Recomping is a buzzword like "main-gaining," both thrown around a lot within the fitness industry. Recomping can signify pursuits that might not align with reality, but can still be a goal worth chasing. However, there is a big misconception about what it involves and for whom it is a worthwhile strategy.

The goal of the following article is to address what is involved in recomping, how it works, and for whom it may be a good strategy. This is not a “How-to” guide to recomping. If the following article is useful, I may write up guidelines for recomping as a follow-up. Please give your feedback if the article is insightful.

What is Recomping?

Recomping refers to the process of losing fat and gaining muscle simultaneously. Essentially what recomping means is that you are altering the composition of your body weight, while your actual body weight stays pretty much stable. Recomping will usually involve some form of calorie cycling where some days (usually training days) are designated as “growth days,” and other days (usually rest days) are designated as “fat loss” days.

On “growth days,” calories will usually be around maintenance level or at a small surplus to fuel workout performance and provide enough calories/carbs to create a positive stimulus from the workout. “Fat loss” days are then spent in a calorie deficit to upregulate the liberation of stored body fat for fuel; cardio is often done on these days to aid in fat loss. Another strategy can be to generally eat in a small calorie deficit but then load up calories/carbs around the workout window (pre, intra, and post). A small calorie deficit would have a similar effect as the “growth days” described above.

Now, at this point, many of the “evidence-based” gurus out there will jump up out of their chairs and shout, “It is impossible!” They cite the fact that you need a surplus of calories to gain muscle tissue and a deficit of calories to lose body fat.

If you ask any experienced coach, they will tell you that they have seen clients recomp on plenty of occasions, with notable decreases in body fat while muscularity and performance in the gym increase. So, if it were as simple as “you can not gain muscle in a calorie deficit because” *insert long sciencey words here to make me sound smarter*, then how does this happen? We will delve into that shortly.

Successful Recomping 

In 90 percent or more of cases, we see successful recomps in the following circumstances:

1. New Lifters (especially those who are heavily overweight)

With newbies, the stimulus from their training is so novel and strong that their body will build a decent (but not maximal) amount of muscle, even if they are in a calorie deficit. Likewise, the more overweight an individual is, the higher their BMR and food intake will be. Add this to the large energy reserve they already have in their body, and the result is plenty of available “fuel” to facilitate the formation of new muscle tissue, even if they are in a deficit overall.

2. Lifters Coming Back From a Lay-Off

Lifters coming back from a lay-off is the typical “muscle memory” scenario. You have a lifter who has taken an extended break from lifting and has let their body composition deteriorate. So, they start lifting again and put themselves in a calorie deficit. In essence, they are a newbie all over again, except now it is even easier because they are regaining muscle tissue that they have lost, meaning many of the required structures (i.e., satellite cells) are already in place. Recomping allows one to gain muscle at an even quicker rate than a true newbie would experience in many cases.

3. With First-Time PED Usage

Successful recomping can also happen if someone experiments with a new drug or with considerably higher dosages. In essence, the PEDs provide such a strong anabolic signal that even in a calorie deficit the body is “forced” to build new muscle tissue. Again, recomping goes to show that with the right signaling cascades (mTOR, IGF-1, etc.) a calorie surplus is NOT required for the synthesis of new muscle tissue. A surplus just makes it much easier.

Genuine recomposition (gaining new muscle tissue while losing fat tissue) outside of these three scenarios is pretty damn rare. In most circumstances, when someone claims to have recomped, what has happened is that they have successfully dieted down to lower body fat levels while losing very little or no muscle tissue. The result is a physique that simply looks more muscular due to the drastic increase in definition and shape that we can see.

Why Recomping Can Work

1. Calorie Surplus, No Need!

You do not technically need a calorie surplus to build muscle.

As I mentioned in the examples above, it is possible to build muscle in the absence of a calorie surplus. If it wasn’t, then the successful recomping scenarios I mentioned above simply would not exist. There are several good studies out there now documenting gains in muscle tissue while being in a calorie deficit.

What seems to be the determining factor of success in these studies is protein intake. Those in a calorie deficit who follow diets with lower protein intake do not gain any muscle in general, whereas those who have a higher protein intake do. The tipping point seems to be 1-1.2g of protein per pound of body weight. Once protein reaches this level, the participants exhibit reasonable levels of muscle growth, even in a deficit.

