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A Quick Primer on Body Recomposition

Body recomposition is different than weight loss or weight gain and is the process of altering the ratio of lean mass to fat mass on one’s body.

Okay, this might not be that quick. This post will be largely opinion-based and not meant to be taken as scientific fact. If anybody wants to bring forward a study that directly contradicts what I’ve said, I’ll gladly read it. But again, this is based on experience and opinion.

There are two main types of goals when it comes to training. Aesthetic– or performance-related.

Generally, athletes tend to fall closer to the performance end of the spectrum, whereas general population, bodybuilders, and other types of fitness/figure show athletes tend to fall more toward the aesthetic end. And nobody fits neatly into one corner, it’s a continuum for each individual. As I’ve noted in many posts, I believe that everyone should devote a majority of their training economy to performance goals. The aesthetic piece will fall into place.  (Do you want to look like you can bench 1,000 lbs? Bench 1,000 lbs. There’s that.)

Nothing wrong with either end.

But there’s nothing wrong with either end.

In this post, though, I want to focus on the aesthetic portion. I want to find an answer to the question: why do we get fat? In a more eloquent fashion, how do the choices we make affect our body composition negatively or positively and what do we need to do differently to change that?

Let’s start simple.

Muscle Gain

This one shouldn’t be too hard to tackle. Muscle gain comes from progressive resistance training and adequate protein/calorie intake, among other things.

There are a few laws you must abide by if you wish to gain any kind of muscle.

  1. Progressive overload. You must progressively overload your muscles with more weight, shorter rest intervals, or a higher training volume (sets/reps) to build muscle.
  2. Specificity. You must work the muscles you want to build. Although squats seem to have an anabolic effect on the entire body, only performing squats will not make your biceps hyooge.
  3. You must eat enough protein to account for cell turnover and rebuilding. You must eat enough carbs and fat to support your metabolism, whether that’s during training or while you’re sleeping.
  4. You must use weights that provide enough tension to elicit a response. This is why running doesn’t make your legs ginormous. The stimulus isn’t enough. For beginners, this threshold is typically as low as 40% 1RM and moves to 70-85% and higher as you become more advanced. This means less reps too. Because you won’t be performing 20 reps of bicep curls with your 85% 1RM.
  5. You must perform enough volume to create metabolic damage to the muscle.

If you have any additional questions about gaining muscle, read this.

The one muscle you don’t want to atrophy.

Muscle Loss

Muscle loss is a different story. Muscle loss typically comes from two places, but they’re both centered around the ideas that you aren’t eating enough protein and aren’t doing activities that require any substantial muscle (a.k.a. deadlifts and squats and stuff).

The first case typically comes in long-distance athletes and other people who are simply overdoing it on the long-duration cardio. Second only to strength athletes, distance athletes need a significant amount of protein in the diet. Distance events lasting an hour or more shift toward using protein as an energy substrate. Fat is still the main energy substrate in these long events, but protein can account for around a fifth of the total energy requirements. This means you’re losing amino acids!

I believe that the lack of tension and progressive overload in distance events is the primary reason why strength athletes need significantly more protein than distance athletes. It should be noted that adequate protein intake in distance athletes definitely spares muscle, even with a high training volume.

The second case of muscle loss deals with those who are sedentary and consume inadequate protein. Muscle loss is a natural part of the aging process and can be delayed and even reversed with a smart resistance training protocol, but those who do not consume enough protein will lose amino acids to cell turnover and experience this muscle loss. Secondly, a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t provide your body with the stimulus that helps shuttle nutrients into muscles for replenishing and rebuilding.

In conclusion, you’re either doing too much of the wrong thing or too little of the good thing. People losing muscle are generally taking too much out of the calorie bank and not putting the right stuff back in. Like everything else in life, moderation is key.

Fat Gain

Fat loss is not as simple as eating too much. In 2009-2010, almost 70% of Americans were categorized as overweight or obese! It’s now four years later and I can’t imagine that those numbers are looking much better. And don’t try to argue that you have to take into account those who are so muscular that they accidentally fall into the overweight/obese category. There just aren’t that many people like that out there.

From my experience, it’s not simply a case of eating McDonald’s a few times per week that’s making us so rotund. So don’t think that giving up fast food or fatty foods is going to be the solution. Is eating too much a problem in some places? Yes. But it goes way beyond that.

In my opinion, the biggest cause of fat gain comes in the form of a sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary balance (low protein). As I mentioned above, a sedentary lifestyle leaves you with slow muscle atrophy due to inadequate protein intake and inadequate stimulation of the muscles. Simple as that. But here’s the kicker, you don’t need to be downing Big Macs every night to gain weight when you’re sedentary. 2,000 calories per day is probably too much for a large proportion of sedentary individuals. But that’s what every nutrition label says.

All the while, there are people out there in the world telling you that a woman doesn’t need more than approximately 35 grams of protein per day (I received this stat from a client). At 2,000 calories per day, that amounts to 7% of your daily caloric intake. Even at 1,500 calories (which is probably more on point for many sedentary individuals), protein only accounts for ~9% of your caloric intake for the day. Bye-bye muscles.

Seriously though, don’t start eating these willy-nilly.

