Can You Grow Muscle On A Calorie Deficit?


Many people believe that it’s impossible to grow - or even maintain - muscle while simultaneously losing weight. While - YES - it is quite challenging and does require a lot of hard work and dedication, we’re here to assure you that you can do it. Whether you’re training for an upcoming bodybuilding competition or simply trying to look your best in a bikini, with a balanced diet, intense training, enough water, sleep, and supplements, you can bulk/tone and cut at the same time.

Bulking vs. Cutting

If you’ve spent much time in the gym or researching workout routines or diet regimes, you’re probably familiar with the terms bulking and cutting. Bulking refers to a period of time - normally during an off-season - when you’re purposefully trying to gain weight by increasing your caloric intake. By increasing your overall body weight, you’ll (hopefully) increase muscle mass. The surplus of calories leads to increased energy and gives your muscles more protein to feed off of. Cutting, then, is the opposite. You cut down your intake of calories in order to lose weight. Your body will break down muscle tissue to replace the calories that it's missing out on. Basically, your muscles act as a substitute for food.

So, how is it possible to do both at the same time? You must incorporate principles and techniques from both in order to achieve both.

What and When to Eat

Many bodybuilders view diet as the most important aspect of weight gain/loss. To lose weight, you’ll have to reduce your overall caloric intake while also paying very, very close attention to the source of your calories. For building muscle, protein is the most important.

As a general rule, if you’re trying to grow muscle on a calorie deficit, you should consume 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, and .5 grams of fat per pound of body weight.

And we’re not talking about just any proteins, carbs, or fats. There are good and bad kinds in each category.

Good protein sources:

  • Soy
  • White meat poultry
  • Flaxseed/oil
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Lentils, black beans, kidney beans
  • Peanuts, almonds

While protein helps your muscles recover, carbohydrates give you the energy you need to make it through your day and into the gym. Good carbs, then, are those that take longer to break down, releasing energy slower and keeping you fuller for longer.

Healthy carbs:

  • Sweet potato
  • Chickpeas
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Yams

Finally, FAT. Yes, you need fat in order to lose fat. But there are good fats and bad fats. Bad fats are saturated. A good way to identify the bad guys: they solidify at room temperature. That means things like butter and margarine are bad. But you didn’t need us to tell you that, right? Bad fats are also those that are filled with sugar like sweets, high dairy foods like cheese, and foods made with or vegetable oil which means basically anything fried or processed.

The good guys are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Things like:

  • Avocado
  • Salmon
  • Nuts
  • Tofu
  • Pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds

But it’s not just what you eat, it’s when you eat. Athletes and bodybuilders commonly eat 5-7 meals per day, scheduling carb-heavy meals around their workouts. What does this mean for you? Pre and post workout meals should contain the most carbs while meals eaten hours before or after a gym session are less important. Carb-wise, that is. Breakfast - regardless of where it falls related to your fitness schedule - should always contain a fair amount of carbs as your body will be in desperate need of an energy boost after (hopefully) eights hours of fasting during rest.

Finally, don’t forget about water! Drink a minimum of one gallon per day but push yourself to drink a liter after every meal.

Supplementing Your Diet

Athletes benefit from supplements at the best of times. So it’s no surprise that during this time - when the body is under a lot of stress as it struggles to build muscle while also ridding itself of fat - supplements are incredibly important. We’ve put together a list of the three most important supplements for growing muscle while on a calorie deficit.

  1. Glutamine
  2. Creatine
  3. Whey Protein Powder

Guidelines for Working Out

As we’ve said, your body will naturally relinquish muscle mass to compensate for your reduced caloric intake. Training, then, becomes the sole stimulus in your body telling your muscles ‘Hey! We still need you!’ When athletes bulk, they train on weights and when they cut, they push themselves to do plenty of cardio. So, what do you do when you want to build muscle and lose weight? Both!

Compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and bench/shoulder presses will help your muscles reach their maximum potential. Experienced bodybuilders recommend only a few sets with 10-12 repetitions of each exercise.

While good ol’ fashioned biking or running is fine for cardio, high intensity interval training (HIIT) will be the best form of cardio to help you lose weight and build muscle. HIIT training has one goal: get your heart racing quickly. You then rest (briefly) and do it all over again. You’ll alternate between low, medium, and high intensity workouts at a very fast pace so that you can get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible. When you’re running on empty, this is ideal.

When Gains Level Out

As we’ve said, growing muscle on a calorie deficit isn’t impossible, but it is tough. For those people that are overweight or who are just starting out on (or returning to!) their fitness journey, the process will be significantly easier. But, for seasoned athletes, weight loss with simultaneous muscle gain will eventually plateau. At that point, instead of getting discouraged, simply adjust your goals. Seek to maintain muscle while losing weight.

The bottom line is: everyone is different. It’s important to listen to and communicate with your body and to set challenging but achievable goals for yourself.


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