When someone first starts exercising, it’s common for them to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. This is called body recomposition. After a while though, this stops being so easy, and most people find they have to alternate between bulking and cutting.
In fact, it’s entirely possible to keep recompositioning—building muscle and losing fat at the same time—for quite some time, at least until you’re far leaner and more muscular than the average person. Not only has this been borne out by research, but I’ve seen it in my own career as a trainer.
While more advanced trainees do eventually have to do the traditional bulk and cut, intermediate trainees—those with one to three years of training experience and below-average body fat—can usually recomposition as long as they follow an optimized program and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how.
Calculate Your Target Weekly Calorie Balance
The first thing you need to do here is calculate your long-run calorie balance. Before you can do that, you need to figure out how fast you should be gaining muscle and losing fat. In a mostly optimized body recomposition program, here are the benchmarks you should be shooting for.
- Novice trainees: 0.5 percent of body weight per week
- Early intermediate trainees: 0.3 percent of body weight per week
- Late intermediate trainees: 0.2 percent of body weight per week
- Advanced trainees: 0.1 percent of body weight per week
This is why I don’t recommend body recomposition for advanced trainees—they simply can’t gain very much muscle without bulking.
- Obese (men over 30 percent body fat, women over 40 percent body fat): 2 percent of body weight per week
- Overweight (men 22–30 percent body fat, women 32–40 percent body fat): 1.25 percent of body weight per week
- Average (men 15–22 percent body fat, women 24–32 percent body fat): 0.75 percent of body weight per week
- Athletic (men 8–15 percent body fat, women 14–24 percent body fat): 0.5 percent of body weight per week
- Bodybuilder or fitness model contest preparation (men below 8 percent, women below 14 percent): 0.2 percent of body weight per week
Again, I don’t recommend body recomposition if you’re obese (just cut instead) or extremely lean (bulk or cut, depending on your goals).
It takes a deficit of 3,800 calories to lose a pound of fat and a surplus of around 1,600 calories to build a pound of muscle. By multiplying these numbers by your weekly body composition goals, you can find your target weekly calorie balance.
Suppose you’re a man who weighs 170 pounds at 20 percent body fat, and you’re an early intermediate–level trainee. That means you should aim to lose 1.275 pounds a week—a 4,845 calorie deficit. You can also gain up to 0.51 pounds of muscle a week, an 816 calorie surplus. Add those two together, and your net weekly calorie deficit is 4029. Note that pretty much everyone will end up needing to be in a caloric deficit to recomposition.
Lift Weights Three to Six Days a Week
You want to lift weights often enough to maintain a growth stimulus on your muscles, but infrequently enough to let yourself recover, given that you’ll be in a caloric deficit. You’ll also need to calorie cycle, which we’ll get to in a bit. In short, calorie cycling means eating more calories for a while after you lift weights, and fewer calories at other times. And that means you’ll want breaks between sessions when you can eat fewer calories.
You also want a high per-muscle training frequency, which means none of those ridiculous four- or five-way bro splits. Your workouts should either be full body, or an upper-lower split.
- Novice trainees: upper-lower split three days a week
- Early intermediate: upper-lower four days a week, or full body three days a week
- Late intermediate: upper-lower five days a week, or full body three days a week
- Advanced: upper-lower six days a week, or full body four days a week
Each workout should consist of 20–35 sets if training full body, or 15–25 if doing an upper-lower split.
Spread these workouts as evenly as possible throughout the week. If you’re training four days a week, for instance, Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Sunday is better than Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday.
Don’t Let Cardio Kill Your Gains
According to a study by the Neuromuscular Research Center, doing cardio and weight training together makes both of them less effective. This interference effect, as it is known, will reduce both muscle and any cardiovascular health benefit you get from the cardio. In a calorie deficit—which, again, you’ll be in—the interference effect can easily result in a net loss of muscle mass.
That doesn’t mean you have to avoid doing cardio. Cardio is good for your health, and it burns calories, making it easier to hit your fat-loss goals while still eating enough to meet your body’s nutritional needs. Here are three ways to keep your cardio from interfering with building muscle:
- Limit how much cardio you do. As an initial guideline, spend less time per week doing cardio than you spend lifting weights.
