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When someone first begins their fitness journey, there’s a decent chance that their long-term goal will involve a combination of both muscle gain and fat loss. The conventional wisdom within the fitness world suggests that they should focus on one goal at a time, as the dietary recommendations for gaining muscle and losing fat are, on the surface, contradictory. So, is it possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Who, if anyone, can actually achieve this feat? Is it ever advisable to pursue both goals simultaneously? These are the exact questions that this article aims to cover.
What is “body recomposition,” or “recomping?”
In the fitness world, it has become very common to oscillate between bulking (weight gain) phases and cutting (weight loss) phases. Cyclical cutting and bulking phases do have some advantages, as they offer straightforward routes to substantial and quantifiable physique changes over relatively short periods of time. However, many fitness enthusiasts have resigned themselves to the expectation that bulking phases will inherently invite some degree of fat gain, and that cutting phases will inherently invite some degree of muscle loss.
In contrast, the concept of body recomposition rejects these expectations (in some specific circumstances, which we’ll explore in detail later). Body recomposition, often referred to as “recomping,” describes the process of simultaneously losing fat mass while gaining muscle mass.
Recomping is theoretically possible because fat mass and muscle mass are regulated in a somewhat independent manner. Our ability to gain muscle is directly impacted by the presence of a robust stimulus for muscle growth (e.g., lifting weights), adequate provision of essential amino acids (i.e., adequate protein intake), and adequate energy availability to fuel the energy-intensive process of building new muscle proteins. Conversely, the amount of fat mass we store is directly impacted by the amount of daily energy that is “left over” after all energy costs have been accounted for. With this in mind, one can theoretically construct a scenario in which an individual is lifting weights, eating sufficient protein, and consuming enough energy to support muscle growth while still restricting calorie intake enough to facilitate the simultaneous loss of fat mass.
An important clarification about weight change and energy balance
It’s commonly said that weight is directly indicative of energy balance. In other words, you’re in a calorie deficit (negative energy balance) if you’re losing weight, you’re in neutral energy balance if your weight is stable, and you’re in a calorie surplus (positive energy balance) if you’re gaining weight.
This is an oversimplification which, while broadly useful, isn’t strictly true.
In reality, energy balance is more directly reflected by the total energy content of your body. Importantly, the energy content of 1kg of stored fat mass is dramatically higher than the energy content of 1kg of stored muscle tissue.
To gain a deeper understanding, let’s consider three scenarios. If you lose 1kg of fat and gain 1kg of muscle, the total energy content of your body has decreased, so you were in an energy deficit during that change. If you gain 1kg of fat and lose 1kg of muscle, the total energy content of your body has increased, so you were in an energy surplus during that change. If you gain 0kg of fat and lose 0kg of muscle, the total energy content of your body has not changed, so you were in neutral energy balance during that change.
In all three scenarios, body weight is unchanged. However, we see all three types of energy balance represented (positive, negative, and neutral). I bring this up to highlight an important point: when discussing body recomposition, we have to understand that fat mass and muscle mass can change independently, and that these two distinct body composition compartments (fat mass and muscle mass) have different energy densities (that is, metabolizable energy per kilogram of tissue mass). As a result, it’s possible to gain weight while in a caloric deficit, it’s possible to lose weight in a caloric surplus, and an individual can be in positive, negative, or neutral energy balance when body weight is stable. Weight gain does not automatically render fat loss impossible, and weight loss does not automatically render muscle gain impossible.
Generally speaking, is body recomposition possible?
This question was directly addressed in a 2020 paper entitled “Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?” The paper, written by Barakat and colleagues, reviewed the published scientific literature documenting instances of recomposition in a variety of research populations. As these researchers acknowledge, recomposition has been documented countless times in studies in which untrained participants with relatively high-body fat percentages engage in resistance training. However, it is commonly thought that recomposition is an inaccessible goal for leaner individuals and individuals with prior resistance training experience. Barakat and colleagues demonstrate that this perspective is incompatible with the scientific evidence, ultimately concluding the following:
“Despite the common belief that building muscle and losing fat at the same time is only plausible in novice/obese individuals, the literature provided supports that trained individuals can also experience body recomposition.”
