Body Recomposition sounds a bit like something out of a Sci-Fi movie doesn’t it? That line from the Six Million Dollar Man comes to mind “We can rebuild him”.
Without knowing it, body recomposition is the number one priority of almost every brand-new gym goer (and often that of the long-term gym goer). It basically means turning your fat, untoned body into a lean, mean, fighting machine.
Think about it, the phrase “I just want to tone up” really means I want to lose body fat and build enough muscle mass so that they are defined or “toned”. But body recomposition is such a vague term that it can really apply to anything. If you are very lean but want to become large and brawny then that would be a recomposition of your body.
However, that definition would lead to this article lasting 400 pages and boring the pants off anyone who read it. So, let’s keep things simple and define body recomposition as the goal to simultaneously lose body fat and build muscle mass.
In this guide, we will take a look at everything you need to know about body recomposition, what you can expect, and whether simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain is even possible.
Is Body Recomposition Even Possible?
Before we go into detail on body recomposition, it is important to address the elephant in the room. Many people claim that simultaneously losing fat and building muscle is impossible. Is this the case? Short answer, no. It is perfectly possible, and you’ve probably seen it occur hundreds of times. Long term body recomposition is another matter.
It’s quite a difficult subject to address, because there are so many factors at play. If a man trained for ten years and lost a lot of body fat and gained muscle, then you would say that over ten years body recomposition had occurred. But what if he lost a load of weight in one year and then spent the next nine building muscle but actually gained more weight? Would that still count as body recomposition? It’s difficult to say.
To answer the question, we are going to have to drill down even further what we mean by fat loss and muscle gain. Let’s say that it has to occur at the same time, and that there should be a time limit of 12 weeks. This is a fairly standard time period to measure results. So, let’s answer that question based on these new guidelines.
The answer is that yes, it is possible in certain situations, but for many people it is very difficult (or the change in one side is so negligible that it barely counts).
When you first walk into a gym after a long period of inactivity you are classed as untrained. If before that long period of inactivity, you trained for decades then you are technically trained, so we’ll leave these people aside for now.
As an untrained individual you are probably looking for body recomposition. You want to burn fat and you want to build some muscle (or tone up). Over the next twelve weeks you should easily be able to achieve both provided that your diet is correct and that you exercise correctly (say by following an article titled “the ultimate guide to body recomposition”).
You can do all sorts of things that many experienced gym goers would give their right arm for. You can gain muscle whilst in a calorie deficit, you can double your 1 rep maxes in all lifts, and at the end of twelve weeks you should be able to see a noticeable difference in the mirror. Seriously, being an untrained person who starts going to the gym is just the best!
Previously trained people who are coming back from a long lay off can also burn fat and build muscle at first, but the results won’t be as spectacular. However, they will be able to lift more sooner, and will have an advantage as they will already know what they are doing. They won’t need to learn how to bench press, deadlift, or perform TABATA drills. This will help previously trained people to see good results within twelve weeks.
Intermediate lifters and experienced lifters would really struggle to see great results from body recomposition over a twelve-week period. But it certainly is not impossible. A lot depends on what their current physique is.
The problem is that experienced lifters will be close to their genetic potential when it comes to strength. For example, let’s say that your bench press is really impressive. Other people turn their heads when you finish your set. How would you train to increase that? You’d want to focus on benching and little else, you’d want to increase protein, increase calories, and train for strength. This is not the time to be in a calorie deficit (which is necessary for fat loss).
The same thing applies if you are trying to get as lean as possible, training to get from 30% body fat to 20% body fat is a LOT easier than training to get from 10% to 5%. If you are a very low body fat and you want to lower it further, then you’ll need to be in a big calorie deficit. This makes it almost impossible to build muscle at the same time.
For most experienced lifters, it’s a question of whether you want to focus on building muscle or burning fat, which usually leads to lifters going on bulks (where you gain muscle and gain a little bit of fat) or cuts (where you cut down body fat but lose a little bit of muscle mass and strength).
There are exceptions to this rule. Some lifters are genetic freaks. This is rare, and you may go your whole life without seeing someone so blessed, but it does happen. Then there are experienced lifters who all of a sudden start taking training more seriously than they ever have before (like athlete-level seriously). They will see body recomposition results, at least at first.
Bottom Line: Yes, body recomposition is possible. But it is mostly something that new gym goers or those returning from a significant break (six months or more). From here on in we will be discussing how to achieve body recomposition, it will be aimed at new gym goers, because these people have the best chance of achieving it.
Planning Out Your Body Recomposition
There is something to be said about not overthinking things. If you have never joined a gym and you’re sitting down contemplating which is the best way to go about getting in shape it might be best to jump off the couch and get started. But it is also beneficial to have everything planned out for you, this way you can just tick off each stage as you go along.
