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How to Recomp and Who Should Do It
Body recomposition– simultaneous fat loss and muscle growth– is often considered the holy grail of fitness.
Most people experience recomp for the first few months when they get serious about working out, but then from that point onward they end up needing to bulk and cut. or at least, they think they need to.
There are three general schools of thought when it comes to recomp. Those who aren’t very knowledgable tend to have unrealistic expectations, and expect perpetual, rapid body recomposition. Like, lose 20 pounds of muscle and gain 5 pounds of fat in one month rapid. Sorry, no.
On the other hand, most people who are fairly knowledgable about fitness and bodybuilding end up going too far in the other direction, taking the attitude that nobody should ever expect to recomp once they’re past their newbie gains phase.
Frankly, this is just nihilism dressed up as hard-nosed realism. It’s good to temper expectations and plan to work hard but the evidence doesn’t support that level of negativity.
The truth is, it is possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, not just for newbies, but for intermediate and in some cases even advanced trainees. This has been borne out over and over again not only in the practical experience of trainers like me, but also in studies. And those studies have included all sorts of research populations, including police officers, elderly men and women, and younger women.
Now, the phrase at the same time does need to be clarified here. It’s not clear that you can build muscle and lose fat at literally the exact same moment…but then again, that doesn’t matter.
What matters is that, with proper workout programming and calorie cycling, you can usually lose fat and build muscle at different times within the same day. Better yet, you can definitely recomp within any given week let alone a given macrocycle.
That said, recomping usually produces slower results than alternating bulk and cut phases. So why would you do it? Well, first off, it produces steadier results, rather than the two steps forward, one step back progress that can often be seen with the bulk/cut model. By extension, it’s a great cure for yo-yo dieting.
Almost everyone who goes from overweight to shredded has to go through at least a couple of recomp phases along the way. In fact, most people should be able to recomp until they're at least at a late intermediate level of development.
That said, while anyone can benefit from a recomp, there are several specific types of people who tend to do better on a recomp rather than by alternating bulking and cutting. And I’ll provide specific recommendations for those groups in a bit, but first let’s go over the basics of recomp program design.
How to Recomp Effectively
The first rule of recomping is, eat a caloric surplus on workout days, and a caloric deficit on non-workout days.
The second rule of recomping is, eat a caloric surplus on workout days, and a caloric deficit on non-workout days. Got it?
Roman explains how to calculate your calorie and macro needs in this article- he recommends a 100 calorie surplus on workout days and 500 calorie deficit on non-workout days, but treat those numbers as a starting point. Not gaining strength or mass? Add another one or two hundred calories on workout days. Not losing fat? Cut a couple hundred more calories on non-workout days- ideally from carbs.
The third rule of recomping is, lift weights three or four times a week. Don’t lift more than four days a week- remember, you’re eating a caloric surplus on your workout days, so working out more often would turn this recomp into a bulk.
Note that you don’t have to perform each workout exactly once a week- you can have a four-way split and work out three times a week, or have a five-way split and work out three or four times a week.
The fourth rule of recomping is, any exercise other than weightlifting is optional and doesn’t count as a workout day. A little jogging, or playing soccer with your friends, can be great ways to burn some extra calories on non-workout days- but they don’t earn you the right to eat more.
The fifth rule of recomping is- utilize some form of intermittent fasting. Personally I’m a fan of daily 16/8 fasting, plus 24-hour fasts the day after cheat day, but find a fasting protocol that works with your body and your schedule.
The sixth rule of recouping is- get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Sleeping well helps with both fat loss and muscle growth. It’s a win-win, so make sure you nail this.
Those are the basics- now let’s look at the four types of people who can benefit from a recomp, and specific recommendations for each of them.
Group One: Total Novices
Novices should recomp because, simply put, there's no reason not to. In fact, most people do just that– they recomp for their first few months of serious training before they start bulking and cutting.
I won't belabor this point because I think most of us have already experienced it firsthand. When you first start out, at least, recomping is so easy you don't even have to do anything special to make it happen.
If you haven't been training for more than a few months, you can easily build muscle in a deficit by just lifting weights a few days a week and making a modest effort to "eat heathy." So, like, you should do that.
Group Two: The Skinny-Fat
Being skinny-fat is tough. When you try to cut, you end up losing muscle along with your fat. When you try to bulk, you end up gaining fat along with your new muscle. It’s a heartbreaking, Sisyphean ordeal. Thankfully, recomping offers a solution.
When breaking out of the skinny-fat trap, patience is the name of the game. The rapid cut/bulk mindset will only lead to yo-yo dieting, so keep your daily caloric surpluses under two hundred calories, and your deficits under six hundred.
Second, while you are losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, losing fat is the more important of the two. Your goal is to get your body fat percentage down, since being leaner means you’ll look better, and have better nutrient partitioning. And you can lower your body fat percentage faster and farther by losing fat than by gaining muscle. So focus on strong deficits and low-carb dieting on non-workout days, and if you can also gain a little lean mass- view that as the icing on the cake.
Third, don’t use cheat days to start out with. You’re not lean enough to automatically deserve one. Instead, allow yourself one cheat meal per week- dinner on Saturday nights tends to be when people choose to have this.
If you show strong initial fat loss, you start getting leaner, and your progress slows dramatically after a while, that’s when you add in a cheat day once every two weeks to up-regulate hormones like leptin and thyroid hormone and keep your metabolism high. But don’t add a cheat day until you need it and you know you’re doing everything else right, and don’t bump the frequency up to once a week until you’ve broken out of skinny-fat and gotten lean.
