Recomposition isn’t impossible, but it is extremely difficult. This is why the vast majority of people who try to do it will fail. In fact, most people chasing muscle gain and fat loss often end up failing to achieve either goal. They don’t lose a significant amount of fat or build a noticeable amount of muscle. They just spin their wheels training hard in the gym but never look any different. This is why I have so often warned people off trying to recomp.
That doesn’t mean you should completely give up on recomposition. Just know that to be successful you will need to meet certain criteria, have great attention to detail, and have a heroic work ethic.
This shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise though. After all, isn’t everything worth achieving in life extremely challenging?
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Difficult Vs. Impossible
I first saw the following quote in the office of my school careers advisor, “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” Whether they were trying to be motivational or making a comment about the impossibility of helping me have a successful career I’m not quite sure. Regardless, recomposition has often been described as impossible. This is false and unfortunate. It is definitely difficult, but it is not impossible. I know this because I’ve seen it and had many clients achieve it.
I’ll Take My Share of the Blame
I have probably played a part in popularizing the belief that recomposition is impossible. Not because I have said it’s impossible, but because I have identified the challenges involved, highlighted the specific circumstances required for it to occur, and voiced the need for a calories surplus for skinny guys to pack on size (all of this is true). Sadly, the black and white world we live in means we look for absolutes. And the assumption that something is difficult is often labeled as impossible.
Good Coaches Reflect and Adapt
Upon reflection, I think I might have been wrong. While in the past I would tell you that recomposition is only possible under one of 5 conditions:
- As a complete beginner
- After a long layoff from training
- When you finally start to train “properly”
- If you have been training properly, but your diet had been poor and you dramatically improve it
- If you take performance-enhancing drugs
I now think it is possible outside of these conditions. Rather than these 5 circumstances, I think most people can get a recomposition effect. The magnitude of this effect is determined by where they fall on a sliding scale of factors.
The Sliding Scale of Recomposition
Even with that information, I might still tell you that recomposition is not the right choice for you.
After speaking with Chris Barakat, author of a research study on recomposition I like to think of the chances of a significant recomposition occurring being triangulated between three factors. These are:
- Training age
- Training status
- Body fat %
Training age simply describes how long you’ve been training. Training status quantities how advanced you are. A good metric of training status is how strong you are. This will largely indicate how effective your training has been (it could of course be influenced by genetic potential). Body fat percentage is fairly self-explanatory. Based on these three factors you can pinpoint how likely recomposition is for you.
A good candidate for recomposition has a low training age, status, and high body fat. If this describes you then you have the potential to achieve a dramatic recomposition. On the other hand, if you have a high training age, status, and are very lean then a significant recomp is highly unlikely.
Another big factor is lifestyle and nutrition. These certainly play a big role. If you eat like crap and sleep like an insomniac then, improving your diet and sleep will increase your chances of a recomp. The reason I haven’t listed these as separate factors is that I believe body fat % provides a pretty conclusive indicator of both the quality of your diet and sleep. How many people that sleep 8+ hours a night and eat a diet full of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good fats do you know that are obese? Nope didn’t think there would be many.
Anyway, if you honestly assess your training age, training status, and body fat you can assess if a recomp is on the cards for you.
Author's Note: Almost none of us are actually as advanced as we’d like to think. I’d be prepared to say that if you’re a guy with over 15% body fat you have some scope to recomp.
What the Science Says
I’ll provide details on exactly how to give yourself the best chance of a successful recomp in a moment, but first, let’s look at some exciting scientific research on recomposition. The scientific literature provides compelling evidence of the possibility to achieve recomposition effects. Anecdotally, I have also seen it with numerous clients and myself. In fact, Chris Barakat goes as far as to say as this is the norm not the outlier in his research career.
Here are some examples:
A study by Alcaraz et al. found that participants following a specific training protocol gained 1.5kg of lean mass and lost 1.5% of body fat in 8 weeks.2 In another study, participants managed to gain 1.4kg of lean mass and lose 2.4kg of fat in only 6 weeks. While a recent study by Colquhoun et al. found that subjects training 6xweek in their study were able to gain 2.6kg of fat-free mass and lose 0.1kg of body fat.4
The exciting part about all of these studies is that participants did not adjust their nutrition. They were all told to adhere to their normal eating regime. If these results are possible without a nutritional intervention geared at optimizing results, imagine what is possible if you get your training and diet to work synergistically.
Multiple nutrition studies have shown recomposition effects. These studies indicate that body composition changes are more complex than just calories in versus calories out. The research has shown that different nutritional strategies (e.g., high-protein diets, post-workout nutrition, hypocaloric diets, etc.) might contribute to body recomposition.
A study by Dr. Bill Campbell provides an excellent example of what is possible when diet I factored in. In this study, they investigated the difference in protein intake (high 1.14g pro/lb vs low .41g pro/lb) had on body composition in female figure competitors. The high protein group gained 4.62lbs (2.1kg) of fat-free mass while simultaneously losing 2.42lbs (1.1kg) of fat mass, despite eating an average of 423 calories more per day than the low-protein group. Both groups underwent the same training protocol so this illustrates the power of nutrition!5
It also goes some way to prove that not all calories are created equal! If you eat too few or too many then you are likely to lose or gain more weight than you want, but other factors matter. And the next most important factor after calories, are macronutrients and the ratio of each one. This research indicates that you might find you can consume more total calories to maintain your weight if you increase protein intake. The added bonus is that if everything else is on point, you might be able to simultaneously build muscle and lose fat.
One of the reasons for this is that protein is not only the most satiating but also has the highest thermic effect when consumed…meaning that when you eat protein it takes more energy to digest than carbs or fats. So, 100 calories of protein tend to take more energy to be broken down than 100 calories of carbs or fats.
The authors of the recomposition study provided the following practical applications based on their research:
- Implement a progressive resistance training regimen with a minimum of 3 sessions per week.
- Tracking rate of progress, and paying attention to performance and recovery can be important tools to appropriately adjust training over time.
- Consuming 2.6–3.5 g of protein per kg of fat-free mass may increase the likelihood or magnitude of recomposition.
- Protein supplements (i.e., whey and casein) may be used as a means to increase daily dietary protein intake as well as a tool to maximize muscle protein synthesis. This may be of greater importance post-workout as a means to maximize the recomposition effect.
- Prioritizing sleep quality and quantity may be an additional variable that can significantly impact changes in performance, recovery, and body composition.
To maximize your chances of success I will add 6 key tips I have found to be vital in achieving recomposition:
- Timeframe (it should be a short-term goal)
- Hyper-Focused on a Specific Goal (i.e. photoshoot, physique show, holiday, event)
- Assess, Re-Assess, and Course Correct
- Tightly Controlled Calories
- Embrace the Anabolic Window (pay attention to peri-workout nutrition)
- Lift and Do Cardio for Maximum Recomposition Results
Tip #1: Timeframe
You cannot just recomp indefinitely in the hope of eventually ending up 20lbs heavier and leaner than you are now. To achieve effective recomp, you have to be laser-focused on the details. Even for the most dedicated bodybuilders, there is a limit to how long you can maintain the discipline to tick all the boxes required for recomposition to occur.
Even if you could go into full robot mode and keep on track it wouldn’t work because the body adapts. You need a robust signal to get it to keep adapting. As you will soon discover an effective recomp relies on you being moderate enough in your calorie consumption and training volumes to allow for a slow(ish) rate of fat loss. Lose too quickly and the chances of gaining muscle evaporate. Because the approach to a recomp is moderate in terms of calorie restriction it is not an assertive or robust enough stimulus to push past adaptive resistance. There will come a point where you either have to slash calories to get leaner or increase them to gain muscle. Consequently, I suggest a 6-12-week window for a re-comp. In my experience, in most cases, 10-12 weeks is the sweet spot.
This is long enough for you to drop a noticeable amount of fat at a slow enough rate you can also give yourself a chance to gain some muscle mass. It is also a timeframe most highly motivated people seem to be able to follow the plan perfectly for. To achieve the near-impossible, you need a great plan and perfect execution of it. Can some people last longer? Yes. Do I think it’s wise for you to try? No. I’d commit to getting the absolute most out of yourself, your training, and your diet for 12 weeks and then moving on from recomposition for a while.
Tip #2: Pick a Goal that Keeps You Hyper-Focused
In the previous point, I highlighted how important it is to be focused and motivated to achieve a re-comp as an experienced lifter. In fact, I think you need to be hyper-focused. You need to develop a tunnel-like vision with your eyes on the prize to get what you want. The best way I have found to achieve that with my clients is to tie it to a clearly defined event or outcome. Booking a photoshoot, competing in a physique competition, dieting for the holiday of a lifetime, or preparing for a major event like a wedding or landmark birthday have all proved powerful motivators for my clients.
With this goal on the horizon and the added accountability, it provides people often find another level of commitment, dedication, and drive. They have their eyes firmly fixed on the prize and do everything they can to reach it.
This hyper-focused approach is amazing for relatively short-term goals, it can lead to burnout if you try and redline your way through life. Pick a time when to push. Make sure that you have a powerful ‘why’, to keep you motivated, a strong desire to see things through because you can’t afford slip-ups if you want to achieve a re-comp of noteworthy proportions.
Tip #3: Assess, Re-Assess, and Course Correct
Outcome-based decision-making will guide the whole process. The outcome is clear. Lose fat and gain muscle. How you go about that will change based on your starting position and results. If you are skinny-fat then eating at maintenance and training properly is a good choice because you want to fill out your arms. You don’t want to just end up skinny. If you are starting out as someone who is a bit chunkier, you probably have decent muscle mass underneath your body fat. You just need to lose enough fat to reveal it and have the added bonus of a tiny bit more muscle at the end.
As the authors of the study suggested, keep a close track of your progress and monitor your gym performance. When recomping, your energy levels should be high enough that your gym performance improves. Gym performance is easy enough to track. Tracking your body weight on the scales is also easy and useful data. Depending on your starting point the change (or lack of change) you should aim for on the scales when recomping differs. There are two general types of clients who I see great recomposition effects with:
- Skinny-fat guys
- Guys who are 10-20lbs over their ideal weight
For the skinny-fat guys, the goal is to keep their weight the same throughout the process while improving performance in the gym. If they train hard, eat enough to keep their weight static, but bump protein intake up to around 1.2g per lbs (2.6g per KG) of body weight, and manage lifestyle factors like sleep and stress levels they have the potential to see excellent results.
For guys that are 10-20lbs overweight, the lifestyle factors, hard training, and high protein are all still vital. However, they should aim to lose weight. In my experience, the ideal rate of loss in this scenario is 0.25-0.5% of their weight per week. So, for a 200lbs guy that is 0.5-1lbs per week.
In practice, the leaner you get the higher your risk of muscle loss. For that reason, I tend to start these guys off at the higher end of the target rate of loss (0.5%) for the first few weeks. Then, I throttle back and reduce the rate to 0.25% per week. Taking this approach has been extremely effective.
Tip #4: Tightly Controlled Calories
Following on from my last point about the rate of weight loss, it is important to understand you will need to pay close attention to your calorie intake.
You can’t lose weight too quickly or you risk losing muscle mass. You need to delay the instant gratification of seeing the scales plummeting every day and learn to accept a slower weight loss to allow you the chance to retain and gain muscle.
You also have to stick to the plan every day. When the deadline is approaching, every day off plan has a more noticeable effect. With only 12 weeks to play with you cannot afford to waste a day.
To stay on top of things you will likely need to track everything you eat in an app like MyFitnessPal. Doing so means you know how your body is responding to the calories and nutrients you are consuming. When making adjustments to your diet it’s important to have accurate data to work from. A detailed food diary gives you that data.
If tracking your food intake for 12 weeks seems like too much hassle for you, that’s cool, but you also have to accept the chances of you achieving a recomposition are probably slim to none. As I said at the outset, recomping isn’t impossible, but it is extremely difficult. Achieving difficult things takes extraordinary levels of effort, consistency, and attention to detail.
Tip #5: Embrace the Anabolic Window
Effective recomposition is all about attention to detail. The aggregation of marginal gains. These small gains can add up to have a profound effect. One such example is taking care of your peri-workout nutrition. Peri stands for “perimeter” so what I’m talking about here is really focusing on your nutrition pre-, during, and post-workout.
