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.
It’s a three-step process, and it looks like this:
- First, figure out your maintenance calories. Input your information into your MFP Diet Profile, then set your goal for “maintain my current weight” and hit “update.” The number you were given is your Maintenance Caloric Intake, or Maintenance Calories (MC).
- Next, figure out your training day calories. Take your MC, and increase it by 15%. Keep in mind, training days are ONLY days you train with weights.
- Finally, determine your rest day calories. Take your MC and decrease it by 10%. Rest days are any days you DO NOT train with weights.
That’s it. Super simple. Let’s put it into practice using my body.
I currently weight 197 pounds and am 5’8’’ tall with 10% body fat. According to my MyFitnessPal diet profile, my MC is set to 2,550. For a guy my size, that sounds about right.
To determine my training day calories, I simply take that number on add 15%. To get that number, I multiply 2,550 by .15, giving me 383. I simply add that to my MC and get 2,933. This is the number of calories I will eat on days I train with weights.
(Remember, you have to eat extra calories to gain muscle, so don’t worry if this number seems high.)
Next, I want to determine my caloric intake on rest days—those days on which I do NOT train with weights. To do this, I take my MC and subtract 10%. I first multiply 2,550 by .10 and get 255, then subtract that from my MC, giving me 2,295. And just like that, I know how many calories I need to eat on my rest days!
Closing Thoughts & Next Steps
Remember, while recomposition is difficult, it can be made simple, especially with a formula like this. While there are a lot of ways to eat for recomposition, this basic formula is the perfect first step on your journey to simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain—your key to gaining that “lean” muscle you’ve been after.
Next time, I’m going to take it a step further, and show you how to set up your macronutrient intake to make your recomposition plan even more effective!
Now, it’s your turn. Give it a shot, and let us know how you’re doing in the comments section. We’ll be around to check in on you and offer some advice and guidance.