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I understand recomposition to be about trading away fat for new muscle.

  • How is it different than weight loss as a goal?
  • Would it ever be recommended to focus on purely weight loss first, and then strength later, rather than recomposition from the beginning?
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I think having an answer to the first part of this question would help a lot of beginners that have misconceptions about weight loss vs fat loss on this site. The second part of the question is something I'm actually curious about. I can't think of anyone that I would suggest pure weight loss to, except if they are too obese to do any kind of strength training (if that is possible). –  Kate Mar 29 '13 at 10:51
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3 Answers 3

Recomposition really is only possible or visible when your body is within certain phases of its life.

The Beginner: The beginner is so far untrained, that any regular training will have a significant impact on their muscle mass even when you are eating for losing fat.

The Obese: The obese person has so much fat, that any serious change in diet will cause them to use use their fat energy while exercising regularly.

The Almost Lean: Once a person gets under 15% body fat, they can approach their eating and weight loss so the net result is very slow fat loss. Calorie cycling is an effective way to get from 15% body fat to 10% body fat, while still increasing strength and/or muscle mass.

The Catch: You are only a beginner once in your life, so most of the time the holy grail of body recomposition is a compromise. The strategy is relatively simple. You need to eat enough food and do enough exercise to build muscle, on training days, while eating less food and doing some conditioning work on rest days to burn fat. You'll need more "rest" days than training days to pull it off.

You'll need to keep protein high. At least 1g per pound total body weight, maybe more. Eat more carbs on training days when you need them, and more fat on rest days when you don't need the carbs. You'll have to figure out your maintenance Calories, or how much you need to eat to neither gain nor lose weight at your current level of activity. From there, you eat maintenance +20% on training days, and maintenance -20% on rest days. If you train 4 days a week, you'll be at a net deficit of a couple hundred Calories.

What this means is that the fat loss will be very slow, and the muscle gains will also be very slow. If you are 15% or less body fat, you'll be able to see the change over time and remain motivated. However, if you are obese it will take a very long time to see results.

The Recommendation: If you are above 15% body fat, forget about recomposition. Maintain your muscle mass by eating sufficient protein and doing exercise, but eat less than your maintenance Calories to lose weight as quickly and safely as you can. You won't notice recomposition, and you can still gain a little strength while losing weight.

If you are between 10% and 15%, go for recomposition. Once you are at or below 10%, your body is in the best position to gain muscle without gaining fat nearly as easily. Until then you want an approach that can give you some gains while you start to make your abs more and more visible.

If you are at or below 10%, bulk. At this point in your life, you are the most resistant to gaining fat. You can eat well above maintenance and still remain lean. Carbs will be your friend. If things start looking soft again, cut back a little. If you get back to 13-15% body fat, either go through recomposition again, or a short cut to get back down to 10%.

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For a start (I havent researched the merit of your proposed method) you should adjust your BF percentages to take gender into account - a man at BF10% looks ripped, but a woman is probably very unhealthy at BF10%, as it is the essential fat reserve for her body. –  K.L. Apr 4 '13 at 11:27
    
Ripped is incorrect. You'll see the beginnings of a 6 pack, but not a full 10-pack. –  Berin Loritsch Apr 4 '13 at 12:21
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As to women, the difference between 6 pack (12%) and minimum healthy fat (10%) is rather slim--and potentially dangerous. Add about 5% to what I listed for their numbers. –  Berin Loritsch Apr 4 '13 at 12:22
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While I cannot say that my answer is from the standpoint of an authority, as I'm not really an authority, I can share what I think about the weightloss vs recomposition problem.

Most people say they want to lose weight, when in fact they just want to look good naked. To an unexperienced person, weight loss = fat loss = looking good naked. So they ask "How do I lose weight?" instead of "What should I do to look good naked?". It's a form of the popular XY problem.

Body recomposition is about decreasing your body fat percentage while maintaining or even gaining muscle mass. It's hard to lose fat and gain muscles at the same time (usually only possible for beginners), so most of such programs have phases- the so called bulking phase (gaining muscle mass) and cutting phase (losing fat). The phases differ in diet and training program.

IF you want to look good naked, you WILL need to have those muscles. If so, why waste the ones you already got, and lose them in the process of a typical weight loss program (lots of cardio done on a acute calorie restriction), if you could work towards your goal from the beginning?

On the other hand, there are people who might want to just lose weight. Those would be people morbidly obese - their goal is to actually lose weight, because it impairs their normal functioning. They simply want to get smaller, and they don't really care if they lose some muscle mass in the process. They will probably be losing connective tissue along the way too, since when there is less of a body to support, they wont need as much of it.

In both cases, the baseline is the diet. Actually, a good body recomposition diet will work well for the weight loss goal, so I don't think there is a lot to be said about it in this answer: just remember to eat enough protein and bear in mind that diet is 80% of your success. I personally like the low-carb diets.

With diet out of the way, we can go on to the training program.

