Pause for a minute and consider this question: How can you build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
A lot of people think the answer is simple. You can’t. You’ve likely heard that if you want to build muscle, you need to do a proper bulk, and if you want to lose fat, you need to do a proper cut.
I think this idea has made its way into the mainstream from old bodybuilding lore where it was thought that you had to be in a massive caloric surplus to build size and then trim down for competition.
However, recent scientific evidence has challenged this idea.
For example, this 2013 study from Garthe and Colleagues found that even when they overfed subjects by 600 extra calories per day, they actually didn’t gain significantly more muscle but did gain over 3 times the fat mass. So nearly all the extra bulk came as fat.
Allow me to be clear upfront and say that I don’t actually have anything against cutting and bulking. In the right circumstances, I think it makes perfect sense. As you may know, a few years ago I ran a pretty hefty bulk myself that I called “Bear Mode.” I still think that if you want to gain as much muscle and strength as possible, as fast as possible, then being in a bigger caloric surplus is the way to go.
However, this quicker muscle gain will come at the expense of more fat gain as well, and even though many people simply don’t want that, they just accept it as an inevitability. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, because fat tissue and muscle tissue are separate systems, it’s perfectly possible to build muscle without a large caloric surplus and even without any surplus at all. In a previous blog, I’ve broken down the math explaining why this is possible.
Many people will get on board with this and say, okay, building muscle while losing fat is possible, but not really practical. It only applies in a handful of more limited and obscure scenarios.
I think these scenarios aren’t as limited as they seem and I would say that body recomposition is a realistic goal not only for some people, but nearly all people.
Let’s quickly outline the situations where I think recomposition makes the most sense.
NEW LIFTERS, NEWBIES
New lifters can build muscle and lose fat at the same time quite easily because as a new lifter, they’re the most primed for muscle growth that they’ll ever be. This means that calories can be pulled from stored body fat to fuel the muscle-building process with just basic progressive resistance training and a reasonable diet.
Overweight individuals have very large energy reserves stored in body fat. They can eat in a caloric deficit and still have plenty of stored energy to fuel the muscle-building process.
Individuals who were jacked but then stopped training due to injury or other commitments are in a similar camp to the new trainee. Thanks to the very powerful muscle memory effect, they’re able to rebuild a lot of muscle very quickly, making recomposition common.
Anabolic steroids allow most people to build a lot of muscle very quickly, as the body taps into fat stores to fuel muscle-building.
At this point, I would say even if recomposition was limited to these four groups, walk to any commercial gym, and most people will fall into one of these four categories.
For example, if you haven’t been training nearly hard enough or smart enough over the years, although you’ve been in the gym for several years, you might still fall under the newbie category.
I’d also add a fifth category to this list.
THE SUB-OPTIMIZED TRAINEE
This group would include anyone who’s been going to the gym for a while. They likely count themselves as an intermediate or advanced-level lifter by training age. However, deep down they haven’t really been putting in their best effort with their training or nutrition.
According to my good friend and co-author Chris Barakat, he sees recomposition in his lab all the time, even in more advanced trainees.
“So I literally see this every single semester and in every training study we’ve ever run. I’ve seen body recomposition occur once you really start paying attention to some of the details to a higher extent like nutrient timing and really optimizing their macronutrient intakes. We can see recomposition with some of the best athletes ever. This one subject in particular, he gained 20 pounds of lean mass in ten weeks and actually lost like a pound of fat mass at the same time. He was a basketball player, pretty well-trained when it comes to resistance training. He was able to squat 1.75 times his body weight. He set the criteria for the study and he just blew up. He basically came into the lab looking like a normal basketball player and towards the end, he looked like Phil Heath.”
As you can see, there seems to be only a tiny subset of the population that recomposition wouldn’t be practical for. Primarily, this would be truly advanced trainees, already with perfectly optimized training and nutrition who are near their genetic ceiling for muscle growth.
Body recomposition is not only common; it’s practical.
Once we realize body recomposition is possible, we then need to know how we can make it happen. To best understand the process, let’s break it down into five simple steps.
Recognize that training is the driving force of body recomposition in any scenario. You can have the most optimal diet in the world and eat over 9,000 grams of protein per day, but you still won’t build much new muscle without a progressive training stimulus.
As an analogy, think about a car. We can think of our training as the engine and our nutrition as the gasoline to fuel the performance. The better the fuel, the better the performance we can expect. However, without the engine, the car simply won’t move, regardless of the fuel’s quality. We can also think of sleep and stress management as the oil changes and tire rotations required to keep things moving.
For body recomposition to be optimized, we need to really get a handle on our training fundamentals and our training volume.
TRAINING FUNDAMENTALS: FOCUS ON THE PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD, APPROPRIATE EFFORT, AND PROPER TECHNIQUE.
Once you have the fundamentals in place, fine-tune your volume to fit your advancement level.
TRAINING VOLUME: 10-20 SETS PER WEEK PER BODY PART IS A GOOD BALLPARK RANGE FOR MOST LIFTERS.
Decide on a primary goal (build muscle or lose fat?). Even though you may want to do both at the same time, it’s important to establish which is more important to you.
For example, if you’re currently on a leaner side, let’s say 8-12 percent body fat as a male or 18-22 percent as a female, then your primary goal should probably be to build muscle. If you’re not so lean, somewhere between 15-20+ percent as a guy or 25-30+ percent as a girl, then maybe your primary goal should be to lose fat.
Center calories around MAINTENANCE - the number of calories you need to eat to maintain your weight.
If your primary goal is to build muscle, you should enter a slight caloric surplus adding 5-25 percent to your maintenance intake. If you’re leaner, less advanced, and more genetically gifted for building muscles, you can get away with a bigger surplus.
If your primary goal is to lose fat, you should enter a slight caloric deficit, slashing 10-20 percent off your maintenance intake. The more fat you have to lose, the bigger the deficit should be.
Other considerations, such as if you’re detrained, highly-advanced, skinny-fat, or significantly overweight, can also be given attention.
Set up macronutrient targets (start with protein, the most important macro for recomposition).
In our book on this topic, we recommend a sliding model for protein intake based on lean body mass. The leaner you are, the closer you should be to 1.6 grams per pound of lean body mass. The more body fat you have, the closer you should be to 1.2 grams per pound lean body mass.
Using myself as an example, I currently weigh 165 pounds at about 10 percent body fat. Using our sliding model, since I’m quite lean, I should be more toward the high end of intake and thereby will pick 1.5. Multiplying it out, that would give me a daily protein intake of 222.8 grams per day. So I can round that up to 225 grams, which is what I’m eating at the moment.
In my last full day of eating Youtube video, I explained the benefits of going higher on protein that might be required to build muscle. Even though you could probably get away with less, I think eating a higher intake is both safe and advisable for those looking for recomposition.
From here, you want to determine your fat and carbs intake. Personally, I set my fat intake at a minimum of 20 percent of caloric intake and then fill in the rest with carbs.
Paying attention to details (OPTIMIZE!)
As mentioned earlier, this step might not be required for beginners. They can get recomp by just following the first four steps. But as you get more advanced, recomp gets more difficult, and therefore it’s more important to optimize your approach.
We spend a lot of time in the book laying out these optimization strategies. I’m only going to focus on a few of them here.
I think sleep might be the single most underrated factor when it comes to transforming your physique.
Consider this 2019 study from Wang and Colleagues where they split 36 subjects up into two groups. Both entered a caloric deficit, but one group slept 60 minutes less, five nights per week. They were also allowed to sleep one hour extra on the weekends.
It turned out that after eight weeks of dieting, weight loss was the same in both groups, but the group that slept well lost 83 percent of their weight from fat, whereas the sleep restricted group lost 85 percent of their weight as lean mass.
That's mind blowing!
It’s worth mentioning that these subjects weren’t weight training, so lifting probably would’ve flattened out the results a bit. Even so,I don’t think it would have been enough to offset that enormous difference that sleep made.
Peri-workout nutrition (the timing of nutrients around the workout)
Since I already discussed some of the misconceptions around this topic in my full day of eating video, I’ll simply link that video at the end of the blog.
We can also turn to supplements to further optimize, but it’s worth noting that there aren’t any recomp supplements that just cause recomposition on their own. There are, however, a few worth mentioning that can help.
In the book, we organize our supplements list in tiers.
- Sleep more
In Tier 1, we have protein powder, creatine, and caffeine.
Protein powder is especially important for vegan lifters and I recommend so-called Vegan Whey, a blend of rice and pea protein that offers a full spectrum of amino acids and has a high leucine content. Whey Protein can be used at any time of day to help make meeting total daily protein goals easier. Consuming a casein source before bed might have merit as well.
Creatine is by far the most well-studied supplement on the market. Given how relatively inexpensive it is and how low its risk of side effects are, it’s a pretty obvious choice to supplement 3-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day. I’ll link my creatine science-explained video at the end, if you’d like more info on that.
Caffeine rounds out Tier 1 of our supplements shortlist to increasing strength, prolonging time to fatigue, increasing acute fat oxidation, and more. However, unlike creatine, caffeine is susceptible to tolerance so it might be smart to reserve it for your heaviest or most demanding training sessions. In addition, periodically cycle off it to re-sensitize yourself to the effects.
Of course, we dive into many other optimization strategies across the 15 chapters in the Nutrition Guide including sample meal plans, pre and post-workout meal examples, more supplements, cardio strategies, and a lot more. In this blog, I’m keeping things more as a general outline.
However, if you guys are looking to take your nutrition up a notch, you can head over to jeffnippard.com, go to the nutrition plan tabs, and there you can access it.
The manual has the following:
- 140 scientific references
- Guide for setting up your calories and macros
- A list of foods to focus on
- A full chapter on training for RECOMP
- Customer service
Hit up the link if you guys are interested in checking it out.
Also, if you would like to further explore the topic in video format, a summed-up video of this blog is also available on my YouTube channel.
That’s it for this one, guys. Thank you so much! I’ll look forward to digging into another topic with you here in the next blog.
Get The Ultimate Guide to Body Recomposition!
Watch my Creatine Science Explained video:
Watch my "Can You Build Muscle in a Deficit?" video:
Watch my latest full day of eating video: