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Can you put on muscle even if you are creating a calorie deficit?

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I have a deficit between 500 - 1000 calories a day by working out and counting calories.  I have also been lifting weights almost everyday.  I recently read that one can not put on muscle while creating a calorie deficit. Is that correct?

Should I continue what I am doing or stop the calorie deficit, put on muscle and then try to lose the pounds.

Any suggestions?


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Eliza I am running into the same issue.  From what I have read, you can keep putting on lean muscle by increasing protein intake.  I am trying to drop weight but not muscle because I have two physical jobs.  However, the sites that I saw these on where mostly bodybuilding websites, so I would take it with a grain of salt.  Most weight-loss sites don't cover this issue.

Muscle development is a factor of:

Resistance moved over a specific time, with varying results based on intensity.

Diet is a very limited (constrained) component of muscle development. Protein overloading provides a better "fuel" for muscle creation - but it is not without significant problems. Protein is not particularly easy for the body to digest (in relation to other food sources). If I remember correctly, anything over 25 grams of protein in a single sitting is simply going to be processed out of the body - not consumed.

You definitely can develop muscle on a calorie deficit - body builders have a terribly difficult time consuming all the healthy calories required to just maintain their physiques. Metabolic rates for someone with 3% body fat are incredible.

It is true that the body will naturally begin to consume muscle fiber as a fuel during intense exercise - but all that means is that we need to time the consumption of our calories so that we sacrifice what is in our gut before the muscle consumption begins.

To build muscle on a calorie deficit, you have to view food as fuel - you have to put high quality fuel in the tank at the right time. But, muscle is built primarily from resistance, and secondarily from diet.

Stay safe,


 Nope, can't (normally) be done. Your body doesn't go into a positive nitrogen balance (i.e. retain more protein than it excretes) without a calorie surplus. There is also a specific biochemical limit to how much new protein your body can synthesize in a day, but since the rate limiting factor is mostly testosterone and IGF-1, pro bodybuilders get around that particular limitation by being naughty with the injectables.

 Not something you'd want to consider doing unless you really dislike your liver for some reason.

 There are people who were born with superior genetics who can in fact build some muscle in a calorie deficit, but they are definitely the exception, not the norm. See the thread Why can't this extra fat be used to build my muscles? and More muscle = how many calories?  from the FAQ for a more detailed explanation from Tgpish :)

If you are not giving your body enough calories to maintain it's current mass (i.e. a calorie deficit) how is it supposed to get additional calories to build more mass.

Tim - I'm a bit confused. Now, I'll grant that gaining muscle mass on a 1000 calorie deficit is highly unlikely. But, at 500 calories, muscle gain should be achievable with the correct timing of protein consumption during a persons daily routine.

Proteins are more readily converted to muscle "fuel" then they are to fat. The body will expel protein that it cannot transform during the digestive cycle. How fast does a person's (in general) anabolic/catabolic hormonal cycle change? The introduction of a natural amino acid (I've never juiced and I never will) immediately after rigorous exercise would contribute to muscle growth - as the anabolic state excited in the body would readily convert food protein into muscle protein. But, the digestive tract wouldn't readily convert that food protein into glucose/glycogen.

A 500 calorie deficit, with properly timed consumption of caloric input (by quantity and type) - should result in muscle growth, while also allowing for fat reduction. What am I missing - read the other post you referenced above, and I'm not catching how a moderate reduction in calories makes the growth of muscle impossible.

Much respect,

Rb this may sound silly, but if we are working with a deficit how is it that now that I am working out (cardio and mild strength training) I feel stronger and am? 

Do the muscles I already have get stronger vs. building new muscle?   Because I feel stronger and my muscles are more noticable lately.  hmmm...thanks in advance for your opinions.


edit:  or maybe I am just one of those "rare" people who can.  I can see if being possible as I have always carried around more muscle on my body than most people my size/weight/height even without working out.

tracy - i've started doing more consistent and intensive weight training, and i've noticed both an increase in strength and some change in shape/size (pretty much, I can flex, and my arm actually changes - and i'm not even doing bicep curls).

My explanation? You can increase strength without gaining muscle (to an extent), and when you start weight training, most people will notice an initial gain in size. However, that won't continue forever.

That's my understanding, anyway.

thanks amethystgirl, that makes more sense especially for people like me that have no idea.

Check this metastudy from the  Journal of American College of Nutrition on protein needs and muscle building for athletes.

 You'll note that a consistent calorie surplus is a prerequisite for building muscle.

 You body always balances anabolic and catabolic states. This is a good thing - if it didn't, you'd keep on growing muscle until you literally exploded. Barring any sudden and unforeseen rather messy incidents with exploding biceps though, what matters is which state predominates - and in a calorie deficit, that's the catabolic state.  Which means that your body absolutely will not build muscle unless you have exceptional genetics like Duke or Jasontarin - and even for them it's much, much more efficient to build muscle in a calorie surplus.

 For optimal results while dieting you want to have a slow, controlled catabolic process where your body will predominantly use fat tissue for fuel, which means not exceeding the biochemical limit of 31cal/lbs fat mass/day deficit.  That's how much energy your body can liberate from fat stores in a day, exceeding this limit means immediate loss of lean mass - which means uncontrolled, indiscriminate, and systemic loss of muscle mass; not at all a good thing.

 Using a non-agressive approach and maintaining a deficit of 500cal or less ensures that you're not running that particular risk, but your body will still dispose of metabolically expensive and now unnecessary muscle mass when you're dieting.