When downplaying the feasibility of recomping, fitness professionals commonly repurpose an old quote commonly attributed to Confucius: A person who chases two rabbits catches neither. There are scenarios in which this sentiment is true, but we shouldn’t be so quick to oversimplify the concept.
Without question, the most straightforward way to maximize one’s rate of muscle growth is to eat plenty of calories. Building muscle is an energy-consuming process, so its rate will be limited if insufficient energy is available. Furthermore, the most straightforward way to maximize one’s rate of weight loss is to substantially restrict calories. Our bodies turn to stored fat mass for energy when dietary caloric intake is too low to meet day-to-day energy needs, so one’s rate of weight loss will slow down if their caloric deficit shrinks.
With these factors in mind, it’s very fair to say that you’re unlikely to maximize your rate of muscle gain or maximize your rate of fat loss while recomping. However, that doesn’t mean that recomping is impossible, or even inadvisable. It’s an opportunity to pursue incremental progress toward both goals simultaneously, rather than going all-in on one goal at the expense of the other.
You might be wondering, how can we be so sure that body recomposition is possible? That’s easy – we have the data to back it up. The previously cited paper by Barakat and colleagues includes tables documenting multiple instances in which group-level averages reflect a simultaneous loss of fat and gain of fat-free mass in previously published studies with experienced, resistance-trained participants. If you venture out into the research assessing body composition changes in less experienced folks who are new to resistance training, these types of observations are commonplace. However, if you’re not impressed by changes in group-level averages, we can lean on individual-level data as well.
Back in 2021, we published an article that included a participant-level meta-analysis. We were interested in determining if baseline body-fat percentage predicted how much fat mass or lean mass a person would gain over the course of a controlled resistance training intervention. So, we gathered data sets from longitudinal resistance training studies reporting baseline body composition and body composition changes with individual-level data for all participants. We were able to calculate what we call a “lean gains” metric, which is simply the change in fat-free mass minus the change in fat mass. If someone gained a ton of lean mass in addition to a little bit of fat mass, their “lean gains” value would be positive. If someone gained a ton of lean mass without gaining fat, it would be higher, and it would be even higher if they managed to gain a bunch of lean mass while losing fat in the process. The result is an outcome metric that rewards gains in lean mass while numerically penalizing gains in fat mass.
When we plotted “lean gains” against baseline body-fat percentage (Figure 1), we found that “lean gains” values got higher as baseline body-fat percentage increased. While this makes it seem like higher body-fat levels boosted hypertrophy (muscle growth) responses, that’s actually not the case. Upon further analysis, we found that people were able to gain lean mass in response to resistance training across a broad spectrum of body-fat levels. However, very lean people were unlikely to gain fat-free mass without accepting a little bit of fat gain along with it, and people with higher baseline body-fat levels were quite frequently able to gain considerable amounts of fat-free mass while simultaneously losing a considerable amount of fat mass.
In summary, there is a great deal of group-level data and individual-level data confirming, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that body recomposition is both possible and routinely observed in resistance training research.
Is it possible to “recomp” when maintaining a stable body weight?
Absolutely. In fact, this is one of the most common applications of recomping. If you check Tables 2 and 3 in the open-access paper by Barakat and colleagues, many of the groups experiencing recomposition had very small changes in total body weight (i.e., less than 0.5kg or so). The same is certainly true when looking through individual data points within the raw data from our participant-level meta-analysis.
There are plenty of folks who are in the early phase of their fitness journey, and they’re interested in eventually becoming stronger, more muscular, and leaner over time. They might be relatively comfortable with their current body weight, while preferring that they simply had more muscle and less fat at the same general body size. In addition, they might not be ready to dive into an aggressive calorie deficit, especially while they’re allocating much of their attention and effort toward learning the ropes of resistance training. In this scenario, the decision to set a “maintenance” weight goal while becoming more familiar with resistance training and other weight-neutral dietary modifications makes all the sense in the world.