Fourth, make your workouts whole-body. Working your entire body each time will give you the strongest metabolic effect, which is ideal for kick-starting fat loss. Just make sure not to overwork your legs- don’t push them to failure.
Fifth, keep rest times short. Again, this maximizes the metabolic impact of your workouts.
Group Three: Those Reaching Their Final Form
The third group who can benefit from a recoup is those who are both fairly lean, and have almost as much muscle as their body can naturally have. If you’re in this group- you only need to lose a few pounds of fat and gain a few pounds of muscle, and you’ll be in the best (drug-free) shape you could possibly be in.
Ironically, being in great shape puts you in a similar bind to the skinny-fat trainee. Because your body can only gain muscle very slowly at this point, it’s easy for a large caloric surplus to spill over into fat gain. And because your body doesn’t have much fat left to lose, it’ll be resistant to losing any more- it will try its best to lose muscle instead, because evolution has designed our bodies first and foremost to avoid starvation.
If you’re in this group, your prescription differs from that of the skinny-fat trainee in a few key ways.
First off, you should be having a cheat day, or a couple of cheat meals, every week. You’re lean enough to benefit from it, and you’ve proven that you can follow a diet well enough to warrant some structured cheating. Enjoy the cheat meals; you've earned them.
Second, compared to the skinny-fat trainee, your diet should be tilted a bit more towards muscle growth. Since you’re lean, you have great nutrient partitioning, so you can eat a little more on workout days without gaining fat. Your caloric surplus on workout days might be several hundred, rather than just one hundred.
Third, your workouts should probably be split-body, or else each workout should focus on a few body parts while minimally working others. There are a few reasons for this. First off, you probably tend to push yourself harder than newer trainees- that means each muscle needs more time to recover. Moreover, muscle naturally take longer to recover as they grow larger, since some of the bodily resources they draw won’t have grown as much as the muscles themselves. And third, since you’re prioritizing muscle growth a bit more highly, the added metabolic boost from a full-body workout is less important.
Finally, switch up your workouts every 2-3 months. The better shape you’re in, the faster you adapt to an exercise program and start to see progress stall. You don’t want to program-hop, but you do want to follow an intelligent progression that keeps the training effect going strong. Your best options here are to either hire a coach, or follow a program designed for this specific purpose, such as Omega Body.
Group Four: Those Who Just Want to Maintain For Now
There are going to be some periods of your life when you don’t have the time, energy, or stability to follow an aggressive fitness program. The final category of people who could benefit from a recomp program are people who don’t necessarily want to recomp, but merely want to maintain what they have while making fitness a lower priority in their lives. In times this case, instead of losing fat and gaining muscle, the goal is merely to not gain fat and not lose muscle.
A recomp-like program is ideal for physique maintenance since it maintains insulin sensitivity, provides adequate stimulus to preserve muscle mass, and doesn’t require a particularly difficult diet. If you’re in this category, you can take things a bit easier than the other two groups, but you still need to make sure you’re following the program, and in particular that you don’t overeat and get fat.
Rule number one: keep the workouts time-efficient. That means three or maybe even just two workouts a week, with each one clocking in at 20-30 minutes. If you only work out twice a week though, it has to be full-body. Also, even though you’re “taking it easy,” you want to push yourself pretty hard during these workouts, allowing higher intensity to partially substitute for the lower volume.
Rule number two: make heavy use of intermittent fasting. The hormonal benefits of intermittent fasting are going to be extra useful since you’re not working out as often. The 16/8 or even 19/5 schedules are ideal for maintenance phases, since restricting your eating to a shorter window each day makes it easier to limit caloric intake. Feast-fast can also be useful if you’re prone to fat gain, but only if you’re earning that cheat day.
Rule number three: determine your diet based on your natural tendency, not your goal. In other words, if you get fat easily, keep calories and carbs low. If you’re naturally skinny and had to struggle for every once of muscle, bump up the calories a bit, especially on workout days.
Rule four: Have a weekly cheat day, as long as you’re following your diet. Since you’re de-prioritizing fitness for a while, you can go ahead and enjoy a weekly cheat day without worrying about whether it’s exactly ideal for you given your goals and current body fat percentage. However, you do still have to not be overeating the other six days of the week- otherwise, you’ll just get fat.
Finally, remember that you can never truly stay the same. You’re always gaining or losing fat. You’re always gaining or losing muscle. And if you’re not trying hard enough to make progress, you’ll probably backslide, at least a little bit. A good recomp program can limit the damage, but it won’t freeze your body in place. So go into maintenance mode for a few months if you have to, but understand that after a while, you’ll need to re-focus on fitness and put in the effort to make some gainz.
Bottom line: recomping is a great way to gradually gain muscle and lose fat, while avoiding yo-yo dieting. If you have the patience and the ability to hit some fairly precise macro targets, and have had trouble with bulk/cut cycles in the past, a recomp is likely to be your best option.
If you want to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you need a well-designed recomp program. That’s something I can design for you as part of my online fitness coaching program– particularly the comprehensive package, which includes customized workouts, diets and lifestyle coaching.
Finally, a special offer for my readers: when you join my online coaching program, during the checkout process you’ll see a field to enter a promotional code. Input the promo code JOHNFAWKESWEEK to get your first week of online coaching for free– this works with all coaching packages.