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Can You Still Build Muscle in a Caloric Deficit?

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Building muscle is no easy task. It requires hard, consistent work day in and day out. Often, trainees will end up committing 3+ hours a day working towards their fitness goals.

And even then, progress is going to be slow. To really reach your fitness goals, when it comes to building muscle, it's likely going to take years and years of hard work.

Luckily there are some things that you can do to ensure you make progress as quickly as possible and really get the most out of your hard work in the gym.

One of these things is eating in a caloric surplus.

This basically means consuming more energy through food and drink than you're burning throughout the day.

However, what about eating in a caloric deficit? Can you still build muscle to the same effect? Or will you even start to LOSE some muscle?

Read more below to find out!

Person tracking calories and eating a healthy meal to maintain a calorie deficit and lose weight


First of All: What is a Caloric Deficit?

Let's start with what a calorie is for those of us that don't know.

Calories are the measure of the amount of energy that we gain through food and drink consumption. So when you eat a burger that contains 400 calories, you're eating 400 calories worth of energy.

Your body will then use and burn that energy for everyday activity and movement.

To be in a caloric deficit simply means to be burning more energy than you're consuming throughout the day.

For example, let's say that you ate a total of 2000 calories throughout the day. If you were to also burn 2500 calories, you would end up in a caloric deficit of 500 calories.

Everyone naturally burns a number of calories each day doing absolutely nothing. This is known as your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR.

According to GoodtoKnow, this number is around 1800 calories for the average person. And then doing everyday activates such as driving, walking up the stairs and exercising is going to burn additional calories.

To find out what your BMR is, you can use this calculator by Garnet Health. Simply type in your gender, height, weight and age and you'll get a rough estimate of your Basal Metabolic Rate!

There are several other factors that add up to result in your total daily calorie expenditure. We'll get into what these factors are and how they have an impact on your daily calorie expenditure below.

Along with our BMR, the following add up and contribute to our daily calorie expenditure.

Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

This is the energy that our body needs to go through everyday activities such as driving, walking up the stairs, scrolling on your phone, etc. All the movements you go through require energy, and this is going to add up throughout the day to quite a similar amount.

Please note that the amount of calories you burn through NEAT is going to vary depending on your everyday lifestyle and how active you are.

For example, someone who spends their day working in a supermarket and collecting online orders is likely going to burn far more calories through NEAT than someone who sits in the office for the majority of their day.

Calories Burned Through Physical Exercise

Group of people running together in the sun to burn calories and get physically fit

This is pretty self-explanatory. This factor basically refers to the number of calories that you burn through physical exercise each day.

If you don't specifically engage in any physical activity such as going on a walk, lifting weights or riding a bike, then this factor likely won't have too much of an impact on your daily calorie expenditure.

However, remember, even things like walking around or lifting things for your job (if you're in a supermarket for example) are going to burn some calories.

The amount of calories that you burn through exercise is going to vary greatly depending on your choice of exercise, intensity, duration, and metabolic rate.

However a great calculator that you can use to is this one by, which we've used time and time again to help readers just like you find estimates to the amount of calories that they're burning.

Remember, all these numbers that you're getting are going to be estimates. They're not going to be exact, and likely never will be. They're just there to give you a rough idea.

Thermic Effect of Food

This is the energy that your body burns in order to make use of the food that you eat. For example, when you chew food, your body needs calories to do that.

When you digest food and absorb its nutrients, your body needs calories and energy to do that.

Different macronutrients have different thermic effects of food. For example, proteins use 15-30% of energy for the body to use, whereas carbs use 5-15% and fats use only 0-5% of energy.

Again, this is going to use up calories and contribute to your total daily calorie expenditure.

So How Do You Know Your Daily Calorie Expenditure?

It's hard for you to know exactly how many calories you're burning, but you can use this calculator by Healthline to get a pretty good estimate. Remember, you'll almost never be able to get an exact and accurate number.

