Can you gain muscle in a calorie deficit?

Most people that are intense about their fitness journey can get a bit discouraged to start the weight loss part of their training, because this means they will seemingly look smaller, may end up a bit down in strength, and these many weeks are a loss in muscle building potential; the infamous “forever bulk” is to be desired for the opposite effect. However, should people feel discouraged? Can one continue to build muscle while losing fat (without performance enhancing drugs)? Well, if you want to know – keep reading.

Is it possible to gain muscle in a caloric deficit?

Let us answer this right out of the gate – no one knows, yet. Experts might claim they know muscle gain during a sustained caloric deficit is possible or impossible, but there simply is not enough research on the matter to contribute a conclusive statement (without detailing said statement further, as done below). For years, it has been assumed by the body of the population that this was not possible, because physiologically speaking the body is in a state of stress and mild deprivation so muscle growth (a costly act) would be stalled until a better set of conditions (more energy in the system) was available to nourish growth – even in the face of stimulus (resistance training). At best, it has been assumed that resistance training and solid nutrition will lead to weight loss while sustaining most, if not all, lean tissue [1][2].

Why is there no conclusive answer?

The reason being that while there is some limited research on the matter, most of this research (what little there is) is in specific populations such as obese and novice trainees. Not only that, many of these studies, while fulfilling the requirement for caloric restriction do not take into account protein levels to an adequate level to attenuate need in a hypocaloric state.

Beginner lifters?

We will assume that a “beginner” is defined as less than a year of lifting experience. It is commonly thought that new lifters could increase their muscle mass while decreasing body fat. While this is technically shown in several studies with new lifters, most of these studies have been done on overweight and obese individuals, which would skew the conclusion that beginner lifters can gain muscle while in caloric restriction.

This opinion is held by many, however, and is assumed correct. Until I see research showing normal weight individuals gaining muscle while in a caloric deficit, I remain skeptical.


Overweight lifters?

Here is where things get a bit more conclusive. There is quite a bit of research showing that overweight, obese individuals can  gain muscle while in a caloric deficit leading to significant weight loss [3][4][5]. Nothing else to say! It is possible in this instance.

Athletes/Advanced lifters?

As improbable as this may seem, there is some evidence showing that it is possible for more advanced trainees to get slightly stronger during a weight loss phase [6]. Not only that, there is accurate evidence to show that athletes can also gain a small amount of muscle mass over the course of a caloric restricted period of time [7].

Hopes ignited, excitement in the air, I should be responsible and point out that this has not been repeated (to my knowledge), and while the study is a good sign, it would be more reliable to wait for a study to repeat these findings – until then, some optimistic skepticism should be put to good use.


Is it possible to gain muscle while in a caloric deficit: Conclusion?

In conclusion, it seems that the small body of evidence claims yes, more willingly for some than others. While there is little to no research on normal weight beginner lifters, if athletes can gain muscle at their advanced training level, it is in the realm of possibility that beginners could gain muscle during a weight loss phase, as well. So, while it would be prudent to wait until more research examines the subject, feel free to assume some small increases in muscle and strength are possible for both groups.

For overweight and obese individuals, there is a clear and far more robust body of evidence detailing that lean body mass increases are not only possible, but common in a weight loss phase.

 

If possible, how much muscle can be expected to be gained?

Previously, I emphasized the words “slight” and “small”, because it is just that, relatively speaking. Relative to when a person is in a caloric surplus, a person in a caloric deficit will gain little to no muscle depending on their current training, physiological state, and nutrition. However, generally a gain of 1-2 lbs of total lean body mass is possible over the course of several months – more readily attained if the trainee is overweight or obese.


What can I do to increase chances of gaining muscle during a sustained calorie deficit?

This, again, heavily depends on your training, your current physiological state (overweight, beginners, etc.), and your nutrition. Let us examine three key points that will make all the difference.

How much of a caloric deficit?

