How Body Recomposition Can Transform Your Shape Without Weight Loss: An Expert Explains

A certified fitness trainer explains body recomposition is relatively recent terminology used for a phenomenon that has unnecessarily frustrated people on their fitness journeys for a long time.

If you’ve ever felt compelled to start a new fitness program, I dare say there’s a decent chance weight loss was one of your primary goals. For a long time, most people have gauged the success of their fitness journey based primarily on the numbers on the scale.  An unchanged body weight can feel defeating after weeks of pushing yourself to get to the gym, sweating through those challenging sessions, and even going through long spans of your day feeling hungry.

But what if your scale weight isn’t telling the whole story? More and more, we professionals in the fitness field are emphasizing that a lower weight on the scale isn’t everything. Enter the concept of body recomposition. Although it’s not a new phenomenon, body recomposition is relatively recent terminology for a process where both significant, and positive, body changes occur that may result in negligible changes to scale weight.

It’s a topic that is getting a lot of recent attention—so with the help of Fabio Comana, Faculty Instructor at the San Diego State University School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences—we set out to explain a better understanding of just what body recomposition entails, and how you may apply it to your own fitness goals.

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What is body recomposition?

As defined by UC Davis Health, body composition is “used to describe the percentages of fat, bone, and muscle in human bodies.” In the health and fitness world, body re-composition is defined by a process during which someone uses both diet and exercise to change their overall body composition, most notably through changes in lean muscle mass or fat mass percentages.

The primary focus of body recomposition is to lose fat while also building muscle. As Comana points out, “When you are tackling the challenge of weight management … [body recomposition] should be a combination of two events happening simultaneously. The goal is to lose that excess fat mass that you have, but at the same time you should be preserving—or even better, building some muscle mass.”

Body recomposition differs from more traditional weight loss programs that focus primarily on fat loss while doing little to preserve existing muscle mass. The result is a scale weight that moves downward, but is often an unfortunate result of losing both fat and muscle.

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How is recomposition accomplished?

Body recomposition is accomplished through a series of dietary and exercise changes that are going to be very specific to the individual and in acknowledgement of their baseline fitness. Comana notes that “things like age, sex, hormones, and health” will all play a role. Our recommendation for anyone looking to engage in a body recomposition process is to consult with a physician, trainer, or nutrition expert to make sure they are healthy enough to safely start a new routine and are receiving proper guidance.

If indeed you’re healthy enough to make these changes, research, such as one widely cited study done in the year 2000, has shown that a protocol incorporating resistance training, calorie reduction, and a high-protein diet can be effective in promoting lean mass gains and simultaneous fat mass loss. Comana reiterated this approach by stating “we always advocate that it should be a combination of some dietary reduction, coupled with some weight training, and extra protein. If you can do that, then there is a better chance that you can undergo the optimal body recomposition where you are going to lose predominantly fat mass, and will minimize, preserve, or in a better case scenario, build some muscle mass.”

Just how much protein should be consumed is something of a debate. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adult protein consumption is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, which is often argued to be far too low to support muscle growth for someone doing significant resistance training. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 1.4 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight for “most exercising individuals wanting to build and maintain muscle mass.”

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How long does recomposition take?

Just as the protocol for accomplishing recomposition is very individual, so too will be the length of time that it may take for a significant recomposition to occur. In terms of muscle growth, Comana states that “muscle mass doesn’t show any noticeable change for the first one to three weeks of training,” when you’re following a “regular weight training regiment.” After those initial weeks, he says, the “largest amount of growth will occur before slowing at around six months.” Of course this is provided that there is adequate protein intake to support the muscle growth.

Fat loss rate can also vary with the individual and much will depend on the total energy intake and expenditure balance, meaning how great of a caloric reduction has been introduced.

A main rule to keep in mind is that recomposition protocols are not a crash diet or quick fix to weight management problems, and that it may take time to see significant changes.

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Why your weight may stay the same

If you’ve ever heard someone say “muscle weighs more than fat,” then you’d be hearing some slight inaccuracies. Muscle does not weigh more than fat, but it is significantly more dense than fat—meaning a pound of fat is going to be larger in size than a pound of muscle. Picture it like this: Comana explains that a pound of fat is roughly the size of a softball, while a pound of muscle is more similar to the size of a tennis ball.

Now imagine that the recomposition process results in the loss of four pounds of fat (softballs) around your midsection and the addition of four pounds of muscle (tennis balls) to the areas you have been focusing on through resistance training. That’s a significant shift in body shape, while not having changed your overall scale weight. This is why the body recomposition process can be confusing and why the scale can cause unnecessary frustration. You may suddenly be able to slip on those pants that haven’t fit for the past five years, while stepping on the scale and seeing the same number from when you started your new routine.

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The takeaway

Body recomposition is an exciting concept whereby healthy body changes can be made that have little to no impact on scale weight. Although scale weight can be useful for monitoring progress or setting goals, you should always keep in mind that movement in scale weight is not always an indicator of progress (or lack of progress) toward your health and fitness goes. Comana emphasizes that “if we could get everyone to shift to that mindset, I would venture to guess that we’d have a lot of healthier people.” He adds that he’d “love to see people de-emphasize their scale weight and look more at their somatotype, or how their body is changing and how they are feeling.”

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Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on August 02, 2023

Jeff Whittington, MS, CPT, CNC
Jeff Whittington, MS, is a former San Diego Firefighter/Paramedic turned entrepreneur. He’s a self-described adventure seeker who’s passionate about human performance optimization and longevity. Jeff operates as a Peak Performance Coach, where he utilizes a diverse background of certifications to work with clients on life changes that enhance their overall performance and health in their daily lives. His education/certifications include Personal Training (NASM), Nutrition Coaching, XPT® Performance Breathing, Life Coaching, and Mindfulness/Meditation practices. Jeff lives in San Diego with his two children and his wife Hillary, author of the memoir Raising Ryland (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016), for which Jeff was a contributing writer.