Once you find your daily calorie expenditure, to be in a caloric deficit you're going to have to eat less than this number. Usually, a caloric deficit of 300-500 calories a day is going to be ideal for most people.

It's going to have you lose weight efficiently, without causing you to feel too fatigued and drained of energy throughout the day.

You can learn more about creating your own workout meal plan and tracking your calories in our blog article by clicking here.

Why Would We Want to Go Into a Caloric Deficit in the First Place?

There are a couple reasons why someone would want to go into a caloric deficit. The first, and probably most common reason for going into a caloric deficit would be the fact that people want to lose weight.

Person standing on scale and checking bodyweight to see whether they have lost any weight

Many people set their primary goals in fitness to be weight loss. And a caloric deficit is going to be the only way you can achieve this.

This has been scientifically proven many times, in this study conducted by Barbara Strasser for example which concluded that: "This study showed that independently of the method for weight loss, the negative energy balance alone is responsible for weight reduction."

Those people may also decide that they want to build muscle, and therefore find themselves in this situation where they're eating in a caloric deficit but wanting to pack on a bit more muscle.

Some people may also have conditions that limit their ability to get calories in throughout the day, for one reason or another. if these people still wanted to build muscle (and it was safe for them to try and do so), then they would once again find themselves in this situation.

Burning Fat vs. Building Muscle

Unfortunately, burning fat and building muscle tend to come into conflict when put together as fitness goals.

We already mentioned above that to burn fat, you have to be in a caloric deficit. If you're giving your body too much energy and no reason to use up the excess energy that's stored as fat, you're not going to burn it off.

However, while a caloric deficit is vital for fat loss, it's actually suboptimal for muscle gain. In order to build muscle efficiently, your body needs to be at a caloric surplus.

The extra calories are important for allowing your body to repair itself from all the damage that you do to it during physical exercise.

When we work out, we cause microtears and damage to our body that needs to be repaired through proper recovery.

Over time, our bodies are going to adapt to the stress that we put it through and get stronger so that the next time we do that physical activity at that intensity, it's not going to be as difficult.

In order for our bodies to repair this damage efficiently we're going to need more calories and more energy.

If you're constantly in a caloric deficit, your body is going to look for other sources of energy to break down. This can lead to you being in a situation where your body breaks down the muscle mass you've previously built to use as energy instead of breaking down the fat.

In fact, it's normal to lose a bit of muscle mass during a cut. That's why the bulking phases are pretty important in bodybuilding when they try to build as much muscle as possible. Some muscle mass is inevitably going to be lost.

So Can You Still Build Muscle in a Caloric Deficit?

The answer is yes. You can still build muscle in a calorie deficit. The only problem is that you won't be able to do so at the same rate. Remember, you're potentially trying to build muscle in a race against your body trying to break some of it down.

Senior man doing dumbbell bicep curls to build strength and muscle in his arms while burning some calories at the same time

You actually can still make some great muscle gains whilst you're in a calorie deficit, but just remember that you will almost never make the same amount of gains at the same rate if you were to compare it to building muscle in a caloric surplus.

How to Continue to Build Muscle in a Calorie Deficit

We've got a couple of tips for you that we think will help you greatly in building more muscle, even when you're eating at a calorie deficit.

Don't Go Into Too Big of a Calorie Deficit

We already know that eating in a calorie deficit is the only way for us to be able to lose fat. However, we should know that any size of a calorie deficit is going to cause us to lose fat. The size of the deficit is only going to determine how quickly we lose fat.

If you're trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, one of the best things you can do is to actually limit the size of your deficit to around 200 calories per day.

This is going to cause you to (pretty slowly) lose fat, but prevent your body from being in such a large deficit that it needs to break down your muscle mass.

And if you keep the size of the deficit small, you'll also be providing it with as much energy as possible to repair itself and grow, without compromising your fat loss goals.

So keep your calorie deficit small at around 200 calories per day. This is known as a slow cut.

