Illustration of a man recomping—burning fat while building muscle.

Body Recomposition: How to Build Muscle While Losing Fat

Body recomposition is when you build muscle while losing fat. It sounds like the Holy Grail, but it isn’t quite so rare as that. Recomping is realistic for most people. We’ll show you client transformations and study results.

You can recomp by lifting weights, doing cardio, eating a better diet, or improving your sleep. We’ll delve into each of those methods, including the results you can expect with every change you make. But you can do much better than that.

The shotgun approach is when you do a few different things, hoping at least one of them gives you the results you want. We’ll take a firing squad approach, firing several well-aimed bullets. Each method is strong enough to reliably produce results. Together, they’re truly fearsome.

Before and after illustration of a guy recomping to burn fat and build muscle. Illustrated by Shane Duquette for Outlift.

What is Recomping?

Body recomposition is when you build muscle and lose fat at the same time. But you’ll waste calories saying you’re “trying to achieve body recomposition.” It’s much easier to say you’re “recomping.”

To recomp, you need to stimulate muscle growth while eating a diet that supports muscle growth. The calories you use to build muscle won’t be stored as fat. Under the right circumstances, you can even burn fat to fuel muscle growth. That’s what this article is about.

Before and after photo showing Bryce's recomp results from doing the Bony to Beastly Program.

Recomping is fantastic for overweight and skinny-fat people. It’s difficult, but it’s also effective and enjoyable. You won’t feel the desperate pangs of hunger that come with cutting, nor the oppressive fullness of a long bulk. Instead, you can work up an appetite with a rigorous workout routine and then satisfy it with nutritious food.

Before and after photo of a skinny-fat guy becoming lean and muscular

Note: If you’re overweight, you can build muscle while losing weight. That’s a form of body recomposition, but most people call it “cutting.” We have another article about cutting. This article isn’t about weight loss.

Is Body Recomposition Possible?

Body recomposition is completely realistic for most people. Most studies that put people on a workout program (of any kind) find simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss. It’s also pretty common to see body recomposition in nutrition and lifestyle studies. We’ll show you plenty of examples throughout the article, both from clients and studies.

Before and after photo of a skinny man with belly fat.

However, recomping doesn’t work for everyone. It’s only for people with an abundance of fat to lose. Skinny and lean people don’t have enough excess fat to fuel a significant amount of muscle growth. They need to get their extra energy from their diets. They need to bulk to build muscle.

How to Build Muscle While Losing Fat

Do Enough Exercise (Easiest)

If you’re overweight and out of shape, you can start by going on walks. We’ll talk about the most effective methods in a moment, but walking makes for a good first step. It’s easy to do, easy to enjoy, and easy to recover from.

Walking isn’t intense enough for people already in good shape, but if you’re just getting started, it should be enough stimulation to provoke some cardiorespiratory adaptations, spark a little muscle growth, and burn some fat. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll begin burning away your visceral fat—the unhealthy type of fat that accumulates around your organs, increasing your waist size (study).

Study graph showing the body recomposition results from walking and doing low-intensity cardio.

In an 8-week study by Keating and colleagues, the sedentary participants gained fat, whereas the participants who did easy cardio (such as walking) trimmed 2.5cm off their waistlines (study).

I recommend a brisk 25-minute walk every morning, walking at the fastest pace you can manage. That will give you 175+ minutes of cardio per week. That’s enough to meet the minimum cardio requirements for general health (reference).

Hypertrophy Training (Most Important)

Hypertrophy training isn’t very good for losing weight (study). You can burn 200–400 calories per workout, which isn’t nothing, but it pales in comparison to the calories you can burn by doing more cardio.

However, hypertrophy training is by far the most powerful way to provoke body recomposition (study). Lifting makes your body desperate to build muscle. Whether you lose weight or not, your body will invest its energy into growing stronger, replacing the fat you lose with muscle.

Study graph showing the body recomposition results from weight training.

The best data we have comes from a big meta-analysis by Lopez and colleagues (meta-analysis). He pooled the data from 116 studies, finding that ≈15 weeks of weight training caused people to lose ≈2 pounds of fat while gaining ≈2 pounds of muscle. Keep in mind that the participants didn’t change their diets or their lifestyles, and they weren’t doing cardio. You can do much better.

There are different types of hypertrophy training. You can train heavier, lighter, or both. You can use your body weightdumbbellsbarbells, or train at a fully equipped gym. You can even use resistance bands, though they aren’t quite as effective. What matters is that you challenge your muscles—all of your muscles.

Your workout program doesn’t need to be perfect, but it pays to follow a good one. The better your workouts are, the more muscle growth you’ll stimulate, and the more body recomposition you’ll get.

You can maximize your results with 3–4 workouts per week, each lasting 45–90 minutes. 3-day routines tend to work best for beginners. 4-day routines often work slightly better for intermediate lifters.

