Why Body Recomposition is Hard, and How I got it right


I said in my previous post about ‘How I mastered eating Leangains Style’, that there were some physiological benefits to eating in a fast-feed pattern.

In particular, I was interested in the much coveted goal of body recomposition: simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain. Now that I’ve had some personal experience with this, I’ll present my take on the matter, specifically, using the Leangains style of eating that facilitated progress.

Hence, this article focuses on the dieting aspect of body recomposition, with an article on the training aspect coming up next.

That said, I cannot do the science justice. Instead, what I will do is to link to a series of Martin Berkhan’s articles discussing some of the science behind his methods in the notes at the end.

The good new is that one doesn’t need to know why your body works, just how to make it respond. Hence, this post discusses my personal thought and decision process in trying to achieve that goal, as well as some preliminary results. Hopefully, those genetically-ungifted, yet narcissistic, physique-obsessed, OCD nutjobs out there like myself can find something useful.

What won me over

First, Berkhan managed to achieve this goal, and replicate it with numerous clients. That meant that I could get it right too.

Second, there were some touted physiological benefits to his methods.

Can Science Lend a Hand?

At the beginning of my leangains escapade, two studies caught my eye. The first was by Halberg et al(2005), who found that intermittent fasting for 15hrs a day led to increases in insulin sensitivity. The second was by Foch et al, who found that the consumption of 297g of carbohydrates after 90 minutes of moderate intensity cycling yielded no de novo lipogenesis.

At the time, I knew that:

(1) it’s possible that intermittent fasting increases insulin sensitivity. In general, this means shifting energy stores away from fat (and perhaps into building muscle). We like to refer to this as better partitioning.
(2) It’s unlikely that carbohydrates turn into fat despite acute overfeeding after exercise
(3) I liked eating this way

My thought at the time was that you’d fast for most of the day, workout, then binge on carbs that have a propensity to turn to muscle and not fat, why revelling in the carb coma.

Although my perspective was completely myopic, faith in the system ultimately yielded some favourable results. For a more enlightened perspective, I’d encourage reading Martin Berkhan’s posts on research concerning intermittent fasting. [1]

What happens in the real world

I’ll keep this short. I tried to either gain muscle really slowly or lose fat while gaining muscle for a good part of 2009. I ended up doing nothing but spinning my wheels.

Why my past recomposition attempts failed – Lack of Synergy

There was no synergy between my dieting approach and training approach.

I was convinced that all I needed to do was push hard in the gym, and then focus on my diet. The unwillingness to spend time (weeks) to test those assumptions prevented me from seeing through the haze.

I finally got around that, but not before suffering a disk herniation in my lumbar spine. That’s a story for a different time though. In the end, I got my training in check, which I as said before, I will do my next post on.

Even while focusing on my diet, my eating psychology still wasn’t refined. I couldn’t hit my macro-nutritional targets without emotional resistance.

This is important, I was about to learn that your training is always going to be at the mercy of your diet. The solution was to…

Take it Slow

Of course, that’s easier said than done. It’s much easier to move forward with a specific goal and mindset. Hence the popularity of bulking and cutting phases.

This works, but only if it’s done in a measured fashion. Straight out bulking works for beginners, but using the same 500kcal-a-day-surplus only succeeds in getting intermediates fat. This is worse for those who find it hard to gain mass in the first place.

Then comes the problem of trimming the fat, which people always tend to push too fast and without a proper training plan. [2]

Needless to say, many have made bulking and cutting work, but I never could. I neither had the temperament nor the genetics to do so. I needed patience.


Patience is never deliberate.

Therein lies the problem of course, because the act of taking a measured approach to your diet and training is an act of control; you’re painfully aware of every meal not done to plan, every training session gone bad, and every aspiration not yet fulfilled.

Some people have the natural propensity to “just let go”, but it seems that evolution has favoured the uptight, type-A, ever-”vigilant” person. For myself, this was the biggest barrier that held me from my physique aspirations.

Eating for Recomposition

While I could hold it out and do bulking and cutting phases, I knew it was going to take a lot of energy.

What I needed wasn’t more commitment to one of two distinct goals. What I needed was a single mode where I could simultaneously pursue both muscle gain and fat loss at the same time.

I’d read numerous posts on Lyle McDonald’s forums about every-other-day dieting, where you cycle between days with caloric surplus and days with caloric deficit. However, there was never any scientific consensus. I finally decided to give the approach a trial run.

The Actual Plan

I was going to ease into it through a few 8 week blocks of training (meso-cycles). I knew my maintenance caloric intake was about 16 x Bodyweight in LBS, which was 185×16 = 2960kcal.

For the first 8 weeks, the plan was to gain a little bit of bodyweight. I ate 3400kcal over 4 training days and 2700kcal over 3 rest days. This averaged to about 3100kcal/day – a theoretical 150kcal daily surplus.

This worked perfectly, and I gained just under 3lbs in 8weeks.

The next cycle, I tried a greater deficit. Dropping to 3400kcal on workout days and 2500kcal on rest days. Training intensity was not affected at all, and I gained approximately 3lbs again.

The 3rd cycle, I dropped calories even further, down to 3300kcal on workout days and 2100kcal on rest days. Bodyweight dropped by 1lbs after the 8 weeks, but I was looking visibly leaner.

After that, I switched over to a recomposition approach where calories were kept at maintenance. This was roughly 3200kcal on 4 workout days, and 2200kcal on 3 rest days, to give an average of about 2800kcal/day.

Preliminary Results

In sum:

I started at about 84kg / 185lbs, 12-13% body fat.

3 meso-cycles and 6 months later, I was sitting at about 86.3kg / 190lbs, at a slightly lower body fat. In those 6 months, I gained 5lbs in total.

I then switched to the recomp approach for the remainder of the year. I was 85.5kg in Mid December 2010.

Some of the strength gains are as follows:

(All lifts in KG)

  • Bulgarian Split Squats: 75×8 –> 100×7
  • Safety Squats: ? –> 160×5
  • BB Shoulder Press: 45×6 –> 60×5
  • Pulldowns: 60×8 –> 80×4
  • Dips: BW+15×5 –> BW+40×5
  • BB Rows: 80×5 –> 110×6

As evident from the pics, changes occur really slowly, but the measured approach ensured that strength gains went through the roof while ensuring basically pure muscle gain.

I’ve probably got about 4lbs left to be gained before my genes just say no. But those 4lbs that will surely come, now that I’ve got my strategy dialled-in.

Key Points

– I had to learn to take it slow
– To do that I had to live with my current plan
– this did not occur until I developed a sustainable eating psychology
– You need to get both the training and the dieting right

From here on out I’ll just have to let time do it’s thing. It’s like watching grass grow, and I’m going to go get on with life instead and do another update in a year’s time.

[1] Anything Under the Research Section of Martin’s site is great, but I think the following are good to get started with:

– Intermittent Fasting, Set-Point and Leptin
– Fasted Training Boosts Endurance and Muscle Glycogen
– Fasted Training Boosts Muscle Growth
– Intermittent Fasting and Stubborn Body Fat
– Maintaining Low Body Fat

[2] I did that for a while, giving myself the excuse that I had knowledge of PSMF (protein sparing modified fasts) and knew how to eat to maintain muscle mass. That didn’t work out mainly because I didn’t know how to train in the first place.

As a general rule, what puts muscle on is likely to keep it there, with the caveat that you have to manage exercise volume. The most important thing on a diet is to keep intensity (weight on the bar) high. It’s not the time to train for the pump. 2 heavy sets should be sufficient for each body part. More on this next time.

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