On Body Recomposition

So much of the diet and fitness industry focuses on weight loss. You might get so wrapped up in watching those scale numbers go down that you completely forget where that weight is coming from.

Chances are if you are over-training or under-nourishing, the weight dropping off the scale includes healthy muscle mass. It’s not completely unavoidable to lose muscle mass while dieting, but the goal should be to preserve and build as much muscle mass as possible while shedding fat.

Lyle McDonald (along with Alan Aragon) is known for his expertise on body recomposition, so much so that he runs the site

In his article title, “What Does Body Composition Mean?”, McDonald applies two categories to the body composition model for non-research purposes:

Fat Mass: the sum total of all body fat.

Fat Free Mass: everything else, including bone, muscle, organs, minerals, blood, ect.

So, total body weight = Fat Mass + Fat Free Mas

Unless you have a severe protein deficiency, it’s rare for you to lose bone, organs, and blood mass. Water can be considered part of fat free mass, and often athletes lose water mass when in fact they believe they are losing muscle mass.

One of the trickiest things as a figure or body building athlete is to reduce fat percentage while gaining muscle. This holds true for any athlete, or anyone looking to improve body composition.

McDonald analysis this issue in his article, “Reducing Body Fat Percentage While Gaining Muscle.” Below are two different charts posted by McDonald in this article. The first is the impact of muscle gain on body fat percentage, while the second is the impact of fat loss on body fat percentage.

Please note that these charts are based on a male body weight:

Impact of Muscle Gain on BF%

Muscle Gain Fat Mass Total Weight BF Percentage
5 pounds 25 pounds 175 pounds 14.2%
10 pounds 25 pounds 180 pounds 13.8%
15 pounds 25 pounds 185 pounds 13.5%


Impact of Fat Loss on BF%

Fat Loss Fat Mass Total Weight BF Percentage
5 pounds 20 pounds 165 pounds 12%
10 pounds 15 pounds 160 pounds 9.3%
15 pounds 10 pounds 155 pounds 6.4%

To paraphrase McDonald, it takes roughly 5 pounds of muscle gain to reduce body fat by less than 1%, while losing 5 pounds of fat will reduce it by 3%.

Adding 5 pounds of lean muscle mass takes roughly 5 times longer than losing 5 pounds of fat.

If you are at a maintenance weight, this system works to your advantage and you may want to consider focusing on eating at maintenance. Though building muscle has a lower impact on body fat, eating at maintenance will encourage your body to shed excess pounds of fat while building muscle.

Over the past 2 years, I have consistently improved my body composition while maintaining my weight.

The photos below were taken in May of 2010, before I started strength training with Bret Contreras:

Though I was lean, I still had a decent amount of body fat and could definitely use some lean muscle mass to get on stage as a figure competitor.

Now, fast forward to June 2011. The photos below were taken before I started working with Alan Aragon for nutrition. You can see after implementing Bret’s strength training methods I gained a considerable amount of muscle:


The next photos were taken after working with Alan for 9 weeks to get on stage on August 28, 2011. Not only did I gain muscle, but I also lost an immense amount of body fat:

kellie davis figure competitorkellie davis figure competitor kellie davis figure competitor

When viewing these photos how much weight do you think I gained between May of 2010 and August 2011? How much weight do you think I lost between June 2011 and August 2011?

Though my body changed significantly, my weight barely fluctuated. In the photos taken in May 2010, I weighted 127 pounds. In the photos taken June 2011, I weighted 132 pounds. Lastly, in the photos taken August 2011, I weighted 127 pounds.

That’s right. Over the course of 14 months, I completely transformed my body with only having my weight fluctuate 5 pounds. The end result produced a body weight that equalled that of my beginning phase. Though I did not measure by using advanced technology, my educated guess tells me that over the course of the 14 months I gained at least 15 pounds of muscle. This means I lost 15 pounds of fat.

How is this possible?

You must understand that this method is all about precision, patience, and planning. Attempts to rapidly gain mass or lose fat (or both) causes you to eat and train in excess. Your bulking and cutting phase should extend over long periods of time if you want quality lasting results. Attempting to pack on 15 pounds of lean mass in your 5 month off-season will result in gaining a considerable excess of body fat. This means you must work twice as hard to shed the excess fat before your scheduled contest. You do this by cutting your calories significantly and performing excess cardio workouts.

