It is a common misconception that you need to consume more calories than you burn in order to build muscle. While it may be true for some, this idea does not hold up universally. Some people find that they can gain muscle while still being on a calorie deficit if their macronutrient amounts are correct.
However, this is not easy and requires precision and discipline. In this article, we will answer a common question – how can you build muscle while in a calorie deficit. We’ll also give several tips to help you burn fat while bulking up at the same time.
How Does Muscle Building Work?
It’s important to understand the basics. Muscle building is a process called muscular hypertrophy, a term that means to grow larger muscles. How does this work? When you strength train, microscopic tears occur in your muscle tissue which stimulates growth. To repair these tiny injuries, new cell formation occurs and your muscles become larger and stronger as a result (4).
This process is fueled by three macronutrients that are responsible for muscle growth – protein, carbohydrates, and fat. If any of these nutrients are too low or too high, then muscle growth will be minimal.
What Is A Calorie Deficit?
A calorie deficit occurs when you eat fewer calories than your body needs to function. The number of calories it takes to maintain your weight varies depending on age, gender, height, activity levels, etc., but breaks down roughly like this:
To lose 1lb per week you should eat 500 less calories each day (3). So if you are following a 2,000-calorie diet plan, changing the caloric intake to 1,500 would create the needed deficit to drop one pound per week. Many people are under the assumption that they need to eat an extreme amount of food in order to build muscle, but this is not true. Eat too much and you will be gaining fat rather than muscle.
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The first thing you need to do is calculate your calories for building muscle on a calorie deficit.
How Much Protein Do You Need To Build Muscle?
Protein is essential for neck-breaking gains and should make up at least 1/4 of your daily caloric intake if you want to maximize muscle growth. Aim for 0.8 grams per pound of body weight as a general rule of thumb, which means that if you weigh 80 lbs, then you would consume 64 grams daily (5).
How Much Fat Do You Need To Build Muscle?
Fats are crucial to building muscle! They’ve been given a bad rap in the past, but that’s because people were eating the wrong kinds of fats – hydrogenated oils and partially-hydrogenated oils found in processed foods. These fats are terrible for you on many levels.
But healthy fat, on the other hand, is actually good for you and won’t hurt your gains. Aim for at least 20% of your daily caloric intake coming from healthy sources of fat like avocado, coconut oil, seeds (flax, chia), fatty fish (salmon) etc (5).
Carbs are an often misunderstood macronutrient, but are actually crucial for gaining muscle. Carbs are what your body uses for energy and glycogen – which you’ll need to lift heavy weights every day.
Remember that carbs are not the enemy! While it is true that if you eat too many carbs at once, they will get stored as fat. This does not mean that all carbs are bad foods – choose complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, oatmeal, quinoa etc., foods that are low in sugar and fiber-rich foods.
Aim for 20% of your daily caloric intake coming from healthy sources of carbohydrates like fruit (berries), whole grains (oats), starchy vegetables (sweet potato) etc (5).
This is not an exhaustive list of all the foods you can choose from, but these are some of the healthiest sources of macro-nutrients that should help you reach your goals.
How To Build Muscle On A Calorie Deficit
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your weight training programs while in a calorie deficit.
Maintain A Slight Calorie Deficit
It’s not always about eating less food, but choosing the right foods at the right times so that your muscles get what they need to grow and nothing more. That means foods with macros like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates should be kept at a low enough ratio that you still lose weight each week if needed. You can do this by adjusting up or down just 100-200 calories per day depending on how quickly you’re losing fat (1). As long as you’re still making progress towards your goals, then stay where you are!
The calorie deficit for muscle building should not be so high that you don’t have the energy to lift. Rather, it should be enough to force your body into a caloric deficit, but not so much that you’re losing weight too quickly and do not have the energy needed to work out and recover.
Protein is essential for building muscle mass and repairing damaged muscle tissues following strenuous workouts. Aim for at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight in order to maximize muscle gains while on a calorie deficit (1). That means if you weigh 150 lbs, then you need at least 150 grams of high-quality protein every day!
