One of the most curious terms you’ll see pop in any sort of fitness writing is “lean muscle.” It’s a curious term because, as you may know, all muscle is lean muscle. There is no such thing as “fat muscle” or “bulky muscle.”
Still, it’s a term that has worked its way into the fitness lexicon because of the imagery it suggests. The expression is used to describe the process of building muscle without adding fat; or, in the case of more specific marketing, the idea of building strength without adding “bulk.”
Both of these are highly desirable, and yet neither of them come close to what people really want—the so-called Holy Grail of body transformation: the ability to burn fat and gain (lean) muscle at the same time.
This is something called body recomposition, and while it is undoubtedly difficult, it is not, as some people might have you believe, impossible. In fact, a better way to put it is this: while recomposition is anything but easy, it can be made simple.
I’m going to give you a very basic approach to body recomposition and begin to arm you with the tools you need to help you lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
It All Comes Down to Diet
Reading this here on MyFitnessPal—home of the most popular nutrition tracking systems in the world—it’s no surprise that we would start by touching on diet. That said, it also happens to be the most important aspect when it comes to body recomposition. Although modifying your exercise program is certainly going to help, the truth is that diet holds the key.
Specifically, I’m talking about something called cycling.
In the context of dieting, “cycling” means that certain aspects of your nutrition are modified on specific days. Nearly every successful diet uses some sort of cycling, whether it’s a standard intermittent fasting practice, a ketogenic diet, or carb backloading. All of these examples use very different parameters for cycling, but they have one thing in common: you eat more calories and carbs on days you work out than you do on days you don’t.
That is the key. If you want to achieve recompostion, you’re going to eat MORE on days that you exercise, and LESS on days that you do not. The primary reason for this is energy utilization and recovery. To put in the most succinct way possible, you need to take more energy on days you expend more energy. Pretty simple, right?
Apart from helping you achieve body recomposition, these things are also important for hormonal optimization. However, there are some other advantages as well: researches at Louisiana State University found in a 2005 study that calorie cycling prolongs your life; this conclusion was further supported by researched conducted by the National Institute of Health in 2008.
So, calorie cycling is going to help you lose fat while you gain muscle, optimize your hormones, AND live longer. Not bad, if you ask me. Now, let’s learn how to do it.
Basic Calorie Cycling for Basic Recomposition
As mentioned earlier, the key to calorie cycling for recomposition is to eat more calories on days that you train and less on days you do not.
Before we go any further, we need to define what “training” actually means. For the purposes of our discussion concerning body recomposition, the term “training day” is ONLY referring to a day on which you perform weight training for at least 30 minutes. Although other forms of exercise can certainly be intense, recomposition is ONLY possible if you’re doing at least 30 minutes of reasonably intense weight training a consistent three times per week.
After all, part of recomposition is gaining muscle, and the most effective way to achieve that is through resistance training. Got it? Good! Moving on.
Now that we’ve established that, let’s look how many calories you should eat to achieve your goal of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain.