Body Recomposition

n this article I’ll briefly explain what body recomposition is and what my thoughts on it are.

What does body recomposition mean?

Let me start with some definitions:

  • Recomposition = to compose again; reorganize or rearrange.
  • Body composition = the way the body is composed. In physical fitness, we usually look at the amount of fat mass and lean mass (muscle) on the body.

“Body recomposition” could therefore simply be defined as an attempt at “reorganizing the body”. After a prolonged period of succesful training and dieting (months/years), individuals will usually have recomposed their bodies for the better: they end up with more lean mass and less fat than when they originally started (if it’s the other way around, something somewhere went horribly wrong). So basically, the body composition – fat versus lean mass- changes. For example, you can read about my personal transformation here.

recompMy phsyical transformation, or “recomp”, over the years (2004-2014)

In this article I will not discuss the “logical” way of recomposing your body I described above. I’m going to be writing about the recomposition method instead.

How does recomping work?

In the world of fitness, recomposition approaches (often referred to as “recomps” from here on) are usually done by trying to stimulate fat loss and muscle gain somewhat simultaneously through fluctuating caloric intakes throughout the week. One could simply call it calorie cycling as well. The most common methods are:

  • Eating at a calorie deficit on rest days to stimulate fat loss, and eating at a surplus on training days to stimulate muscle growth.
  • Simply making use of “bulking days” and “cutting days” without applying a certain theme to a training/rest day. A rest day could be a bulking day, and a training day could be a cutting day – and the other way around.

If the main goal is muscle gain, a recomp approach may help by keeping fat gains to a minimum. If the main goal is fat loss, a recomp approach may increase chances of holding on to muscle mass or actually building some muscle. Mentally this may be pleasant – especially for those overly paranoid about losing muscle on a “pure cut” or gaining fat on a “pure bulk”.

In either scenario, it’s important to realise that the recomp approach is usually a really, really slow one. It requires patience, monitoring and fine tuning – more so than a regular cut or bulk. Neither a bulk or cut should be rushed obviously (unless you want rapid fat gains or rapid muscle loss), but seriously- recomps sometimes feel like a complete standstill.

The recomp approach summed up in a picture.

So why is the recomp approach a really slow one?

Well, simply put: if your main goal is fat loss, you may be slowing down your progress because you are including maintenance/surplus days . If not properly thought through, this approach can result in not achieving a large enough calorie deficit at the end of the week – which will of course slow down your fat loss attempt. If your main goal is gaining lean mass, you could be slowing down your progress by not providing enough nutrients to optimally recover and support growth. In either cases, it’s kind of like pushing gas and break simultaneously.

Would simultaneously pressing down the gas and break button in a car be effective in order to effectively advance? Probably not.

What happens to your body in terms of body composition will depend on your energy balance and the size of the calorie deficits and surpluses you use over a prolonged period of time. I like to look at weekly energy balance for ease.

A generic protocol like -20% / +20% maintenance calories on rest / training days will probably not get you anywhere effectively. This approach is fine for simply maintaining your frame – although you could probably just eat at maintenance and achieve a similar result – but you won’t stimulate either fat loss or muscle growth effectively. Thus, chances are high that you’ll just end up spinning your wheels and stagnating.

FOCUS: APPLY IT

Most people tend to be better off focusing on either a fatloss/cutting phase or lean bulking phase. A regular cutting or bulking phase that is – no recomp approach. What people fall into this category? For example:

  • Beginning strength trainees: Bulk if skinny, cut if fat
  • Overweight people: Cut
  • Skinny people: Bulk
  • Skinny-fat people: You unlucky soul. Choose your destiny – I’d usually recommend to CUT so you can start out with a solid lean frame to add slabs of muscle upon.

By applying FOCUS you’ll actually get somewhere. Focus on one thing, instead of trying to do two things at the same time. For the record: by applying FOCUS I don’t mean 2 weeks of bulking followed by 2 weeks of cutting because you realized you weren’t satisfied with your “too high” bodyfat percentage after all. Start something and stick to the plan. Making minor tweaks is perfectly fine, but don’t derail yourself all the time.

Common sense recap: by applying daily calorie deficits you’ll lose weight. By applying daily calorie surpluses you will gain. The law of thermodynamics/energy balance is simple, really. Monitor your progress, implement smart strategies (such as: following a strength training program that suits your goals, focus on maintaining strength or progressive overload, assure adequate protein intake, use calorie deficits or surpluses that match your current body, occasional refeeds or diet breaks on a cut, etc.) and fine-tune along the way, so that you assure you’re heading into the desired direction!

Who could consider the recomp method?

I’d consider a recomp approach for:

  • Experienced athletes/lifters/macro-trackers who are quite satisfied with their current body, who know what they’re doing and simply wish to stay lean and fine-tune. If you’ve been into strength training for a long time, your muscle gains will come slow. If you wish to maintain leanness and support growth, a recomp bulk may be a decent strategy. If you want to lose some bodyfat but also hold on to muscle mass and keep relative strength up as an experienced trainee – a recomp cut may be a decent strategy.
  • Injured athletes. If you can’t focus 100% on either fat loss or muscle gain due to injury, you may as well play around with a balanced recomp approach. Instead of eating at maintenance calories daily, you may actually realize a positive shift in body composition. It’ll give the injured athlete something “fun” and interesting to play around with too.
  • Patient people.

