The number of times I have heard a person say they would like to build muscle and lose fat are too numerous to count. It is often said that you cannot do both, that the two goals are diametrically opposed. Think about it, one requires you to be in an anabolic state of high energy availability to induce hypertrophy (muscle growth). While the other requires you to be in a catabolic state to induce cellular atrophy for fat reduction. But there is this one weird trick (I’m using that term ironically, don’t @me) that trainers and nutritionists don’t want you to know about… OK, we DO want you to know about, I mean… I’m writing this whole blog about it and my book Sleep Lift Eat mentions it throughout the text. But what am I talking about? Body Recomposition. That’s not a technical term, it’s what it is commonly referred to as in certain fitness circles.
What does body recomposition mean? It’s literally where an induvial builds muscle while losing body fat. It is not something that can be done quickly, and you build far less muscle than you would while bulking, so if you wanna get jacked, this ain’t for you. It does require you to nail a couple of things to make it happen… three things actually (hence the title of my book).
What this blog sets out to do is explain what we mean (exactly) by body recomposition, what the evidence says and then give you some practical advice on how to go about achieving this magic bullet. Read on.
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Before we dig into this let me just briefly mention why energy balance is important, you can read more about that in this blog, basically, Calories in Calories out is the mechanism of energy balance that determines body composition. If you are in a Calorie surplus you will gain weight and build muscle (if you are lifting weights), if you are in a Calorie deficit you will lose weight. One of the common misconceptions about body recomposition is that it’s only possible for novice lifters, or people with significant enough levels of body fat to lose. But according to the evidence presented here, that’s not necessarily the case. It might be that leaner and more well-trained individuals need to consume much higher protein than general populations, but recomp can still be achieved.
A 2011 study that looked at elite level Olympic athletes from a variety of sports split participants into two groups (1). A slow rate of loss group (around 400kcals per day) and a fast rate group (around 800kcal per day deficit). The assumption was that a rate of loss at 0.5-1kg per week is generally recommended for athletes who are aiming to become leaner, but that a rate of 0.5kg per week or less might be better for muscle and strength retention. The two diet groups consumed around 1.6g/kg of protein, which would be 112g across the day for a 70kg athlete.
The results? The slow rate of fat loss group lost the same amount of weight but gained 1kg of lean mass, compared with the fast rate of loss group who lost a little lean mass, meaning that the slow rate of loss group actually lost more (-4.9kg vs -3.2kg) fat! This means they got stronger, more muscular but also got smaller, so I guess lifting weights doesn’t always make you bulky, huh? It should be mentioned, that in addition to their sports-based training, all participants completed 4 upper/lower body split resistance-based workouts per week also.
Another study from 2018 looked at female physique competitors and split them into low versus high protein groups (2). The high protein group at an average of 2.5g/kg/Bodyweight, while the low protein group consumed 1.2g/kg/BW over an eight-week training program. The training program, again focussed on compound lifts using a two day lower/upper split consisting of 5-6 exercises each. The high protein group actually consumed around 400kcals per day more than the low protein group. Although, looking at the numbers it’s likely that they were still in a Calorie deficit, except their kcals per kg was a safe 30kcal/kg compared with more deleterious 24kcals/kg in the low protein group. To understand why that is significant, read this blog (https://www.tmfitness.co.uk/tmf-blog/44-energy-availability). The high protein group gained an average of 1kg in total body weight but saw a reduction in fat mass (I would assume the weight gain was as much to do with the increased food intake as it was hypertrophy because they didn’t get fatter). The low protein group lost both muscle and fat, although the reduction in lean mass wasn’t significant, it was nevertheless a loss. The high protein group saw a 2% reduction in body fat compared with the low protein group who lost 1.1%. This means that over the eight-week intervention, the high protein group, ate more, gained muscle and weight but lost a significant amount of body fat. There are a few things that could explain this. First off, protein has a high thermic effect, so even though they ate more, they may have burned more Calories. However, the participants were self-reporting their intake which isn’t the most accurate method so there could be a bit of noise in the data. The higher protein group probably trained harder, or, at least, recovered faster due to the extra energy from the increased food intake.
The Strength and Conditioning Journal have a pretty extensive review of literature on the topic of body recomposition. What this literature tells us, is that it does indeed look as though advanced lifters and elite level athletes, including physique competitors can ‘recomp’ effectively by combining high protein diets with consistent and progressive resistance training. Although in the current body of literature a number of different body composition measuring techniques were used, making it difficult to draw definitive conclusions, we can be fairly confident that a protein intake above 2g/kg might be most effective, and that amounts upwards of 3g/kg/BW are commonly consumed (3).
So, if you want to change your body shape, ‘tone up’ or ‘build muscle and burn fat’ you need to eat a high protein diet and get consistent with your training.
Body recomposition is something that happens over a prolonged period of time, you just have to be patient and consistent with your lifestyle practices. I’m making the assumption here that you aren’t an elite athlete, so here’s what you might need to implement to get your diet right.
First of all, you need to decide whether this is the right approach for you or not. If you are clinically obese and have been advised by a medical professional to lose weight, this isn’t really going to get you that rapid 5-10% reduction in body mass that could save your life.
If you are an endurance athlete, you should be eating a lot of Calories and may need to keep your protein to the lower end of the scale, otherwise you might not be able to get enough carbs in to support your training.
If you are a recreational athlete, exercise enthusiast and just want to get a bit leaner or maintain a lean physique having already dieted down to a desired weight, this approach is for you. If you have dieted down now is the time to reassess your lifestyle and change your focus from restriction to maintenance, which requires a shift in mindset, but one that is very freeing.
