Can you gain muscle in a calorie deficit? The answer might surprise you

Though some will tell you that you can’t gain muscle on fewer calories, that's not necessarily true.

Written by
Lucinda Starr
Medically reviewed by
Last updated
January 16, 2024
min read
Can you gain muscle in a calorie deficit? The answer might surprise you
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When it comes to weight loss, most of us are familiar with the fundamentals. We know that to lose weight, we need to burn more calories than we consume and that it’s this calorie deficit that leads to weight loss over time. But can you gain muscle in a calorie deficit?

Just as each person’s weight loss journey is unique, so too are their goals. Often, it’s not so much losing weight that’s the end goal but achieving a changed body composition that’s sustainable and part of a healthy lifestyle.

For those who want to lose body fat and see muscle growth, the quest to attain this can be a complicated one.

Though some will tell you that you can’t gain muscle on fewer calories, mounting evidence suggests it can be done by paying close attention to several factors while taking up resistance training. From dialling into your nutrition with a focus on protein intake to getting enough sleep and gradually increasing your strength program, it may surprise you to know it is possible to lose weight and gain muscle at the same time. 

If you’re currently eating in a caloric deficit for weight loss but also want to build muscle, we’ve got you covered with everything you need to know. Let’s dive in.

What is a calorie deficit?

A caloric deficit occurs when you consume fewer calories than you burn. You don’t just burn calories when you exercise. For everyday functions, the body is burning a certain number of calories. This number depends on a variety of factors, including sex, age, physical activity levels, height, and body composition. It’s estimated that even sedentary males aged 26-35 will need 2,400 calories daily. 

To achieve a caloric deficit, you ultimately need to reduce the number of calories you eat and increase your activity levels — or both. Over time, this caloric deficit tends to lead to weight loss. For example, if you are burning 2,000 calories a day but only consuming 1,500 calories, then you’ll enter a 500-caloric deficit. 

Once you know how many calories you need each day, you can create a caloric deficit. The number will vary for each individual. While no single value guarantees weight loss, you can easily work out a calorie deficit by using an online calculator [2].

You might think you need to take drastic measures to lose weight, but a caloric deficit of 500 per day is enough to lose weight without experiencing extreme hunger or fatigue, according to the National Library of Medicine [1].

Can you be in a calorie deficit and gain muscle?

For a number of men, it’s not enough to just lose weight — you want to gain muscle, too. But when it comes to gaining muscle while being in a calorie deficit, the process becomes significantly more complex as you enter the process of body recomposition. 

Body recomposition involves losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time. The goal is to achieve a better body composition concerning the proportion of fat and muscle mass in the body. Where things get tricky is that you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat, but muscle building often requires a calorie surplus. 

How body recomposition works is that you enter a slight to moderate caloric deficit, ensuring you give more focus to the calories consumed and their macronutrient balance (fat, carbohydrates, and protein). Studies suggest you can build muscle in a calorie deficit if you focus on carbohydrates and protein intake immediately after workouts

According to a 2016 study, a dietary protein intake higher than the recommended dietary allowance saw subjects preserve lean muscle mass, even when in a calorie deficit [3]. Throughout the 4-week trial period which saw all subjects perform resistance exercises and high-intensity interval training, those consuming a diet high in protein managed to both increase lean muscle mass and fat loss. 

That said, your intake must be slight to moderately lower to achieve muscle gains while in a caloric deficit. Anything too drastic and you’ll lose the energy to work out, which is essential for muscle gains and recovery. 

How does building muscle work?

When it comes to building muscle, the process is similar to weight loss. Many head to the gym for a session of lifting weights, only to feel disheartened when they don’t see any muscle gains within a week. But as with any weight loss journey, results aren’t achieved overnight. Rather, it takes consistency over a sustained period. 

For muscle building, the body needs to undergo a physiological process called hypertrophy, in which muscle tissue undergoes stress. This causes it to break down, triggering a response from the body in which it rebuilds the tissue — only this time bigger and stronger. The stress applied to your muscles occurs through resistance training or lifting weights. 

When you engage in resistance training, microscopic damage occurs to your muscle fibres, triggering muscle protein synthesis. This is a reparative process, where the damaged fibres are repaired and built back stronger than before. But for this step to occur, your muscles need certain resources — think protein, adequate recovery, and essential micronutrients. 

In an extreme calorie deficit, the body isn’t getting enough calories to meet its energy needs, so it turns to alternative sources of fuel. Initially, it uses stored glycogen from carbohydrates, then stored fat. But if the deficit is sustained, the body then begins breaking down muscle tissue. Not surprisingly, it’s important to consume enough protein and ensure you maintain (and grow) muscle tissue.

