Nutrition and training are potent tools to lose fat and gain muscle, but is it possible to use them to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time?
Table of contents:
What is body recomposition?
Body recomposition is when you lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously. Rather than losing fat and then gaining muscle or cycling periods of cutting and bulking, a recomp may be a more efficient way of reaching body composition goals.
Nutrition and body recomposition
Whilst altering energy balance and macronutrient ratios can definitely influence body composition, for muscle mass gains, resistance training is key. Nutrition plays a necessary and supportive role for mass gains, creating an anabolic environment for muscle growth but the resistance training is the stimulus for muscle protein synthesis.
Nutrition requirements for muscle mass gains vary depending upon the individual.
We know you can gain muscle in a caloric deficit (check out How many calories should I eat to gain muscle?), and that a greater calorie surplus doesn’t necessarily mean more gains (1). Similarly, when it comes to recomposition, research shows that you can gain muscle and lose fat in a caloric surplus (2), and in calorie deficit (3).
All of the mechanisms involved in body recomposition and how they interact with one another are not fully understood. For example, it is unclear what the exact energy cost of muscle mass growth is, how that cost can be split between internal stores of energy, such as body fat and dietary energy and how this varies depending upon the extent of the energy requirements. These considerations are all likely highly variable depending upon the individual, their genetics and health status.
Additionally body composition changes appear to be and understandably so, more complex than energy balance alone. Research shows that high protein diets and a calorie surplus can result in a recomp (2,3,4). For example, an 8-week study on well-trained men and women, in conjunction with a heavy resistance program, comparing the effects of a very high protein diet (3.4 g/kg) to a normal protein diet (2.3 g/kg) found both groups to gain equal amounts of fat free mass (1.5 kg) (5). However, the high protein group who were consuming upon average 500 calories over maintenance level per day, lost significantly more fat mass than the normal protein group (-1.6 kg vs -0.3 kg) (5).
There is a large degree of variability in the individual response to trying to change body recomposition. For instance within both groups in the above study, some individuals gained up to 7 kg of fat free mass whilst simultaneously losing 4 kg of fat free mass, whilst others actually lost fat free mass and gained fat mass (5). This is likely considerably influenced by an individuals genetics and how readily someone gains muscle mass. This is why a personalised approach is key when it comes to nutrition!
Non-nutrition factors that influence body recomposition
Training: training volume is a critical variable for muscle hypertrophy. 10-20 sets per body part, per week should maximise your gains (6). Of course, progressive overload, proper technique and sufficient effort are essential. Ticking all of these boxes consistently makes the difference between maximising your gains and not.
Stress: a chronic stress response means elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol functions to generate energy for the body to manage the stress and one way it does this is by breaking down protein stores to access glucose. This is obviously detrimental to muscle mass gains. Cortisol also mobilises fat stores and redeposits them in the abdomen area (known as visceral fat), which may be associated with increased weight around the middle area.
Stress may also influence levels of hunger, appetite and food choices and thus has the potential to alter energy balance and macronutrient composition intake which can influence body recomposition. Elevated levels of stress may also impact levels of testosterone and sleep quality and quantity.
Sleep: insufficient sleep is associated with negative effects on athletic performance, impaired recovery capabilities, increased effort of exertion, and negative hormonal adaptations through the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. These hormonal adaptations (increase in cortisol, glucose and insulin and decrease in testosterone, adiponectin and GH) create an environment counter to muscle mass gains and fat loss. Sleep restriction decreases levels of testosterone and muscle protein synthesis rates.
A study comparing the impact of 60 minutes of sleep restriction five times a week, versus a normal sleep pattern, in calorically restricted individuals, found that both groups lost a similar amount of weight (-3.2kg) (7). However, the sleep restricted group lost a significantly greater amount of bodyweight from fat free mass (– 85% versus 17%) (7). Levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and the fullness hormone leptin were also altered in the sleep restricted group, whereas they remained unchanged in the normal sleep pattern group.
These results were echoed in a study investigating the impact of sleep in addition to resistance training on body composition. There were two groups – both groups followed a specific training program but one group additionally received sleep training. After 10 weeks, whilst both groups similarly increased fat free mass, only the group who had received the sleep training significantly reduced fat mass (-1.8kg vs -0.8kg) (8).
Who can recomp?
Most people can recomp. It’s more about the extent to which you can recomp and it does very considerably.
Meaningful recomposition may occur with the following:
Why? You are most primed for muscle growth. It’s a new stimulus and you will therefore respond to by adapting.
Why? You have large energy reserves stored in bodyfat which can be lost. Calories from fat stores can be used to fuel resistance training and the muscle building process.
Why? If you’ve had a break from training, then you are in a state that is more primed to respond. You also have the advantage of muscle memory.
Why? If you haven’t been putting in your best effort with training and nutrition, it’s likely that you have untapped opportunity for muscle mass gains.
Recomposition can still occur if:
Why? Because there are opportunities with your: training/nutrition/nutrient timing/supplementation. This is shown in multiple studies (4,5,9). For example, if you train a lot, you can reduce fat mass even if you are in a calorie surplus, specifically when the surplus is due to an increase in protein (2,4).
Ultimately recomposition won’t be possible for anyone who has reached their genetic capacity to build muscle – so elite athletes at the peak of their training for muscle gains. It also won’t be possible if you are super lean – since you won’t have body fat to lose and it’s going to be just about gaining muscle mass.
Steps to set up your recomp:
Body recomposition is when you lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time: and can be achieved by manipulating dietary intake and resistance training appropriately.
The degree to which you can recomp depends on who you are: if you are new to training, overweight or obese, detrained or haven’t been putting in your best efforts, it is likely that you can recomp to a greater extent.
Choose a primary goal when you recomp – either fat loss or muscle gain: to focus your efforts, diet and make the process most effective. Do this based on your current body fat levels.
Where are you on your body composition journey? Is recomposition your priority right now and where are you with it? I’d love to hear in the comments below!