Doesn’t it feel great to be back lifting at the gym again? For most of you, the transition phase of getting back to your pre-quarantine fitness routine is in full swing. In my last blog, I explained how to set up your training after a layoff. Now I want to help you with the nutrition component of “bouncing back.” In the pages ahead, I will lay out three ways to set up your nutrition after a break so you can get back in shape as fast as possible.
When you take a break from your training and diet, one of three things can happen to your physique. As you read through the possibilities, determine which of the three best applies to you.
Possibility #1: Anti-recomposition
This seems to be the most common situation for trainees when they stop lifting. In such a state, you lose muscle while gaining fat. This is the exact opposite of body recomposition (the most common training goal) and is what usually happens if you stop training all together or reduce training intensity while eating in a caloric surplus.
If you’re in this camp, you have likely noticed how difficult it is to stay motivated with your diet when you don’t have the gym as a driver of your dietary behavior. Consequently, when one component goes down the tubes, the other tends to go with it.
Possibility #2: Pure Muscle Loss
In this situation, you lose muscle, but your body fat stays about the same. This is usually what happens to people who are so-called “hardgainers.” If you’re already genetically lean and struggle building muscle in the first place, you’ll tend to see more or less “pure muscle loss” when you stop lifting.
A good example of this is Matt – the client of Cliff Wilson’s that I highlighted in a video and previous blog on muscle loss. He lost 35 pounds of pure muscle mass after two months in the hospital. The coaching strategy Cliff used to build Matt’s muscle back SUPER fast was really eye-opening. (We’ll get to that shortly)
Possibility #3: Fat Gain Without Muscle Loss
This is a common fallout if your training break wasn’t long enough to see significant size loss, but because your diet was off track, you still gained unwanted fat, making your physique appear much softer and less muscular.
With an understanding of the three possible outcomes of what can happen to your physique after a training break, you should be able to place yourself into one of these three categories.
From here, let’s look at each possibility in isolation so you can determine exactly how to handle your diet to get back to your peak shape – and beyond – as quickly as possible.
POSSIBILITY 1: ANTI-RECOMPOSITION (You have lost muscle while gaining fat)
I see a lot of people in this camp wondering if they should focus on losing the fat first by going on a cut, or if they should focus on building the muscle back first by doing a little bulk ,while the muscle memory effect is still in high gear.
I actually don’t think either of these approaches are the most effective way to quickly get your gains back.
In this case, the best thing you can do is shoot for body recomposition by building muscle and losing fat at the same time. There are four scenarios where body recomposition is most common:
- New lifters
- Obese lifters
- Steroid Users
Of these four, we’re currently dealing with an easy one: detrained individuals.
Recomposition is very straightforward for people who have taken a training break (regardless of previous training experience) because the muscle memory effect is able to rebuild muscle at an unusually accelerated rate, more similar to a newbie lifter or someone using steroids. To simplify the physiology a bit, the net effect is that the body can “tap into” existing fat stores to fuel the accelerated muscle building process, resulting in simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain. This was supported within a recent review by Slater and colleagues in 2019. They confirmed that the energy costs of hypertrophy can be obtained endogenously (i.e. from the body’s own energy supplies, like fat stores) and is more likely to occur in individuals with more body fat.1
Knowing that recomposition is the best approach here, how do you make that happen as quickly as possible? Well, the single BEST thing you can do is to really make sure your training is on point. I’ve got a free comeback program available for download if you’d like to check that out.
Diet is really no different: You need to have a plan ready from the outset. Think of setting up your recomp approach as a three level pyramid – caloric intake at the bottom, macronutrient intake next and finally, what I would call the often neglected “peak variables” at the top.
The recomp pyramid of importance
Caloric Intake for Fast Recomp
Caloric intake is simple. Just put yourself around theoretical maintenance: the number of calories you’d need to roughly maintain your weight. If you’re not sure how to determine that, multiplying your bodyweight in pounds by 16 should get you in the right ballpark, and then, you can guess and check your intake, based on your weekly weight trends from there.
Are you actually maintaining your weight on average? If yes, you’ve found your maintenance caloric intake. Stay put. Are you losing weight on average? If so, you should increase your caloric intake accordingly. Are you gaining weight on average? If so, decrease your intake accordingly. There is a bit more to it than that when it comes to the details and of course, I lay all of that out in my Ultimate Guide To Body Recomposition.
Protein Intake for Fast Recomp
Macronutrient intake is a bit more involved. For quick recomposition, the first macro you want to prioritize is protein. My advice for this might sound a little extreme on the surface, but I say to set your protein high, and then bump it a bit higher.
I’m serious. Research repeatedly shows that higher protein diets, and in some cases, ridiculously high protein diets are simply better for body recomposition.
Take this 2015 eight week training study by Antonio and colleagues for example:2
The group that ate high protein (3.4 g/kg or 1.55 g/lb) lost 1.6 kg fat and gained 1.5 kg lean mass, while the group that ate lower protein (2.3 g/kg or 1.05 g/lb) lost 0.3 kg fat and gained 1.5 kg lean mass.
Going higher on protein then, is definitely better for faster recomposition. Based on the literature as a whole, I’d suggest setting your protein up somewhere between 2.4 and 3.3 g/kg or 1.1 and 1.5 g/lb if you want to recomp as fast as possible.
There are two other studies that we can look at to support these intakes for body recomposition. This first is research done by Longland and colleagues from 2016. They placed 40 untrained participants in a 40 percent deficit for four weeks with resistance training.3 Split into two groups, one group consumed 1.2 g/kg protein and the other consumed 2.4 g/kg protein. After the four weeks, the higher protein group had not only lost more body fat, but also gained a significant amount of lean body mass. Meanwhile, the lower protein group didn’t add any lean body mass.
Another study by Campbell and colleagues in 2018 compared 2.5 g/kg protein to 0.9 g/kg protein in an eight week resistance training study with 17 participants.4 They found that both groups added significant amounts of lean body mass (although the high protein group added significantly more), but only the high protein group lost a significant amount of fat mass (1.1 kg fat mass, on average).
While these two studies are comparing a high protein intake to clearly suboptimal intakes, we can still use these higher intakes to give us some idea of where protein intakes for optimal body recomposition might be. Adding in the Antonio 2015 paper, we can try to form this general recommendation of about 2.4-3.3 g/kg protein, with the low end being based on the Longland 2016 paper, and the high end just rounding off the protein intake in the Antonio 2015 paper to an even 1.5 g/lb (3.3 g/kg).
There are also well documented satiety effects from increasing protein (meaning you’ll feel fuller after meals) and higher thermic effects (meaning you’ll burn more calories digesting protein). Obviously, when combined with the anabolic properties of protein, the net impact is better fat loss and better muscle gain overall.
A review by Morell and Fiszman in 2016 looked at the satiety effects of protein and concluded that “the majority of these types of studies indicate that high protein foods deliver better satiety than energy-matched foods with lower levels of protein.”5 Looking at the most recent of the studies cited for this claim, in 2010, Astbury and colleagues had 24 participants consume an energy-matched (400 kcal) liquid meal containing either 12.5, 25, or 50 percent of energy from protein. 90 minutes prior to an ad libitum test meal (i.e. a meal where they could eat as much or as little as they wanted).6 They found a dose response relationship between higher protein and fewer calories being consumed in the test meal. These researchers then performed a second study, with a lower calorie preload (250 kcal) and a liquid meal containing either 10, 20, or 40 percent of energy from protein, 90 minutes prior to an ad libitum test meal and found a similar result.
|Notice how energy intake at the test meal decreases with increased protein in the preload meal (i.e. snack eaten 90 min prior to test meal). All preload meals contained the same amount of calories. Astbury et al., (2016). [PubMed]|
With regards to the higher thermic effect of protein, we can look to a 2002 review by Eisenstein and colleagues where they summarized the thermic effect of the three macronutrients.7 On average, the thermic effect from fat and carbohydrate were shown to account for approximately five percent of energy intake. Meanwhile, on average, the thermic effect of protein accounted for about 15 percent of energy intake. And while these actual values do vary quite a bit from study to study, it is very clear that protein has the highest thermic effect of any of the macronutrients, by a good margin.