If you really want to increase muscle size, increase strength, and reduce body fat you’ll probably want to first find out what your starting measurements are so that in 12 weeks’ time you’ll know how far you’ve come. There is also a practical use for taking measurements, as this will help you to create an accurate calorie target.
The first thing that you’ll want to do is download a step counting app onto your phone, one of the most underrated aspects of body recomposition is low level exercise such as walking (but more on that later). Downloading a step counter and then trying to hit 10,000 steps per day is a great introduction to body recomposition.
For now though just download the app and don’t change anything, we want a rough idea of how many steps you are doing on average so that we can get an idea of how active you really are, rather than how active you think you are. If you are only managing 1,000 steps per day then setting a target of 10,000 is overly ambitious. However, if you are already walking 12,000 steps per day then a 10,000 target would be stupid.
While you’re on the app download section of your phone you should also download a calorie counting app. We could say that there are loads to choose from and you should pick the right one for you … but there’s only one well-known calorie app and that is called MyFitnessPal, so download that one. You need to start recording your food for two weeks. Again, please be honest and don’t change your habits for these two weeks.
You’ll also want to sign up for the gym. We will be going into more detail about training in a bit, but right now all you need to do is sign up. Get that out of the way as soon as possible and make sure that your gym of choice is:
- Near your house or work
- Filled with well-maintained equipment
- Also make sure that the hours of the gym suit your needs
Next you want to jump on a pair of scales and find out your starting weight. In this article we will be using kg as that is the scientific measurement, but you can use lbs if you prefer (just convert your weight in kg to lbs).
Many fitness professionals advise against using the scales, saying that your weight is just a number and doesn’t define you. While this is a nice sentiment, we’re here to lose weight and build muscle. To do this you need to know how much you weigh. Don’t get upset by your current weight, it really doesn’t define who you are as a person just write it down and keep it safe.
You will also want a record of your height (again, we will be doing this in cm, but you can convert that to feet and inches if you prefer). Your height is necessary for working out your calorie needs, and it is surprising how few people actually know their actual height. If you are a teenager, then this step is even more important as you may still be growing.
Once you’ve weighed yourself you are going to want to take measurements using tailor’s tape. Find the circumference of your waist, your abdomen (where your belly button is), your chest, your right bicep, your right thigh (use midpoint of your upper thigh), and you can measure your neck too. Record all information.
Now we’re going to get uncomfortable so hold on! You are going to want to take a progress photo of yourself, actually you are going to take two. This is vitally important. You do not need to share it with anyone, just take the photos and keep them on your phone. Stand a good distance from a mirror or alternatively get a friend/family member to take the photo. You are going to want to be in your underwear. You are going to take progress photos each week and this will give you a visual clue to how well you are doing. It is also necessary for estimating your body fat percentage.
Estimating your body fat percentage is the next step. There are many complicated ways of doing this, but we only need a rough estimate and in all truth this method is about as accurate/inaccurate as the other methods. Search google for a chart of body fat percentages for men and women and find which percentage your photo image lines up with.
After two weeks of walking and eating normally you should now have enough data to work out your current calorie intake (how much food are you eating) and how many calories you are expending (your step count will give you an estimate). Your height, weight, and body fat percentage will also help you to find your resting metabolic rate. This is how many calories you burn doing absolutely nothing.
Now you are going to type in your details into a calorie calculator such as this one.
A good step counter will give you data for how long you spend each day walking, but a rule of thumb is ten minutes per 1,000 steps. So, if you have 10,000 steps in a day then you spend 100 minutes walking each day.
Once you have entered the calculation you will get a reading of your basal metabolic rate (how many calories your body burns during the day) as well as your total energy expenditure which is your basal metabolic rate and all the exercise you do on top of it.
Total Energy Expenditure (TEE) is really useful for dieting. Because it lets you know how many calories you can have to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain weight. If your TEE is 2,500 then you know that consuming 2,000 calories will create a 500-calorie deficit but consuming 3,000 calories will create a 500-calorie surplus.
Use MyFitnessPal and the details from the energy calculator to create a calorie deficit. Remember, the smaller the deficit the easier it is to follow, but the slower the results. A 20% deficit will get you good results in a timely manner without leaving you feeling weak.
You can now look at your macronutrients. These are the building blocks that make up your foods. Protein, carbohydrates, fat, and alcohol (though this last one is often ignored). MyFitnessPal can help you set this up, but make sure that you are following a high-protein diet. Protein is incredibly useful for repairing muscle fibers, maintaining muscle, and it is also very satiating which means that it will help you eat less by making you feel full.
Now you are all ready to start your new training and diet regime. In the next sections we will take a more in-depth look at diet, training, supplementation, and recovery.