Now I’m going to say something here that you should not take literally. Going back to my Big Mac comment, many people might actually benefit from substituting a double quarter-pounder with cheese into their diet because at least they’d get 48 grams of protein out of it.

But there’s other indirect reasons for fat gain. A giant caloric deficit can be one.

People who spend a lot of time dieting, forcing themselves in terrible caloric deficits often find themselves with a bit of metabolic adaptation. Their metabolism slows down beyond what it would have with the initial fat loss they experienced. Their fat loss comes to a hault, they get frustrated, and the calories get lower. Which only makes it worse.

Then, when somebody cycles off of this diet, they bring their calories back up to their old caloric requirements (the caloric balance and old habits that brought them to their overweight condition in the first place). This creates a rapid weight gain and the problem is exacerbated by a lack of resistance training. Think of an extreme dieter as you would a long-distance enthusiast that overdoes it on the 5k’s. This extreme dieter is using too much energy and not taking enough in, just like our cardio bunny. While this doesn’t initiate fat gain necessarily, it creates the ideal conditions for it.

This is my cardio bunny. He does my cardio for me.

When it comes down to it, fat gain is about taking in more calories than you’re expelling over a given time period. The point in this section is that blatant over-consumption of food is not necessarily the culprit, as many people will lead you to believe. Even a moderate intake of food, if only a little above your TDEE, can still bring about significant body composition changes through muscle loss, inactivity, etc. In fact, muscle loss and fat gain will probably lead to a smaller number on the scale in some cases. Get off the scale!

Fat Loss

The truth is, steady-state cardio won’t torch the fat off your abs. It will build your aerobic capacity and help you feel less guilty about that extra piece of birthday cake you snuck onto your plate after your family left the dining room.

In my opinion, feel free to disagree, the greatest fat loss is a result of the Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption that comes along with resistance and interval training. The burden of recovering from this types of workouts is what separates them from your traditional, steady-state cardio sessions.

The important thing to remember here is that your body changes its energy substrates based on its activities. True steady-state cardio still burns mostly carbs until your blood glucose and muscle glycogen are used up. Only then does it transition to fatty and amino acids as primary substrates. But this transition does not occur until 60-90 minutes into your exercise session. This doesn’t mean you should stay on the elliptical for 90 minutes every day of the week.

Bodybuilding-style resistance training might produce a similar result because of the higher rep schemes and shorter rest periods. You’ll burn through your creatine phosphate, blood glucose, and glycogen stores before transitioning toward fatty and amino acids for energy. Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting will probably stay more toward the phosphagen/fast glycolytic energy systems during the lift.

So what does this mean? Well, steady-state cardio burns more calories during a session. Followed by bodybuilding. Then power/weightlifting. But calories burned during the session does not accurately predict the end result. Let’s revisit EPOC.

EPOC  occurs for a few reasons:

  • Restocking your ATP, creatine phosphate, and glycogen stores
  • Increased body temperature
  • Tissue repair
  • Effects of hormones
  • Redistribution of oxygen to tissues/muscle blood

And there’s other things too, but there’s a few basic items so you get the picture.

But wait, there’s more. What if I told you that at rest the body burns close to 70% fatty acids and only about 30% carbohydrates? It’s almost the complete opposite of what you burn during exercise. Now, if we put aside hormones and fatty acid mobilization and stuff like that, wouldn’t it be logical to say that EPOC probably has a greater effect on fat loss than the actual exercise does?

So what does this mean for you? Well, in your quest for fat loss, you should focus your workout sessions on resistance training (according to the guidelines that I supplied above) and interval training. Because although cardio and weight training both burn carbohydrates, those carbohydrates aren’t your enemies. Your enemy is the fat on your body, and that EPOC is what’s going to burn it off.

Get it?

So What Now?

I just compiled a fairly complex experience-based argument to prove to you how simple body recomposition really is. Nothing fancy. Of course, there are nutritional and hormonal factors to consider, but that’s another article. You must only do a few things to achieve a better body composition:

  • Lift weights and focus on progress. Progressive overload is what leads to that EPOC and having bigger muscles (if only slightly bigger) will hog all the nutrients in your body so your fat can’t have it.
  • Focus on recovery. Eat enough protein. Drink Enough water. Get enough sleep. Foam roll and stretch. And don’t get stressed when you don’t have to.
  • Program around the eccentric. Powerlifting, and heavy strength training have heavy eccentrics. They’re tough to recover from (both muscularly and neurologically) and should have proper rest days spaced between sessions. Bodybuilding, sprinting, and plyometrics have a lesser eccentric component and can probably be done more frequently, even between heavier training sessions. Low-intensity cardio and Olympic lifts have probably no eccentric and can also be done frequently and between heavier sessions.
  • Going along with my last point, use a variety of workouts. Lift heavy three days a week and maybe sprint twice. Or do strongman work. Maybe add some steady-state cardio because you like it. Give yourself a couple rest days each week and just remember that resistance and interval training is your golden ticket.
  • If you’re a female and worried about turning into a bodybuilder, then don’t use testosterone injections. (Duh.)

There you go, I just gave you the Golden Ticket to body recomposition.

For some extra reading, be sure to check out:

Lyle McDonald’s

Jim Wendler’s website/blog

McDonald will give you every bit of information you could ever want and then Jim Wendler will slap some sense into you.

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