One of the most common questions you will hear when you start working out is this: “Can you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time?” Well, the answer is yes. And it is called body recomposition.
I’ve successfully re-comped twice and have DEXA scans which prove I packed on serious muscle while shedding fat at the same time.
I am going to share everything you need to know. For free.
Lose fat, gain muscle – this is how it works
My proven body re-composition diet and workout plan is backed by a ton of research.
Two particular pieces of evidence I discovered convinced me that body recomposition was possible. Shockingly, I was able to add similar levels of muscle while burning fat – not just once, but twice.
Another crazy result was that my arms grew massively – as discussed in my article about building big arms. But here’s the kicker: I didn’t train my arms! No direct isolation work whatsoever.
The law of thermodynamics
Once upon a time, there was a man. A fantastic and intelligent man. A man of science and wisdom. His name was Isaac Newton. You’ll be greatly surprised to discover that he had absolutely nothing to do with the law of thermodynamics, and so we shall mention him no more within this article.
All you really need to know in regards to thermodynamics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it simply changes forms.
If you wish to find out more on this subject, hunt down an enthusiastic science teacher with nothing better to do than entertain the inquisitive mind of stalkers!
The energy balance equation
Nevertheless, the laws of thermodynamics lead us on to the energy balance equation – which is what we are most interested in here. As described on the website bodyrecomposition.com, this equation – in its simplest form is:
Energy in = Energy out + Change in Body Stores
If you eat lots of food and don’t exercise you will likely put on weight. This is because you’re consuming a shed load of calories and that energy is then stored.
The energy is stored in cells – most typically fat and muscle cells. In contrast, if you’re eating less, cell oxidation will occur. This is where your body breaks down fat and muscle cells to release the energy stored within them.
So energy in is simply the calories you are consuming, right? Not exactly…
Different nutrients digest in different ways, and all behave differently – not simply depending on the nutrient in question, but also your genetics, activity level and other foods you may be consuming.
Here’s a good example:
Foods with a high glycaemic index stimulate insulin release, which can result in energy being stored as fat, rather than being readily used by the body. Once this energy is stored, it won’t be broken down and used as easily as readily available energy sources – such as when you eat again.
Another example is fibre. It tends to bind tiny amounts of protein and fat in the stomach, which is then disposed from the body without being digested. This means that a meal high in fibre may reduce the caloric value.
It is recognised that to grow in size (increase mass), we require a positive energy balance, and to shrink in size (decrease mass), we require a negative energy balance. Therefore, we could assume that a positive energy balance is necessary to grow new muscle, and a negative energy balance to burn fat.
This is the fundamental argument for naysayers who don’ think you can build muscle on a calorie deficit. They argue that the body does not simply change from one to the other.
Bulk vs cut – should I cut or bulk?
When looking at body recomposition, you essentially want to lose fat, not muscle. However, many people fear a caloric deficit will result in muscle loss.
Naturally, we perceive excessive calories as a fundamental necessity for muscle protein synthesis – especially in an age where the bulking and cutting cycle are rammed down our throats.
That said, body recomposition allows you to bulk (add muscle) and cut (lose fat) at the same time.
Those who are new to lifting and carrying extra fat should opt for a re-comp as opposed to a cut.
Maintaining a positive nitrogen balance
A positive nitrogen balance is a primary objective when looking to add muscle mass.
One study examined the effect of a hypocaloric (restricted calorie) diet, and increased protein intake combined with resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers. The 12-week study compared three groups:
- Group 1 – placed on a hypocaloric diet (80% of predicted caloric needs). No resistance training, and no protein supplementation.
- Group 2 – placed on the same hypocaloric diet. Engaged in resistance exercise, and consumed 1.5 g per kilogram per day of casein protein hydrolysate.
- Group 3 – placed on the same hypocaloric diet. Engaged in resistance exercise, and consumed 1.5 g per kilogram per day of whey protein hydrolysate.
The results showed a mean fat loss of 2.5 kg for group one, 7.0 kg for group 2, and 4.2 kg for group 3. Lean mass gains were negligible for group 1, versus gains of 4 kg in group 2 (casein group) and 2 kg in group 3 (whey group). Mean increase in strength for chest, shoulder and legs was 59 +/- 9% for casein and 29 +/- 9% for whey – a significant group difference.
This great difference in body composition and strength was attributed to improved nitrogen retention and overall anticatabolic effects caused by the peptide components of the casein hydrolysate.
This is one of many studies which support the argument that losing fat and gaining muscle simultaneously is possible.
Another study we found looked into whether muscle hypertrophy was possible with large-scale weight loss.
