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Body Recomposition Guide

body deficit muscle recomp recomposition Dec 01, 2019

Body Recomposition Guide

Luke Tulloch


What is Recomping?

The holy grail of physique training is the recomp (short for body recomposition) – simultaneously losing fat and building muscle. Typically, you’re told you have to pick between one or the other. Why is that?

The answer lies in the mechanisms behind muscle growth.

Visible increases in muscle size come from the accrual of muscle protein synthesis over time. There are multiple separate events that can induce protein synthesis. Some are related to nutrition and some to training stimulus, and these signals sum to produce net protein synthesis.

Put simply, your overall level of muscle growth accumulates over many meals and training sessions. Given enough time, you should see an increase in muscle size.

What does this have to do with fat loss?

Some of the signals that promote muscle protein synthesis also promote fat gain. Let’s take a closer look at these.


How muscle grows

The various signals that contribute to muscle growth arrive at an integrator called mTOR. This is the governor of muscle protein synthesis.

To understand signal integration, it’s easiest to use the brain as an analogy. The brain integrates all our sensory inputs to give us our conscious experience. There are signals from the rods and cones in our eyes, audio signals coming from sensory neurons in our ears, our taste buds send sensory information.

Information about temperature, pressure, stretch, touch, smell and much more is constantly being transmitted into our brain. These are huge streams of data that must be processed and made sense of – this is integration. Our overall picture of the world is the result.

Like the brain, mTOR integrates signals pertaining to muscle protein synthesis, and the overall result is how much muscle tissue is built or broken down.

These signals include things like mechanical tension on muscle fibres, inflammatory cytokines, hormone concentrations, amino acid levels and energy availability.


Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?

Energy availability is the key point. It takes energy to build and maintain muscle tissue, but to lose fat we must be in an energy deficit. Muscle cells have an energy sensor that detect the level of energy available. This is called AMPK, and in cases of low available energy, AMPK limits muscle protein synthesis.

On the other side, an energy surplus is permissive to muscle protein synthesis. In order to guarantee maximum rates of muscle growth, the amount of energy needs to go beyond the minimum required and this means some spill over into fat gain.


Is recomping possible?

How can recomping occur if this is true? The energy required to support muscle growth can come from fat stores within the body. The problem is that it’s a fine balance to achieve simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss. We cannot be in an energy deficit that is too large, or else muscle protein synthesis is restricted by AMPK. We cannot be in a surplus without gaining some fat since building muscle protein is not perfectly efficient.


Body recomposition for beginners

A quick note on training age: beginners are naïve to the powerful signals weight training sends. This makes it easier for them to build muscle. The more time you spend training, the harder it gets to continue to put on more muscle. This means that for people with <1yr of training experience, recomping is much more likely to occur. I usually recommend that these people focus on progressing in the gym and eating a generally healthy diet, and body recomposition will occur without any extra focus.


Is recomping effective?

There is a rough hierarchy to nutrition. Energy balance and adequate protein are the two most important factors that determine body composition. Others like meal timing, supplements and food composition still matter but have a smaller impact. Meal timing and supplements especially can be largely ignored for most trainees.

For recomping to be effective beyond the initial stages of training, there has to be more focus on the factors further down the nutrition hierarchy. Consistency is required. Tracking change is more difficult (it’s hard enough to measure muscle growth even in ideal conditions).

The allure of recomping is that both goals can be chased at the same time. You don’t have to endure periods of hunger and restriction for fat loss, and you don’t have to deal with the psychological discomfort of gaining body fat to grow muscle.

 However, in reality it’s more efficient to use dedicated fat loss and weight gain phases. There’s a high risk of stagnation when attempting to recomp, despite the requirement for a meticulous focus on diet.

It’s difficult to measure muscle gain. People often look more muscled when they’re leaner and less jacked when they gain weight. In the picture above I was several kilos down from my usual weight and looked more muscular by the week as I lost more fat.

DEXA scans, skinfold tests and bodyfat scales have inherent measurement error that’s not sensitive enough to pick up small gains in muscle mass. Progress can only be accurately measured after several months of consistent muscle growth using these methods.


Lean bulk vs recomp

 Obviously, the goal is to gain muscle with as little fat as possible. While some fat gain is inevitable, making sure weight gain is slow and steady is ideal for a “lean bulk”.

So how do you know if you’re gaining muscle?

This comes back to the signals that mTOR integrates. These signals include things like mechanical tension on muscle fibres, inflammatory cytokines, hormone concentrations, amino acid levels and energy availability.

A simple check list can act as a proxy.

  • Are you resistance training regularly with enough volume?
  • Are you eating enough protein (at least 1.6g per kg of bodyweight)?
  • Are you eating enough calories to steadily gain weight?
    • Scale weight should increase by about 1-2% per month
    • A small surplus of around 200 calories per day should achieve this but bear in mind that some people start to move much more when they eat more, and this could reduce the surplus. You’re not in a surplus if you aren’t gaining weight.
  • Have you been doing these consistently for at least a month?

There are more details like sleep quality and micronutrition that play a role too, but it can get needlessly complicated.

Fat loss occurs faster and is easier to measure. Simply keeping all factors the same except for energy intake will do the job, and the fat loss will soon be seen on the scale.


Body recomposition summary

Recomping can work but it requires more consistency, more focus on finer details and occurs more slowly than specific weight loss or gain phases. This is because weight loss requires an energy deficit, and muscle protein synthesis requires an input of energy. These are competing signals for muscle growth. For intermediate or advanced trainees, it’s more effective to focus on one or the other. Over time this will produce faster results that are easier to measure.

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