When people are looking to shed some body fat, they often ask about body recomposition, that is, gaining muscle and losing body fat simultaneously. No matter the reason for getting rid of some extra body fat, most people would probably prefer to maintain their lean muscle throughout this process. Not only will this enhance your figure, but it should improve your quality of life, performance in recreational sports leagues, and might even help you burn more calories during exercise.
When aiming to lose fat, most people typically start off by restricting calories in their diet. This can certainly help, but this step can also make it tougher to maintain muscle mass, especially if you don’t keep certain guidelines in mind.
So what’s the fix when it comes to body recomposition? Is it possible to lose fat without losing muscle? Can you even gain muscle while losing fat? Below, a deep dive into this approach to weight loss.
How does Weight Loss Work?
First, let’s talk about general weight loss. Weight loss is often invoked as a buzzword—it doesn’t take long to come across a news article or magazine cover on the topic. While most people know that consistently burning more calories than you consume results in losing weight, the actual process for achieving this can be far more complex than a simple calculation.
In short, the food we eat contains energy in the form of kilocalories (or calories, for short). We use this energy to support our daily activities, normal physiological functioning, and any kind of exercise. When we don’t use as much energy as we take in, we store the excess energy as body fat for later use.
If we, purposefully or not, end up not eating enough food to support our daily activity or exercise, our bodies can mobilize this stored fat tissue to provide energy. However, our bodies can also utilize skeletal muscle to provide energy and can even break down skeletal muscle to provide amino acids for the protein synthesis process in other parts of the body. Since dieting often involves reducing caloric intake, oftentimes people get trapped by not consuming enough protein during their diet. Accordingly, this can result in muscle loss.
In addition, consistently consuming a low-calorie diet and losing weight can result in a hormonal environment that is not particularly suited for maintaining or even building muscle (as these two studies show here and here). In fact, almost all weight-loss studies involve subjects losing both muscle and fat during a diet. And the primary culprits for this outcome include people not consuming enough protein or not performing any resistance training during their diet.
Read More: The Hard-Gainer’s Guide To Building Muscle
Is Body Recomp Possible?
Essentially, body recomposition is the process of losing fat and maintaining, or even gaining, muscle mass. Given the mechanisms of weight loss described above, you may wonder if body recomp is realistic. While some fitness pros may tell you it’s impossible, that’s not the full story.
Multiple studies show that body recomposition is possible (this one and this one, for instance). In addition, some research indicates that nutrition-only interventions without any physical training can lead to body recomposition.
There’s also a chunk of research supporting body recomposition as a realistic outcome—even in aspiring female physique athletes and female college volleyball players. While this handful of studies certainly isn’t overwhelming evidence, it’s important to highlight that most research studies utilize pretty weak training programs. Oftentimes they don’t control for dietary intake, either.
Key takeaway: We do have some evidence for body recomp. Now, a look at how it works.
Can I Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle?
It’s possible to lose fat without losing muscle. If you’re trying to body recomp, do the following to give yourself a better shot at success.
1. Pack in the Protein
Remember, you need the dietary protein intake in order to maintain muscle during fat loss—let alone gain muscle.
Virtually every study that resulted in body recomposition had subjects consume a high-protein diet; of the six studies we looked at, the average protein intake was 2.56g/kg/day (1.16g/lb/day). A recent review on protein intake recommended an intake of 1.62g/kg/day to “optimize” muscle gains. Therefore, to recomp, you might be looking at an additional 58 percent protein intake compared to that recommendation, so about 2.6 grams per kilogram or 1.2 grams per pound daily.
2. Train hard—and Don’t Stop
Some studies in which subjects were able to recomp also included serious training programs. If you’re looking for savvy ways to pack on muscle, heavy compound exercises, maintaining a calorie surplus, and these other tips may prove key.
Keep giving your body a mechanical stimulus that forces it to maintain muscle. The minute you drop to lighter weights, you stop giving the body a reason to stay jacked.
3. Prioritize sleep
Try to get eight hours of sleep every night. Short naps are okay if needed, but at least 80 percent of your sleep should take place overnight. Shoot for at least 80-90 percent of this sleep overnight, and then add brief naps during the day, if needed.
One seminal study found that subjects sleeping 8.5 hours per night lost more fat than a group sleeping 5.5 hours per night. Interestingly, both groups lost the same total amount of weight, but the 5.5-hour/night group lost a greater chunk of their weight as muscle (80 percent versus 48 percent in the 8.5-hour group). Subjects in this study only consumed 1.18g/kg/day of protein and they didn’t exercise. Hence the significant loss in muscle in both groups.
A similar study reduced sleep an hour five nights per week in one group of overweight adults, while a control group maintained their normal sleeping schedule. The results? Both groups lost the same amount of weight (3.2kg), but the sleep-restricted group lost proportionally more muscle mass than the normal sleep group.
A third study examined two groups of subjects performing a resistance training protocol, but one group also received a sleep education program designed to improve sleep habits and outcomes Both groups ended up gaining similar amounts of muscle from the training program (1.7kg vs. 1.3kg), but the sleep education group also lost a significant amount of body fat (-1.8kg vs. +0.8kg).
4. Stay hydrated
Dehydration can cause similar fluctuations in anabolic/catabolic hormones when compared to chronic low-calorie diets i.e., reduced testosterone and increased cortisol. Sip on water throughout the day and keep sipping throughout your workout to ensure proper hydration.
Do you need to be in a Calorie Deficit to Recomp?
Ultimately, it is possible to recomp without reducing calorie intake. Some recomp studies we’ve referenced even had people eating a planned surplus. (It’s worth noting that this was accompanied by higher protein intakes and intense training routines.)
A true recomp involves eating right around your maintenance calories. With this, you’d be losing fat and gaining muscle at a similar rate. Therefore, you’ll remain at the same body weight.
How do you find your maintenance calories? Track your food intake for a week. Did you stay the same weight? Your average daily intake from that week is probably a good estimate of your maintenance calories.
If you eat in a calorie deficit, you’re going to have a tougher time gaining muscle during your cut. You can certainly maintain muscle, but gaining muscle will be harder. Recent scientific estimates paint the energy cost of building muscle at around 360-480 calories per day. If you’re not eating at least close to maintenance calories, it’s going to be hard to come up with the energy to build muscle. If you want to cut, I’d plan on consuming a slight calorie deficit while following the recomp guidelines above. That will help you maintain muscle as much as possible while shredding fat.
The Bottom Line
All-in-all, body recomposition is certainly a possibility. Just about everyone agrees that it’s probably easier for a novice to achieve than a veteran, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for experienced bodybuilders. Consuming plenty of protein, training hard, sleeping well, and staying hydrated will offer your best chance for recomposition glory.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.