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Do Both Cardio And Strength Training
The secret to building muscle while eating less is combining cardio and high resistance exercises. Strength training burns calories, while cardio creates a calorie deficit. These two types of exercise will help you burn more calories and build muscle faster than either on their own (8)!
Eat Carbohydrates Before Exercise
Carbohydrates are an important food group if you want to maximize your gains and build as much lean muscle as possible. Having the right carbs at the right time can really boost your workout performance and results by increasing energy levels and improving recovery times. Eating carbohydrates prior to your workout will ensure that your glycogen levels stay high and you don’t fatigue too early. Furthermore, you’ll use them up almost immediately so you don’t have to worry about weight gain.
Instead of reaching for nutrient-poor starchy carbs, try choosing nutrient-rich low calorie foods instead. Low-calorie vegetables and fruits are a great option if you’re trying to lose weight but still want to get the most possible nutrients. You can fill up on these snacks while still decreasing your caloric intake! Some good choices include kale, bell peppers, spinach, grapefruit, etc.
Gradually Increase Weights
For muscle hypertrophy, you must continually challenge yourself with heavier weights. If you don’t increase the weight, then you won’t see progress. How do you know whether you’re using the right weight? Here are a few tips: you should be able to perform around 12 reps with good form (without feeling tired or struggling, if you can do 15 it’s time to increase the weight).
Do Compound Exercises
Compound exercises hit multiple muscle groups at once, so they’re an excellent way of building up more lean muscle (6). Try performing a bench press and a squat at once for your first workout! You’ll build size and strength faster than doing isolation movements like bicep curls all day. Do compound moves that work several muscle groups at once, such as overhead presses, squats, deadlifts etc.
Prioritize Form Over Intensity
It can be easy to get caught up in lifting heavy weights and training harder than you should, but you need to make sure your form is good. If your form isn’t proper, then it doesn’t matter how much weight you’re using – you could seriously injure yourself by doing an exercise incorrectly!
Muscles grow outside of the gym – during your rest days! In order to maximize the results from your workouts, it’s important that you don’t over train yourself (2). Make sure to get at least one full day of rest every week so your muscles can repair and grow.
Get Plenty Of Sleep
We often tend to sacrifice sleep for extra time working out. While the right amount of exercise can help you burn calories and lose weight, doing those extra workout sessions might have a negative effect on you since you need energy to do them! And that means depriving yourself of sleep. Getting enough sleep is vital for muscle growth as it helps your body release testosterone, a key hormone for building lean muscle mass (7). Don’t push yourself too hard – get plenty of rest and recover better each night!
Get Stress Relief
Let’s face it – we all have a lot of things going on in our lives. When you’re adding another important thing like working out, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and let stress take over your life.
Stress doesn’t just negatively affect your mental health; it also lowers the amount of testosterone in your body, making it harder for you to build muscle (9)! Make sure that you’re exercising at least 3 times a week as well as meditating or doing some form of deep breathing every day if need be. Other stress management techniques that may come in handy include yoga, massages, spending time outside, etc.
In order to build muscle on a calorie deficit, you need to combine the right amount of exercise with proper eating habits and plenty of rest. Aim for a small calorie deficit – not so much that you’re losing weight too quickly and not so little that you don’t have enough energy to train properly.
Combine moderate cardio with strength training exercises, eat good carbs prior to your workout, gradually increase weights as you go, make sure to do compound moves, give yourself enough time for recovery and get plenty of sleep! If you do all this then you’ll see great results even while on a calorie deficit.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation (2014, nih.gov)
- Exploring the Science of Muscle Recovery (n.d., nasm.org)
- Healthy weight loss (2014, jamanetwork.com)
- How do muscles grow? (n.d., unm.edu)
- New dietary reference intakes for macronutrients and fiber (2006, nih.gov)
- Single vs Multi-joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy (2015, nih.gov)
- Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis (2011, pubmed.gov)
- The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trial (2012, biomedcentral.com)
- The impact of stress on body function: A review (2017, nih.gov)