A typical body recomposition program will include some form of resistance training, for example weight lifting, perhaps with elements of cardio (I'm not a fan of cardio exercises, and I personally recommend weightlifting and high intensity interval training).

A training program for a person trying to simply lose weight could be pretty much anything that person fancies,but most instructors recommend lots and lots of cardio.

If you're just trying to lose weight, probably your own bodyweight is enough challenge for you, and you should not burden yourself and your joints and muscles with additional iron. Can you imagine a person as wide as she/he is high, doing squats with a 50kg barbell? Doing interval sprints, while walking up the stairs is a problem for them? Me neither. In the morbidly obese section, pretty much any exercise will help, especially that diet is still most important factor.

After some time and losing enough weight, a weightloss person will probably change his/hers goals and will want to go for a body recomposition, modify their diet accordingly and pick up on a proper workout schedule.

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While strictly losing fat at the same time as building muscle may be difficult past the beginner stage, do you think that it's still relatively easy (or more doable) to keep body fat percentage decreasing during the bulking phase? Or are people bulking generally so undisciplined about diet that their body fat percentage goes up or stays constant during bulking? –  Kate Mar 29 '13 at 17:30
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Well, from my personal experience - I tend to gain fat too, if trying to gain some muscle mass. I believe it to be depending on a particular person, not diet strictness. To gain mass, you need to be in a caloric surplus, and that can mean gaining fat. When I try to gain, I make sure to get enough protein and training, still, the fat finds its way to get stored as a byproduct. Yet I knew some people who seemed to have a lesser tendency to store fat while bulking. –  K.L. Apr 2 '13 at 2:18
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I can give you my anecdotal experience with recomposition, since I usually lose a few percentage of fat and gain about 10 lbs every summer.

During the winter I do strength training followed by a short metabolic conditioning session. An example workout would be:

  • Olympic backsquat (work up to max load singles, then doubles, followed by a 3x5)
  • Clean and jerk (work up to max load singles)
  • Dumbbell bench press (pyramid to max load triple, followed by a 3x5)
  • Metcon resembling strength workout (in this case, maybe five rounds for time: 10x135lb front squat, 20x pushups, 250m row, 10x135lb push press)

So my gym time during the winter is usually an hour and a half to two hours, 5-6 times a week.

Since I'm an avid mountain biker, in the summer I change around my workout routines in order to get time on my bike (at least three times a week, often more -- especially at the beginning of the season). To continue with my strength training, my workout routines then follow a two or three time per day scheme (so as to have adequate rest), where a training day may look like:

Morning (strength training):

  • Front squat (work up to max singles, then doubles, followed by a 3x5)
  • Clean pulls (work up to max singles, then doubles, followed by a 3x5)
  • Weighted pullups

Lunch (metcon):

  • As many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of movements resembling my strength training (e.g.: 10x135lb thrusters, 10x135lb barbell row, 50x double unders, 10x225lb deadlift)

Evening (bike session):

  • 15-25 miles rigorous trail riding

Now, interestingly, despite a significant increase in energy expenditure during the summer, I tend to gain at least 10 lbs of weight, but drop bodyfat. In winter I generally hover around 190lbs and 12% BF -- summer I generally end up around 200lbs and 10% BF.

In the winter, I sort of watch what I eat. I'll try to get around 2500-3000 calories a day (by daily rough-estimate calorie counting). In the summer, I eat A LOT more and don't count calories (an estimate would be 5000-6000 calories per day). I'm hungry constantly and fill up with a lot more food each time I eat. I also include sports drinks in my diet, and am not particular about omitting any types of simple carbs. Protein levels remain at least 1g/lb of lean body mass year-round.

After gaining the summer weight, I tend to look bulkier and leaner. I think the gain in weight can be attributed to more than just sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, but I'm not too scientifically versed on the matter. I imagine my body has to store more glycogen for the rigorous cardio of trail riding, perhaps increase water storage for the prolonged sweating (is this possible?), and I suppose my GI tract may have more food in at any given point.

To answer your questions:

  • How is it different than weight loss as a goal?
    For me personally, the goal is not weight loss at all -- rather an increase in strength and conditioning levels. The recomposition is simply a side-effect.

  • Would it ever be recommended to focus on purely weight loss first, and then strength later, rather than recomposition from the beginning?
    This, of course, is subjective. Personally, my strength is always first since I get the most enjoyment out of seeing my weights increase on my olympic lifts, but I'm passionate about mountain biking to the degree that I take a lot of pleasure from the activity alone (as opposed to having goals about my biking ability, like I do for my weightlifting).

Furthermore, I've attempted to recompose my physique with strict calorie counting, daily meal plans, and internet workout plans and I haven't had much success. I did a really dirty bulk about 5 years ago, then lost about 30 lbs with the intention of recomposing and it turned out pretty poorly. I lost a lot of muscle mass along with the bodyfat. I moved backwards quite a bit.

In my experience, training organically, without the intention of recomposition has proven more successful than training simply with the intention of recomposition.

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