Step By Step Planning
- Download a step counting app to your phone
- Start recording your diet for two weeks using a calorie counting app
- Sign up to a gym
- Source a set of scales and weigh yourself in kg
- Find your height in cm
- Measure yourself with tape measure
- Take a photo of yourself without a shirt in profile and to the side
- Estimate your body fat percentage
- Use the information you have collected over two weeks to find your calorie target
- Set your macronutrient goal
- Create a calorie deficit
Diet for Body Recomposition
Now that you have your calorie and macro targets sorted out you need to start searching for foods that can fit into them. One of the most important things that you can do is to start measuring your food and paying attention to serving size. We’d guess that 90% of people just grab a handful of pasta before cooking, or just pour rice straight into boiling water, but this can lead to absolutely massive portions.
You don’t need to weigh everything, but weighing your carbohydrates is a great start. You should also be aware of how many calories are found in fats. A teaspoon of olive oil contains 100 calories, yet people will happily pour three or four times that onto their “healthy” salad as dressing. We’re certainly not telling you to avoid fats but be responsible with them.
If you are going to be eating healthily you are going to have to learn how to cook! Microwave meals and takeout are not going to help you stay in a deficit. Purchasing cheap recipe books or going online are great ways to expand your repertoire.
You’ll also want to consider batch cooking; this is a common bodybuilding method for food prep which has become more and more popular with regular gym goers. The idea is that you can save time and money by cooking two or three times the amount of food you normally would and freezing it.
Think about it, a good chilli is going to take two hours to cook even if it just serves 4 people. But cooking for 12 people would not actually increase the cooking time that much, it would also cost less as there would be no waste and you could buy in bulk.
This method means that you can eat delicious home cooked meals with less effort and a lower cost per meal. Many people do their batch cooking all at the same time on a Sunday, but you can spread it out throughout the week. Instead of cooking a meal for Monday, cook it for Monday and Tuesday and freeze two meals for next week. This gives you three days where all you need to do is microwave some rice and reheat the chilli. Simple!
Another trick is to set your recipe books up and pick your meals before you do your food shop. This may sound obvious, but so many people make it up as they go along or try to fit meals in after coming back with a large number of random food items. If you have the chance to do an online food shop, then this method is even better. You can save the food items on a spreadsheet and save even more time (though this would officially make you a nerd).
A 12-Week Calorie Deficit
If you are looking to burn fat (which you are as this is an article on body recomposition) then you are going to need to stay within a calorie deficit. But as you lose fat your metabolism will drop; this is a good thing so don’t panic. A 100kg person has a higher resting metabolism than an 80kg person as there is more of them! This means that if you started off with a 20% calorie deficit and lost 5kg within six weeks you would no longer have a 20% calorie deficit.
Because of this, many people notice that their weight loss begins to plateau. This will happen eventually anyway, but if you can prevent it then you should. So how do we do that? Through weekly measurements of course.
Remember, this is a 12-week body recomposition program. So let’s first split this into three four-week sections. You are going to weigh yourself on the same day, each week, for the duration of the program. But after four weeks you are going to really analyze this data.
If you feel that you are making good progress, then you can maintain that calorie target. If you are unsatisfied with the results (please be sensible here) then you can lower your daily calorie target some more, and if you feel that you are losing too much weight then you can readjust your calorie target again.
The four-week period is important, as if you did it every week your calorie target would be jumping all over the place. At four weeks you want to weigh yourself again and then use that information to redo the calculations and reset your calorie targets. This will help you to keep losing body fat and building muscle.
TIP: 10 Ways To Cut Calories From Your Diet
Now that you know what foods to add, let’s take a quick look at ten ways that you can cut calories from your diet. This will really help people who are struggling to hit their targets.
- Switch your cooking oil for cooking sprays. This is such a great way to save calories. A tablespoon of oil contains around 100 calories while a cooking spray contains just 1 calorie per spray.
- Switch to diet coke. Don’t listen to the numerous scare stories that surround this, they’re fake news! There are 150 calories in a regular can of cola. There are zero calories in a can of diet cola. Hopefully you can see how making this change can help you cut some serious calories from your day.
- Weigh your food. Yes, we know that we mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. It is amazing how large a portion of pasta can become when you aren’t weighing it. You could easily save 100 calories per meal this way.
- Be honest. If you grab a handful of cereal out of the box, then you’d better be prepared to log this into your calorie tracker. These handfuls add up. Logging each one in will soon wake you up to this bad habit.
- Swap out a common treat with a higher protein/lower calorie version. If you eat a chocolate bar everyday at 3pm then find an alternative that is lower in calories. That way you still get your 3pm treat, but you are also saving calories.
- Find a low-calorie dessert and have it after your last meal of the day. Many people find that late night snacking really affects their weight, but a serving of fat-free Greek yoghurt with a zero-calorie syrup (check them out online) can fill you up, satisfy your sweet tooth, and stop you from choosing a high-calorie alternative.
