Body Recomposition: The Minimalist’s Guide to Cutting without Losing Muscle

*This is a guest article by Adam Ali.*

Body recomposition is a delicate subject in the world of fat loss and muscle gain.

You have the camp that claims it’s pointless and then you have others who live and die by its efficacy.

As with anything in the fitness world there is no ‘black or white’ answer, just a lot of grey area.

I’ve used body recomposition on myself and with my clients. If done correctly and under the right circumstances, it’s an excellent way to build a better physique.

However, it’s difficult to pull off properly and a lot of people try to use the term to sell you ridiculous claims. My goal here is to show you that body recomposition is possible, and how to go about it successfully.

The Recomp Defined

Body recomposition, or simply, ‘recomp’ is the process of reducing body fat and adding muscle mass.

Anytime someone has changed from being fat to lean, while maintaining or gaining muscle, is an example of ‘body recomposition’, albeit a simplistic one.

When I refer to recomposition, not only in the scope of this article but generally, I’m referring to the process of burning body fat while simultaneously adding muscle over a short period of time.

Yeah, I know. I can hear you already — ‘Bullshit!, you can’t build muscle and burn fat at the same time!’

This is true.

Sort of.

The Problem with Trying to Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time

You’ll commonly hear stories of naive Bros, doing a ‘one week bulk’ followed by a ‘one week cut’, in the hope of losing fat and building muscle at the same time.

The issue with this approach is that you aren’t giving your body enough time to build new muscle or burn body fat.

To burn fat you have to be in a caloric deficit and to build muscle you have to be in a caloric surplus.

Now you can see why trying to achieve both goals simultaneously tends to be tricky.

There is, however, a way to mostly overcome this issue.

Calorie Cycling: The Key to Body Recomposition

Calorie cycling is where you alternate your caloric intake between high and low calorie days throughout the week. This will be the key to achieving the recomp effect.

The recomp will be structured as follows.

On days you lift, you’ll eat at maintenance calories, which is the amount of calories you need to maintain your current body weight. Every day that you don’t lift, you’ll eat at a small calorie deficit. That includes days when you do cardio.

This helps you keep progressing in the gym, despite being in a deficit throughout the week.

The other factor we need to address is recovery. For our bodies to adapt to a new stimulus and build new muscle they need enough calories to rebuild broken down muscle tissue. Hence why recovery begins to suck when someone goes into a large caloric deficit.

Eating at maintenance with a [well-planned strength training program](http://evidencemag.com/lifting-rules-podcast) will create a sufficient anabolic environment to promote muscle growth and strength gains.

The deficit days will be used on days you aren’t training to cause a small amount of fat loss and ensure you don’t overeat when you aren’t training. Your energy expenditure on these days won’t be as much as on training days so you won’t need the excess calories.

Before we do go on, I need to clarify that a recomp may not be best for everyone.

Who this Does, and Doesn’t, Work For

I want to make a few things clear so we’re on the same page. As much as this approach works, it’s slow.

If you go into this with unrealistic expectations, and think you will be gaining an insane amount of muscle while dropping a ton of fat, then close this window and go back to reading Men’s Health or whatever other fitness magazine you use to feed your fantasies.

If you are a physique competitor or someone bent on gaining muscle or losing fat as fast as possible, then you’re better off with cutting and bulking.

Ok, now that disclaimers, caveats and prerequisites are out of the way, let’s talk about who this does work for.

1. The Fat Beginner

Recomping is an excellent tool for someone who’s just starting out on their physique journey.

I’m not a fan of newbies putting themselves into a caloric deficit. The first 6–12 months of a beginner’s physique journey is ‘primetime’ for growth. So take advantage of this period  (the only exception to this rule is if you are really overweight or obese to begin with).

2. The ‘Skinny Fat’ Beginner

Someone who is ‘Skinny Fat’ doesn’t have much muscle on their frame and are carrying a lot of fat, often around the stomach.

Just like their skinny brethren, a straight caloric deficit will only make them look worse as they lack the muscle to look shredded. An argument could be made that if this group ate in a straight calorie surplus they could see results in terms of muscle growth. But, these people often have a tendency to [put on body fat](http://evidencemag.com/fat-gain-explained) easily. The recomp is a great way to strike the perfect balance between fat loss and muscle growth.