As findings published in Sports Medicine and Health Science denote, muscle loss can lead to a number of health issues, including bone loss, fat gain, diabetes, heart disease, and mortality [4]. Muscle tissue also works to improve blood pressure, glycemic control, and cholesterol, while strength training, which is critical for muscle growth, has been shown to improve mental health.

How to lose weight and gain muscle at the same time

Though many might suggest you need to be in a calorie surplus to gain muscle, it is possible to see muscle gains and lose weight at the same time. By focusing on certain factors, you can achieve both results, starting with the following:

Eat plenty of protein

To both build and repair muscle tissue, protein is essential. You might be in a calorie deficit, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prioritise your protein, particularly in terms of consuming it after strenuous workouts. 

According to research conducted at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, participants who followed a reduced-calorie diet in which they slashed calories by 40%, exercised daily, and ate twice the recommended daily amount of protein, lost just as much weight as those who ate the same number of calories but less protein [5].

Most importantly, though, they shed more fat and maintained more muscle than those who consumed less than the recommended daily amount of protein.

Though your recommended daily amount of protein will differ based on factors like activity levels, age, and weight, you should aim for at least 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight to maximise your muscle gains. 

Eat carbohydrates before exercise

To maximise your gains, be sure to eat carbohydrates before exercise. Though carbohydrates often get a bad reputation when it comes to diet and weight loss, they play a key role in muscle building, helping to increase energy levels and workout performance.

As well as this, they help with muscle recovery to ensure you build as much lean muscle as possible. 

The key to carbohydrates is to eat them at a specific time, ideally before your workout. This ensures that your glycogen levels stay high, meaning you can avoid experiencing fatigue quickly. Because you’ll be working out, you’ll also use up the carbohydrates so you won’t need to worry about weight gain

Gradually increase weights

To see muscle gain, you need to enter muscle hypertrophy. This can only be done if you continue to challenge your body by gradually increasing the weights and lifting heavier as your body adapts to the resistance and load. 

By placing greater demands on the body with increased weights, you progressively overload muscles and force them to make further adaptations.

This is evident in a 2011 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology which analysed 83 people over 12 weeks as they performed a series of arm strengthening exercises [6]. It was found that both men and women who gradually increased the weight and number of repetitions of exercises were able to see an increase in bicep strength and muscle growth. 

Get plenty of sleep

For body recomposition and muscle protein synthesis to occur, the body needs adequate recovery. It’s during this time that muscle tissue can repair and rebuild after a strenuous workout. The average adult needs around 7-9 hours of sleep each night.

According to a 2010 study by the American College of Physicians, sleep has a significant impact on muscle growth and fat loss [7]. The trial group was split in two, one having 8.5 hours of sleep per night and the other sleeping just 5.5 hours. 

With both groups on a calorie deficit for the 2 weeks, it was found that though they lost the same amount of weight, those getting less sleep lost 60% more muscle, whereas the other group preserved it. 

What foods should you eat to lose fat and grow muscle?

To lose fat and grow muscle, protein is essential. Not only does it help with muscle gains, but it also has a relatively high thermic effect compared to carbohydrates and fats. The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to the increase in energy expenditure that occurs during the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of nutrients in the body. 

Approximately 20-30% of the calories in protein are expended during the processes of digestion and metabolic reactions. So, by increasing the fat-burning process, protein helps to also increase your metabolism, thereby aiding weight loss

When it comes to the foods that support fat burning, you want to be consuming the following:

  • Lean meats like chicken, turkey, and lean beef
  • Fish and seafood like salmon and tuna
  • Eggs 
  • Greek yogurt and cottage cheese
  • Plant-based protein sources like tofu, tempeh, and legumes 
  • Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oats
  • Sweet potatoes 
  • Fruits and vegetables 
  • Nuts and seeds

Key takeaways on gaining muscle in a calorie deficit

As long as your calorie deficit is only slight to moderate, so you still have the energy to work out and lift, then it’s possible to gain muscle at the same time as losing weight. By focusing on high-protein foods and carbohydrates before a gym session, your body will be able to pull energy without needing to break down muscle tissue for fuel. 

Keep in mind that the process of muscle hypertrophy takes time and consistency, with gains being achieved gradually — like any weight loss program.

Just as any good strength program requires guidance, if you’re looking for extra support for your weight loss, consider Pilot’s medical weight loss program. 

Science-backed, this treatment plan is an effective strategy for long-term results that will see you make considerable changes to ensure you live your best, healthy lifestyle. With breakthrough treatments that work to decrease your appetite and keep you feeling fuller for longer, as well as guidance from Pilot’s medical team and health coaches, you’ll feel motivated to keep showing up — both at the gym and for your health. And with a community of like-minded men available to offer support, this program can see you achieve lasting results.

Image credit: Getty Images

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