Shifting your ratio of lean body mass to fat matters more than the number on the scale. Here’s what you need to know.
The scale is one way to measure your progress, but it can only tell you so much. If you’ve been lifting weights for a while, you might have noticed that your clothes fit better and you look leaner—even if the number on the scale hasn’t budged. That’s one telltale sign of body composition.
First, What Even is Body Recomposition?
Your body composition is the ratio of lean body mass (which includes muscles, bones, and organs) to fat mass. Body recomposition, then, is the practice of shifting that ratio of lean body mass and fat by making strategic adjustments to your diet and exercise routines.
Body recomposition may result in weight loss, but it may also result in your overall weight remaining the same or increase if you’ve gained muscle and lost fat. Shifting your body composition in this way doesn’t just help you look more toned and defined, it may also improve your overall health. In one study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, high body fat percentage was linked to increased mortality risk, even in participants with a low body mass index (the ratio of weight to height).
Troy Taylor, Senior Director of Performance and the former High Performance Director for U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams, embarked on his own body recomposition journey when he turned 40 after years of putting fitness on the back burner.
“Up until 30, I was always pretty fit and then, like most people, my work and home life took over my training life,” he says. “I wasn’t very consistent for long periods of time. I probably put on 25 pounds of fat mass in that decade.”
Through fine-tuning his diet and training, Taylor’s been able to regain his strength and shed body fat. In the process, he lost 25 pounds and 4 inches off his waist. Here’s everything you need to know about this common practice and how you can achieve body recomposition at home using similar strategies.
How Can I Measure Body Composition?
There are many highly accurate methods, such as DEXA (dual x-ray absorptiometry) scans that can estimate your body composition, though these are often costly and impractical to do on a consistent basis. If you want to check in more regularly, consider either a body-fat scale that uses bioelectrical impedance analysis (measuring the rate at which an electrical current travels through your body) or an app that uses your phone’s camera to measure fat and lean mass.
While impedance scales may be less precise, they make up for it in practicality and reliability, explains John Christie, RD, CSCS, Tonal’s Director of Applied Training Science. That is, even if your scale is off by 0.5 percent, it’ll consistently be off by the same 0.5 percent every time. “Reliability is key, allowing you to chart trends over time,” says Christie.
If you don’t need an exact percentage measurement, you can still estimate your progress by keeping track of how your clothes fit or measuring your waist, hip, arm, and thigh circumference. Taylor likes these easy methods along with skinfold caliper testing, which measures subcutaneous fat and is best done by a trained individual.
For the most accurate results, weigh or measure yourself at the same time of day each time as hydration levels and eating before a weigh-in can affect your results. Taylor recommends first thing in the morning when you’re in a fasted state.
How Much Weight Can I Lose with Body Recomposition Strategies?
While a goal of weight loss is a worthy one when it’s approached with a healthy mindset and healthy habits, it’s important to remember that body recomposition is a more holistic view of health that goes beyond the number on the scale. So you may actually gain weight in the process while shifting your body composition to a healthier ratio.
That said, if you have a significant amount of fat mass to lose, it’s possible you’ll drop a lot of weight during body recomposition. Or you may not see your weight change at all if you gain muscle while losing fat.
To better understand how much weight you can expect to lose, you need to figure out your current body fat and how much you’d like to cut.
When body fat is too high (according to the American College of Exercise, an unhealthy or obese body fat percentage is considered greater than 32 percent in women and greater than 25 percent in men) your risk for cardiovascular disease and certain cancers increases. You don’t want to lose too much body fat, though, because when body fat is too low, it could lead to low energy, hormone dysfunction, and, in women, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual periods).
What Exercise is Best for Body Recomposition at Home?
Resistance training is essential for building or maintaining muscle while losing fat mass. “As a general rule of thumb, a traditional hypertrophy-type program would be stimulating the muscle growth you want,” says Taylor.
To train for hypertrophy, he explains you can lift anywhere in the 5 to 30-rep range, training each muscle group for at least 4 sets and ideally closer to 10 sets per week. “You want to be going close to failure—1 to 4 reps away from failure,” he says. “It’s relatively hard work.” You can split this volume up into two or three full-body sessions per week. Taylor recommends concentrating on big, compound lifts “to get the biggest bang for your buck.”