Carb & Fat Intake for Fast Recomp
Let’s next look at carbs and fats. Now, I’ll say up front that my recommendation in this area is based more on my coaching experience than actual science, but, for most people who have seen anti-recomposition, I find a higher carb, lower fat macro setup is more effective. There are a few reasons why this could be. This 2019 article from Examine argues that overeating with fat as your main source of calories, even for just one day, translates to excess fat gain in a way that you tend to NOT see with excessive, short term overfeeding of carbohydrate. This could be because fat is nearly exclusively stored in fat tissue, whereas carbohydrates are preferentially stored in muscle and liver glycogen and not easily converted to fat, especially in trained individuals. My speculation is that, because glycogen is low after a training break, once you resume training again, your muscles become something like a sponge for glycogen. This could explain why I notice most people tend to see faster visual recomp with higher carbs and lower fats.
Granted, over the long term, I tend not to make a big deal out of carb to fat ratios. Some people do better with higher fats; some with higher carbs. But since we’re shooting for speedy recomp here, I think a lower fat, higher carb approach is worth trying for yourself. If nothing else, research shows that it’ll at least support your training performance better. A 2014 review by Helms, Aragon, and Fitschen stated, “Inadequate carbohydrate can impair strength training  and consuming adequate carbohydrate prior to training can reduce glycogen depletion  and may therefore enhance performance.”8
Diving into the research on comparing fat with carbohydrate, there are really only two studies to look at: a 1995 Horton and colleagues study and work done by Lammert and colleagues in 2000.9,10 Horton and colleagues overfed participants by 50 percent of their maintenance calories each day for 14 days, while Lammert and colleagues overfed participants by approximately 1,200 kcal/d for 21 days. Both of these studies found no significant differences in changes in body weight or fat mass between the two groups.
There are two important caveats here, though. The first is that these were very short studies, so finding a meaningful difference in changes in fat mass when participants are only gaining less than two kilograms of fat mass is going to be nearly impossible. Still, we can probably at least conclude that this difference is small, if it exists, which is why, over the long term, carb to fat ratio can really just come down to personal preference. The second caveat, though, is that these studies did not implement any resistance training protocol. Because of this, it seems reasonable to turn to the only really relevant evidence that we have at this point when looking at a retraining/recomposition phase – personal experience. Here, once again, I have found that most do better in this regard on a higher carbohydrate diet.
To summarize, I’d recommend setting your fats no higher than 20 percent of your total caloric intake, with a max cap at 75 grams per day. This should put just about everyone in the 45 to 75 gram range during this recomp “comeback phase”.
Then, once you’ve set your protein and your fat cap, you simply fill in the rest of your remaining calories with carbs. Detailed examples of exactly how to set this up are provided in my nutrition guide.
The Peak Variables
We next need to look at the top of our pyramid where peak variables reside. This is where it gets really interesting to me. I personally think that factors like nutrient timing and meal distribution can make a significant difference when trying to recomp quickly. Take pre and post workout nutrition, for example. Even though the latest science has made it clear that you don’t need to time nutrients around the workout perfectly for the workout to be effective, that doesn’t mean you can just ignore pre and post workout nutrition and still optimize your rate of progress.
My rules for pre and post workout nutrition are pretty simple. Make sure your pre and post workout meals have:
- at least 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight,
- at least about one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight, ideally including a fruit source
- and then make sure those meals aren’t separated by more than four hours.