If you are someone who is naturally skinny, aka ‘the hardgainer’ type — the recomp is not for you. Get into a caloric surplus and focus on gaining size and strength. Period.

3. Anyone Determined to Stay Lean Year-Round

If you want to stay lean all the time, you can’t afford extended periods of bulking and cutting.

Recomping makes it easier to keep a photo-ready physique, while making consistent muscle and strength gains.

If you want to get really lean for a party, vacation or photo-shoot, you can cut for a few weeks to “tighten up” beforehand.

*(Armi’s Note: Trying to stay super-lean year round makes it much harder to build muscle, but it’s fine if your main goal is to stay lean.*

4. Lifters Who Want to Strip Off Fat Inside a Bulking Cycle

I often use the recomp protocol as a phase inside my muscle gain phases to strip off excess fat.

I’m a fan of extended muscle gaining periods, often eight months or longer. Inevitably, the deeper I get into this phase, the more body fat I will accumulate. I like periodizing a four to five month calorie surplus followed by a two(ish) month recomp to strip off fat. Then I revert back to a surplus and resume the mass gaining phase.

A lot of people will argue that a mini-cut will be a lot more beneficial during a bulk. I agree, and have used mini-cuts successfully in the past. However, it comes down to the mindset of the individual. Oftentimes, people who are in ‘bulk mode’ don’t want to go into a straight calorie deficit and risk losing their gains. This is a common phenomenon among ex-skinny Bros.

How to Set Up a Recomp Diet

Step 1: Set maintenance calories.

Maintenance is an extremely arbitrary term, and will change day-to-day depending on how active or inactive you’ve been. But for the sake of simplicity, maintenance will be your caloric starting point.

Use this formula to set your maintenance calories.

Your Bodyweight (in lbs) x [12 to 16] = Maintenance calories

I chose this formula because it’s simple and within about five percent of more complicated ones.

If you are someone who is sedentary (someone working a desk job, for example) and not doing much physical exertion aside from the gym, it’s best to go with the lower end of 12. If you are someone who is extremely active (for example — you’re a construction worker and you also strength train) go with the higher range of 16.

Not sure? Play it safe and go with the mid-range of 14.

Ladies — go with the lower end of 12–14.

These are just starting points, and you’ll probably have to adjust your calorie intake as you recomp.

For example, Brohan, a university student, weighs 170 pounds. He’s just started lifting and is a bit on the “fluffy” side.

Brohan isn’t completely sedentary throughout the day due to walking around campus, going out with friends, etc, so we multiply his body weight by 15.

170 x 15 = 2,550

So Brohan needs to consume 2,500 calories (rounded down) to maintain his current weight of 170 pounds.

Step 2: Set off-day calories.

Subtract 150–200 calories from your maintenance calories.

For Brohan, this would be 2,300 calories.

Step 3: Set the macros.

Even though setting calories gives us a good starting point, to really optimize your physique, you need to set your macros–protein, fat and carbs.

Training day macros.

Protein — 1 gram per pound of total body weight.

Fat — 25–30 percent of total calories.

Carbs — the calories remaining once protein and fat are set.

Using the example from earlier of Brohan’s 2,500 calorie maintenance, this is what the math looks like.

Set protein: 170 x 1 = 170 grams per day (680 calories).

Set fat: Daily calories (2,500) x .3 (30%) = 750 calories.

750 / 9 (nine calories per gram of fat) = ~80 grams.

Set carbs:

680+750 = 1,430

2,500 – 1,430 = 1,070

1,070 / 4 (four calories per gram of carbs) = 267.5 (rounded to 270)

So his training day macros look like this.

Calories: 2,500

Protein: 170 grams

Fat: 80 grams

Carbs: 270 grams

Off day macros.

On his off-days, Brohan will reduce carbohydrates by 50 grams, putting him into a slight calorie deficit. Here’s what his macros look like on off-days.

Calories: 2,300

Protein: 170 grams

Fat: 80 grams

Carbs: 230 grams

Now that we have the diet sorted, there are a few more things we need to touch on. My OCD won’t let me finish this article without mentioning them.

The Fine Details: Refeeds, Free Meals, Training and Cardio

I want to touch on some additional details that are part of a body recomposition protocol.

You’re going to have days where you will go out with friends and family and you need to have a plan for how to manage those situations. (Aka YOLO control).

Also, I’ve found that some people do actually benefit from knowing that they will be getting more calories one day of the week, helping with adherence (which is key when doing something as meticulous as a recomp).

