Body Recomposition: Can YOU Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?
Written by: Christopher Barakat, MS, ATC, CISSN
If I told you that YOU have the ability to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, would you believe me? … I see it so often, that I believe you can achieve body recomposition as well!
In this article, I’m going to provide you with scientific evidence from multiple individuals I’ve helped and also randomized controlled trials that have shown significant gains in lean body mass and reductions in fat mass.
When it comes to improving our body composition, we all want to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Unfortunately, you might have been told that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to do this.. (I used to believe the same as this is what experts I followed were stating. However, once I got involved with data collection as a Master’s student back in 2016, I started seeing this body recomposition phenomenon every semester with subjects in our studies!)
On top of that, you’ve been led to believe that you must pick a goal of either a) fat loss (i.e. a cutting phase) or b) muscle building (i.e. a bulking phase), and to achieve those goals you must enter an a) calorie deficit or b) calorie surplus, respectively.
Well… these black and white statements that attempt to oversimplify human physiology end up distorting the complex metabolic processes of skeletal muscle and adipocytes (fat cells).
The issue I have with this is by having people believe that they can not achieve body recomposition, it negatively impacts their self-belief/potential, and often leads them to take a suboptimal training/nutritional approach!
Without spending too much time on the misconceptions, I do want to quickly explain why this is false.
The Law of Thermodynamics proves:
- To build muscle, you must store energy (add building blocks/proteins)
- To lose fat, you must burn energy (specifically stored body fat in your adipocytes)
“Energy can not be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another”- Albert Einstein
Where people go wrong is that they then assume:
- You must be in an energy surplus to build muscle.
- You must be in an energy deficit to lose fat.
These assumptions aren’t that clear-cut because our skeletal muscle and fat tissue are two different functioning compartments of your body which signal different metabolic processes that require different amounts of energy, totally independent of one another.
Side note: Although we have pretty good understanding of the energy cost of fat tissue (i.e. ~3500kcal = 1lbs of Fat Mass), we do not fully know the involved energy cost to build skeletal muscle.(8)
Additionally, many assume that if body recomposition does occur, it is only possible in specific populations, while being improbable and impractical for most. Those populations that are typically provided with more hope to recomp are untrained/novice, overweight/obese, detrained, and enhanced subjects (i.e. those utilizing performance enhancing anabolic androgenic steroids). However, the scientific literature combined with plenty of anecdotal evidence shows otherwise.
Before diving into the scientific studies that have demonstrated body recomposition, I want to provide individual examples/photos across many demographics (gender, age, experience level, etc.) to encourage you that you too can achieve body recomposition. (Remember, up until 1954, mankind believed it was impossible to run a mile in less than 4 minutes. Once it was achieved by Roger Bannister, more than 500 people have accomplished this once perceived barrier. More recently, the idea of running a marathon in less than two hours being impossible was proven wrong by Eliud Kipchoge in 2019, completing it in 1h:59m:40s… I share that because your beliefs are powerful seeds that create your reality)
Let’s start with Jordan Meadows, a trainee who utilized my extreme hypertrophy program while following my evidence-based nutritional suggestions.
In just 8-weeks, he underwent a drastic body recomposition transformation!
Gaining total body weight (from muscle mass), while losing fat mass.
Another great recomposition to share is one of my good friends, Dr. Francissco Navarro.
At 43 years young, Doc took his health, wellness and body composition to the next level and decided to get back to a bodybuilding lifestyle. He had a very successful competition season with the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation.
The body recomposition is clear as night and day!
Let’s look at another particular example from one of my female clients, my friend Lynn Teh.
At 42 years of age, she had been resistance training for years (but not in the most optimal fashion until we started) and in just 8-weeks, she made significant recomposition progress by losing fat mass and building muscle mass.
Our circumference measurements revealed she lost inches off her waist (a great indicator of fat loss) while adding size to her glutes.
Over the course of 1-year, her recomposition has been so significant, her total weight is higher than her starting point and her body fat is much lower.
I don’t want to get off track and turn this blog article into a full page of transformations, but here is a slide show of just a few successful body recompositions – many of which I have quantitative, objective data via dexa scans, circumference measurements, and other body fat/composition assessment (e.g. MBIA, skin-calipers, etc.)
