This article is NOT finished, but something I threw together this weekend as I just opened the recomp forum and I wanted something to give people the general idea about what recomp diets are about. I will add to it and refine it in the days to come.
This article is aimed at dispelling some of the myths that “it is impossible to lose fat and gain muscle”. Nothing could be further from the truth, it can easily be done. But……doing so requires context to be taken into account as well as content. Most people have no idea what a recomposition diet consists of and confuse it with a typical aggressive cutting diet. I will go over some of the concepts of a recomp diet as well as some of the ways people take things out of context and attempt to apply them to a “lose fat, gain muscle diet” and fail miserably.
The first and most often made mistake is someone deciding they are going to shed some unwanted bodyfat and do a straight “cut” style diet. Overall calories are low and stay that way, carbs are usually drastically restricted, and cardio is pushed hard. The body is always in a deprived state and in many cases strength goes down the tubes as well as muscle mass. The dieter doing an aggressive cut is in best case circumstances not losing too much muscle. They get done, and it is obviously apparent that they sure as hell didn’t build any muscle while dieting—duh. Message here—a cut diet is NOT a recomposition diet.
Most trainees base their diet results in the short term on what the scale says. If they are “massing” (I never use the word “bulk” as it is usually interchangeable with “get fat”) they want to see the scale going up “X” amount each week. When “cutting” they want to see the scale going down “X” amount each week. As long as the scale conforms to their expectations they are pleased (even if the wrong things are happening to their bodies). On a recomp diet, the scale changes can be extremely subtle and thus the trainee “assumes” their diet is not working, and they switch to something else that gives them instant gratification with the scale swings. I have had training clients start at 200 lbs and end at 200 lbs 6 months later looking like a completely different person. But if the barometer of success was the scale, it was a total failure.
Most do not understand that a recomp diet is NOT based on losing fat and gaining muscle during a 24 hour period (although that is possible) but over the course of the weeks and months. In other words, the goal is not to lose a certain percentage of fat and gain a certain percentage of muscle over the course of a day, but over the course of weeks and months. Some days you will drop fat, other days you will accrue mass. If this is done correctly and in the right ratio over the long term the net result is less fat and more muscle. There is no magic about this, just correct planning and precision.
Most people believe erroneously that bodyfat is only oxidixed under extreme circumstances and that the body must literally be forced to burn fat. Again, nothing could be further from the truth and the body is continually using fat as fuel for low intensity workload and metabolic function. The heart primarily uses FFA’s as it’s fuel source. That is an example of how fundamental stored and consumed fats are to daily fat usage. When the average person hears that when just sitting in a chair that 55-75% of the bodies basal metabolic needs are met by FFA’s (free fatty acids) they usually respond along the lines of “well then how come I’m not skinny”. It is as simple as the analogy that if your car has ¾’s of a tank of gasoline and you drive to town, and then put in enough gas at the station for the miles driven you will always be right at ¾ of a tank. In other words whatever you burned today, you also just stored from the meals consumed unless under maintenance calories.
The more advanced a trainee is, the more difficult a recomp type diet will be in most cases. Recomposition diets in my opinion are best used by those past the very beginner stage, to advanced intermediate level lifter. Very advanced guys that have the goal of maximal muscle mass at all costs do best just lean massing and letting as little fat come on as possible until it comes time to “tighten up” either for a competition, or to just look better naked. IF you have the patience, you can still do extremely well at the advanced level by careful carb cycling with the emphasis on mass over fat loss.
Recomps are NOT a diet suitable to trainees that are not/cannot be precise, nor to people that simply have no idea what they are doing. Without good instruction, and precision, most people are better off lean massing then cutting.
Recomp diets above all, are not for those that are impatient—that disqualifies most people from them being a practical diet protocol. Not because they will be ineffective, but because people want the instant gratification of seeing the scale “do something”.
OK, so now you have heard the recomposition diets can work to slowly drop bodyfat levels while accruing muscle mass. But how are they constructed? Big question with a LOT of different answers. A recomp diet has one main requirement (assuming weight training to stimulate muscle mass is a given). And that requirement is that some days, or some portions of the day are under maintenance or sufficient cardio work is being done to put on in a calorie deficit, and some days, or parts of the day are over maintenance allowing mass accrual. Here are some of the ones that I am most familiar with and use with training clients.
Many of the older people will remember this diet from the old “Muscle Media 2000”. It sounded like a gimmick at the time, but I tried it anyway and it works! I still use it now and again with clients that have metabolisms that “shut down” fast in response to any long term drop in caloric levels. The premise is extremely simple. One week (for a 7 day period) the trainee will eat at above maintenance levels and will consume adequate carbs, proteins, and fats. The diet is not restrictive, but does require precision to make sure the trainee is laying down very little fat. This is a typical lean mass diet. The following week, for a period of 7 days, the trainee will eat a low carb, high protein, high fat diet (almost keto, and can be keto if preferred). During this week the trainee will do cardio. Calories are set a bit below maintenance, but not so low that strength gains are effected. During this 7 day period the trainee will drop some bodyfat, and if the numbers are laid out correctly, they will drop more fat than was accrued during the higher calorie, higher carb week. Do this for a few months with the numbers dialed correctly and you end up with more muscle, less fat, and not too much diet deprivation feelings. It works!