Doing this causes you to inadvertently lose muscle mass. It’s a perpetual cycle that you will force your body through every season for years to come. But if you exercise patience and strategically plan your bulking and cutting stages so that you are not forced to store excess fat, your results will be far greater.

I am no expert on the subject of body recomposition, but I learn by working with and reading the works of experts. I can speak from experience and definitely side with the tortoise on this: slow and steady wins the race. I highly encourage you to read the works of both Lyle McDonald and Alan Aragon in regards to body recomposition as it will serve as a beacon to guide you toward your own transformation.

Another note: when training for my last show from June to August I ate at maintenance. My calories were not restricted even in the last weeks leading up to contest. 



If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
Related Posts
Defining Ourselves By The Way We Eat…
“Nothing, What’s Tabata with You?”: Supra-aerobic cardio
Flank steak works really well for beef jerky
My Kitchen: Beef Jerky
Forks Over Knives Ticket
Food For Thought: Plant-based Diet Documentary “Forks Over Knives”
  • Hello….I am at ideal weight 146 pounds, 5’10 female. I did body fat measure using the Tanita scale. It says 15%, but I have always had very very lean legs and arms…most my fat is in my tummy or back (like how men store fat). So not 100% sure that 15% is correct. I am trying to figure out the best way to get more muscle and look leaner. I get all sorts of answers from trainers and am beyond confused. I am not looking to be muscular for a competition, but to have enough muscle and be lean enough to see definition similar to your picture sets of 1 and 2. Any suggestions?

  • I’ve been skinny-fat my entire life. That is, I don’t have much muscle so I appear very thin in clothes, yet I’m probably 18% bodyfat at a low body weight (6’4” 175-180 lbs). Not exactly great for self-esteem. I’ve heard body recomposition is really hard, particularly if you go about it alone & un-coached. But clearly, if your weight only fluctuated 5# and you look completely different, its definitely possible.

    I’ve been focusing on lifting hard and heavy with the basic compound movements focusing on progressive overload (more weight or reps each session always trying to beat my logbook). I’ve been trying to eat more carbs & food around training and less food on off days, but I’m not going to extremes with deficits or surpluses. Do you think I’m on the right track?

  • Another refreshing take on what I have come to think of as a very messed up Industry.

  • I’ve experimented with a lot of different methods and most of them are very easy to screw up because they are so complex and involve a ton of tracking. I find the simpler your diet, the better you will follow it and the greater results you will see. In addition, it all depends on your body. What works for me might not work for others. I just know regardless, the slower you allow things to happen, the better and longer lasting your results.

  • Kellie-

    Great article, very thought provoking! Question for you: are you saying that, if you are where you want to be weight-wise, but you really want to put on some muscle, then eating at maintenance will allow you to do so while probably shedding some fat? If so, what about the whole notion that you need to be in a surplus to gain muscle?

    Also, based on all your physique experiments (thanks for doing the work for us, girl!), if you want to shed only 2-3 lbs of fat (so very small amount of fat loss) but your primary goal is adding some muscle, how would you suggest eating at that point? I ask because there has been a lot of good feedback on carb cycling based on activity level (for example, I have looked into Tom Venuto;s Holy Grail approach). There are lots of different options but the two that stand out are the 3:3 method (days at a deficit of about 15% and 3 days at a surplus of about the same) for muscle gain, depsite where and when your workouts fall on those days. Or, something that makes a bit more sense to me, demand-wise, is if you lift 4 days a week, eating at a slight surplus on the most challenging 3 of those days, then eating at a slight deficit on your non-workout or cardio days, and having most of those additional calories on surplus day come from carbs.

    Have you ever “experimented” with something like this?

    Thanks, Kellie! Keep up the great work :)


  • Tina, I used to have that mindset as well. But by the time I got on stage, I didn’t look my best. I ate the same calories for the 9 weeks leading up to my show and on the day of. I trained 3-4 days per week in the gym, using mostly compound movements. I ran about 6-8 miles per week in the evening, but tapered off the running in the last few weeks before my show because I was right where I wanted to be as far as looks go.

    If you do extreme anything, leaning out, cutting, exercise, dieting, ect, then your physique will suffer. You want to step on stage full and hard, not flat and soft.