If you have never tracked Calories on an app like My Fitness Pal, start doing so now. Do it for a week or two just to learn about the energy value of the foods that you eat and what the nutritional composition of your meals are. Make sure you read food labels, sure, they’re not the most accurate thing, but they will inform you what you are putting on your plate. If I had a £ for every person who said, “porridge is protein, right?” I’d be writing this from a beach chalet in Barbados, while sipping a rum and coke. Just pay attention to what you eat, awareness is a game changer.
If you have tracked before, or you currently are doing so, set your Calories to around maintenance. If you really want to lose a few pounds of fat select a small deficit of around 15% of total daily energy expenditure. This is why it’s important to have a good understanding of the composition of food, so that you can be confident you are eating the right quantities to begin with.
Of course, you don’t have to count Calories at-all, but more on that in a bit.
Now that you are eating the desired quantity of food overall, it’s time to set your protein intake.
For your typical recreational athlete, a range of 1.6-2.2g of protein per kg of body mass is the desired range. For effective recomp, set that to the higher end. For most people around 2g/kg is fine. Therefore, a 70kg individual should be eating at least 140g of protein across the day, split over 3-5 feedings. If you think about a chicken breast delivering around 30-40g of quality protein, use that as a guide to judge your portions. But if you aim for at least 30g per meal you will be in the right ballpark.
For the typical health seeking individual this isn’t too big a shift. Anecdotally, I have noticed that people who actively strive for a healthy diet under eat protein, choosing instead to eat more starchy carbs, including lots of vegetables and fruit. That’s all good, but you need to up the protein if you want to build muscle and lose fat. The above graphic gives some examples of how to achieve this.
If you are someone who never prepares their own meals and mostly only buys food on the go or orders takeaway, you can still eat adequate protein if you make the right food choices. But you are also likely to end up over consuming Calories which won’t help with the ‘lose fat’ part of your goal.
If you are a more advanced exerciser and you are already relatively lean, then I would suggest going higher on protein still. This is especially important if you have a high training volume. It has been observed that athletes who ran 5-10km per day were in a significant negative nitrogen imbalance despite consuming in the region of 2g of protein per kg (4). Helms, et al (5) recommend a range of 2.3-3.1g of protein per kg of body mass for bodybuilders. Even if you aren’t a bodybuilder, if you have a high training volume and do not have a lot of body fat to lose you might want to aim for around 2.5g/kg/BW.
One of the benefits of eating in this fashion is, apart from the need for ensuring that you are hitting your protein goals, you can eat more food and be a bit more flexible in your food choices, which helps with adherence. Restrictive low-Calorie diets are hard to follow for longer than a few weeks and may affect your relationship with food. Eating higher Calories, means more food, a wider choice of foods and also means that if a couple hundred Calories come from some perceptibly ‘unhealthy’ foods it just makes everything feel less stressful.
This is where the 80/20 rule comes in. This isn’t a precise equation and, if on a weekend, it becomes more like 60/40 for a couple of days you won’t die. What do I mean by 80/20? It’s a rough guide, eat mostly whole foods, 80% of your diet should come from foods that nourish your body and provide you with adequate nutrition. The 20% is for ‘soul’ foods. These are the foods that just make life worth living. Let’s say your average maintenance Calories are around 2,500kcals per day, the 80/20 rule means that you could eat a snickers (about 230kcals), and as long as you eat under 2,500kcals that day (and hit your protein target) nothing ‘bad’ will happen.
I mentioned not tracking Calories. So let me give you a very brief way to control your eating to meet your body composition goals, without having to turn everything into a maths lesson. Simply decide on the number of meals you are going to have, eat meals that are high in protein, avoid unnecessary snack and sugar sweetened beverages so as not to overconsume needless Calories. Here’s an arbitrary example of what that day might look like:
That’s the diet bit sorted, what about training? Well, as I said, you need to be doing some kind of resistance training. It needs to be consistent and, ideally, progressive. This feels like a good time to mention my Patreon sign up at Athlete tier and unlock and entire library of workouts and training plans for all levels and all training goals.
If you are a novice exerciser, get yourself a coach who can teach you to move properly and assess your form and technique.
If you are intermediate, you just need to get consistent, no more skipping leg days.
In the research cited above, most of the participants were training upper/lower body part splits over four days. That could be something like this:
Weekend off (playtime).
If you are a busy person and time is limited, you could train from home, keep your workouts short but your intensity and frequency high. Grab a kettlebell and try the following as a 10-minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible):
Monday: Goblet Squat/Single Arm Row x10
Tuesday: Swings/Press ups x20
Wednesday: Alternating Lunges/Snatch x10
Thursday: Staggered Deadlift/Press Ups x10
Friday: Goblet Squat/Single Arm Gorilla Row x10
Saturday: Turkish Getups (continuous)
Lastly, there is one other thing you need to get right, because without this, everything else is much harder. Sleep for at-least 7+ hours per night. That means if your alarm is set for 7am you need to ensure that you are asleep by midnight, which means going to bed at half past eleven. Poor sleep will mess with your appetite and could drive overeating. It will reduce muscle protein synthesis and make it harder to build muscle, it will affect your blood sugars and affect carbohydrate tolerance. It will affect your mental focus, making you less productive through the day. It will negatively affect your energy and motivation and could increase depression and anxiety.
Let’s sum it all up then. Essentially, it’s about consistency. Eat a consistent diet that is either close to or just under your average daily maintenance energy requirement. The great thing about this approach to fitness is that you don’t have to obsess about your weight or your measurements. Instead, enjoy your workouts, track your strength gains, enjoy your food, be happy, get ripped. What’s not to like?
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