Biopsy samples were taken from the vastus lateralis muscle at baseline and after 90 days of weight training. The cross-sectional area of slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibre significantly increased in the weight-trained subjects.
Calorie restriction and its effects on glucose uptake
Glucose is a simple sugar which circulates the body in the blood.
If fat cells swallow glucose (which we can later break down to release energy), what makes muscle cell uptake more preferential?
The primary reason is this: Muscle cells lack glucose-6-phosphatase which is required for glucose to be passed into the blood. Therefore, the glycogen which muscle cells store is available exclusively for internal use and is not shared with other cells.
If contracting muscles require glucose and we’re looking to reduce fat while increasing lean body mass, we must ensure that there is enough energy to supply the contracting muscles.
By encouraging muscle cells to swallow the glucose, two birds are killed with one stone: firstly, muscles have the energy required for the next workout without muscle cell breakdown and excess glucose is stored within the muscle instead of fat cells.
A study found calorie restriction increases glucose uptake by skeletal muscle cells, ergo, restricting calories = greater uptake of glucose by muscle which is exactly what we want.
Body recomposition diet & rest requirements
Now that we’ve established that body re-composition is possible, let’s look at what we’ll need to be eating, and when.
Let’s start off our section on diet by addressing the elephant in the room – protein intake. There is much confusion over the level of protein required to build or maintain muscle. The level depends on many factors such as lean body mass, whether in a caloric surplus or deficit, how often you train, your sex, and fitness goal.
Conflicting arguments rage on – and if you are anything like I used to be – you will keep changing your plan based on the most recent articles. But that all ends here.
We’ve taken many studies and built a calculator to provide something far more sensible. It accounts for lean body mass, whether you’re in a caloric deficit, and the activity you’re engaging in.
Check out our Protein Calculator, which includes references to scientific research we used to build the calculations.
The next thing we will address is the need to cycle our diet. This means we will eat more on workout days and less on rest days.
The idea of cycling calories has been looked into for many reasons: firstly, it is anecdotally reported to help prolong periods of weight loss by delaying the plateau. Other studies have shown calorie cycling can actually prolong life.
Body recomposition macros
Once you’ve calculated protein, you need to work out your other macros – carbs and fat.
Fat will make up around 40 % of macros on both training and rest days. The rest of your macros will come from carbs.
On workout days, we will consume a slightly larger proportion of carbs, and on rest days we will restrict carbs for a few reasons:
- Our caloric needs on rest days are lower.
- Carbs spike insulin which can result in higher fat storage, so limiting carbs on rest days will limit the scope for this.
- Ideally, we should consume carbs after a workout to prompt a beneficial insulin response, as discussed earlier.
- Lower carbs will lead to our body resorting to fat as its primary energy source.
You can download the free PDF & Macro Calculator which will help you work out your exact macro nutritional needs.
Body recomposition supplements
I have listed a breakdown of the supplements I took while re-comping.
- Casein: The studies we looked at were clear regarding the benefits of casein protein for body recomposition. We understand that this is not possible for those on a vegan diet, so if you’re vegan, you should look for a vegan protein shake which meets the macros required for body re-composition.
- Multivitamin: most of us will struggle to get all of the muscle-building vitamins and minerals from diet alone. Here is the multivitamin I took while re-comping the first time.
- Creatine: perhaps the most widely researched supplement on the planet, you can get this on its own or as part of an all-in-one protein (something I have recently been experimenting with).
- Omega-3: omega-3 is another of those supplements which has been intensely researched; however, is challenging to get from diet – especially for vegetarians and vegans. Check out our article about omega-3 benefits to see why I included this during body recomposition.
Get your 8 hours!
You may have heard the expression: “Eat, lift, sleep, repeat.” This statement refers to the three pillars of successful muscle building:
- Train hard.
- Eat well.
- Get some decent sleep.
Sleep regulates important hormones dedicated to keeping your body and mind fit and healthy. Damaged cells are broken down and repaired during sleep, too. You’ll maximise your body’s ability to build muscle if you sleep for seven to nine hours.
Sleep deprivation affects hormones as follows:
- Growth hormone – as its name suggests, promotes cell growth—the levels of this hormone decrease from lack of sleep.
- IGF-I – short for Insulin-like growth factor – induces protein synthesis and blocks muscle atrophy. As with the growth hormone, this is suppressed, also.
- Prolactin – a hormone involved in hundreds of biological processes – follows in the same footsteps as both growth hormone and IGF-I.
- Leptin – a hormone that inhibits hunger is also restricted.
Consume 25-40g of casein protein just before bed
Before you settle down for your eight hours of blissful sleep, be sure to ingest a good portion of protein.
Studies have shown pre-sleep protein ingestion after an evening workout increases overnight protein synthesis.
Some studies have shown whey protein as superior at stimulating muscle protein synthesis,
However, they were only assessing up to six hours. To establish if whey protein is superior when ingested before sleep, more studies need to happen. More reliable results would examine muscle protein synthesis rates over a more prolonged overnight period of 7.5 hours+
Furthermore, other studies have suggested that even post-workout, casein protein is just as good as whey.
Given the effectiveness of casein protein in both the above-mentioned study and the one concerning body re-composition in overweight police officers, we’re happy to recommend casein protein as the most appropriate supplement to use while recomping.
The optimal amount of casein before bed is 40 grams.
Casien’s slowly digestible nature allows a more moderate but prolonged rise in plasma amino acid concentrations during periods of caloric deficit and sleep.
While training, I tried a couple of types of casein. My personal favourite was the chocolate casein from Bulk Powders.
It has 108 calories and 27 grams of protein per serving. We also have a selection of casein proteins to compare prices on from many of the top nutrition brands, including Optimum Nutrition, Myprotein, The Protein Works, Grenade, and many many more.
Training for body recomposition
If you want to know exactly how to train for body recomposition, you can download the entire plan, in its full glory below.
Train four times per week
Body re-composition is a technique for building muscle and burning fat at the same time. In order to build muscle, you will need to undertake some form of resistance exercise.
We recommend training four times per week – upper body twice, and lower body twice.
For this programme, the high-intensity sessions (strength days – heavy lifting, low rep days) are to help improve strength, while the high-volume sessions (more reps and sets) are to promote hypertrophy (building muscle).
All of these exercises can be performed either at your local gym or in your own home gym setup.
If you’re interested in setting up your own home gym, but need to buy some gym equipment, then don’t worry! You can compare prices on weightlifting equipment such as power racks, barbells, weight benches, and more, right here at Fitness Savvy.
On strength days, we’re looking to perform core compound movements. We will rest for more extended periods, and perform fewer reps and sets.
As these are high-intensity exercises, we will perform in the 4 – 8 rep range. We’re not solely looking at strength, so there are no 1-rep sets, and for exercises such as barbell row and Romanian deadlift, we can work in slightly higher rep ranges.
Rest periods are longer than on hypertrophy days to allow more time to recover. That way, we can lift heavier.
- Bench Press
- Barbell Row
- Overhead Press
- Romanian Deadlift
These workouts are designed to get us pumped! Rest periods will be shorter, rep ranges higher, and we will perform more sets than on strength days. Aim for 1-2 minutes’ rest between sets.
Exercises included in the workout plan are
Upper body day:
- Incline bench press
- Dumbbell bench press
- Seated barbell shoulder press
- Arnold shoulder press
- + more
Lower body day:
- Calf Raise Supersets
If you like, you can substitute some of the exercises – for example, you could use kettlebells instead of dumbbells for squats.
I designed this routine and successfully added muscle and lost fat using the gym I built in my garage.
I did, however, have to change the adjustable dumbbells I was using.
Originally, I had a set of Bodymax dumbbells. However, not only did they seize up (making it difficult to change the weight), but during some dumbbell bench presses, one of the plates came off. Very poor quality and I would not recommend them.
I have added a ton of popular, good quality adjustable dumbbells to the price comparison section of Fitness Savvy, so go check them out and see what offers are available. We compare prices from tons of retailers, and they are always changing the prices.
It was a tough choice between the Power Blocks and Bowflex, but I opted for Bowflex 1090 4 – 41 kg in the end, and they work really well (as you will see in some of my videos).
Cardio for body recomposition
Steady state vs HIIT cardio
If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you might not continue long enough to reap any rewards – and that’s the worst possible scenario.
I read a study by Foster et al., 2015, comparing HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) with Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity.[note]Foster et al. The Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training vs Steady State Training on Aerobic and Anaerobic Capacity. J Sports Sci Med. 2015 Dec; 14(4): 747–755.[/note] The most significant point they make in their concluding remarks is that HIIT was found to be less enjoyable and that:
Perhaps variety in the type of exercise is as important as the type of exercise per se, particularly considering that the health benefits of exercise have to be viewed in the context of the likelihood that exercise is continued for several years, not just the weeks of a controlled study. Perhaps, in our quest to find the ‘perfect exercise’ we have missed the more important issue of how to make exercise enjoyable enough to be continued long-term.
If you prefer HIIT, then go for it. For me, I walked four or five times per week for an hour or so at a time. That was ideal for me.
Where are the isolation moves?
You might be asking yourself why there are no isolation moves in this workout plan. The reason is this: I wanted to investigate a few common myths to prove or disprove them. They are as follows:
- Optimum Protein intake – our findings suggest that common recommendations are too high. We used our very own protein calculator which might show lower requirements than other calculators.
- Isolation moves are not required for bigger arms – many will say that their arms grew with little or no isolation moves. There are people with huge arms who have never done a biceps curl in their life. This may be genetic, and so we are not performing any isolation moves in this workout. Our article on growing bigger arms proved they’re unnecessary.
- You should try not to work out for longer than 40-60 minutes – the stress hormone cortisol is released after lengthy workouts, which adversely affects muscle hypertrophy. We will aim to keep all workouts below 60 minutes – including warm-ups.
- Body re-composition is a myth – the science said that it is possible, and after three months with this routine, we proved it. In fact, the muscle mass put on was precisely in line with the studies we researched.
Time under tension
Perform the reps in a slow and controlled fashion. If you’re rushing the reps to get them out of the way, the weights are too heavy, or you’re not genuinely enjoying being in the gym.
Heavy reps are naturally slower. If you’re benching more than your body weight, it will be difficult not to perform them slowly.
However, on hypertrophy days, aim for 3-second negatives (so on the bench press, that is when you’re lowering the bar towards your chest) and 1-2 second positives. Some advise “exploding” to push or pull the weight during this part of the move.
Work on your weaknesses
My biggest weakness is – and always has been – pull-ups. So, to help with this, my personal workout plan incorporated a lat activation routine.
I added to the end of a day when my workout hadn’t gone over the hour mark. For me, this was lower body strength days. It’s only a 5-minute routine or so, but helped me improve this exercise.
Add similar activities to your shortest workout.
The idea is to look for moves, stretches, routines – anything really – that can help you improve the exercises you are struggling with. Some people struggle with hip mobility for squats.
If this is you, check out some stretches you can do to improve this. As I said, mine was activating the lats for pull-ups. It might also be something like shoulder mobility.
Here is the routine I used to help improve my pull-ups. It is by Damien Patrick – one of a handful of really great guys on YouTube whose workouts have added enjoyment and diversity to my sessions in the past.
HOW TO GET BETTER AT PULL-UPS : FULL PROGRAM
Body recomposition summary
So, in a nutshell, here is how to body re-composition:
1: Restrict your calories on non-training days.
2: Consume around 40 grams of Casein protein just before you go to sleep. Aim for eight hours sleep each night. This will limit muscle atrophy and promote muscle growth.
3: Engage in resistance exercise on training days, concentrating primarily on heavy, compound lifts. Remember – a training day is only one where you lift weights for at least 40-60 minutes. The combination of restricted calories and exercise contribute to higher glucose uptake into muscle cells, priming your body for optimum re-composition.
4: Eat a calorie surplus on training days to fuel protein synthesis and replenish glycogen. Consume the bulk of your calories shortly after your workout (preferably within an hour), as many studies have shown meal timing to be an important factor for protein synthesis.
I’ve designed a workout plan that has proven to work and included all the evidence required to pull off the ultimate body re-composition. If there is anything that you feel was not covered here (or the associated articles, and video), please leave a comment.
In the meantime, you can get the entire 37-page plan as a PDF download and the macro calculator below.
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- Donnelly JE, Sharp T, Houmard J, Carlson MG, Hill JO, Whatley JE, Israel RG. “Muscle hypertrophy with large-scale weight loss and resistance training.” Am J Clin Nutr. 1993 Oct;58(4):561-5.
- Richter EA, Hargreaves M. “Exercise, GLUT4, and skeletal muscle glucose uptake.” Physiol Rev. 2013 Jul;93(3):993-1017.
- Wang H, Arias EB, Cartee GD. “Calorie restriction leads to greater Akt2 activity and glucose uptake by insulin-stimulated skeletal muscle from old rats.” Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2016 Mar 1;310(5):R449-58.
- Brandhorst S et al. “A Periodic Diet that Mimics Fasting Promotes Multi-System Regeneration, Enhanced Cognitive Performance, and Healthspan.” Cell Metab. 2015 Jul 7;22(1):86-99.
- Snijders, Tim et al. “The Impact of Pre-sleep Protein Ingestion on the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise in Humans: An Update.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 6 17. 6 Mar. 2019, doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00017
- Pennings B, Boirie Y, Senden JM, Gijsen AP, Kuipers H, van Loon LJ. “Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men.“ Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May;93(5):997-1005.
- Res, Peter T., et al. “Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44.8 (2012): 1560-1569.
- Biolo G1, Tipton KD, Klein S, Wolfe RR. “An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein.” Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1 Pt 1):E122-9.