Whether you're in great shape or just skinny-fat, training for simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain will help you get you even closer to your goals.
People tend to fall into one of two extremes when it comes to body recomp.
There are those who know little or nothing about fitness. They often have wildly unrealistic expectations, believing that with the right program, they can simultaneously lose twenty pounds of fat while gaining 20 pounds of muscle in a single month.
Conversely, the people who understand exercise physiology often take the opposite approach, and insist that recomp is bullshit. These people will usually insist that it’s physically impossible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
Technically, depending on what you mean by “at the same time,” this second group is right. Your body can never be in both an anabolic and catabolic state at any given moment. However, it’s entirely possible to alternate between the two.
First off, you can burn fat for part of the day and build muscle for part of the day via intermittent fasting and intelligent post-workout refeeding.
This method alone, however, will produce glacially slow progress.
So, let’s not even talk about that.
The other thing you can do is practice your muscle-building skills a few days a week, and your fat-burning skills a few days a week. If you do this right, and, in particular, if your macro calculations are on point, you can produce some pretty respectable results.
That said, recomping usually produces slower results than alternating bulk and cut phases.
So, why would you do it?
Well, first off, it produces steadier results, rather than the two steps forward, one step back progress that can often be seen with the bulk/cut model. Second, it’s a great cure for yo-yo dieting.
While anyone can benefit from recomp, there are a few specific types of people who tend to do better with it rather than simply alternating bulking and cutting. I’ll provide specific recommendations for those groups, but let’s first go over the basics of body recomp.
The first rule of recomp is to eat a caloric surplus on workout days and a caloric deficit on non-workout days.
The second rule of recomp is eat a caloric surplus on workout days and a caloric deficit on non-workout days.
Roman explains how to calculate your calorie and macro needs in this article; he recommends a 100 calorie surplus on workout days and 500 calorie deficit on non-workout days, but treat those numbers as a starting point. Not gaining strength or mass? Add another one or two hundred calories on workout days. Not losing fat? Cut a couple hundred more calories on non-workout days- ideally from carbs.
The third rule of recomp is to lift weights three or four times a week. Don’t lift more than four days a week. Remember, you’re eating a caloric surplus on your workout days, so working out more often would turn this recomp into a bulk.
Note that you don’t have to perform each workout exactly once a week. You can have a four-way split and work out three times a week, or have a five-way split and workout three or four times a week.
The fourth rule of recomp is that every exercise other than weightlifting is optional and thusly doesn’t count as a workout day. A little jogging or playing soccer with your friends can be great ways to burn some extra calories on non-workout days, but they don’t earn you the right to eat more.
The fifth rule is to utilize some form of intermittent fasting. Personally, I’m a fan of daily 16/8 fasting, plus 24-hour fasts the day after a cheat day, but find a fasting protocol that works with your body and your schedule.
The sixth rule is to get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Sleeping helps with both fat loss and muscle growth. It’s a win-win, so make sure you nail this.
Those are the basics.
Being skinny-fat is tough. When you try to cut, you end up losing muscle along with fat. When you try building muscle, you end up gaining fat along with your new muscle. It’s a heartbreaking, Sisyphean ordeal. Thankfully, recomping offers a solution.
When breaking out of the skinny-fat trap, patience is the name of the game. The rapid cut/bulk mindset will only lead to yo-yo dieting, so keep your daily caloric surpluses under two hundred calories and your deficits under six hundred.
While you are losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, losing fat is the more important of the two. Your goal is to get your body fat percentage down, since being leaner means you’ll look better and have better nutrient partitioning.
Focus on strong deficits and low-carb dieting on non-workout days. If you can also gain a little lean mass, view that as the icing on the cake.
And if you’re skinny-fat, don’t use cheat days to start out with. You’re not lean enough to automatically deserve one. Instead, allow yourself one cheat meal per week; dinner on Saturday nights tend to be when most people have this.
If you initially show strong fat loss, start getting leaner, and your progress slows dramatically after a while, that’s when you add in a cheat day once every two weeks. This will serve to up-regulate hormones like leptin and thyroid hormone and keep your metabolism high.
But don’t add a cheat day until you need it and you know you’re doing everything else right. Don’t bump the frequency up to once a week until you’ve broken out of the skinny-fat zone and have gotten lean.
Make your workouts whole-body. Working your entire body each time will give you the strongest metabolic effect, which is ideal for kick-starting fat loss. Just make sure not to overwork your legs. Don’t push them to failure.
Keep rest times short. Again, this maximizes the metabolic impact of your workouts.
The other key to fighting the skinny fat syndrome is to take a close look at optimizing your hormones, especially insulin, which manages your blood sugar and glucose levels.
The second group who can benefit from a recomp is those who are both fairly lean, and have added almost as much muscle hypertrophy as their body can naturally have. If you’re in this group, you only need to lose a few pounds of fat and gain a few pounds of muscle, and you’ll be in the best (drug-free) shape that you could possibly be in.
Ironically, being in great shape puts you in a similar bind to the skinny-fat trainee. Because your body can only gain muscle very slowly at this point, it’s easy for a large caloric surplus to spill over into fat gain. And because your body doesn’t have much fat left to lose, it’ll be resistant to more fat loss and weight loss; it will try its best to lose muscle because evolution has designed our bodies first and foremost to avoid starvation.
If you’re in this group, your prescription differs from that of the skinny-fat trainee in a few key ways.
First off, you should have a cheat day every week. You’re lean enough to benefit from it, and you’ve proven that you can follow a diet well enough to warrant a cheat day. So, enjoy that cheat day; you’ve earned it.
Second, compared to the skinny-fat trainee, your diet should be tilted a bit more towards muscle growth. Since you’re lean, you have great nutrient partitioning, so you can eat a little more on workout days without gaining fat. Your caloric surplus on workout days might be several hundred, rather than just one hundred.
Third, your workouts should probably be split-body, or else each workout should focus on a few body parts while minimally working others. There are a few reasons for this. First off, you probably tend to push yourself harder than newer trainees. That means each muscle needs more time to recover. Moreover, muscle naturally takes longer to recover as they grow larger, since some of the bodily resources they draw won’t have grown as much as the muscles themselves. And third, since you’re prioritizing muscle growth a bit more highly, the added metabolic boost from a full-body workout is less important.
Finally, switch up your workouts every 2-3 months. The better shape you’re in, the faster you adapt to an exercise program, and that’s when progress stalls. You don’t want to program-hop, but you do want to follow an intelligent progression that keeps the training effect going strong. Your best options here are to either hire a coach, or follow a program designed for this specific purpose, such as The Super Hero Workout training program.
There are going to be some periods of your life when you don’t have the time, energy, or stability to follow an aggressive fitness program. That’s OK.
The final category of people who would benefit from a recomp program are people who don’t necessarily want to recomp, but merely want to maintain what they have while making fitness a lower priority in their lives. In this case, instead of losing fat and gaining muscle, the goal is to merely not gain fat and not lose muscle.
A recomp-like program is ideal for physique maintenance since it maintains insulin sensitivity, provides adequate stimulus to preserve muscle mass, and doesn’t require a particularly difficult diet. If you’re in this category, you can take things a bit easier than the other two groups, but you still need to make sure you’re following the program, and in particular that you don’t overeat and get fat.
Rule number one: keep the workouts time-efficient. That means three or maybe even just two workouts a week, with each one clocking in at 20-30 minutes. If you only work out twice a week, it has to be full-body. Also, even though you’re “taking it easy,” you want to push yourself pretty hard during these workouts, allowing higher intensity to partially substitute for the lower volume.
Rule number two: make heavy use of intermittent fasting. The hormonal benefits of intermittent fasting are going to be extra useful since you’re not working out as often. The 16/8 or even 19/5 schedules are ideal for maintenance phases, since restricting your eating to a shorter window each day makes it easier to limit caloric intake. Feast-fast can also be useful if you’re prone to fat gain, but only if you’re earning that cheat day.
Rule number three: determine your diet based on your natural tendency, not your goal. In other words, if you get fat easily, keep calories and carbs low. If you’re naturally skinny and had to struggle for every ounce of muscle, bump up the calories a bit, especially on workout days.
Rule four: Have a weekly cheat day, as long as you’re following your diet. Since you’re de-prioritizing fitness for a while, you can go ahead and enjoy a weekly cheat day without worrying about whether it’s exactly ideal for you given your goals and current body fat percentage. However, you do still have to not be overeating the other six days of the week- otherwise, you’ll just get fat.
Finally, remember that you can never truly stay the same. You’re always gaining or losing fat. You’re always gaining or losing muscle. And if you’re not trying hard enough to make progress, you’ll probably backslide, at least a little bit. A good recomp program can limit the damage, but it won’t freeze your body in place. So go into maintenance mode for a few months if you have to, but understand that after a while, you’ll need to re-focus on fitness and put in the effort to make some gains.
Recomping is a great way to gradually gain lean muscle and lose fat, while avoiding yo-yo dieting. If you have the patience and the ability to hit some fairly precise macro targets, and have had trouble with bulk/cut cycles in the past, training for body recomposition is going to be your best option to help you achieve your goals.
If you’re looking for an all-encompassing workout program centered around the concept of body recomp, then check out The Super Hero Workout training program, which is available right now an over 50% discount.
Comments for This Entry
Noelle HealyThis is the best article on how to break out of Skinny Fat conundrum I've read, and I have read a lot! I had a Dexa scan recently that says my BMR is 1400cals, my TDEE is 1700cals so I'm curious, on a NON-workout day, do I reduce -500cals from my BMR or my TDEE? I thought it was dangerous to go below 1200 cals? Would LOVE to hear your thoughts!
October 16, 2017 at 8:48 pm
Matt MakinsonDue to schedule, I workout at 10:30 pm. Should my surplus be that day going into night workout or the next day??
November 15, 2015 at 2:07 am
John FawkesGood question- I'd make it that day, but try to stack your eating more toward the evening, even if that means most of it will be before the workout.
November 15, 2015 at 11:10 am
November 16, 2015 at 3:32 am
John FawkesOh, uh, don't make yourself puke during training though. :D
November 17, 2015 at 2:41 am
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November 9, 2015 at 3:41 pm
Tyson BrownI love the article! I'm considering doing a recomp and I've heard a lot of debate about how you can recomp and how you aren't able to really recomp. Being a personal trainer myself i've had clients who are new who have been skinny fat or overweight who have achieved this but i'm not sure if the more experienced people can achieve this. Do you have any proof of you or a client following these approaches John?
November 8, 2015 at 9:13 am
John FawkesI haven't published case studies yet, but plenty of other coaches have. I'm not sure what you're asking here- are you saying you doubt that recomping is possible? Because Roman has written about it before. Your progress will obviously be slower if you're more experienced, but it can be done.
November 9, 2015 at 9:19 pm
Tyson BrownI know it has been done, but I haven't heard it done in the way you're describing which is why i was just asking. It will be interesting to see how it goes. I'm going to try your approach, thanks John
November 10, 2015 at 12:11 am
John FawkesYeah, the only thing I'd add is, recomping tends to be slower than alternating bulks and cuts. So I mainly recommend it for people who find that bulk/cut just causes them to yo-yo. Read Roman's article about how to eat for a recomp- you have to get caloric intake dialed in, though like I said, his numbers are a starting point for finding exactly what works for you.
November 10, 2015 at 6:35 pm