As many of you know, late September 2017 I had surgery on my shoulder to repair a torn labrum, an injury I had incurred in October of 2016. My injury, journey through physical therapy to try to avoid surgery, and then coming to terms with the surgery and dealing with recovery is a long story in and of itself, so I won’t get into it here (but maybe I will write a separate post on it if anyone’s interested?) Post surgery, however, I was in a sling for a month and a half, and once the sling came off I was able to get back into the gym but my workouts were very limited to basically only certain machines for the lower body.
Fast forward about 3 months from that point and I was finally able to start holding heavier weights in my hands and am starting to get back the mobility and strength in my shoulder to support a squat bar. I was so excited for this progress that I had a burst of motivation to totally revamp my nutrition and fitness regimen to incorporate more variety and intensity in my lifts. With great timing, one of my best friends also came to me asking for nutrition/fitness help and wanted me to build him a program where he would be gaining muscle but losing body fat “simultaneously.” (Simultaneously is in quotations because fat loss and muscle gain wouldn’t literally be happening at the same time, but rather during alternating days based on calorie intake for that day. More on this soon.) I started my research with my go-to for fitness related help, On The Regimen. This was actually where I had first heard about recomposition, so it seemed like a logical place to start. My research took me a couple of new sites that I’ve since added to my “go-to” list, including Lean Gains and Barbend. After a few days of research, I think I got a pretty good handle on the principles behind recomposition, and I’ve summarized some main points below.
I want to preface the rest of this post with a reminder that I am not a trained nutritionist or personal trainer, and I encourage everyone to do their own research when trying to decide how to best exercise and fuel their body. Also, and even more importantly, listen to your body because it will always tell you when something is/isn’t working for it.
What is a recomposition plan?
A recomposition plan, in a nutshell, is one in which you eat higher calories and higher carbs on lift days (refeed days), and lower calories/carbs, and higher fat on rest days. By alternating higher calorie days with lower calorie/deficit days, your body cycles through muscle gain and fat loss, resulting in either a slow cut or lean bulk.
What are the benefits?
A recomposition plan allows you to lose body fat without compromising too much muscle gain, or gain muscle without also gaining too much tag-along fat. If one of these two things isn’t a priority for you, a recomposition plan might not be worth it, plain and simple. It also allows for refeed days, which are good for people who have difficulty eating a caloric deficit all week and waiting for that one (usually anticlimactic) cheat meal, aka #brunch.
What makes recomposition difficult?
In my opinion, what makes this type of plan so difficult to follow is that it requires a lot of planning – you have to have a variety of different food items on-hand to be able to get the correct spread of macros on any given day, and you can’t just eat the same stuff every day because your macros change daily. You have to pay attention to whether it’s a lift or rest day before deciding your day’s meals, and once you start eating for the day it would be difficult to switch your day from lift to rest and vice versa. If you’re really committed to your regimen, don’t often eat meals out, and are fairly efficient at counting macros (or are willing to take the time to learn), then I would suggest this type of plan if it fits your goals. This type of plan is similar to iifym in the sense that there aren’t any foods that are strictly off-limits, but it takes it a step further because there are some things that it would be pretty difficult to in practice actually fit your macros.
Slow Cut vs Lean Bulk
Body fat revolves around a very simple calories in vs calories out equation. If you start a recomposition plan that overall has a weekly deficit, you’ll be on the road to a slow cut. If your plan has an overall weekly surplus, you’ll be geared more towards a lean bulk. The choice is yours.
Deficit days vs Refeed Days
The recomposition program is built around the idea that a caloric deficit burns fat, and a caloric surplus helps build muscle. By eating maintain/surplus calories on lift days, you’re providing your body with enough fuel to build muscle, and by eating in a deficit on rest days, you are putting your body into a temporary period of fat burning mode. Deficit days deplete the body of the hormone leptin, which regulates energy balance by communicating to the brain that we are satiated and can metabolize energy as normal. Refeeds replenish leptin. The macro spread you eat on deficit/refeed days matter, too. Due to the thermogenic effect of food (essentially the energy it takes for the body to break down food), a refeed with a high percentage of calories from protein will yield the least amount of fat storage. Protein has a higher thermogenic effect and it causes the body to expend more energy to break down and use/store. In other words, if you’re eating a surplus amount of calories, proteins take the longest to break down and are therefore the least efficient macro for the body to store as fat. By also eating higher carbs on refeed days, you have the energy you need to sustain your workouts, and you’re fueling your body with the macronutrient that’s most easily broken down by the body for energy. Since you are eating higher calories on these training days, fats are kept to a minimum to decrease the chances of the extra calories being stored as fat by the body (since fat is the easiest macronutrient for the body to store as fat). Increasing healthy fats on deficit days makes it easier to achieve well-rounded nutrition, and the likelihood is low that any of these fats will be stored by the body because you aren’t providing enough calories to have a surplus that would require storage.