These recommendations closely align with a research review on nutrition guidelines for athletes by The International Society of Sports Nutrition (Kerksick et al., 2018).11 Here, they recommend protein dosing every three – four hours, spread evenly across the day, with each dose being between 0.25-0.55 g/kg protein. However, since they note that this depends on the quality of the protein, and since most people consume mixed meals, aiming for that ~0.5 g/kg is best.
There are, of course, other things you can do like making an effort to evenly distribute your protein intake across four or five meals per day and eat a high protein, high fiber meal before going to bed.
Although the research on pre-sleep protein is still in its infancy, there is little downside to consuming protein prior to bed and there is a hypothetical upside, since it’s prior to your longest fasting period of the day (sleep).12 The only downside is if consuming a meal close to sleep affects your sleep quality. So, if you find that this disrupts your sleep quality or ability to fall asleep, feel free to move your last protein feeding back further from your bedtime.
You can also consider creatine loading at 20 grams per day for five to seven days to help saturate the muscle with water, improving fullness quickly. You can return to the standard maintenance dose of three to five grams per day after the one week loading phase.
With regards to how to supplement with creatine, a 2003 review by Kreider concluded that creatine supplementation is typically associated with an additional 0.5-2.0 kg of fat-free mass gain in the first 4-12 weeks of training.13 In terms of dosing, you’ll find that almost all studies employ a loading period of five – seven days of five grams of creatine four times per day (total of 20 grams per day).14-16 This strategy has been shown to be safe and effective for elevating intramuscular creatine stores. That said, just taking five grams per day for one month has been shown to eventually get you to the exact same endpoint.15 Therefore, if you find that loading creatine (4 x 5 g per day) upsets your stomach, go with the slightly slower route. After the loading period, simply stick with supplementing with three to five grams of creatine per day (any time) and this will maintain intramuscular creatine stores.14
In my opinion, these things that most people ignore can be the difference between it taking a few weeks or a few months to actually get your peak shape back and then improve it from there.
POSSIBILITY 2: “PURE MUSCLE LOSS” (you have lost muscle, but your body fat has stayed about the same)
Now that you have a handle on the anti-recomposition case, let’s have a look at what we should do in cases of “pure muscle loss.” Here, the strategy is a bit different because you don’t need to worry about losing fat – this time, you just need to build the lost muscle back as fast as is humanly possible.
Of course, the fastest way to do this is to enter a huge caloric surplus: You simply bulk on as many calories as you can safely stomach. That’s actually a legitimate approach for people who just want to get big, fast and don’t care about gaining fat. But, in my experience, that isn’t most people and that approach often backfires anyway. Research shows that rapid weight gain from large caloric surpluses tends to result in a much higher proportion of fat gain than muscle gain anyway. So yeah, you will be more massive, but it may not result in the muscular appearance you’re hoping for.
In 2013, Garthe and colleagues showed that a faster rate of weight gain resulted in similar amounts of muscle growth, but also far greater amounts of fat mass gain in elite athletes.17 The faster rate of weight gain group added 3.9 percent body weight over 12 weeks, while the other group gained 1.5 percent body weight.
|Notice how fat mass gain was significantly more in the faster rate of weight gain group (nutrition counseling group) compared to the slower rate of weight gain group (ad libitum group). Also, both groups put on similar amounts of lean body mass. Garthe et al., 2013. [PubMed]|
Even here, we’re going to need a more calculated approach than the typical “dreamer bulk”. Since Cliff Wilson is one of the most esteemed natural bodybuilding coaches in the world, I asked him to outline his nutrition approach for Matt’s 35 pound muscle regain. He explained to me that he used a very aggressive, high-carb overfeeding strategy: “I started him closer to 500 grams of carbs per day but felt like he could handle more and ended up boosting him as high as 800 grams per day during the regaining phase.”
Keep in mind that not everyone who experienced muscle loss will be able to tolerate that high of a carb intake. I have, however, dealt with many clients who have such adaptive metabolisms and from this experience, concluded that you really do need to just keep jacking the carbs higher and higher to pack the weight back on.