Now, the importance of protein intake for muscle growth is not exactly new information to any of us, but the fact that protein intake could partially override the need for a calorie surplus is an interesting concept. One thing worth mentioning is that the guidelines of 1-1.2g of protein per pound of body weight does not really apply to those who are heavily overweight, as it would lead them to have an extortionately high protein intake.

2. Growing Muscle Does Not Require That Much Energy

The idea that you need to be in a 500-calorie surplus every day to grow muscle simply is not accurate. The process of synthesizing one kilogram of new muscle tissue takes around 800-1000 calories worth of energy (estimating for inefficiencies and daily turnover). For an intermediate trainee, one kilogram of muscle tissue is probably a realistic amount of muscle to gain in six to eight weeks, taking into account that one kilogram of muscle tissue will represent around one and a half kilograms of scale weight by the time you account for the weight from glycogen, water, triglycerides, etc.

So, in reality, putting on one kilogram of muscle, over say 60 days, would only require a calorie surplus of 17 calories per day (1,000 calories divided by 60). Now, nothing is ever this clear-cut or efficient. But the point I am trying to make here is that you probably do not need as much of a daily surplus as you think to fuel the muscle growth process.

With the energy requirements for muscle growth being a lot lower than most think, then it becomes entirely possible to see how eating in a small surplus three or four days per week, with the nutrients centered around our workouts, could provide enough energy to grow new muscle tissue.

3. Protein Synthesis is Stimulated By Your Workouts

Triggering an increase in protein synthesis is primarily achieved by your workouts. Diet does play a part here in enhancing the signal, which I will address later, but the main signal is still triggered by the workout itself. Resistance training triggers the mTOR pathway along with local IGF-1 release (provided the correct level of muscular fatigue and/or lactate is achieved) which are the primary drivers of protein synthesis. So provided we have ample protein and resources available around the times that these pathways are triggered, then it is entirely reasonable to assume we can experience muscle growth even if we are not in a surplus on average across the whole week.

Provided we do what we can to maximize those signaling cascades, then the body will initiate all the processes required to grow new muscle tissue.

4. Calorie Deficit

There is good news. You do not need to be in a calorie deficit every day to lose fat.

Unlike muscle gain and the requirement for a calorie surplus, there is no way to “outsmart” the fact that you do need a calorie deficit to lose fat. But, that does not mean that we need to be in a calorie deficit every day. We could do what most do and give ourselves a small daily deficit, or we could give ourselves a larger deficit two or three days per week, for example. As long as you equate weekly calories, the fat loss results will be the same.

Altering calorie deficits puts us in a situation where we can eat at maintenance level, or even above, on our training days (to maximize the hypertrophic response to the training session) but still achieve our fat loss target by having a larger deficit on our non-training days.

5. No More Diminishing Returns

Recomping avoids the diminishing returns issue we get with regular dieting styles.

In the traditional muscle gain/fat loss diet structure, we usually spend several months focusing on only one of those goals at a time. The issue here is that, just as with any stimulus, the body desensitizes and adapts over time, meaning we either accept a rate of diminishing returns or we need to increase the stimulus to keep progressing.

During muscle gain phases, we gradually get a diminished response to the calorie surplus. Not only does our BMR gradually increase, but we also get a reduced mTOR and IGF-1 response to the calorie surplus itself. What this leads to overtime is a need to progressively increase calories to maintain our rate of weight gain. The downside to this is that being in a constant surplus will gradually decrease our insulin sensitivity, in turn making it harder to gain muscle. Then, there is the stress on the digestive system from the ever-increasing food intake, which usually leads to higher levels of inflammation and poorer nutrient partitioning. Being in a calorie surplus also suppresses the AMPK pathway, which is an important pathway for glucose and fatty acid uptake and oxidation, as well as being linked to positive effects on longevity.

On a side note, this is why “mini-cuts” can increase the efficacy of muscle gain phases.

