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Can You Grow Muscle On A Calorie Deficit?
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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 event or simply trying to feel your best, 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 people who train 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 kilogram of body weight, 1 gram of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, and 0.5 grams of fat per kilogram of body weight.

And we’re not talking about just any proteins, carbs, or fats. The key is to consume high quality, whole food sources. 

Good protein sources:

  • Soy
  • White meat poultry
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Lentils, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas
  • Tofu
  • 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. Complex carbohydrates, also known as polysaccharides, are composed of long chains of glucose molecules bonded through glycosidic bonds. The human digestive system must break down these complex structures into simpler sugars (glucose units) before they can be absorbed and used as an energy source, thus taking longer to digest and providing a slower more sustained release of energy over time.

Complex carb sources:

  • Sweet potato
  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Whole Grain bread
  • Quinoa
  • Whole wheat pasta

Finally, FAT. Yes, you need fat in order to lose fat. But there are good fats and not so good fats called saturated fats. Saturated fats are found in various foods, particularly in animal products and some plant-based sources. While they are a natural part of many foods, it's essential to consume them in moderation as excessive intake of saturated fats can have negative health effects, such as raising LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of heart disease. Here are some common sources of saturated fats: fatty cuts of meat, baked goods, crisps, deep-fried foods, full fat cheese and processed foods.

The good guys are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. 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) eight hours of fasting during rest.

Finally, don’t forget about water! Drink at least 3L of water per day. Keep in mind that individual hydration needs can vary, so it's essential to listen to your body and adjust your water intake accordingly. Thirst can be a good indicator of when to drink, and factors like physical activity, exposure to heat, and pregnancy can increase your need for fluids.

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 reducing fat composition - 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. Creatine
  2. Whey Protein Powder
  3. Essential Amino Acids

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 Gains Level Out

As we’ve said, growing muscle on a calorie deficit isn’t impossible, but it is tough. For those people 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. It is advisable to consult with your healthcare provider or a certified dietitian to assist you in reaching your fitness goals.

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