It’s fair to conclude then, for anyone who has experienced pure muscle loss without significant fat gain, the best approach is to do a fairly aggressive short-term bulk until you get your lost size back. You may gain a bit of fat initially, but once you reach your old weight again, then you can put yourself back closer to maintenance calories, and aim for body recomposition or a lean gaining approach from there.
When it comes to the specific macro targets, the protein and fat goals can remain the same, but since your caloric intake will be much higher, your carb intake will need to be much higher as well.
POSSIBILITY 3: “PURE FAT GAIN – NO MUSCLE LOSS” (you have gained fat, but didn’t actually lose any muscle)
The third and final possibility usually happens if you’ve been training in some “limited capacity” but haven’t taken enough of a break to see substantial muscle loss. You may have been doing bodyweight workouts a few times a week, which was enough to maintain your muscle, but because your diet was off track, you might look like you lost size because the fat gain is blurring your muscle definition. Thereby, even though you look smoother and flatter, your muscular size is still there.
In this case, I’d simply recommend running a minicut. Put yourself in a 20-25 percent caloric deficit and aim to lose weight at an average rate of about one percent of your body weight per week for four to six weeks.
If for example, you weigh 180 pounds, on your minicut, you’d try to lose about 1.8 pounds per week, which you could set up as a range of 1.5 to 2 pounds of weight loss per week.
Then, as long as your training is on point, you’ll start to quickly notice your physique taking on a much tighter and harder appearance quickly. In this case, a more aggressive minicut makes more sense than a generic body recomp approach because where you didn’t actually lose much muscle, you won’t be able to leverage the muscle memory effect the same way, and will be more likely to just spin your wheels and not see visual improvements in your physique as quickly.
But once you get a bit leaner, you can bring your calories back up to maintenance and enter a lean gain or recomp phase from there. This way, you’ll improve your aesthetics a lot faster and be able to see your muscle gain as it happens much better without that extra body fat covering it up.
You now have the three solutions for the three different possibilities. As you begin applying the information outlined above, you may want to refer back to the key points that apply to your specific situation or have a second look at the corresponding YouTube video for this blog post. Also, if you want a more action oriented plan, you can pick up my Ultimate Guide to Body Recomposition for 20 percent off for the next week only. It includes much more specifics for pre and post workout nutrition, sample meal plans, supplements and even a full chapter on optimizing sleep and reducing stress. It’s 15 chapters in total and covers everything A to Z on body recomp.
I am cheering for you as you progress towards new gains and improved nutrition! As always, I’ll be chatting with you guys here in the next one!
- Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2019 Aug;6:131. [PubMed]
- Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, et al. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women–a follow-up investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12:39. Published 2015 Oct 20. [PubMed]
- Longland TM, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips SM. Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(3):738‐746. [ResearchGate]
- Campbell BI, Aguilar D, Conlin L, et al. Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018;28(6):580‐585. [ResearchGate]
- Morell P, Fiszman S. Revisiting the role of protein-induced satiation and satiety. Food Hydrocolloids. 2016;68:199-210. [ResearchGate]
- Astbury NM, Stevenson EJ, Morris P, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Dose-response effect of a whey protein preload on within-day energy intake in lean subjects. Br J Nutr. 2010;104(12):1858‐1867. [PubMed]
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- Helms ER, Aragon AA, Fitschen PJ. Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11:20. Published 2014 May 12. [PubMed]
- Horton TJ, Drougas H, Brachey A, Reed GW, Peters JC, Hill JO. Fat and carbohydrate overfeeding in humans: different effects on energy storage. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995;62(1):19‐29. [ResearchGate]
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- Kerksick CM, Wilborn CD, Roberts MD, et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):38. Published 2018 Aug 1. [PubMed]
- Snijders T, Trommelen J, Kouw IWK, Holwerda AM, Verdijk LB, Loon LJCV. The Impact of Pre-sleep Protein Ingestion on the Skeletal Muscle Adaptive Response to Exercise in Humans: An Update. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2019 Mar;6:17. [PubMed]
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