The recomp research indicates that having a carbohydrate and protein shake post-workout can enhance your results. As a rule of thumb aim for between 25-40g of whey protein mixed with 30-50g of carbohydrate (e.g., maltodextrin) straight after your workout.
This post-workout shake won’t do the work for you. It simply capitalizes on the work you’ve done in the gym. Done consistently it creates the possibility to slightly amplify the body’s response to training. This can add up to a little more muscle and less fat over time. That’s a pretty sweet combo for the relatively hassle-free habit of slamming a post-workout shake.
Tip #6: Lift and Do Cardio for Maximum Recomposition Results
My preferred training split is an upper/lower split that allows for each muscle group to be trained twice per week. This split and training frequency allows for a balance to be struck between training enough but not too much.
The temptation when chasing a hyper-focused goal is to do too much. I understand this temptation. It’s one I’ve fallen victim to in the past. Transforming your body is highly emotional. When emotion takes over logic tends to disappear. It’s easy to convince yourself that, more training means a greater muscle-building stimulus and more calories burned. However, it doesn’t take into account the big picture view.
It is critical to remember that your calories will be relatively low when trying to recomp. With lower calories comes lower energy and a lower tolerance for overall training volume. If you do too much, you will suffer negative consequences. These include the risk of muscle loss, overtraining, injury, and driving stress hormones like cortisol so high that muscle gain and fat loss are blunted.
Keep this under control by lifting four times a week following a push/pull split and including some intelligent cardio. My favorite type of cardio to include is low-intensity steady state (LISS). I don’t mean endurance training. This is not the time to run a marathon! What I mean is a very low-level activity that helps to burn some calories while relaxing you. Done properly, this will actually improve your recovery and burn calories.
Simply getting outside for a 30-40 minute walk each day is my favorite prescription to achieve this. Doing it first thing in the morning is my preferred choice. It allows you to start the day with a win, get your head in a good place, have a sense of achievement, and at this time of day cortisol should be higher. Given cortisol can help to mobilize fats for fuel this potentially makes an early morning walk more effective for fat loss.
Conclusion: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Recomposition is possible, but it is difficult. To determine if it is a good choice for you, first assess where you fall on the training age, status, and body fat spectrum. If you analyze these and think recomposition is on the cards for you, take it slow.
Much like your approach to cardio, your approach to recomposition should be slow and steady. Trying to rush the process will cause you to fail. Instead of looking for a quick fix, give yourself 12 weeks of relentless consistency and you can build muscle and lose fat. After this point, the chances of further recomposition are tiny. Once you have pushed through the hyper-focused recomposition phase I suggest you transition to either a dedicated muscle gain or fat loss phase.
Remember you cannot recomp forever!
Switching to a calorie surplus and aiming to gain muscle is the best choice for most people. If you would still like to lose more fat after your recomposition phase is done, I suggest you take a diet break where you eat a little more for a month or so. This will allow your body and mind to recover from the relentless grind of adhering to the recomp plan and refresh you for your next push to getting even leaner.
- Alcaraz PE, Perez-Gomez J, Chavarrias M, Blazevich AJ. Similarity in adaptations to high-resistance circuit vs. traditional strength training in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res 25: 2519–2527, 2011.
- Antonio J, Peacock CA, Ellerbroek A, Fromhoff B, Silver T. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4 g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 11: 19, 2014.
- Colquhoun RJ, Gai CM, Aguilar D, et al. Training volume, not frequency, indicative of maximal strength adaptations to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 32: 1207–1213, 2018.
- Campbell BI, Aguilar D, Conlin L, et al. Effects of high versus low protein intake on body composition and maximal strength in aspiring female physique athletes engaging in an 8-week resistance training program. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 28: 580–585, 2018.
- Haun CT, Vann CG, Mobley CB, et al. Effects of graded whey supplementation during extreme-volume resistance training. Front Nutr 5: 84, 2018.
- Longland TM, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips SM. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: A randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr 103: 738–746, 2016.
- Maltais ML, Perreault K, Courchesne-Loyer A, et al. Effect of resistance training and various sources of protein supplementation on body fat mass and metabolic profile in sarcopenic overweight older adult men: A pilot study. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 26: 71–77, 2016.