He adds that consistency is key in achieving body recomposition, and says having Tonal at home makes it much easier and more convenient to train regularly. Plus, Tonal’s dynamic weight modes and weight recommendations have pushed him to keep training harder. “Having something that bumps me up when it knows I can do more has definitely challenged me,” he says.
You might think now’s the time to pack in high-intensity cardio sessions to burn fat, but Taylor says that’s not essential. This type of exercise triggers a strong stress response that’ll be much harder to recover from since you’ll be eating in a calorie deficit during recomposition. Women can actually tolerate high-intensity exercise during recomposition a little better than men because they ideally won’t be eating in as big a deficit (more on that below).
If you enjoy low-intensity cardio activities like walking, that’s fine to add to your weekly routine. You’ll gain cardiovascular benefits and burn a few extra calories without overtaxing your body.
Which Diet is Best for Recomposition?
Training is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to body recomposition at home, what you eat and how much you eat is another major factor. There’s no specific diet that’s best for recomping. Instead, you’ll want to pay attention to your total calorie consumption and how much protein you’re eating. In the end, the best diet for you is the one that you can sustain over the long term and supports your regular exercise routine.
What Can I Eat in a Day for Body Recomposition?
Unlike in a bulking phase when you’d want to eat in a calorie surplus, during recomposition, it’s best to aim for a modest deficit of 100 to 500 calories per day below your daily calorie expenditure. “Once you get to calorie deficits of more than 500 calories a day, it really becomes hard to increase muscle mass,” says Taylor.
Even though you’re cutting calories, it’s important to keep your protein intake high. “During recomposition, you’re generally trying to get 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day,” says Taylor.
Eating adequate protein will also help you feel full even when you’re eating in a deficit. “Protein helps you preserve lean muscle mass, and it’s satisfying, which helps you consume fewer calories throughout the course of the day,” says Christie.
In women, protein may be even more important than total calories consumed. In one study, women who upped their protein intake saw a significant improvement in body composition without altering their exercise routines or eating in a calorie deficit.
Female physiology expert and Tonal Advisory Board member Stacy Sims, PhD., says that’s good news for women who require more calories per pound of lean body mass for healthy hormone function and therefore shouldn’t attempt a steep calorie deficit. “For women to maintain health and not enter into endocrine dysfunction, it’s a minimum of 35 calories per kilogram of lean body mass each day,” says Sims. “But for men, it’s 15 calories per kilogram of lean body mass each day.”
To stay within your calorie range and hit your protein target, you’ll naturally end up limiting carbohydrate intake, which is another reason why you want to keep your cardio activity at a low intensity. Christie explains that compared to high-intensity cardio, you don’t need as many carbohydrates to fuel lower-intensity exercise, as your body utilizes fat for fuel instead. That will leave you with enough stored carbohydrates to give it your all in your strength training.
“If fueling is done well—before and after training—with a slight calorie deficit at night, there is no issue with high-intensity work,” Sims says. “It is when people do HIIT fasted, or delay food intake afterward (trying to maintain a longer ‘burn’) when we see significant issues with metabolic and endocrine change.”
How Long Does Body Recomposition at Home Take?
Body recomposition at home is a gradual process, so don’t expect to see changes overnight. Be patient, and you’ll see your body composition shifting in the right direction after sticking with your training and nutrition plan for several weeks. There’s no need to take your measurements or step on the scale every day. “I don’t think you’re going to see significant, meaningful change more than once a month,” says Taylor. You’ll see results quicker if you’re just starting out on your fitness journey and have more body fat to lose and muscle to gain.
“If you have very low body fat, very high muscle mass, or both, then a traditional cutting or bulking phase may be more appropriate,” says Taylor. By alternating your focus between the two, you might be able to make those small changes when you’re already close to your potential.
That’s where Taylor has found himself after a couple of years spent focusing on body recomposition: Working on gaining strength while embracing gradual progress. “I’m at the point where I’m comfortable and happy without necessarily seeing dramatic changes on a monthly or even quarterly basis,” he says.