Body composition refers to the amount of body fat a person has versus the amount of lean muscle mass. Body recomposition, then, is the process of altering this ratio (hopefully in a beneficial way).
Most fitness goals involve some degree of body recomposition, but even if they don’t it’s important to understand the concept in order to keep proper perspective. This, for instance, is another example of why scale weight—especially out of context and without myriad other measurements—is a pretty useless metric: what of the person who loses two pounds of body fat but gains a pound of muscle? Surely, this person would see benefits in the form of increased strength, energy, and possibly even visible body recomposition. But if they went by the scale alone, all those benefits might be tossed aside.
But I digress...
When body recomposition is the goal, there are two ways to view it:
Manipulative and Associative.
Now, don't go looking those terms up anywhere—I just made them up. But if you know anything about me, you know I think that proper perspective is, quite possibly, the most important factor in living a lean, strong life.
Why Does This Matter?
Before we get into the particulars of each type of recomp, I think it's necessary to first explore why you should even care.
Your perspective drives your decision making. There are other factors, sure, but perspective is the final gateway through which decisions pass. You take a set of choices, filter them through your knowledge, experiences, and observations, and then use your perspective (your emotions, your gut, your instincts) to come to a final conclusion.
For the purposes of body recomposition, knowing that there are two ways to go about it can set you on the right path from the beginning, rather than letting you make some progress and then falling short of your goals or failing to follow through.
Manipulative Recomp is the process of changing your body composition through careful manipulation of, to be quite general, things with attached numerical values.
Calorie counting. Counting macros. Weighing your food. Establishing your RMR. Finding your target heart rate. Burning off calories with exercise. Tracking reps, sets, and weights. Weight measurement, body fat percentage, circumference measurements. Portion control.
In a word: measuring.
Sadly, weight loss methods that fall into this category are almost exclusively taught by health and fitness professionals, recommended by healthcare providers, and written about in lifestyle magazines and blogs.
In truth, this method can “work,” but you have to recognize the risks (and very limited benefits).
First and foremost, this method takes an incredible amount of mental effort. Not only do you spend a lot of time counting, weighing and measuring, you spend the interim planning for the counting, weighing, and measuring.
Next, when it comes to food, letting the calorie count or macronutrient breakdown take precedence over the quality and nutritional value can lead to some serious health risks. You could count your calories and macros all day, but what if your meals contain loads of processed ingredients and chemicals? What if you aren’t getting any vitamin C? What if you have a sensitivity to an ingredient that blocks your absorption of essential nutrients? What if…
I feel another digression coming on. Hopefully, you see my point. The quality of your food matters.
And this strictly mathematical approach doesn’t usually take things like sleep and stress management into consideration, leaving you wide open to some not-so-fun health consequences.
And the benefits? Well, you might like the way you look a little more.
There will likely be some other benefits in terms of performance and energy levels and confidence and all that, but not necessarily. To take an extreme example, ask any bodybuilder how they feel in the weeks leading up to a competition: you’ll likely get an answer that amounts to unless you’re pizza, fuck off.
Who Is This Method For?
In my opinion, this method should be reserved for two types of people: athletes (bodybuilders, figure competitors, competitive sportsers, etc.); and those who legitimately enjoy it. But for those simply trying to lead Happy, Healthy, Strong Lives, the constant need to count and calculate and manipulate can do more harm than good.
[Changes in body composition might require some level of loose measuring in the form of sporadic snapshots to determine if you’re in the right ballpark as far as exercise and nutrition go, but that is a far cry from needing to weigh and measure everything.]
Far less measurable but no less noticeable than its counterpart, Associative Recomp is the process by which your body composition changes as a natural consequence of pursuing health as your main goal.
(If “pursuing health” seems too generic for you, please give this http://www.modernfitnessandfatloss.com/blog/howtostart a read.)
To put it simply, bodies in pique health don’t find it necessary to hold onto a lot of extra body fat. Healthy bodies are strong, capable of helping you live your life with energy and vitality, and they happen to look pretty darn good, too.
Rather than tracking calories and macros, you choose foods based on how nourishing they are to your body.
Instead of trying to burn off a bunch of calories in the gym, you exercise to build strength and create favorable hormonal responses.
Instead of worrying about food and exercise all day (on top of everything else going on in your life), you learn to manage your stress (which drastically affects your hormones).
You don’t sacrifice sleep to make sure you hit the gym; you prioritize sleep so your efforts in the gym don’t go to waste.
The most difficult part of this method is getting over the mental hurdle of seeking a quick fix. When we’re bombarded daily with tips, tricks, and hacks to quickly manipulate our body composition, it can be easy to lose sight of all the benefits of seeking health instead.
It might take a leap of faith to trust in the process, but the benefits are numerous. Aside from the physical benefits of being super healthy (of which there are likely far more than most people realize), health as an end goal carries two distinct perks:
First, the results are lasting. This is not to say they are permanent, because nothing is permanent—everything will take some maintenance. But healthy bodies tend to stay that way for the long haul. The manipulative approach, for most folks, becomes unsustainable and leads to a life of yo-yo dieting and metabolic damage.
Next, the pursuit of health can very easily be worked into your life rather than needing to become your life as with the manipulative approach. After a while, you don’t even need to think about what you’re doing to stay healthy because it’s just what you do. This is hardly the case when every bite of food and every bit of activity needs to be carefully planned, cataloged, and analyzed.
My Two Cents
Clearly, I have an opinion on which approach I like better. But contrary to how it might sound, I wouldn’t say that I necessarily have an issue with either approach.
What I do have an issue with—and a big one, at that—is conflating the two, misrepresenting one for the other, and/or not acknowledging that one is purely physical while the other has much more to do with health and vitality.
The problem is in being told or believing that you need to take one approach when the other would fit very much better into your life.
Me? I definitely take the associative approach the majority of the time, and then use elements of manipulation when I feel like making some tweaks. Since I live a healthy and balanced life, there is no harm—physical or mental—in making some calculated changes in order to result in an (admittedly vain) outcome. The harm, again, comes from not knowing that manipulation is a late game fix and not a beginner practice.
Think about what you want. Not the generic “to lose 10 pounds” garbage. Think about ALL the things that you REALLY want. Do you want to have energy? Do you want to slim down? Do you want to be strong enough to go for a hike or help a friend move? Do you want to enjoy your food without also worrying about it? Do you want to live a happy, as-stress-free-as-you-can-be life? Do you want to feel good?
Yeah. That’s what I thought.