Refeeds

A refeed is normally one day a week where calories are increased, through carbs, to bring you back up to “maintenance.”

The idea behind refeeds is that it will boost leptin levels and increase your metabolism (which slows down during an extended calorie deficit) and ends up helping with long-term fat loss.

However, for the most part you will be at maintenance calories, so refeeds won’t really be needed. I personally prefer free meals.

Free Meals

A free meal works a lot better than a refeed and can help with adherence.

Instead of focusing on just “refeeding” on carbohydrates, which can be pretty restrictive, a free meal allows you to enjoy whatever foods you’ve been craving. It also lets you go out with friends and family without becoming neurotic over having to track (or pack tupperware).

To have a free meal, hit your allotted macros for the day and have one meal on top that isn’t tracked. That means you’ll be eating slightly over maintenance calories on that day.

Make sure to keep the free meal in moderation — one day during the week. Preferably on a day that you train for better partitioning of the extra calories.

Training

Focus on progressive overload with a heavy focus (no pun intended) on the big movements– squat, deadlift, bench, military press, chin-ups, etc. As long as you are improving — lifting more weight or doing more reps   week-to-week–it’s a safe bet that you’re building muscle.

Cardio

Look, if you don’t want to do cardio, fine. That’s your choice. But from my experience recomping and with clients, cardio is an awesome tool to have in your programming at any stage of your physique journey (bulking or cutting) and should be no different when you’re recomping.

You need to remove this idea of cardio being a necessary evil, and see the added health benefits as a tool that will get you to your goal faster.

Here are some guidelines for cardio.

– HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) style cardio should be done a maximum of 1–2 times a week.
– Try MetCons, Kettlebells, BB complexes, tabata and other workouts to mix up your HIIT and keep you motivated.
– LISS (Low Intensity Steady State)  style cardio can be done more generously. We live in an extremely sedentary society, (sit all day at work, sit on the bus ride home, drive everywhere). Stand instead of sitting, go for walks, just be more active in general. Don’t think that just because you’re strength training that this will be enough to keep you healthy. It’s probably not.

How to Make Adjustments to Your Recomp Program

The goal of the recomp is to keep your weight *pretty much* the same while changes occur in your body composition. Over time you’ll likely be a little heavier after adding muscle. Inevitably, there will be times when you will lose and gain weight due to a host of other variables.

Below I’ve detailed how to make adjustments for the changes most likely to occur.

Losing weight? Increase carb intake by 30–50 grams per day.

Putting on weight and looking softer in the mirror? Reduce carb intake by 30–50 grams per day.

Putting on weight but looking the same? Leave things as they are.

Putting on weight, looking bigger but also softer? Reduce carb intake by 20–30 grams per day.

Losing weight but looking tighter and leaner? Leave thing as they are.

Recomping Works, if You Use it Correctly for the Right Goals

Recomp is a meticulous process. It requires attention to detail and most of all, patience. If you struggle with either of these, then go for a straight fat loss or bulking protocol.

If you aren’t sure if it’s right for you, make your own decision based on the pros and cons listed below and see what suits you best.

**The Pros**

– Better retention of muscle while cutting.
– Easier psychologically — doesn’t feel like you’re dieting.
– Less stressful for people who are worried about losing muscle while cutting.

**The Cons**

– A lot more tedious.
– Requires a huge amount of patience.
– Isn’t for someone who wants to lose fat fast.

Lifestyle-wise the recomp is a brilliant tool. It isn’t as aggressive as running a steep calorie deficit so it won’t affect your day-to-day life like a caloric deficit can (brain fog, lack of energy etc.)

At the same time, I just want to reiterate, that the recompositioning protocol I’ve laid out is not a magic simultaneous “build muscle and burn fat” type of deal. It’s a more gradual shift in focus on fat loss or muscle gain.

Keep your goals in mind and use the recomp as you see fit with your goals.

*Adam is a self professed nerd, coffee connoisseur, and evangelical badass at physiqonomics.com, where he writes about all things fitness, nutrition and badassery related. Adam teaches guys how to attain a badass physique whilst making the whole fitness thing a lifestyle.*

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Armi Legge

Armi Legge is a writer and fitness consultant who competed on the Youth and Junior USA Triathlon circuits for nearly a decade. He also trains as a powerlifter.

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