Caloric Energy Balance & Body Recomp

Caloric Energy Balance & Body Recomp

When you first embark on a physical goal, it is likely you did not anticipate what was involved. Through time and simple trial & error, one begins to realize the subtle nuances in crafting a lean, strong physique. 

The foundational elements are intricate and the further you delve into it, the more complex it becomes by managing multiple variables from training, recovery, supplementation, nutrition, etc... 

At the crux of optimizing health and building muscle is energy balance. 

Calories in vs. Calories out

Accepted thought is a caloric surplus (eat more calories than we need to maintain our current weight) is needed to build muscle. The body needs a surplus of nutrients to do something beyond its base metabolic rate. To lose body fat, you must maintain a caloric deficit (eat fewer calories than your body requires to maintain) for the body to use fat as an energy source. 

It is usually advised (because of gym folklore) you must pick one of these goals; the idea being you will not achieve appreciable amounts of success if you try for both. One cannot serve two masters as the expression goes. 

As with nearly everything in this industry, the answer is in the nuance and execution. 

“Skinny Fat”

This individual is profiled to have very little muscle mass and excess fat relative to their physical weight. They are often disheartened at their current physique, professing to have the worst of both sides. Adhering to traditional thought would mean to strictly follow a bulking or cutting cycle; both routes with conflicting information, for their current disposition, to building a strong physique.

In reality, they are getting lost in the semantics. One should be following an overall ‘body recomposition’, which can remedy this exact issue by establishing a strong physical baseline. 

Body Recomposition

Body Recomposition is the process of simultaneously building muscle while losing fat. A successful recomposition may result in a lower weight, higher weight or the same weight; yet the person has noticeably increased muscle mass and decreased fat tissue. 

Body recomposition occurs most commonly in the three physique types:

  • Overweight/Obese individuals: Already have excess fat to lose. Training background does not influence this category.

  • Those who have weight trained prior: People who have built respectable muscle mass in former days.

  • Total beginners: People with no or little prior weight training experience. 

  • *Advanced trainees are able to recomp but it requires a more meticulous approach (in training, nutrition, & recovery) because of accumulated adaptations from years of training. This is another article for another time.

    In the same way training methodology trickled down from the professional bodybuilding scene to pop culture, so has the idea behind ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’. High-level bodybuilders (and because they do, recreational weightlifters) typically cycle between those phases. Bulking phases focus on building muscle while accepting a small amount of fat gain through excess caloric intake. Immediately followed by a cutting phase to lean out while maintaining muscle mass with decreased calories. 

    While this is certainly a viable option and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, it has been bastardized tenfold. 

    Diminishing returns occur in physical development. With novice lifters, they are ripe for physical development. Their bodies will positively react to training and proper nutrition because these are new stimulus’ on the body. Another benefit is beginners are able to recover at rapid rates versus their well-trained counterparts. All of this is accomplished with basic exercise programming, quality exercise technique/execution, and adherence to relatively clean nutritional protocols. 

    Ignorance can be bliss when it comes to muscular development. Body recomposition can occur naturally when an individual starts weight training and adopting basic dietary principles.

    Beginner trainees can add slabs of muscle with very little fat gain, but biology and the laws of adaptation begin to halt progress roughly 8-10 months into consistent training (the timeline is different for everyone).

    As years in the weight room add up, more intricate training and nutrition protocols are needed to create the proper stimulus to build muscle, at a much slower rate albeit. As such, an elite lifter is in the worst position than anyone to be able to undergo body recomposition.

    This is where the bulking and cutting cycle is most effective. Caloric intakes are meticulously dialed in so the lifter accumulates as little fat and builds as much muscle as possible within a time frame, similarly losing as little muscle and maximizing fat loss when cutting.

    As for those returning to training, the effect of muscle memory enables them to regain their lost muscle, irrespective of caloric intake. This is thought to be due to the neuromuscular adaptations to training, and the resistance exercise induced changes to the myonuclei (nucleus of the muscle cell).  

    Practical Recommendations

    So, how do we actually go about achieving a body recomposition?

    Caloric intake

    Typically, body recomposition works best when eating around maintenance caloric levels or in a slight surplus of two-hundred calories. While a caloric surplus is generally required to maximize muscle gain, that does not mean it is a prerequisite to gaining muscle. 

    Most research on muscle growth is conducted with novice participants eating only at maintenance calories, and they have no problem gaining muscle tissue at this caloric intake.

    Invariably, participants in such hypertrophy focused studies also tend to lose fat tissue while increasing muscle mass; to the point where recomposition has become an expected outcome for novice trainees. The same is the case for the novice status of overweight participants eating at maintenance calories with elevated protein intake. These groups similarly gain appreciable amounts of muscle when on a resistance training program, and lose a considerable amount of fat. 

    Remember, muscle growth and fat gain in regard to your caloric intake is a spectrum, and everyone is different.

    The best way to find out your caloric ‘sweet spot’ is to monitor it. Weigh yourself and take measurements before you start and track your nutrition for a couple of weeks. See what happens, and adjust up or down accordingly. 

    It should be noted, food quality is paramount. A calorie is not a calorie. Eating poor quality foods (low grade meat, refined carbohydrates, etc…) will cause an inflammatory response within the body and hinder progress & overall health. 

    Protein intake

    Protein intakes change dependent on your caloric intake. Many researchers believe while in a caloric deficit, protein intake should increase in order to account for the body’s more ‘catabolic’ state; where the body breaks down its own tissues (including muscle) to account for the lack of energy supplied by food.

    As such, a recent review concluded an intake of 2.3 to 3.1g of protein per kg of lean body mass, should be consumed each day to prevent muscle catabolism.

    For those in a caloric surplus, protein recommendations are lower. Around 0.8g per pound of bodyweight is deemed sufficient for maximizing muscle hypertrophy; with the researchers recommending this dose be split across four meals for the best results.

    The near maintenance caloric intake used during a recomp means the athlete will not induce the catabolism (muscle protein breakdown) associated with cutting. Aiming for 0.8 grams per pound of lean mass should be more than enough to support muscle growth.

    Training Style

    Your training routine should focus on executing compound movement patterns utilizing progressive overload - the process of consistently increasing specific training variables (intensity, volume, decreased rest periods, etc…) in your programming.

    It is the precursor and mediator of growth, essential for continued development because of the laws of biological adaptation. 

    If your training is haphazard with poor execution, no matter what your caloric intake is, you will not induce a successful recomposition. Your body has to have reason to adapt and build muscle, and this begins with your time in the weight room.

    Moreover, aim to keep your rep ranges within the 5-12 range and around three to four sets, these are the rep/set ranges most associated with hypertrophy. However, feel free to play around with heavier singles, doubles and triples while pushing yourself on certain exercises for higher reps (Ex. tricep extension burnout sets). Unless one is super-setting exercises, keep rest times anywhere from 30-90 seconds. 

    Body recomposition is absolutely a viable, even likely outcome for the individuals discussed. Train & eat smart consistently and diligently, and your physique goals will become a reality. 

    Linden Garcia Pepworth is a Sports Nutritionist (BSc Sports Nutrition) and YMCA Accredited Instructor. He is currently working on a review comparing the anabolic differences between plant and animal proteins.

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