Fat Loss Phases

Likewise, during fat loss phases, our body adapts by reducing BMR (by lowering the conversion of T4 to T3). This means that as the diet progresses, we either need to increase our energy expenditure or reduce our calorie consumption to maintain our rate of fat loss. This brings with it issues in the form of chronically elevated cortisol, reduced leptin levels, and a host of other hormonal changes that end up reducing our performance and making us feel generally...a bit shit.

By cycling between maintenance/small surplus and deficit days when recomping, we avoid these adaptation responses and the negative spirals I mentioned above. Because the stimulus changes regularly, the body does not adapt to it and therefore stays responsive.

1. Lack of a Recomping Strategy

Recomping requires a very specific strategy.

As I mentioned earlier, recomping generally requires an undulating diet strategy where some days are spent in a calorie deficit and others are spent in a calorie surplus. Your diet strategy also realistically needs to be tied in with your training program, with the calorie surplus days occurring on your training days (you can do some non-stressful work or low-intensity cardio on the deficit days). For many of us, just following a diet plan that stays the same every day can be challenging. So, the idea of following a diet plan that has an undulating nature with two or three different meal plans depending on the type of day is just not feasible.

The following is an example of a recomping diet strategy that I have used in the past for a visual representation:

Monday (Training day) – Calorie surplus (High carb, high protein, low fat)

Tuesday (Rest day) – Low-calorie day (Modified Protein Sparring Fast)

Wednesday (Training day) – Calorie surplus (High carb, high protein, low fat)

Thursday (Rest day) – Low-calorie day (Modified Protein Sparring Fast)

Friday (Training Day) – Calorie surplus (High carb, high protein, low fat)

Saturday (Less stressful Training Day) – Maintenance calories or small surplus (High fat, moderate protein, low carb)

Sunday (Rest day) – Low-calorie day (Modified Protein Sparring Fast)

It is easy to see how a dieting strategy like the one above may not be approachable for some.

Not only that, but successful recomping is dependent on achieving a very fine balance between low and high-calorie days. If calories are too high on average across the week, then you will not achieve any fat loss. If calories are too low on average, then you will not be able to gain any muscle or maintain/improve your performance due to poor recovery from your training sessions.

A recomping diet strategy plan approach is generally best used with someone who knows their body well, and has been tracking food intake for a while. A person who tracks their food intake will they know how they react to certain calorie intakes and macro splits.

2. Muscle Gain is SLOW

Word of warning: you are about to become very depressed. Muscle gain is a painfully slow process, even if you are in a surplus every day.

Let’s take the average male lifter, who for simplicity, we will call Average Joe. Joe can expect to gain 30-40 pounds of actual muscle tissue in his entire lifting “career”; this would be Joe maxing out his “genetic potential”. Bear in mind, that 30-40 pounds of muscle tissue will equate to 35-60 pounds of scale weight by the time you take into account the intramuscular water, glycogen, triglycerides, etc.

In his first year of lifting, Average Joe could put on as much as 10-20 pounds of those 30-40 pounds of muscle tissue (again these numbers would represent more like 15-30 pounds of scale weight) thanks to the newbie gains. After the first year of training, Average Joe has 20-30 pounds of muscle tissue left to gain. We are, of course, assuming that Average Joe has a great coach from day one and is doing everything optimally.

If they do everything right (for the most part), most lifters will either reach or get very close to their genetic potential in six to ten years. So, let’s assume Average Joe is quite genetically blessed and can get there in six years. A 20-30 pound of muscle gain spread over six years leaves us with three to five pounds of muscle gain PER YEAR (again, remember three to five pounds will equate to around five to eight pounds of scale weight).

3. The Process Requires Patience (a lot)

The point I am making, in a very long-winded manner here, is that gaining muscle is a slow and arduous process, even if you are doing everything to maximize the process.

When we aim to recomp, we spend at least half of our time not focusing on muscle gain and instead focusing our efforts on achieving fat loss. Focusing our efforts on fat loss means that we need to gain at least half the amount of muscle that we can realistically gain in the same time frame compared to if we put all our efforts into muscle gain.

Average Joe is now looking at gaining two to three pounds of muscle tissue per year, at most. And that is assuming we get our recomping strategy spot on. In reality, it will be more like one to two pounds. This is why, in 90 percent of cases, most who recomp do not actually gain any muscle, but instead maintain the muscle mass they have while getting leaner; the result of which is a physique that looks more muscular.