For more, we have an article on hypertrophy training. That’s a good place to start. If you already know how to lift weights, we have a full intermediate hypertrophy program here.

The Body Recomposition Diet

Eating enough protein is important. For example, in a study by Longland and colleagues, both groups succeeded at losing weight and burning fat, but only those eating enough protein managed to build muscle (study).

Study graph showing how much protein you should eat for body recomposition and what results you'll get.

The high-protein group ate 1.1 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. That’s a fairly high protein intake. You need tons of protein when you’re losing weight that quickly. If you aren’t trying to lose weight, 0.7 grams of protein per pound is enough to maximize your rate of muscle growth (study).

It also helps to eat a good diet overall. Try to eat balanced meals that contain a source of protein, carbs, fat, and fibre. The classic example is chicken breast, whole-grain rice, and broccoli drizzled with olive oil. Many traditional meals are perfect, though:

  • Chili con carne (my favourite)
  • Baked salmon with potatoes and asparagus
  • Greek yogurt with berries
  • Oatmeal with milk and peach slices
  • Vindaloo stew
  • smoothies
  • Picadillo
  • Stir fry
  • Paella
  • Sushi.

Our Bony to Beastly Program has a recipe book full of balanced meals. We’ve calculated out all the protein and macros, considered all the vitamins and minerals, and explained what makes each meal so nutritious. But most people already have an intuitive idea of what a balanced meal looks like.

Study graph showing how eating a better diet can result in body recomposition.

You don’t need to change your entire diet all at once. You can start with simple swaps. For example, in a study by Bjermo and colleagues, the participants were given foods rich in different types of fat. Those who ate foods richer in processed saturated fat (from butter) gained visceral fat, whereas those who ate foods richer in polyunsaturated fat (the type of fat found in nuts) burned it.

Living a Healthy Lifestyle

Improving your bedtime routine is the best place to start. Better sleep will give you more energy to exercise, more motivation to lift weights, and more willpower to eat a better diet. It will also improve your hormone profile, causing body recomposition.

Study graph showing how getting better sleep can result in body recomposition.

In a study by Jabekk and colleagues, the group who lifted weights got fairly typical bulking results, gaining 60% muscle and 40% fat (study). The other group followed the same workout program, but they were also given some tips about how to improve their sleep. They gained 30% more muscle and lost fat, achieving body recomposition.

The most important thing is to give yourself enough time in bed. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. Some people benefit from 8 or even 9 hours. If your alarm clock wakes you up in the morning, go to bed a little earlier. Be serious with your bedtime. Try to go to bed at the same time every night (give or take 30 minutes).

We cover the rest of the sleep tips in our article about sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep or if you wake up during the night, that article should help.

A Note on Calories

It’s okay if your weight changes. When you start eating a better diet and doing more exercise, you might find that you slip into a calorie deficit and lose a bit of weight. Or you may find that lifting weights stimulates your appetite, bringing you into a small calorie surplus and causing a bit of weight gain.

I find body recomposition works best when you listen to your appetite. You don’t need to force your weight up or down. You don’t need to micromanage your calories. Focus on doing cardio, lifting weights, eating a nutritious diet, and getting enough sleep.

Still, some people find it helps to count calories. That can certainly work. Here’s a review of our favourite calorie tracker. The article includes a section on how to track calories for body recomposition.

A Note on Progressive Overload

Keep track of your performance in the gym. Write down how much weight you’re lifting and how many reps you’re getting, then strive for progressive overload. Every workout, try to add weight and/or reps. If you’re making progress, you’re doing great. Keep going.

You won’t be able to make progress on every lift every workout, but you should see improvement on most lifts most weeks. If you’re more advanced, aim for progress on most lifts most months.

If you hit a plateau, you can do more exercise, follow a better workout routine, or eat a better diet. But that won’t work forever. At a certain point, your body will hesitate to burn your dwindling fat stores to feed your already strong muscles. When that happens, you’ll be in good shape, and recomping may not be viable anymore.

When you stop making progress, you’ll need to bulk to continue building muscle or cut to continue burning fat. It doesn’t need to be a drastic change. You can cut slowly to keep all the muscle you fought so hard to build. You can bulk leanly so as not to regain all the fat you lost.

Conclusion

Each of the methods we covered is enough to provoke body recomposition, especially if you’re overweight and out of shape. If you combine them all together, the results can be dramatic:

Before and after photo of male body recomposition results.

Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building and fitness information, we have a free newsletter. If you want a full exercise, diet, and lifestyle program to help you recomp, check out our Bony to Beastly Program. Or, if you’re already an intermediate lifter, check out our customizable Outlift Hypertrophy Program. We made both programs with body recomposition in mind.

Feel free to ask questions below. I’ll answer all of them.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 65 pounds at 11% body fat and has ten years of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.