 Unless you do strength training, that is.

 Resistance training is the only thing that will let you retain your existing muscle mass in a calorie deficit - cardio is not enough of a stimulus to make your body retain muscle and can in fact make things worse by encouraging your body to use muscle protein for energy.

 Consider these studies:  Hunter : Resistance Training Conserves Fat-free Mass and Resting Energy Expenditure Following Weight Loss

D, DE, and DES demonstrated a similar and significant (P <= 0.05) reduction in body mass (-9.64, -8.99, and -9.90 kg, respectively) with fat mass comprising 69, 78, and 97% of the total loss in body mass, respectively. -
Kramer, Volek et al. Influence of exercise training on physiological and performance changes with weight loss in men.

A third of the weight loss in the diet-only group was muscle(2.98 kg, or 6.5lbs) and the diet+cardio exercise group also lost significant muscle(1.98kg or 4.35lbs), while the diet+cardio+strength training group mostly retained theirs, losing 0.297kg or just shy of 0.6lbs of muscle.

 If you strength train and don't do excessive cardio or calorie deficits you can reasonably expect to retain most of your existing muscle. However, unless your name is Jasontarin or you're a complete beginner with less than 3 months of training you can't expect to put on any (significant) muscle while in a deficit - muscle gain is such a long, slow process and the biochemical rate limit for protein synthesis in a natural athlete tops out at about 28g/day of new muscle protein. This is assuming you're male, in your late teens/early twenties and have perfect training and nutrition, with a consistent calorie surplus.

  If you miss out on any one of those factors, your protein synthesis/muscle growth will be considerably slower than the max of roughly an ounce a day.

 Most natural athletes are doing good if they put on 1-2lbs of muscle in a month. Exceptions do exist, and they do show up here on a regular basis, but I think that when writing general advice it's less than helpful to start out with "First, pick the right parents to be born a genetic exeption" ;)

 (Edited to add:) Strength is not neccesarily a function of muscle mass - it's also a trainable skill. It's only about 2/3 correlated with muscle size since it also depends on neurological efficiency and motor unit recruitment, plus neuromuscular coordination and other neurological factors. So you can become significantly stronger without increasing muscle mass as your body learns to produce more force with the muscle you already have.

Melkor - fantastic write up. It helped me a lot; even though I'm somewhat disenheartened by the fact that there is no way in the lower depths of Hades that I can consume 5000 clean calories a day to accommodate my standing metabolic rate (3650 kcal), my exercise burn (1000 kcal per day average) and enough surplus to build any muscle.

Fortunately, my personal goal is focused on a 10% body fat composition by my 42nd birthday (1 year from next month) - so I guess I'll sacrifice muscle growth for lean mass.

Thanks again.


That was a very helpful post Melkor!

I am so tagging this post.  Awesome info, Melkor.

So if my immediate goal for the summer is weight loss, should I lay off the weight lifting and increase cardio instead for now?

Original Post by elizaannfred:

So if my immediate goal for the summer is weight loss, should I lay off the weight lifting and increase cardio instead for now?

 No, weight lifting is more efficient for weight-loss.  Read this article.

A person can definitely lose body fat and gain lean muscle at the same time.

There are many studies that demonstrate this.

Best approach: Alternate cardio with weight training; have a slightly negative calorie balance (burn off more than you consume) but not too dramatically. Make sure that you have adequate protein intake.

Dr. G



 It's possible for 1) complete beginners who have no previous training history and thus are starting from a net zero developement - "beginner's luck" doesn't last beyond 6-8 weeks in most people, 3-6 months if you're lucky.

 2) The natural-born athlete, who essentially operate in the "beginner's luck" state their entire lives - the 'genetic superiors' like Duke, Jasontarin, and Blondie.

3) Deconditioned athletes returning to strength training after a long absence, who regain previous levels of muscle mass.

Oh, yes - and 4) steroid users.

 Once you're past the "beginner's luck" phase, you need to be born very special to be able to gain significant muscle mass in a significant calorie deficit.

 You can have what's termed "lean recomposition" by operating in a net energy balance most of the time - at which point you'll gain insignificant muscle while losing insignificant fat.

 To lose significant fat, you need a significant calorie deficit - which is counterproductive to gaining muscle mass.

 To gain significant muscle, you need a calorie surplus, which is not compatible with fat loss.

 The closer you are to a calorie balance the less efficient each process becomes, so if you want to shed significant fat or gain significant muscle you are much better off focusing on one process at a time. 
Original Post by drgten:

There are many studies that demonstrate this. 

Such as... 

I heard if you calorie/carb cycle you can gain lean mass and lose fat. By that I mean low carb higher cals on lifting days and higher carbs lower cals on cardio days creating a slight deficit, while also supplying essential protein for muscle building on all days.  

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Original Post by kristinedaqueen:

I heard if you calorie/carb cycle you can gain lean mass and lose fat. By that I mean low carb higher cals on lifting days and higher carbs lower cals on cardio days creating a slight deficit, while also supplying essential protein for muscle building on all days.  

 Except that excess fat and carbs are required to build muscle as well as protein.  You may still gain a little bit of muscle doing this, but Melkor's post still stands - trying to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time is the slowest way of achieving either goal.

poor melkor, you have to explain this so much. my first post was exactly about this. thanks for being so patient, but i seem to learn a little bit more every time you reply to these types of posts. Laughing.  i think on one post you had recommended a cycle of 6-8 weeks for bulking & cutting?

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