4. Too Many Goals

You will make faster progress overall by focusing on one goal at a time, either gaining muscle or losing fat. In that same year, Average Joe could spend eight to nine months focusing purely on muscle gain, and likely put on over double the amount of muscle, and then spend the remaining three to four months getting leaner and end up with a lower body fat percentage than he started the year with.

For the record, if you are female, an Average Jane if you will, then you can half all the numbers I have given above in terms of lifetime muscle gain and muscle gain per year to get a rough estimate of what you can expect to achieve in those time frames.

The above numbers also assume that the individual is not using “Super Soldier Serum” because, you know, that kind of changes things a little.

Even if you get a recomping strategy spot on, you are not going to see any kind of significant visual progress in your physique. From week to week, you will look the same. It will only be when you take progress pictures six months or more apart that you can expect to see any real changes. Not only does the slow process of recomping mean it is hard to track whether you are progressing, but it also means you do not have the motivation provided by seeing your progress to keep you going.

Recomping requires a lot of patience, mental fortitude, and trust in the process. For individuals who are recomping, it is very useful to have non-aesthetic-based goals for them to focus on to provide some motivation and distraction from the fact that their body composition changes will be very slow. Strength-based goals, especially those that are relative to body weight (since body weight will be pretty stable throughout), can be a good option here.

Due to the requirement of time and patience, recomping tends to work best with individuals who are already close to their “genetic ceiling” or who are at least already pretty happy with their physique. Fitness models, who need to stay in photoshoot condition all year round, are another good example of a population that benefits from the slow process recomping approach. These individuals are in a position where there is no inherent rush to change their physique quickly and are happy to accept the nature of the situation. If you are the type of person who likes to do things at 100 miles per hour and “all in”, then the slow recomping approach is likely to do nothing but drive you insane.

4. Recomping and Performance-Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) Synergize

Recomping is an approach that benefits massively from PEDs usage.

Ok, you may want to sit down for the following information as it is a bit shocking… (some) bodybuilders use PEDs.

Crazy right?

PEDs improve pretty much every facet of getting jacked. I would argue PEDs have an even greater benefit for those who are recomping compared to those who are using a more traditional dieting strategy.

Yes, the basic recomping strategy I outlined earlier is based on manipulating our bodies' natural adaptive responses to training and calorie intake. But, it is possible with PEDs to largely exaggerate the individual effects of the fat loss and muscle gain days. I do not want to go into too much detail on specifics here, but essentially, you can use fast-acting or oral PEDs to enhance the anabolic or catabolic stimuli of the muscle gain or fat loss days. Using PEDs means that each individual muscle gain/fat loss day has an enhanced effect, and progress is much faster on both fronts.

You would then have the “base” of your cycle based on longer-acting compounds that run in the background to make everything more effective. All of which makes it much easier to gain muscle without a consistent calorie surplus by artificially enhancing all our body’s anabolic pathways.

That does not mean you should only recomp if you are using PEDs. It just means that the rate of progress that you can expect on both fronts (fat loss and muscle gain) is considerably higher if you do.


Recomping can work, but there is a reason you do not see a lot of people doing it.

Provided you know how to set it up, recomping is a viable strategy for a lifter to use to try and improve their body composition over time. It is simply a slow process that is more complex and detail-oriented than your traditional “cut and bulk” approach.

Yes, overall, your progress will be slower compared to going through dedicated fat loss and hypertrophy phases, but that does not suit everyone. Maybe you are someone who likes or needs to stay lean all year round or someone who can not go through large body weight fluctuations due to a medical condition. As with everything, there is never one optimal approach that is best for everyone.

The biggest problem I see with recomping right now is that people either do not understand how it works and, therefore can not set up the correct strategy, or they massively overestimate the rate at which they can make progress. I hope that my information on recomping has helped to address those issues.

It certainly is not for everyone. I would argue that the number of people for whom recomping is the best approach is small. But that does not mean we should palm it off and ignore it as a viable strategy. Having as many tools as possible in your toolbox as an athlete or a coach is always a good idea.

write for elitefts