Having said that, this approach is not exclusively reserved for beginners. As intermediate or advanced lifters know, fitness is a long and unpredictable ride. At some point in your lifting journey, you might be coming back from an injury, returning from an extended layoff, or ramping up your training after a period of interrupted or otherwise lackluster training. Fortunately, “muscle memory” is a real phenomenon, so these lifters can expect to regain lost muscle pretty quickly. In these scenarios, an intermediate or advanced lifter might want to eat enough calories to adequately fuel this muscle growth, but can realistically expect to gain muscle without requiring a massive energy surplus. So, rather than opting for a large deficit or surplus, they might instead opt for an approximately weight-stable recomposition phase.
Is it possible to “recomp” when losing weight?
Absolutely. As mentioned previously, it’s very common to observe a combination of weight loss and body recomposition when previously untrained participants with overweight or obesity complete an intervention involving resistance training. There were also several participants within our participant-level meta-analysis who experienced body recomposition in the context of weight loss. In other words, there are definitely scenarios in which muscle growth during an energy deficit is both feasible and routinely observed. However, the size of the deficit is an important factor to consider.
A 2021 meta-analysis by Murphy and Koehler sought to examine the relationship between energy deficits and gains in lean body mass in resistance training studies (note: we thoroughly reviewed this meta-analysis in a separate Stronger By Science article). Figure 2 shows changes in lean mass and strength among study groups training with or without an energy deficit. The presence of an energy deficit attenuated gains in lean mass, but did not entirely blunt those gains in all subjects. In contrast, short-term strength gains weren’t impacted as markedly by energy deficits.
It’s important to note that lean mass is not perfectly synonymous with muscle mass. Many resistance training studies measure fat-free mass or lean mass at the whole-body level; while this includes muscle tissue, it also includes a wide range of other non-fat components of total body mass. When a person begins a weight loss diet, they tend to lose some glycogen (a type of carbohydrate stored in muscle and liver tissue), drop some water weight, and experience a reduction of content in the gastrointestinal tract (due to consumption of less food). As a result, it’s very common to observe reductions in lean mass or fat-free mass during weight loss, even in the absence of muscle loss. So, if you were surprised to see such large losses of lean mass in Figure 2, rest assured that non-muscle components of lean body mass are certainly making a considerable contribution to the observed effects.
The same paper by Murphy and Koehler also included a meta-regression analysis, which sought to quantify the numerical relationship between the size of energy deficits and their impact on gains in lean mass. As shown in Figure 3, larger deficits had a much more pronounced impact on lean mass gains than smaller deficits. This is a very intuitive finding; muscle growth is an energy-intensive process, so extreme energy restriction introduces a significant constraint. The researchers concluded that energy deficits larger than 500kcal/day should be avoided by people who wish to simultaneously pursue muscle growth. While we shouldn’t take this number as a literal, precise, and universally true “rule,” it’s a helpful guideline to keep in mind for people with recomposition goals.
In summary, recomposition is very possible and commonly observed during weight loss. However, diets that induce large energy deficits (and, by extension, rapid rates of weight loss) make recomping far less likely, as they often fail to provide enough energy to effectively support muscle growth. As a rough rule of thumb, gaining muscle in an energy deficit is often possible when losing weight at a rate of one pound per week or less, but becomes significantly more unlikely at faster rates of weight loss.
Is it possible to “recomp” when gaining weight?
Absolutely. When referring back to Tables 2 and 3 in the article by Barakat and colleagues, there are multiple instances in which groups of study participants experienced increases in average body weight while experiencing decreases in average fat mass values. Furthermore, there were several instances of this occurring in our participant-level meta-analysis. However, this scenario is only likely to occur for fairly modest rates of weight gain.
In the previous section, we explored some research indicating that recomping is far more feasible in the context of slow weight loss when compared to rapid weight loss. When it comes to weight gain, the scenario is similar – recomping is far more feasible in the context of slow weight gain when compared to rapid weight gain.