Refer to the article I referenced for most of this information here.
Regarding “Cheat Days”
As of now, I haven’t incorporated a traditional “cheat day” into my plan. My “refeed” days, or the higher calorie lift days, contain enough calories to sustain a day in which I am not hungry, and allow for enough carbs to have something sweet if I so desire or to have a starchy carb like potatoes or pasta. The only issue I have with not having a cheat day built into the plan is that it makes it tough to enjoy a guilt-free meal out, or a real baked good. Since the high carb days are low fat, you’re forced to be very conscious of the tag-along fats that are often present in baked sweets and restaurant meals. For now, I am managing fine. Undecided yet on whether I will incorporate a real cheat meal into the plan.
On Intermittent Fasting
After you eat a meal, insulin and fatty acids are elevated in the body and your body is in the “fed” state, during which the body is primarily relying on glucose oxidation for energy and fat burning is placed on hold. After 12 hours (and if you don’t eat again), the body begins to run out of fresh glucose, and is more likely to switch to fat storage for energy, and you are thought to be in fat burning mode. During the 12-16 hour time interval of a fast, your body is considered to be in the golden age of fat oxidation, and low intensity activities (i.e. incline walking on the treadmill, cycling, etc.) will selectively use fatty acids to fuel activity. In contrast, higher intensity activity (i.e. sprints, spin class) will cause your body to seek glucose for a big burst of energy.
Now that the technical information is out of the way, I want to say that I am a huge fan of intermittent fasting, especially on rest days when I am eating fewer calories. I find that BCAAs in the morning give me the boost I need to get through my workouts without having the calories to break my fast. Ever since I started intermittent fasting (7-ish months ago?) I find that I am less bloated and I feel more satiated after my 1.5-2 standard meals for the day because each one has more calories in it. That said, if there’s a day that I am really hungry before the time that I wanted to break my fasted state, I eat. Although it took a little while to really get used to intermittent fasting, by no means do I feel like I am depriving myself or starving myself, and I actually find now that I don’t start getting hungry until later in the day. Intermittent fasting certainly isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s worth trying for a bit until you get used to it, and seeing if you can benefit from it.
How do I get started?
- The first thing that has to be done is calculate, to the best of your ability, your best estimate of your maintain calories. This is going to help because then you’ll have a good idea of what your deficit and refeed day macro spread should be. I used the On The Regimen calculation to get a base, but I also compared that with the average calories burned per day that my fitbit estimates. Once you’re into your program for a few weeks you’ll be able to calculate more accurately how many calories your body burns daily and you can adjust your plan accordingly (i.e. if you are losing body fat more rapidly than you originally thought you would, maybe you burn more calories than you originally calculated. Likewise, if you aren’t losing body fat but thought you built a plan that would cause you to do so, maybe you overestimated how many calories you burn daily. These estimates are fairly intuitive if you pay attention to your body).
- Next, decide whether you want to have a slow cut or lean bulk plan. This will determine how steep your caloric deficit will be on rest days, and how you will structure your refeed days (i.e. maintain, or surplus?) I am creating a Part 2 post to get into the details of my lifting plan that I will post shortly!
- Determine your macro spread. First, you’ll need to decide how many calories you want to eat per day (training v rest) and then compartmentalize your calories into macros. I stick with the idea that you should have about 1g protein for each lb of body weight, and then your carbs and fats are fairly negotiable based on the things you like to eat. My protein intake doesn’t change much between training and rest days, however, my carb/fat macro spread basically switches. On training days, carbs are about 57% of the day’s calories, and fats are about 15%. The rest is protein. On rest days, carbs are about 15% of the day’s calories, and fats are about 45%. The rest is protein.
- The last step is meal prep! Plan ahead with your weekly shop and meal prepping – it will make this type of plan so much easier and less stressful. List out the sources of protein that you like and have available to you, and then figure out how much of them you’ll have to stock up on to feed you for the week. Getting enough protein during this type of plan is important because since you will be in a caloric deficit for certain days out of the week, you don’t want your body to start breaking down its own muscle.
Once you’ve figured out your maintain calories, decided on your macro spread, and got down some sort of meal prep plan, you’re as ready as you’ll ever be! Are you considering starting a nutrition plan like this, or do you need more information before you can get started? Let me know in the comments, or email or DM me with your questions!
Part 2 to come soon, which will detail my fitness regimen to go along with my new spread of macros. Stay tuned!!