The Art of Body Recomposition

In the last 10 years, my weight has ranged from a high of 265 when body building to a low of 157 when doing endurance training. I’ve lost as much as 80 lbs in just 5 months, and at one point I could leg press over 1,000 lbs. Whenever I feel like making a change in my life, I usually begin with a round of body recomposition, either slimming down or muscling up, depending on my mood :)

Want to learn how I do it?

First, the standard disclaimer of “I’m not a doctor or medical professional, and anything I say is purely my opinion, and please consult with a real doctor before starting any diet or exercise regimen.”

OK, that’s out of the way…let’s get cracking!

#1 – Data

I measure data religiously, the more the merrier. Like the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. What should you measure?

  • Weight – Always wear the same thing when you weigh yourself (or wear nothing), and weigh yourself at the same time of day, for consistency. I prefer to take this measurement first thing in the morning. Get a good scale, and weigh yourself at least weekly, if not daily.
  • Body Fat – There are a ton of options for measuring this, from hydrostatic weighing to air displacement (BodPod), from calipers to DEXA scans. The reality is that they are all fairly close in accuracy (within about 1% of each other.) I just use a good measurement based formula, like this one or this one. Both of those tools will give you your lean body mass as well, which you’ll need to know for nutrition calculations later.
  • Measurements – You will need some of these for the body fat measurements, but aside from that it’s still a great thing to track. If you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, which is actually quite common (I always do), your actual weight may not shift by much, which can be REALLY depressing. So track measurements so you have something else to watch. I always measure my neck at the thickest, chest at the nipples, each bicep at the largest point, each forearm at the largest point, waist at the navel, hips, each thigh at the largest point, each calf at the largest point. If you track nothing else, track your waist.
  • Other – Totally optional, but you might want to get some blood tests to look at cholesterol, triglycerides, liver and kidney functions, and vitamin levels. It isn’t required, but it might be a smart thing to do. If you haven’t had a physical for a while, getting one of those at the same time couldn’t hurt either.

If you aren’t measuring something, you will have a HARD time sticking to any form of diet and/or exercise. Just do it, trust me.

#2 – Caloric Needs

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – This number is far from perfect, but it’s still very useful. It represents the approximate number of calories you need just to live and breathe, not accounting for any exercise or physical activity. Eating fewer calories than this is rarely a good idea. This tool will calculate it.
  • Target Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) – Takes your Basal Metabolic Rate and adds a multiplier to account for physical activity. You’ll use this number for most of your calculations going forward. This tool will calculate it. To lose weight, you will need to eat less than this each day, but I recommend never eating more than 30% less than your TDEE. Once you get close to where you want to be in terms of losing body fat, you will want to steadily increase your caloric intake up to 100-110% of this amount as you start focusing on increasing muscle mass (I’ve heard 20 calories per day per pound of lean muscle mass for 10 lbs more than you currently have, courtesy of Tim Ferriss in 4HB.)

#3 – Diet & Nutrition

  • Carbohydrate:Protein:Fat Ratio – Everyone has an opinion on this, but I’ve had the greatest success with 40% carbs (primarily complex carbs and as little added sugar as possible), 25-30% fat (as little saturated fat as possible, 0 trans fat, avoid anything with the word hydrogenated in it), and 30-35% protein (roughly 1.1-1.5 grams per pound of lean body mass.) To hit 30-35% protein, you may need a protein supplement, so I recommend getting the cleanest protein isolate you can find. The percentages mean that percentage of your total daily calories from TDEE in #2.
  • Water – Very, very few people drink enough water. Soda, juice and milk don’t count as water. If you are exercising regularly, you probably need about a gallon per day for muscle building, repair, digestion, etc. I aim for a minimum of 96 ounces per day of plain old water on non-exercise days, and at least 128 ounces on workout days. A good rule of thumb is to take your weight and divide by 2, and that is the number of ounces of water you’ll need to drink each day.
  • Yogurt – Eat at least 1/2 to 1 cup of plain low fat low sugar yogurt per day containing live cultures (I’m a fan of Nancy’s Organic Low Fat yogurt.) Proper digestion requires healthy levels of intestinal bacteria (yup, you heard that right), and I’d bet that most people probably have insufficient levels. Eating yogurt every day will help a ton.
  • Dietary Fiber – The FDA recommends 25g per day. I recommend at least 50g. Not only will this help digestion, but it will almost certainly reduce your cholesterol along the way. You want a good mix of soluble and insoluble fiber. Ease into this though, to avoid gas and the craps :)
  • Avoid Artificial – This is good advice regardless of diet, but try to avoid anything artificial or highly processed, including artificial sweeteners. Organic food is tasty, and amazing for you.
  • Cheat Day – If you stick to any diet too strictly, you will fail. You need to break it up for both your sanity and for metabolic reasons. One day per week, go to town and eat whatever the hell you want to eat. If you don’t have the self-control for one day per week, try giving yourself one cheat meal every other day and work from there.

