and accept that you mainly train on maintenance. If your fat percentage is around 10% or lower (for women 15%), you can already write body recomposition all over your stomach.

In general, the more training experience you have and the leaner you are, the harder it is to achieve body recomposition.

STEP 2: CREATE A SMALL ENERGY DEFICIT

Follow a light calorie-restricted diet, where you will be no more than 10-20% below your maintenance level. If your maintenance is 2200 kcal, you subtract a maximum of ~500 kcal from that.

You determine the exact size of your energy deficit (partly) on the basis of your fat percentage: people with a high fat percentage (>25%) are more likely to aim for 20% or even more. If you are already on the lean side (<15%), go for an energy deficit of 5-15%. In practice, this amounts to only a few hundred calories, which is why you will have to track your food consumption quite meticulously by means of a calories app.

STEP 3: MAINTAIN A HIGH PROTEIN INTAKE

Eat a little more than normal protein: around 2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Also pay attention to the timing and spread of your protein intake. Always take your proteins in portions of about 30 grams, with about three to four hours in between. Make sure that your body has access to proteins immediately after training and preferably also during the night’s sleep.

STEP 4: MAKE PROGRESS IN THE GYM

Follow a well-thought-out training program with sufficient volume and intensity (but do not train too much until muscle failure), and divide your sets in a smart way over the week (training frequency). And make sure you make progress: progressive overload. After all, that’s the key to muscle growth, both in a bulk and a recomp.

STEP 5 (OPTIONAL): APPLY CALORIE CYCLING

Use a greater energy deficit on rest days (for example 600 kcal) than on training days (for example 200 kcal). Keep in mind that you use more energy on training days and that your calorie level should therefore be higher on those days.

IN SUMMARY

1. You don’t necessarily have to bulk and cut to get muscle definition. Physiologically you are able to build muscle and lose fat at the same time: body recomposition. This is because your body can extract energy for muscle growth from already present fat reserves.

2. Muscle building in an energy deficit is way more difficult, compared to an energy surplus: due to an increased activation of catabolic reactions and reduced activation of anabolic reactions, muscle protein synthesis can be increased less easily.

3. In practice, body recomposition is therefore especially feasible if the physiological conditions are extremely favourable, namely: if you are a beginner, if you have not trained for a long time, if you have never trained properly and/or if you are overweight. Body recomposition is then often preferred over bulking and cutting.

4. Nevertheless, research shows that even people with some training experience (intermediates) can achieve body recomposition. The extent to which this is possible depends on several factors, in particular: training program, nutrition, sleep, hormone levels, physique and muscle growth potential. Bulking and cutting may be more efficient, but that depends on personal circumstances and preference.

5. For (advanced) natural bodybuilders, body recompostion does not seem an efficient method and usually even impossible, especially if there is a low fat percentage (≤ 10% in men, ≤ 15% in women). Bulking and cutting is then usually much more efficient. Limit the increase in fat mass in the bulk by using only a small calorie surplus (10-15% of the maintenance level).

6. Successful body recomposition rests on a number of pillars: a relatively small energy deficit (5-20% of the maintenance level), a higher protein intake than usual (~2.5 g/kg/d), sufficient sleep and a well-considered training program according to the principle of progressive overload. Optional is calorie cycling, which ensures that you have more calories to spend on training days.

Last updated on April 18, 2022.

REFERENCES

  • i ] https://mennohenselmans.com/gain-muscle-and-lose-fat-at-the-same-time/
  • ii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18025815
  • iii ] https://www.t-nation.com/diet-fat-loss/the-5-laws-of-metabolism
  • iv ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28806275
  • v ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9309627/
  • vi ] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8002507
  • vii ] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10838463/
  • viii ] https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Abstract/9000/Body_Recomposition__Can_Trained_Individuals_Build.99238.aspx
  • ix ] https://youtu.be/rkv1fpWLy0Q?t=196
  • x ] https://www.menshealth.com/nl/fitness/a33975145/muscle-growth-and-fatloss/
  • xi ] https://youtu.be/Jy3lXUBK86c?t=324
  • [xix] https://www.strongerbyscience.com/muscle-caloric-deficit/

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