It generally takes a long time to build considerable amounts of muscle mass. You can expedite the process by increasing energy intake, but this all but ensures that simultaneous fat loss is off the table. The evidence bears this out, but it’s fairly intuitive, even without empirical support. If you’re eating enough to fuel 7 pounds of muscle growth over a few months’ time, it’s going to be pretty hard to eat enough calories to enable a net loss of fat mass over the same time period. So, recomping is definitely possible during weight gain, but it’s most likely to occur when the rate of weight gain is relatively slow.
Who can realistically achieve body recomposition?
On several occasions throughout this article, I’ve alluded to the fact that body recomposition is not equally accessible to everyone. There are certain characteristics that may increase or decrease the likelihood of successfully recomping.
First and foremost, participating in some form of resistance training is virtually a necessity for enabling a substantial degree of recomposition. If one wishes to recomp, it’s remarkably important to introduce a robust stimulus for muscle growth. Along the same lines, training status also plays an important role. If you’re brand new to resistance training, you have tremendous potential to make rapid muscle gains. Conversely, if you’ve been training hard (and effectively) for 15 years straight, you very well might be near your genetic limit for muscularity. While a brand new lifter may realistically aim to gain several pounds of muscle in their first year of lifting, a seasoned veteran may be thrilled to gain a pound or two. So, a relatively inexperienced or detrained lifter might have ample opportunities to recomp, whereas an experienced and well-trained lifter might find it difficult to make continued progress without a cyclical approach involving cutting phases that are highly optimized for fat loss (at the expense of muscle growth) and bulking phases that are highly optimized for muscle growth (at the expense of fat loss).
Baseline body-fat percentage is also an important factor to consider. Simply put, lean people don’t have much fat to lose, and extremely lean people typically struggle to gain muscle without concomitant fat gain. The human body is consistently keeping tabs on short-term and long-term indicators of energy availability; when we start getting pretty lean, physiological changes (e.g., the shift from a more anabolic hormone profile to a more catabolic hormone profile) make it more challenging to lose further fat mass and to gain additional muscle mass. As a result, people who are very lean often need to implement pretty substantial calorie restriction to induce further fat loss, and often need to lean on a fairly substantial energy surplus to support muscle growth. In contrast, people with higher baseline body-fat levels often achieve notable fat loss by making some pretty modest changes to their diet and exercise habits, and are well positioned to gain muscle mass, even in the presence of a modest energy deficit.
Finally, the direction and rate of weight change has an important influence on the likelihood of successfully recomping. For individuals with relatively high potential for recomposition, it’s quite feasible to recomp when body weight is stable, or when body weight is slowly changing (upward or downward). However, in the context of fairly rapid weight loss or fairly rapid weight gain, body recomposition becomes far less likely. The key characteristics impacting the likelihood of successful body recomposition are summarized in Table 1.
Should I bulk, cut, maintain, or recomp?
This might be the most frequently asked question in the history of fitness-related forums and message boards. Fortunately, there are no wrong answers. There are a few questions to consider before making a decision:
- Do you have relatively high (or low) potential for successful recomposition, based on your training status and body composition characteristics?
- Which route (gaining muscle versus losing fat) is most exciting to you at the moment?
- Which endpoint (muscle gain versus fat loss) is a higher priority at the moment, and how much urgency is attached to this outcome?
- If you were to focus on fat loss first, how lean would you want to get?
- If you were to focus on muscle gain first, what magnitude of simultaneous fat gain would you be comfortable with?
If you suspect that your potential for successful recomposition is quite low, then recomping probably isn’t the best option for you. In this scenario, you might opt for the route that is most exciting to you, or pursue the outcome for which you feel the greatest sense of urgency. For example, some people might feel like gaining muscle (eventually) would be great, but they might be very uncomfortable with the idea of gaining a little bit of fat in the process, or they might prefer to focus on getting down to a more comfortable body-fat level before shifting too much attention toward gaining muscle. In such a scenario, it would make a lot of sense to prioritize fat loss first, then shift more focus to gaining muscle later.