Eat Lots of Protein

Protein is extremely important to any fitness goal.

Proteins contain amino acids (building blocks of protein) which are vital to repairing our muscle tissue and maintaining them.

Like we mentioned earlier, doing physical exercise is going to cause microtears to our muscles. This damage needs to be repaired through adequate recovery in order for our muscles to grow and come back bigger and stronger.

Eating lots of protein is crucial for building muscle even when you're in a caloric surplus, but the need for it is amplified if you're putting yourself at an energy deficit each and every day.

You're already disadvantaging yourself in terms of building muscle by limiting calories, and therefore you need to be extra careful when it comes to protein intake.

You have to make sure that you're getting at least 1.2-1.7g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight (recommended by NASM).

Keep Lifting Heavy and Training Hard

It's important that you lift heavy and train hard in the gym if you want to build muscle and grow. Even when you're eating in a caloric deficit, you should be looking to keep this up.

Building muscle takes time, and it happens as you get stronger all the time.

The primary driver of muscle growth is mechanical tension, which asically means the amount of weight that you're lifting with your muscles.

If you're able to increase the amount of weight that you lift over time, your muscles are going to grow.

To continue to cause muscular hypertrophy (growth), you're going to need to keep training hard and keep getting stronger in your rep ranges that are most conducive to hypertrophy (usually 6-15).

And, we've mentioned this countless times in other blog posts, you have to be taking your sets close to (within 3-4 reps of) failure.

This is going to ensure that you make the most gains and get the most out of the time spent in the gym without compromising performance too much in your subsequent sets or sessions.

The key takeaway is to continue to lift heavy and continue to train hard in the gym, regardless of whether you're in a calorie deficit or surplus.

Learn more:

Keep Getting Sleep

This should be obvious, but you need to continue to get enough sleep and allow your body to rest and recover from all the work that you're putting it through.

Continue to get 7-9 hours a night, as your body is still going to need to recuperate its energy lost throughout the day and repair your muscles after use.

Really, you should be keeping everything more or less the same. The only thing that's going to really change is the number of calories that you're eating each day.

Know That It's Going to Take Time

Man standing on hill during sunset and being very inspired to achieve his goals

As with anything that's worth having in life, fitness takes a lot of time, hard work and dedication. You won't get to where you want to be with just a couple weeks of hard work.\

You need to accept that it's going to take a while to reach your goals and that you simply have to stick at it for long enough. Eventually you'll see the results you're wanting to.

Especially if you choose to go with a slow cut, you're not going to lose fat very quickly. You won't lose fat as fast as you would in a larger deficit, and you also won't build muscle as quickly as you would in a caloric surplus.

And don't be discouraged if you don't see results for a week or two. It's completely normal and it's most likely going to happen. You just have to remember that in the long run, you're making good progress.

Also, the closer you get to reaching your goals, the harder it's going to be to continue to make good progress. This happens with everyone no matter what their fitness goals are.

Sticking at it and continuing to work hard is going to be the best way to achieve what you want to achieve.

Don't think about trying to lose weight too quickly by eating at too large of a deficit, as this can cause health problems and cause you see some negative returns in terms of muscle mass.

Remember, slow and steady wins the race.

Final Thoughts

Trying to build muscle while burning fat in a calorie deficit certainly isn't ideal. It's not the best situation to be in and isn't going to get you the best results for either goal.

However, it can still be done, and just requires that extra bit of focus and knowledge to get you there.

We've seen plenty of people be very successful in losing weight and building muscle at the same time, and it's just up to you to work hard and determine the progress that you make.

Hopefully you enjoyed reading through this article and found it helpful! If you did remember to share it with your friends so that we can reach more people and help more achieve their goals in fitness!

And if you would like some help with your fitness, and want to reduce the amount of guesswork that you have to do, upgrade you account to Gympulsive Pro or check out our training programs for some more help and guidance!


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