- Make your cardio sessions short and intense—sprinting rather than distance running—so that the metabolic demands are at least somewhat similar to those imposed by weight training.
- Separate cardio from weight training by doing it at a different time. If you lift in the afternoon, for instance, do your cardio in the morning, or better yet on different days.
If you do perform cardio in conjunction with weight sessions, follow an upper-lower split and do upper-body cardio (like a rowing machine) on your leg day and lower-body cardio (like running) on your upper-body lifting day.
Calorie Cycle Around Your Weight Workouts
Calorie cycling, simply put, means that you eat more calories (in this case, a small surplus) for a certain time period following your workouts, and fewer calories (in this case, a moderate deficit) for the rest of the week.
You want to do this because the more recently a muscle has been resistance trained, the more it will be primed to grow; muscles do most of their growing in this time period. A 2016 study found that the length of this post-workout anabolic window depends on your training status. The more advanced you are, the shorter it gets.
Of course, given that this is a body recomposition program, you also need to spend most of your week in a deficit, so you should err on the side of keeping these post-workout re-feeding windows short, perhaps even shorter than your muscles’ anabolic window. Consider the following a rough guideline:
- Novice: 24 hours
- Early intermediate: 16 hours
- Late intermediate: 10 hours
- Advanced: six hours
Let’s revisit the above example of an early intermediate trainee who is aiming for a 4,000-calorie weekly deficit to lose 1.275 pounds of fat and gain 0.51 pounds of muscle a week. Let’s assume he’s training full body, three days a week, eating three meals a day, and training shortly before dinner.
That means his re-feeding window includes dinner the day of his workouts and breakfast the next morning, or six out of 21 meals each week. Let’s assume his daily maintenance calories average out to 2,400, or 800 per meal. If he were to divide his calories evenly throughout the week, he’d want to eat about 610 calories a meal, but he’s not going to do that.
Instead, he’s going to eat less than that for those 15 meals that lie outside the re-feeding window—around 500 calories each meal. Those extra 1500 calories will be added to the six meals that do fall into the post-workout window, with more of them going to the meal that occurs earlier in the window—dinner in this case.
So for dinner, after he works out, he’ll eat an extra 300 calories, for 910 calories total. For breakfast the morning after each workout, he’ll eat an extra 200 calories, for 810 calories total. That still works out to a 4,000-calorie weekly deficit.
The math behind these numbers is a bit complicated, but as a general rule, 80–85 percent of your weekly calories should be spread out evenly between meals, while 15–20 percent should be allocated specifically to the meals that fall into the post-workout window (in addition to those meals’ share of the 80 percent).
In this case, our hypothetical trainee was eating 12,600 calories a week, and allocating 1,500 of those—around 12 percent of the total—as extra calories for his re-feeding window. In other words, this is a very conservative level of calorie cycling; he could potentially calorie cycle harder, provided he’s willing to eat even less for 15 meals a week.
Keep Stress Low and Sleep Eight to Nine Hours a Night
Sleeping well and keeping stress to a minimum are both critical for body recomposition. Without these parts of your health in place, you can easily end up gaining both muscle and fat, or more likely losing both.
Your body produces much of its testosterone and does a lot of its recovery from exercise while you’re sleeping. Unsurprisingly, people who sleep poorly tend to lose muscle and put on fat. During body recomposition, you should aim for eight to nine hours of sleep a night. This Spartan Life article explains how to optimize your sleep.
A 2014 study found that the difference between high and low-stress levels can mean up to a twofold difference in your ability to put on muscle. And as we all know, the stress hormone cortisol makes the body store more fat, particularly around the belly. The best way to fix stress in the long run is to change your lifestyle so you experience less stress, for instance by working shorter hours. This isn’t always practical though, and some amount of stress is unavoidable. A more feasible solution for most people, particularly in the short term, is to start meditating.
You can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. It just requires hard work in the gym, precision with your diet, and a disciplined lifestyle.