- Switch to Gin and Tonic. For you beer drinkers out there you really need to consider how many calories you are putting away. A pint of Guinness contains 210 calories whereas a single gin and tonic only contains 110 calories. We’re not saying you should stop drinking beer altogether, just that if you switch half of your beers for G&Ts (or vodka tonic if you prefer) then you’d be saving thousands of calories each month.
- Don’t be afraid of low-fat alternatives. Low-fat mayo contains 15 calories per serving. Regular mayo contains 94 calories per serving. As with beer, we’re not saying that you should remove regular mayo from your diet but swap it with low-fat as much as possible. Same goes for low-fat cream cheese, and many other low-fat alternatives to regular foods.
- Avoid buying trigger foods. Pringles are a great example of a food that it is basically impossible to stop eating once you’ve started. They’ve created an entire marketing campaign around this very issue. So, stop buying Pringles. Find an alternative that comes in a smaller container, or just stop buying chips altogether. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing, and it does
- Find leaner cuts of meat. Let’s say you’re about to buy a steak. A T-Bone steak contains 207 calories per 85 grams, a sirloin steak contains 207 calories per 85 grams, and a rump steak contains 106 calories per 85 grams. Picking the rump steak over the T-Bone saves you 101 calories!
Training for Body Recomposition
We mentioned this a little bit right at the beginning of the article, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is a measure of all the calories that you burn during the day from activities that are not considered exercise. Examples of this include; walking, climbing stairs, doing yard work, vacuuming the house, washing the car. You get the idea. Each activity, no matter how trivial requires energy to perform. Even sitting down and reading this guide is burning calories.
Studies have found that people with higher NEAT tend to be leaner . In fact, researchers have found correlation between people who fidget and higher metabolic rates . The idea is to increase your NEAT levels to help you burn more calories per day.
Sadly, most NEAT is subconscious. You know that friend who claims to be able to eat whatever they want and never exercise while staying lean? Yeah, that person probably fidgets a lot, or walks around the office more, of is a menace with a feather duster. But there are ways to consciously increase your NEAT. Walking.
That’s why we told you to download a step-counting app. So that you can make yourself become more active. If you are hitting 10,000 steps per day then the chances are you are going to be burning more calories than you were before.
But it’s not just about NEAT, adding regular exercise to your lifestyle is an incredibly effective way to burn calories (and it is completely necessary for building muscle).
Creating A Training Program For Your Goals
If you are a brand-new gym-goer, it is true that following any training program will get you good results. But following the right training program could get you GREAT results. There are several things that you need to do to make sure that your training program is the best it can be.
- It should contain mostly compound movements – Compound movements are exercises that require more than one muscle group to perform. The squat, deadlift, bench press, and pull up are all examples of compound movements, and your program should be full of them. Not only are compound movements better for fat burning and muscle burning, but they are great time-savers. Think about it, how long would it take to train your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, lower back, upper back, and abdominals individually? A lot longer than it would take to perform a deadlift which works all of them!
- It should start slowly. When you train for the first time your body is going to react. Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the pain you experience after a workout, particularly during the beginning of your training. DOMS can mess you up! It can last days, and even as long as a week. So, you want to reduce its effect as much as possible. Start slow, with easy exercises performed at low weight. After a week or so you can start to make it more challenging but be prepared for a lot of sore days at first.
- You need adequate rest to recover, but you don’t want to lose intensity by resting too long. Try to keep rest between sets to around 45-90 seconds, and rest between exercises to around 3 minutes. If you are lifting heavy, then you can increase the rest times to around 3 minutes between sets.
- Prioritize free weight exercises, but don’t be afraid of resistance machines. They are great alternatives when the gym is busy, and you can’t wait 20 minutes for the squat rack to become available. In fact, if you are new to training then resistance machines should be a good starting off point as they require less coordination and balance (which beginner lifters will need to work on).
Recovery after exercise is often ignored in guides such as this, with all of the focus on diet and exercise. This is perfectly understandable, but recovery is crucial to success. If you are not sleeping enough between workouts, then you won’t recover. Which means increased risk of injury, increased cortisol production, and a blunted response to exercise in your muscles.
Studies have shown that sleeping more can improve gym performance, motivation, focus, and reaction time . Consuming more protein is also important as this can increase recovery and help build bigger muscles. The training program that we have outlined above is just four days per week, that means you have three days to recover. Use that time to get extra sleep, participate in active recovery (walking more, yoga, jogging, stretching etc.), and to increase protein intake.
Body recomposition may be a distant dream for many gym-goers, but with some hard work and dedication it is completely possible to totally transform the way you look. Whether you’re a new gym-goers or seasoned veteran, we hope this article has given you plenty of actionable information to get you going in the right direction!