This answer is highly dependent on where you are in your training and if you are overweight or not. For an advanced lifter or athlete, the smaller the deficit, the more beneficial; in terms of exact numbers, aiming for a 0.7% reduction in body weight, or roughly 1 lb/week body weight loss leads to better muscle, strength maintenance and better chance for growth [7]. I would follow a similar protocol (purely by extrapolating off the athlete data) for beginner lifters.

This is not the case for overweight, obese individuals. In a person who is overweight, a caloric deficit can be more extreme and still yield an increase in lean body mass; it was shown that people who restricted their intake to just 800 calories a day for 90 days still saw hypertrophy with resistance training [5]. So, in this case, it still would not be recommended to drop calories drastically (for sustainability reasons), but it is relatively safe to assume that severe caloric restriction will not impede progress much in terms of gaining lean body mass.


Protein intake?

Again, there is quite a large disparity between the two extremes. Athletes/advanced lifters, with more assumed muscle and being leaner, require higher levels of protein, so something along the lines of Eric Helm’s protein recommendation of 1.15 g/lb – 1.41 g/lb of lean body mass would be ideal [8]. Between 1.0 g/lb and 1.41 g/lb of lean body mass would be appropriate for beginner trainees, as well.

Again, when it comes to the overweight, obese population, the numbers are far more lax. Of course, aiming for the optimal would be beneficial, but referring back to the low calorie study, participants were only given 90g of total protein, so the likelihood of being noticeably lower than the general recommended value of even 1.0 g/lb of body weight leads to sub-optimal protein intake [5]. Yet, even in the face of low calories, low protein, and with the help of resistance training, there was a change in muscle hypertrophy.


Is training necessary? If so, how much?

Yes, it is necessary. All studies that had a diet only group saw decreases in lean body mass [2][5].

As for how much, that is extremely dependent on your training regiment, preferences, intensities, etc. However, studies in overweight, obese had participants resistance train around 3 times per week targeting main muscle movements [1][5]. The few athlete/advance lifter studies had participants exercise 4 times a week with resistance training [6][7]. Again, this is more dependent on quality of training in terms of exercise selection, appropriate weight used, and volume per week than a set number of times in the gym.


 

SUMMARY

To round things out for you less interested in the details, it is definitely possible to gain muscle during a sustained calorie deficit if you are overweight and/or obese. On the other hand, while there is some evidence pointing to this being possible for advanced trainees, as well, there should still be some doubt until further research substantiates these studies. Assuming it is possible, expect to only gain 1-2 lbs (if that) of lean mass over the course of several months of dieting and be sure to keep your deficit modest (1 lb/week).

Writer: Nicolas Verhoeven

                                                                                                           Citations
                                                                                       Yes, 1 & 3 are duplicates - my bad.

[1] Ballor, D. L. (1988). Resistance weight training during caloric restriction enhances lean body weight maintenance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 47(1), 19-25. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3337037

[2] KRAEMER, W. J., VOLEK, J. S., CLARK, K. L., GORDON, S. E., PUHL, S. M., KOZIRIS, L. P., … SEBASTIANELLI, W. J. (1999). Influence of exercise training on physiological and performance changes with weight loss in men. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 31(9), 1320-1329. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10487375

[3] Ballor, D. L. (1988). Resistance weight training during caloric restriction enhances lean body weight maintenance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 47(1), 19-25. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/47/1/19.short

[4] Effect of Diet and Exercise on Weight Loss and Body Composition of Adult Women. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.exrx.net/FatLoss/DietExStudy.html

[5] Donnelly, J. E. (1993). Muscle hypertrophy with large-scale weight loss and resistance training.American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 58(4), 561-5. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8379514

[6] Garthe, I., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P. E., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2013). Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. European Journal of Sport Science, 13(3), 295-303. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21896944

 

[7] Garthe, I. (2011). Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. International Journal Sports Nutrition Exercise Metabolism, 21(2), 97-104. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21558571

[8] Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 11(1), 20. Retrieved from http://www.jissn.com/content/11/1/20

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