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If you've ever tried to lose weight, chances are you relied—at least in part—on the scale to measure your progress. While there's nothing wrong with tracking your scale weight, which can give you a concrete idea of where you stand, experts agree that it shouldn't be the *only* way you track your progress. Why? Because body composition, or the amount of fat your body has compared to other stuff like muscles, bones, water, and organs, is also an important indicator of how healthy and fit you are. (To see what we're talking about, check out this fitness blogger who proves weight is just a number.)
That's why many fitness professionals, social media influencers, and regular exercisers are focusing on something called body recomposition ("recomp") instead of simply trying to lose weight. After all, body recomposition is the phenomenon behind many those side-by-side transformation photos that have become so popular on social media. But just because you see something all over the internet doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea. That's why we talked to experts in the field to find out why the focus on body composition over weight loss is on the rise—and importantly, is this way of training right for you?
What Is Body Recomposition?
Essentially, it's exactly what it sounds like. "A body recomposition program is an exercise and nutrition regimen that has the goal of simultaneously gaining muscle and losing fat," explains Dan DeFigio, C.P.T., a fitness and nutrition expert, and author of Beating Sugar Addiction for Dummies. This process changes body composition, lowering a person's body fat percentage while their weight stays the same or lowers at a rate much slower than with traditional weight loss. "Traditional ways of changing athletic bodies would involve a muscle gain phase followed by a leaning-out or fat-loss phase," says DeFigio. This is also known as "bulking" and "cutting." Body recomposition aims to accomplish both of these goals at once. (BTW, here's why more women are trying to gain weight through diet and exercise.)
So how does it work? "Weight loss is a catabolic process whereby the body breaks down fat stores for energy," explains Maggie Winzeler, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist and founder of Fitiverse. "This requires a caloric deficit to happen through exercise or nutrition, or ideally both." That's why the calories-in-calories-out approach to weight loss works for so many people. Gaining muscle is an anabolic (building up) process that requires both exercise and adequate macronutrient proportions, such as enough protein in your diet, says Winzeler. And while weight loss and muscle gain may seem to be in opposition to one another, they're not impossible to achieve during the same period of time, as long as you plan your diet and exercise carefully, she says. "The rate of muscle acquisition will not be quite as fast for someone trying to simultaneously lose weight, but that's okay." This is why changing your body composition tends to take longer than a standard weight-loss plan.
In general, it's more of a lifestyle than a diet, with a long-term commitment to regular strength training and a diet higher in protein. While some people doing body recomposition will lose weight (particularly if they start out with a high body-fat percentage), most people will gauge results primarily through taking circumference measurements (such as around the thighs, arms, and stomach), progress photos, and body fat calibrations, as the number on the scale can sometimes stay the same or even go up throughout the process. (For more info on that, check out Anna Victoria's guide to measuring body fat.)
Why Is Body Recomposition So Popular?
This is one trend you can actually thank social media for. Those transformation photos where someone looks stronger and more fit, and may even weigh more in the "after" pic, are side-by-side proof of body recomposition at work. Plus the fact that people are more interested in fitness and wellness than ever. (YAS!) Winzeler says she has noticed that more and more everyday gym-goers are interested in body recomposition—perhaps, in part, to all those tanned and toned fitness Instagammers or celebrity trainers you see online. Interestingly though, she points out that this way of training and eating is not exactly a "new trend." Bodybuilders and professional athletes have been following strict lifting and nutrition regimens forever, but the fitness industry reaches much further now.
What's more, it's (finally!) becoming more common knowledge that the number you see on the scale isn't the only thing that matters when it comes to health. "Instead, body fat percentage and composition can actually be great indicators of long-term health," says Chelsea Axe, C.S.C.S., D.C., fitness expert for Dr. Axe. "One pound of muscle and one pound of fat may weigh the same, but they look and function entirely different in the body. Unfortunately, the scale cannot tell the difference." This is why Axe often recommends body recomposition over simple weight loss to her clients. "Rather than obsessing over only losing two pounds, I teach my clients to celebrate the inches lost and strength gained."
There's also the fact that focusing on body composition may potentially have greater health benefits than simply losing weight. "The problem with focusing solely on weight loss and not maintaining or building muscle is that you will lose muscle in addition to fat during the process," explains Winzeler. "As this happens, you may see numbers going down on the scale but you may actually be creating a worse fat-to-muscle ratio in your body, which can wreak havoc on your hormones and health." This might seem fine in the present, but can backfire in the long run, especially when trying to keep the weight off. (Related: Are You Skinny Fat?)
Of course, going through the recomp process to achieve a lower body fat percentage isn't an automatic guarantee you'll get a clean bill of health during your next checkup, but it certainly helps. Body composition is "so important that a recent study found a correlation between strength training twice a week and a reduction in cancer mortality," says Winzeler.
Is Body Recomposition Right for You?
"Recomp is a great goal for every single person who exercises," says Winzeler. That being said, it does require a certain level of commitment, just as any diet or exercise change would. The level of commitment is up to you, though. "The people who are willing to commit their entire lifestyles to this are the ones who will reap the extreme end of the results, but that's not necessary for feeling good, gaining a little more body confidence, and improving strength and function for years to come," she says. (And FYI, weight loss doesn't always lead to body confidence.)
Another advantage is that it works well regardless of how much fat you have to lose. "For people who don't need to lose weight, per se, but would like to get more toned by adding some lean muscle, restricting calories won't be necessary. But they should make sure adequate protein is consumed and that training intensity increases," suggests Winzeler.
As for those with a significant amount of weight or fat to lose, body recomposition is still really important because weight loss means losing both fat and muscle. "But the more muscle you have, the more calories your bodies burn at rest, which is why people with more muscle and higher metabolisms tend to manage weight better."
As mentioned earlier, altering your body composition is often a long, slow process, which can be discouraging. But this method has its benefits. "Due to the way recomp is structured, long-term consistency is much more attainable than other diets and training plans out there," says Axe. "All in all, I believe body recomposition to be a great way to create long-term, positive lifestyle habits while maintaining a healthy perspective and outlook." (If you're still not sure, check out these Instagrammers who reminded us why it's important to #screwthescale.)
So what's the bottom line here? There isn't really anyone who *isn't* appropriate for body recomposition, but it is a case where the saying "slow and steady wins the race" holds especially true. "In order to be successful, people must change their thinking and acknowledge their small victories each step of the way," says Axe. By celebrating small steps along the way and changing lifestyle habits instead of going on a crash diet, those committed to making body recomposition work are likely to be happy with their results.