This is a favorite of many strength and conditioning coaches. It is very easy to do from a psychological standpoint simply because you only have a few days a week that are difficult to do, and you have some very comfortable days also. The principle is the same. Some days you will be doing low carbs, low calories, some days medium carbs/calories, and others high carbs calories. Again if the numbers are put together correctly the end result is that overall you slowly lose bodyfat while gaining muscle. Bodyfat is lost on the low carb, calorie days, muscle mass accrued on the high calorie carb days, and the end result is more mass, less fat. Here is an example of carb cycling aimed at bodyfat losses:
Day one: high carb day, can be very high for many lifters, This day is very anabolic
Day two: low carb day, low calories, also
Day three: low carb, medium calories
Day four: medium carb day, above maintenance calories
Day five: low carb, medium calories
Day six: medium carb day, above maintenance calories
Day seven : low carb, low calories.
The downside of carb cycling diets is that for the “average” trainee, putting one together for theirselves and following it is too complex. But for those willing to put in the time to figure it out, or hire a trainer that knows how to implement this type of diet, this type of diet can be tailored to do anything you want by how you shift the numbers. From maximal mass accrual and a bit of bodyfat coming along for the ride, or to get you extremely lean while slowly adding mass. For contest prep, I like keto diets to get one on the low end of single digits, but this type of diet can do it as well.
Keto diets with BIG refeeds
Many of you know that Dan Duchaine was the person that got keto diets started in the bodybuilding community in a big way with his book “Body Opus”. What many of you do not realize is that Dan’s vision of Body Opus keto diets was not just a diet to get someone lean. It was meant to be a diet used year round to get you to a very low percentage bodyfat number WHILE accruing muscle mass. Now in my opinions it had some major failings, the biggest was the convoluted reefed schedule that required you to set your alarm clock and get up every 3 hours to pound some protein and carbs two days out of the week. And it’s complexity is what held it back Mauro Dipasquale’s “Anabolic Diet” had the same goal as Dan’s diet, that being to drop bodyfat while adding mass. The premise here is simple and the same basic concepts as in the above examples. In both Body Opus and the Anabolic diet you are to go 5 days with no carbs and below maintenance caloric levels. Then (especially in Body Opus) you are to do an extreme reefed for two days. These two days result in a very big growth spurt if the training leading up to the reefed stimulated the need for hypertrophy. The concepts are valid and work, and in my opinion can be improved on a bit. If your goal is more slanted towards mass accrual, you can do 4 days low cals/carbs, then a 3 day reefed. You will burn bodyfat during the low carb/calorie days and if your numbers are dialed, you will accrue muscle mass without laying down more bodyfat than was burned during the depletion period.
Timed Carb Diets
This is the method I use for most training clients on a recomp simply because it is very simple to do for the client while still being effective. The premise is based on the fact that carbs are most needed and the body is most anabolic right after the workout. So carbs are consumed post workout only, and on weekend reefed days. There are three types of days with this diet:
Training day: Carbs consumed for two meals after the workout only. Calories are slightly below mainetenece, but that can vary dependent of the trainee and goals.
Non-training day: no carbs, low calories.
Refeed days: Usually two days, sometimes only one dependent on the goals. These are usually done on the weekends, which make this diet socially friendly. Calories and carbs are above maintenance, but again, this may vary dependent on the trainee and goals. For more mass emphasis, these can be pretty big refeeds. If fat loss is the goal, and mass accrual at a slower rate, less calories and carbs are used. This type of diet is simple and effective for most lifters.
There are a LOT of variations on these themes and a plethora of other ways to do recomp diets so please do not take this as being even a remotely complete list of recomp type diets.
OK, now that I have laid out an overview of some of the misconceptions and how these diets what are they good for?
First and foremost in my opinion they are awesome for the lifter that wants to look as good as possible year round and not go through the endless “bulking and cutting” phases most people seem to spend their time doing. They are also great for the trainee that has fat loss resistant metabolisms. Many guys and girls that diet find that almost any caloric deficit level imposed on their bodies are immediately countered by the body lowing metabolic rate and putting additional fat loss at a stalemate. Many of the recomp diets are also perfect for the dieter that is not well disciplined as extreme measures are not called for and long periods of low carbs/calories are not needed. In other words, you only need go a short period of time before you can eat some of the foods you enjoy (within reason) and deprivation is not as severe as “cut” type diets.