However, a word of caution – it is exceedingly difficult to build muscle when body-fat levels get too low. When males get below ~10% body-fat or so (comparable to ~18% body-fat for females, give or take), the body’s internal signals pertaining to long-term energy storage start to relay the message that energy stores are quite low. In this scenario, a substantive calorie surplus (and perhaps a little bit of fat gain) might be required to make meaningful strides toward muscle-building goals. So, a male who would like to cut down to 18% or 15% body-fat before focusing on building muscle should have no issue whatsoever. Conversely, a male who would like to cut down to 5% or 7% body-fat before focusing on building muscle might be in for a challenge, as that muscle building process might require sacrificing some of the fat loss progress that was previously made.
Now, let’s imagine that you suspect your potential for successful recomposition is reasonably high. If you genuinely can’t tell which route (gaining muscle versus losing fat) is most exciting to you, recomping might be a great option. Similarly, if neither outcome (muscle gain versus fat loss) is more urgent or higher in priority, recomping might be a great route forward. Recomping isn’t accessible or advisable for everyone, but there are clearly scenarios in which it is a great option to consider.
How does this stuff work in MacroFactor?
It’s quite simple. Within MacroFactor, your goal is linked to a body weight outcome (gain, lose, or maintain weight). After considering the content of this article, you should have a better idea of which type of goal is right for you.
If you’re selecting a weight maintenance goal, all you have to do is select the weight target (that is, the weight you wish to maintain). If you’re selecting a weight gain or weight loss goal, you begin by selecting your target weight. After that, you can use the slider to adjust your intended rate of weight change.
As you drag the slider from left to right, MacroFactor will provide feedback on the selected rate of weight change. All the way to the left, you’ll find weight change rates that are slower than recommended; as you move to the right, you’ll pass through the “standard” range, and the “recommended” range will be a smaller range that exists fully within the standard range. Finally, furthest to the right, you’ll find weight change values that are faster than recommended.
Notably, these categories pertain to traditional “cut” and “bulk” phases – if you wish to recomp, you’ll want to set a target rate of weight change that is no greater than the top end of the “recommended” range. Any rate of weight change between the “slower” range and the top end of the “recommended” range will be suitable for recomposition; if you suspect that your potential for successful recomping is higher (see Table 1), you can get away with recomping with relatively faster rates of weight change than someone with lower recomp potential.
Finally, as your successful recomp phase progresses, be sure to periodically update your profile-level body-fat level within the app (as needed). It takes a while for your body-fat percentage to markedly change, so this won’t need to be done very often. Nonetheless, it’s good to provide that additional body composition information so the app can keep all of your recommendations tailored to your individualized needs. You can update your body-fat percentage any time by going to your profile and scrolling down to the “dynamic data” section. When you’re actively achieving considerable recomposition, your energy expenditure estimate will technically be slightly off, in absolute terms. However, the magnitude of this estimation error will be very small, and its functional impact on attaining your weight and body composition goals will be completely negligible. You’ll still continue to receive appropriate updates to your calorie and macronutrient targets in order to keep you on track with your selected weight change goal.
Summary and conclusions
Losing fat while gaining muscle, commonly called “body recomposition” or “recomping,” is indeed possible. However, it’s not for everybody. For people who are new to resistance training, coming back from an extended resistance training layoff, or carrying moderate-to-high amounts of body fat, recomping may be a feasible goal. For people who are very well-trained, near their genetic limit for muscularity, or carrying very low amounts of body-fat, successful body recomposition is far less likely. Recomping will not maximize one’s rate of fat loss or rate of muscle gain, but allows them to simultaneously make large strides toward both goals at once. Before deciding to cut, bulk, or recomp, it’s important to consider your goals, priorities, and likelihood of successful recomposition. Fortunately, there are no wrong choices, and fitness is a lifelong journey, so you’ll have plenty of time to achieve a wide range of body composition goals in whatever order you see fit.
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