Over the past ~8 weeks, I’ve been recomping myself after detraining a bit during lockdowns due to COVID19, while running a new hypertrophy program coming this Fall. My most recent DEXA scan demonstrated that I gained +6.9lbs of Lean Body Mass and lost -1.9lbs of Fat Mass!
Now that I’ve presented some visual examples of different individuals, it’s time to dive into some of the science.
However, I wanted to write this blog article for a broad audience who may not enjoy reading lengthy science articles.
My first research study I was a part of in grad school, investigated the effects of auto-regulating exercise selection in well-trained subjects(7). When looking at some of the outcomes, I was very interested in the considerable differences between individuals and how some subjects (5 out of 17) ended up recomping.
It may be a challenge, but If five out of seventeen well-trained subjects recomped, why can’t you?
A couple of months later, we were investigating different resistance training techniques to optimize performance variables in collegiate female volleyball athletes(6).
In just 7-weeks, these females lost a significant amount of fat mass (5+lbs) while gaining a substantial amount of lean body mass (~6lbs)! As you can, just from looking at the averages, their total body ‘weight’ didn’t change much ~1lb. However, their body composition significantly changed for the better!
Body recomposition has been observed across many more studies! yet people are still skeptical about it.
My friend and colleague, Dr. Bill Campbell led an excellent study that investigated the difference in protein intake (high 1.14g pro/lb vs low .41g pro/lb) would have on body composition in aspiring female figure competitors(4).
The high protein group gained 4.62lbs of fat-free mass while simultaneously losing 2.42lbs of fat mass, despite eating ~423 more calories per day, compared to the low-protein group, undergoing the same training protocol!
This study highlights that not all calories are created equal! In fact, it has been shown that protein is not only the most satiating, but also has the highest thermic effect when consumed…meaning that when eating protein it takes more energy to digest than carbs/fats.
This was reinforced by research done by Jose Antonio and colleagues (1)in which they compared very high protein intakes(~1.5g pro/lb), to moderately high protein intakes (~1g pro/lb). So for someone like myself at 175lbs, they were eating ~265g pro/day!
Some of the aforementioned data, as well as plenty of additional data that I haven’t mentioned, is this blog article is one of the reasons why I’m an advocate for high protein intakes.
In our most recent publication(3), we recommend 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass if you’re aiming to maximize the recomposition effect. In the Ultimate Guide for Body Recomposition, I explain how this protein intake recommendation best works on a sliding scale based on each individual’s starting body composition. (i.e. those with more body fat can steer to the lower side of the spectrum, and leaner individuals may be best off heading towards the higher end.)
We also discuss non-training/nutrition-related factors (i.e. sleep, metabolism, hormones) that have been shown to influence body composition. For example, look at this data from Jabeek & colleagues (5) that demonstrated much better body composition outcomes in subjects who were educated on optimizing their sleep quality & quantity.
Sleep is so important, we dedicated an entire chapter to it in The Ultimate Guide to Body Composition.
Overall, I hope you understand that body recomposition can and does happen! More importantly, I hope you now have a greater belief in your potential to improve your physique.
Some important considerations to note:
- Each individual’s experience level and training status will impact their body composition adaptations. Those with less resistance training experience, that are further away from their genetic potential can build muscle at a faster rate compared to well-trained individuals.
- The training stimulus (i.e. progressive resistance training) is going to drive the muscle adaptation response and impact body composition outcomes.
- Dietary intake & nutritional strategies can significantly impact training performance, recovery, and body composition outcomes.
- Additional variables such as sleep, metabolic health, and hormonal profiles have been shown to affect body composition.
- More research is needed to grasp a deeper understanding on how exactly, body recomposition occurs, factors that influence, and what can favorably impact your results.
*If you’re not recomping, it does not mean you can’t. Many people will fall under a category we like to call ‘sub-optimized’ trainees. Regardless of your training age, there are often improvements that can be made to your training protocol, intensity/effort, nutritional approach, and recovery strategies.
To learn how to optimize your approach specifically for body recomposition, check out The Ultimate Guide to Body Recomposition.
You can view our new review on Body Recomposition: HERE
Additional Resource: YouTube Video from co-author of the Ultimate Guide to Body Recomposition, Jeff Nippard.