Body Recomposition vs Weight Loss
Over the past few months, I have repeatedly said energy balance is the most-important component to altering body composition – which is true. However, it is not everything and now we must look beyond energy balance, to better understand body recomposition and how it can be achieved. A clear definition and understanding of body recomposition is vital for the ‘buy in’ of any client and then developing a strategy to achieve their goals.
What is body recomposition?
According to the Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 'recomposition' means to compose again or rearrange. Body recomposition is exactly that - rearranging the composition of the body, primarily through fat reduction and muscle gain; plus bone mineral density, and alteration to fluid and electrolyte content.
Any alteration of these individual components could be termed body recomposition, as the body has been rearranged.
Fat loss requires an energy deficit & muscle gain requires an energy surplus - how can we do both?
While these changes are stimulated by different energy balances, they can be achieved together in certain timeframes, provided nutrition and programming considerations.
1. Nutrient Utilisation
Once energy balance has been consistently managed, there are more advanced variables than we can begin to alter. An understanding of how the body utilises nutrients becomes important, particularly in relation to body composition outcomes.
Muscle gain requires a stimulus and abundance of amino acids. This can be achieved through resistance training along with sufficient protein & energy intake. If only an energy surplus was required, you could sit at home eating chocolate all day and you would build muscle. However, this is not the case and instead you would simply gain fat tissue.
Fat loss requires fatty acids to be mobilised into the bloodstream and then transported for oxidation (read this for more details). An energy deficit is important here, as it stimulates the body to mobilise stored fuel (mainly fatty acids, but also amino acids) to be oxidised for energy. However, there are other factors that help mobilise fatty acids including exercise intensity, catecholamines and caffeine. Again, once energy balance is controlled for, there are more advanced strategies than we can utilise for fat usage.
During an energy deficit there will be a ratio of fat:protein (F:P) that is being used for fuel. Because amino acids are stored in muscle tissue, our goal should be to minimise amino acid usage and thereby protecting the breakdown of muscle, if body recomposition is desired. By reducing amino acid loss, we are also increasing the ratio of F:P being oxidised. That means for every unit of weight loss, more fat tissue is lost than if amino acids were not protected.
As someone gets leaner the F:P ratio decreases, as body fat stores become lesser.
Strategies to minimise amino acid loss during an energy deficit:
- Consume a protein intake 1.6-2.0g/kgBW
- Do not exceed a 10-15% energy deficit
- Non-sustained energy deficit - explained further soon
- Begin or continue resistance training
There is more to body composition that purely energy balance and weight loss/gain. While energy balance is the most important factor, there are plenty of further considerations that have a great impact on the sustainability of fat loss, energy and duration. The goal of body recomposition should be to build or protect muscle tissue, while reducing fat tissue.
Remember: there are no absolutes; context is everything.
- Can you gain muscle and lose fat, in ten years? Yes.
- Can you gain muscle and lose fat, in one year? Yes.
- Can you gain muscle and lose fat, in six months? Yes.
- Can you gain muscle and lose fat, in one week? Hmm...
- What about in one day? ...
In each of the above scenarios, phases of building muscle (primarily via energy surplus) and phases of losing fat (primarily energy deficit) would be required. At the end of a time period (week/month/year), your body composition outcomes will be determined by the sum of time spent in each state (surplus/deficit).
For practical application, the smallest unit of time we consider for energy balance is one day - did you eat more than you expended or vice-versa?
If the smallest unit we can vary is one day, then each week provides seven opportunities to create either an energy deficit or surplus.
Therefore, we could spend five days in an energy deficit utilising stored fat and two days in an energy surplus to support muscle growth. Provided a sufficient protein intake and resistance training across all days, we would be protecting muscle tissue and mobilising fat tissue - the aim of body recomposition.
This approach has the benefit of preventing adaptation. Sustained energy deficit and surplus both have negative lead to diminishing returns and potential maladaptation. By switching between the two we can reduce maladaptation and continue to get more from less radical alteration.
Conversely, if you were to continue with a sustained energy deficit the only option when maladaptation occurs is to decrease energy intake. A 300kcal deficit can quickly become a 600kcal deficit, and so on...
OK, but won't body recomposition take forever?
If you are continually in an energy deficit, maladaptation and diminishing returns will slow your progress and test your adherence. A sustained energy deficit can cause suppress hormones and lead to decreased energy expenditure.
The best time build muscle is while you are lean, because they body is efficient at using nutrients, which is known as nutrient partitioning. Therefore, as you get leaner the body becomes more efficient at utilising nutrients to fulfil its needs. You will be better primed to gain muscle at 15% body fat than at 30% body fat, so prioritise fat loss first while maintaining current mass to achieve best results.
Traditional methods of bulking (sustained surplus) and cutting (sustained deficit) are less effective, compared with body recomposition strategies. We want avoid the diminishing returns that can slow progress. On top of that, you must reverse the damage at the end of it. So if you were in deficit for too long, now you need to rebuild lost muscle tissue. If in a surplus, you must lose the gained fat.
Based on the math, it should take the same amount of time to do both (provided the same energy intake and expenditure over the timeframe). However, a varied system can be quicker, as there is less time wasted due to maladaptation and diminishing returns.
What is the right ratio?
This depends on the goal. We need to prioritise either muscle gain or fat loss for any programming, as it will impact different components of strategy and program structure.
It should also be noted that it is a lot easier to lose 5kg of fat mass compared to building 5kg of muscle mass, which means that muscle building goals will take longer.
If the goal is muscle building, we need more days of surplus than deficit.
If the goal is fat loss, we need more days of deficit than surplus.
The exact ratio will depend on current body composition, adherence and trial. Beginner clients can start in the middle while more advanced clients may favour one or the other, specific to their goal.
Beginner clients might eat the same energy intake everyday (energy intake) and use exercise (energy expenditure) to create an energy deficit. This is simple way to create a deficit while only focusing on two variables.
More advanced clients or athletes with varying training loads need to spend more time matching their energy intake to their training and goals. Tracking energy intake is essential to gather information for future alterations.
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Recomposition v weight loss
Recomposition and weight loss are not opposing goals, simply slightly different approaches. If your body weight changes due to fat loss, water loss or anything else, the composition of you body has also changed. Likewise, if your body composition is altered there will be a change in weight.
So which do we choose as a goal?
I prefer the term recomposition as it is more accurate to what we are trying to do - change the body.
Weight loss is not the goal, fat loss is. Severe energy restriction and dehydration can lead to massive weight loss in 24 hours, with. minimal fat loss (Ross Edgely did it here). This demonstrates the indirect assessment of scales.
Note: Ross has also massively altered his body composition in this video, due to the alteration of secondary components such water and minerals. However, the primary measurements fat tissue and muscle tissue remain the same.
Recomposition encompasses a more full-spectrum approach to measuring goals and progression. Instead of focusing on decreasing weight by decreasing food and decreasing pleasure, we instead focus on changing the composition. This can be the composition of lifestyle and new training sessions or the composition of the diet.
Our aim is to improve, not remove. It is a lot easier to optimise a person's nutrition intake and training than it is to overhaul it. More importantly, optimisation of a current system is more adhereable for the individual, particularly in the early stages.
The final word
Body recomposition is not about some magic training system or false promises. It is based on a sound understanding of physiology, nutrition and programming along with practical experience in what works, often learned by seeing what does not!
The system works and clients lose body fat and increase muscle mass during a twelve week period, as assed via inBody bioelectrical impedance scans.