Much of my diet sticks pretty closely to Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet, but with some customizations that work really well for me. Tim’s diet is designed for losing as much fat as humanly possible as quickly as possible, and that is never my goal, thus the modified diet.

Some people swear by adding in supplements, from creatine to multi-vitamins, but a vitamin enriched protein powder is probably sufficient for most people if you are eating the right types of food. I’m getting ready to give PAGG a try for fat loss reasons, so I’ll update this with my experience.

While you’re at it, avoid eating too much iron, and make sure you get enough potassium. A high protein diet can easily have too much iron, and too little potassium, both of which can cause some pretty major problems over time.

#4 – Eating Schedule

My typical schedule looks like this:

  • Breakfast, 7am – I totally agree with Tim Ferriss when he recommends a protein rich breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up. I’ve always had the best results both losing weight and building muscle when I’ve eaten a large breakfast early in the day. Aim for 25% of your total daily caloric intake to be at breakfast. I usually do a protein shake with yogurt and granola blended in.
  • Mid-Morning Snack, 9:30am – Mine is almost always a protein bar. This snack should be 5% of your daily caloric intake.
  • Lunch, 12pm – 25% of your daily calories; lean protein, legumes, veggies.
  • Afternoon Snack, 3pm – Usually about 1/4 cup or so of trail mix, almonds, cashews, raisins, etc. Again, aim for 5% of your daily calories.
  • Pre-Workout Shake - 10% of daily caloric intake. I do this even on non-workout days, because healing muscles still need lots of protein.
  • Dinner, 6:30pm – 25% of your daily caloric intake. Protein, legumes, veggies, unless it’s a workout day, and then you want protein, brown rice, veggies.
  • Evening Snack, 9pm – 5% of your daily calories

The exact times are irrelevant, but try to eat something every 2-3 waking hours, with your last food intake 1-2 hours before bedtime.

#5 – Exercise

Last but not least, exercise. Just not a whole lot of it. I’ve tried everything under the sun, from high reps and multiple sets to low reps and single sets. What type of exercise depends a lot on your goals, but if your goal is to gain some muscle and lose some fat at the same time, I recommend the following:

  • Cardio – 30 minutes at 65-75% of your max heart rate, 2-3x per week (M,W,F.) I prefer elliptical machines because it’s low impact.
  • Weights – 10-20 minutes, no more than 2x per week (M,F), same day as the cardio (cardio first.) I prefer machines for consistency.

I stretch for maybe a minute before the cardio, and then jump from cardio directly into weights with no rest in-between. For the weights, I do the following:

Monday

  • Lat Pulldown – 8-12 reps, 1 set to failure
  • Shoulder Press – 8-12 reps, 1 set to failure
  • Leg Press – 12-15 reps, 1 set to failure

Friday

  • Incline Bench Press – 8-12 reps, 1 set to failure
  • Seated Row – 8-12 reps, 1 set to failure
  • Ab Exercises – 5-10 minutes

You should have one week of rest between doing the exact same exercise over again, and 2-3 days between lifting sessions.

1 set to failure means you need to lift enough weight that you can’t finish your last rep due to muscle fatigue. 8 reps minimum, 12 reps maximum. I aim for 8. I like Tim’s cadence and rest system, 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down, no pausing at the top (1 second pause at the bottom only on the bench press), and 3 minutes between different exercises.

One more important thing to remember:

  • Breathe – Breathe very deeply, in through your nose, then breathe all the way out through your mouth. I do this to an even cadence, usually 4/4. This is important both for aerobic and anaerobic exercise for a number of reasons. Don’t forget to breathe!

To finish things up, I always do a 5 minute cool-down on the elliptical machine, followed by 2 minutes of stretching. I polish everything off with a 5-10 minute cold shower.

This system that I use is a hybrid of numerous other systems, but if you want a book that covers most of this in far more detail, plus a ton of other awesome things, I highly recommend The 4-Hour Body.

I’ve read that book twice, and learned a ton of great stuff. Some of the things in there I’ve done in the past, and some things were totally new, and I’m excited to try them.

It’s been a few years since I’ve done a major body recomposition, and I’ve kind of let myself go :( I’m currently at 226 lbs, with 26% body fat. My goal is to drop to ~210 lbs, while dropping to 10-12% body fat. That means I need to trade ~35 lbs of body fat for ~16 lbs of lean muscle.

I aim to hit this goal in 90 days, so March 31st 2012 is my goal date. When my experiment is done, I’ll be posting some before and after pictures :)

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