Prioritize gaining or cutting, even when recomping

In the scenarios I mentioned above I’d lean towards a bulk/cut-oriented recomp, with a clear emphasis on either gaining muscle or losing fat. Something like:

  • Recomp Cut / Fat loss: -30 to -10% on rest days / Maintenance or small surplus or training days
  • Recomp Bulk / Gaining: Maintenance or small deficit on rest days / +10% to 20% surplus on training days

Recap: for effective muscle gain, it will help if you end up at a calorie surplus at the end of the week. For fat loss, you need to be in a calorie deficit. Whatever your goal: make sure you aim for a certain calorie target on a weekly basis. Being at a deficit in the end of the week will result in weight loss – do it right (maintain strength) and you’ll be losing fat mainly while preserve your muscle mass. Being at a surplus at the end of the week will result in weight gain – do it right (get stronger in the gym!) and you will gain a decent amount of muscle next to accumulating some fat. The rate of fat loss or weight gain will depend on the size of the deficit or surplus. Don’t forget this very basic knowledge if you wish to successfully experiment with recomps!

Let’s repeat what’s important here:

Weekly caloric intake = KING

And no, there’s nothing special or magical about “one week” or “7 days”. You could also look at your energy balance of 4, 5, 6 or 8 days. Whatever. Again: using weeks to keep track of things like this is just convenient.

If you decide to use the common training day = surplus and rest day = deficit recomp method, it will obviously be important to take your training frequency into consideration. Training 6 days a week and eating at a surplus on those days, and having 1 rest day with a large deficit – with the main goal being fat loss – will probably result in no fat loss whatsoever. Why? Simply because you won’t be at an effective deficit at the end of the week.

I’ll explain this some more by providing a simple fat loss example:

“Odin” bulked up, reached 14% bodyfat and wants to cut down a bit to 10% bodyfat – and resume gaining from there on. Odin likes to train 6 days a week and eats at a minor surplus on those days (+5%) in an attempt to still stimulate some growth. He has one rest day: where he drops calories 30% under maintenance (= a rather large deficit).

What’s the problem here? Chances are that Odin won’t be losing any fat. Instead, he’ll probably just maintain his frame with this approach. Why? The amount of surplus days cancel out the effect of the amount of deficit days. At the end of the week he’s at a neutral energy balance (6 days of 5% surplus = 30% surplus, 1 day of 30% deficit = cancel each other out at the end of the week).

Odin isn’t attacking his goal effectively (fat loss) and he should re-think his strategies. A possible solution: Odin could cut back on training frequency (does he really have to train 6 days a week anyway? Especially when prioritizing fat loss?). Or he could dial back the amount of surplus days and/or eat at maintenance (or at a small deficit) instead while keeping that training frequency up (he better not be overdoing it on training volume then). In any case; Odin has to ensure a weekly deficit in order to effectively lose body fat.

Odin bulked up succesfully. Now he just needs to shed the fat effectively.

A simple gaining example:

“Heimdall” wants to focus on gaining lean muscle and keeping body fat gains at a minimum. He only lifts 2 days per week. Heimdall eats at a surplus on those training days: 20% above maintenance. The other 5 days of the week he is at a 10% deficit.

Let’s assume his calorie maintenance is 2500 kcal. This means he eats 3000 kcal 2 days per week for his bulking/surplus days; resulting in a +1000 kcal surplus (2x 500 kcal). The other 5 days of the week he eats 2250 kcal; resulting in a -1250 kcal deficit (5×250 kcal).

At the end of the week: 1000 – 1250 = -250. Yikes! This means he is actually in a weekly calorie deficit. He won’t be building much muscle this way. Heimdall isn’t working effectively towards achieving his goal (lean mass gains) and he should re-think his strategies. Possible solution: Heimdall should assure a calorie surplus at the end of the week in order to support growth. If he can’t train more frequently than twice a week, he could simply turn one or two of his rest days to maintenance (or “tiny surplus”) days. This way, he’ll slowly get his gainz. Whether he’s stimulating hypertrophy effectively by only training 2 days per week is another topic, and if he is a skinny noob I wonder if he should actually be using a recomp approach at all.

More like: runed his own gaining attempts. Muscle gainz will be better once you assure a calorie surplus, Heimdall! 

The end

I personally like fluctuating calorie intakes: I eat a bit more on my training days than on my rest days. But, I make damn sure I’m either focusing on fat loss OR mass gain for a prolonged period of time, and I recommend you to do the same!

So: if you have a specific physique, fitness or sport related goal, focus on that by following either a fat loss or gaining phase. Set up your nutrition plan accordingly. If you are an experienced athlete or you simply want to experiment, you can consider approaching your goal “recomp” style. If you do, please do your math to check if you’re in an effective weekly surplus or deficit to avoid spinning your wheels. Emphasize a recomp cut or recomp bulk: don’t try to focus on two things at once. Closely monitor your progress, re-assess when it isn’t going according to plan, and fine-tune along the way. At the end of the day, you can use whatever approach you want to change your body composition.

And that’s my take on recomping. If you decide to give the recomp method a shot, be prepared: for it may be a pretty decent road to GainsVille, but it is a slow one.

The road to gains using a recomposition approach. It requires a lot of patience.

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