  • Eek, don’t fall in that trap. You will be in a constant yo-yo and develop terrible body image issues. Slow and steady, Claire. Remember you are not going to look like a pro the first time you step on stage. But you can look like a competitor year-round if you play our card right and steadily pack on muscle.

  • Wonderful, Tasha! Glad to have you around. :)

  • Very interesting article! I wrote you on this blog back in April in response to your Fear of Gaining Weight post, and well, I did fear gaining weight despite wanting to be stronger/more muscular, and spun my wheels the last couple months. Basically went back to leaning out/undereating, although I think I more often ate at maitenance at times. In the mirror have lost some muscularity in my upper body…sigh. Now want to go back to lifting heavy and getting stronger, and this article is timely for me.

    Basically I have gotten back to my ideal weight. Was going to just eat more, again crossing my fingers I wouldn’t put on “too” much weight (this spring regained 8-9 of 11 lb lost in a matter of 2 months–eek)! You are saying that you have just pretty much eaten at maitenance, even just before the competition? That I can get, I have a good sense of what maitenance eating means for me, but what about your workouts? Any cardio at all? I work out at home, I have some programs that incorporate big muscle group/push/pull type lifting, and had been doing cardio in the form of short intervals, or bodyweight intervals/jump rope/or kettlebell sequences…I’m not talking about 2h on the treadmill here 4-5x a week. I guess I have always thought in the mindset of you eat big(but not too big!), do no cardio, and then eat at a big deficit and then throw cardio in to lean out. Part of me doesn’t want to lose my cardiovascular stamina. I’d be curious to know your thoughts!

  • Some clarity at last! I’m training for my first figure comp in May next year and I’ve been told to eat everyting in sight by some…given I’ve spent so long cutting the rubblish out of my diet and dont want to harm myself by crash dieting this is just great sense. Thank you!

  • Wow, what a great post! I’m learning so much from your blog. :)

  • Thanks, Chelsea!

  • Thanks so much, Mike!

  • This is EXCELLENT!!!!!!!

  • Amazing Kellie!!!

  • Awesome! Thanks for the resources!

  • Wonderful to hear. You will be surprised at how much you gain when you reflect back over the year. I’m sure you will make tremendous progress and your body will be so happy!

  • Well, you can base it off the chart provided here and find your happy medium. I think somewhere in the middle of the suggested weight is good.

    Lyle McDonald also has an article to help you understand how to calculate maintenance calories:

    Great questions! Keep them coming.

  • Well said Kellie! For just the reasons you explained, I gave myself almost a full calendar year between ending my last cut and starting my next one. Not that I anticipate making major gains in that time frame, but I’ll do the best I can. On that very same note, my ‘cut’ is also usually very long so I can take my time and do it gradually.

  • Kellie-

    great post, girl…thanks! Question for you: when you say spend some time getting to your “ideal body weight” and then eat at maintenance, how do you really determine what your ideal body weight is? For example, what you think you would like to weigh in terms of a number on the scale may not be what your body actually wants and thinks you should weigh.

    How did determine where you should be before eating at maintenance and how do you recommend others find their own “ideal weight”?

    Thanks again for a thought provoking post :)


  • Val, I would highly recommend spending the next several months getting to your ideal body weight. Depending on how much you have to lose, you can safely shed 8-10 pounds a month. Make sure when you eat at caloric deficit, you do not go extreme as this will cause you to store fat and comes with a host of other issues.

    Once you reach your ideal weight, eat at maintenance and focus on recomposition. I know you have your eyes on that stage, but it will wait for you. Don’t compromise your health to get there.

  • […] Reading: On Body Recomposition Posted in Strength Tags: after-implementing, aragon, fast-forward, photos-below, […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP ( and so is spam.

  • Oh’re so wonderful. Here i was planning on bulking for 15 weeks..not necessarily to gain size, but more so that i can just create more structure. but here you are..stating the obvious..using yourself as an example and showing us novices how..that is just not possible. i’m still going to attempt to start prep in January..and between now an then do my absolute best to gain that structure, but i wanted to say you’re just awesome. Thanks for this blog love :)

Leave Your Comment

Your Name*
Your Webpage

Your Comment*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>