Can You Build Muscle In A Calorie Deficit?

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit? A lot of people are asking the same question – one of the questions that are not very easy to answer.

You might be working out regularly and eating healthily. Numbers on the scale might be dropping. But, you can’t see your muscles appear when you check the mirror. So, what is happening?

Can you build muscle while you are in a calorie deficit? This is what we will uncover in this article.

Caloric surplus vs. calorie deficit

To start revealing the mystery of building muscle mass when in a caloric deficit, let’s first check out what a caloric surplus and calorie deficit are.

When you are not moving, your body needs a certain amount of energy for bare existence. This is called basal metabolism. It’s measured in calories – kcal.

How much energy your body needs to survive the day will depend on a few factors. It will depend on your weight and height. It will also depend on the level of your activity.

The more you move the more you have to eat. The less you move the less you would need to eat to survive.

When you eat exactly the same amount of calories as you burn during the day, you are at a maintenance level. Since measuring energy intake and outlay is not precise, this is only theoretical. Or at least very difficult to achieve.

You will in effect always burn more energy than you eat, or consume more energy than you burn.

So, you can eat more than you are able to spend when you move in a day. This is called a calorie surplus.

On the other hand, you can eat less than what you spend in a day. It’s called a calorie deficit.

How to build muscle?

Muscular Man

When sifting through fitness literature, you will mostly find the following. If you want to build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus. If you want to lose weight, you should be in a calorie deficit.

This is how it mostly works. If you want to build muscle, you should eat protein-rich food. You want to eat a bit more than you burn to build muscle mass. If you don’t want to gain too much fat in this process, this surplus must be kept under control.

This is only one-half of the battle for building muscle mass. To be able to build muscle, you should be on a regular resistance training regime.

When you train, you break your muscle. When you rest, your body uses protein to rebuild your torn muscles. In this process, your body tries to rebuild your muscles stronger and larger. So, the next time you train, your muscles can endure the load.

This is how you build muscle mass.

How to lose fat?

On the other hand, what do you do to lose weight? You will want to be in a caloric deficit. You will need to eat less than your body spends in a day.

When you are on a fat loss regime, around 80 – 90% of results will come from your eating habits. Only 10 – 20% will be from the workouts. You will not be able to outwork your bad eating habits. For example, to burn the same amount of calories you eat in one pizza, you need to do 10 workouts.

When you eat less than what your body needs in a day, your body needs to find the missing energy somewhere. It turns to what it has at its disposal. It may break your muscle to use for energy. This will be exactly what you didn’t want. You will lose muscle mass and your fat is not melting.

Fortunately, your body may also use your stored fat for the missing energy. But, there is no way to instruct your body to use only fat.

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit then?

Body recomposition

Building muscle mass while losing fat at the same time is called body recomposition. Since this goes against the “standard” weight loss and muscle building it’s hard to get it right.

It has some specific prerequisites and it works only in some cases. The bad news is, it will not work for everyone all the time.

Body fat

The first prerequisite is that your body needs some fat reserves to do body recomposition. If you have low fat already, this won’t work for you.

What the exact body fat percentage this will work for is a debatable matter. But, in most cases, when you reach athletic body composition, this will not work.

For men, this would be somewhere around 13% or less.

For women, it will be somewhere around 20% or less.

Previous strength training experience

If you are skilled in strength training, body recomposition will not work for you. It works well for beginners. It will also work for you if you haven’t consistently worked out the last year or two.

Being active in sports or some other fitness activity is not counted as training experience in this matter. Only your strength training is what counts.

If you are just starting your weightlifting or bodyweight workouts, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. If you had previous strength training experience, and you have at least a year of pause, this might work for you too.

How can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?

If you have some fat reserves and you are just starting to work out you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

But, one thing is having the potential for body recomposition, the other is actually doing it.

So, how do you build muscle and lose fat all at once?

Calorie deficit to burn fat

First, make sure you are in a calorie deficit. You have to eat fewer calories in a day than your body burns.

This will make your body use its own reserves for its energy needs. If you are just on a caloric deficit without strength training, you will lose your muscle mass and fat at the same time.

Next, take care that your macronutrient values are in check. They should be as follows:

  • 25 – 30% Protein
  • 55 – 60% Carbs
  • 15 – 20% Fat

Your body will use protein to build your muscles. When you rest it will use proteins to rebuild your damaged muscles.

So, it’s crucial to eat enough protein to build your muscles.

Strength training for muscle growth

To be able to build muscle, you have to do strength training. This kind of workout will make small damage to your muscle fibers. This damage will be repaired while you rest.

You should train in the strength/hypertrophy range of reps. This should be up to max 15 reps per set.

Use the perfect form in each exercise. Strive to use such resistance that you can handle with perfect form in the first set. In the last set, you should barely do the last one or two reps. You may even allow yourself to break the perfect form in those last one or two reps.

If you want to build the most strength use low reps up to 5 per set. If you want to build both strength and muscle definition, use a rep range from 5-8 reps per set. Lastly, if you are after muscle definition only, use a rep range from 8-15 reps.

If you go over 15, you will be doing endurance training. In this case, you will not build your muscle size. You may lose muscle size instead.

Rest to build muscle

Can You Build Muscle In A Calorie Deficit: Sleep

One more important thing to take care of is making sure to rest enough. After the workout, you should leave at least one day of rest before the next workout session. Note how you feel. If you get more and more exhausted week after week, you are not resting enough. You are losing strength instead of gaining it.

Remember, your body recovers, and your muscles are getting bigger only when you rest. Not when you train.

To rest well it’s important to sleep well. You should sleep between 7 – 9 hours per day to rest enough.

In a 2010 study research, it was proven longer sleep helps you keep more muscle mass in a caloric deficit.

The research was conducted on 10 overweight adults. 3 women and 7 men.

They were put in two groups. One that was sleeping 8.5 hours on average. The other slept 5.5 hours on average.

Both groups lost around the same total weight.

Group sleeping 8.5 hours:

  • Lost 55% more fat
  • Kept 60% more muscle mass

Now, you may start to see how important is a good night’s rest.

Stay hydrated

Can You Build Muscle In A Calorie Deficit: Water

To be able to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you must drink enough water. Water will help you lose fat and build muscle mass faster.

Water is needed for the transport of materials in the body. It conducts electricity which is used to trigger motion. It also controls the temperature in your body.

Water represents 76% of muscle mass. So, the more water you have in your body, the more muscle you have.

As you age, you lose water in your body. This is the main reason for losing muscle mass in the elderly. So, it’s crucial to drink enough water. Especially for the aging population.

Sadly, there is no consensus on how much water you should drink in a day. It also depends on how active you are and the air humidity. Let’s say you should drink somewhere around 4-5 lbs of water per day.

Key takeaways

If you were wondering can you build muscle in a calorie deficit, the simple answer is yes you can. Building muscle mass and losing fat at the same time is called body recomposition.

But, there is more than meets the eye at first. Only a small group of people can pull this off.

Here’s who can do this:

  • People with enough excess fat
  • Novice trainees or trainees getting back into the strength training
  • Someone who drinks enough water
  • People who are resting well:
    • Have at least one day between workout sessions
    • Have between 7-9 hours of sleep per night

If you meet the criteria above, you can build muscle in a calorie deficit.

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