Can I Build Strength On a Calorie Deficit?


One way to speed up your results while you’re doing calorie deficit is by adding regular strength training to your plan. But what will happen with your strength if you consume less calories than usual?

Can I build strength on a calorie deficit?

You can build strength on a calorie deficit. Getting stronger is directly related to regular strength training and muscle protein synthesis. For optimum muscle protein synthesis, you should be eating 1 gram of proteins per 1 pound of body weight, despite being in a calorie deficit.

This means majority of your diet should come from proteins. Here’s what you need to know.

Can You Get Stronger In A Calorie Deficit?

You can get stronger in a calorie deficit. Building strength isn’t related to the calorie deficit but to the progressive overload during your workouts and the high-protein diet. Regular weight lifting, together with a hypocaloric high-protein diet will build your strength, even in a calorie deficit.

So getting stronger on a calorie deficit is just a matter of having enough proteins throughout the day, regardless of how many meals you have (source).

Apart from muscle protein synthesis, there are several other benefits of high-protein intake:

  • Increased satiety
  • Lower appetite
  • Increased thermogenesis
  • Increased resting energy expenditure
  • Improves glycemic control
  • Maintenance of lean muscle mass

Do You Lose Strength In a Calorie Deficit?

You can lose strength in a calorie deficit only if you don’t perform regular strength training and don’t deliver enough dietary proteins. Long-term dieting creates a calorie deficit and without regular exercise, it leads to distinct muscle mass and strength loss.

Other aspects than can influence strength loss include:

  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Aging
  • Illness
  • Injury

Is It Possible To Gain Muscle On a Calorie Deficit?

It is possible to gain muscle on a calorie deficit. Gaining muscle mass is an effect of hypertrophy that is triggered by resistance training and muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is not related to the total amount of calories you consume, but to the amount of protein.

To ensure you gain muscle on a calorie deficit you need:

  • Protein intake 1.6 g per kilogram of body weight
  • Resistance training 2-3 times per week

Can You Build Muscle Without Protein?

You cannot build muscle without protein. Proteins are required for practically every essential function in the body, including building and maintenance of muscle mass. Proteins are considered essential because they cannot be synthesized by the body.

The most important components of proteins are essential amino acids:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Non of those can be manufactured by the body and have to be delivered from diet.

Can You Build Strength Without Protein?

You cannot build strength without protein. Muscular strength is regulated by the processes of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown. Lack of protein enhances muscle protein breakdown that leads to a decrease in lean body mass and strength loss.

Strength training in itself stimulates muscle protein breakdown and synthesis at the same time. But when you won’t deliver enough proteins from the diet, the body starts to extract amino acids from the muscle mass.

Things that affect muscle protein breakdown:

  • Resistance training
  • Endurance training
  • Low protein intake

Do You Need Calorie Surplus To Gain Muscle?

You don’t need a calorie surplus to gain muscle. Muscle gain happens due to muscle protein synthesis and it can be triggered by eating just 3 grams of amino acid leucine. Having a diet high in proteins that contain large amounts of leucine is enough to gain muscle, without calorie surplus.

A calorie surplus is when you eat more calories than your body uses for metabolic processes. But it’s not required to gain muscle or build strength.

Leucine, isoleucine, and valine and all part of branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) and makeup about one-third of all muscle protein (source).

What Foods Are Rich In Leucine?

Foods that are high in leucine include animal products, dairy products, plant-based foods, nuts, and some fruits. Leucine is an omnipresent amino acid that is responsible for the stimulation of protein synthesis in muscle, however, the most abundant sources of leucine are animal products.

Animal foods that are rich in leucine include (source):

  • Bresaola (2.6 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Raw ham (2.2 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Turkey breast (2 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Chicken breast (1.9 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Deer (1.9 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Egg (1 g per 100 g of protein)

Fish that are rich in leucine include:

  • Mullet roe (2.8 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Tuna (2 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Smoked salmon (2 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Cod (1.4 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Mackerel (1.6 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Herring (1.3 g per 100 g of protein)

From all the protein foods, animal products and diary products have the highest composition of leucine.

Leucine In Dairy

Diary foods that are high in leucine include:

  • Whey protein (13 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Gruyer cheese (3.1 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Asiago cheese (2.8 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Grana cheese (2.8 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Emmenthal cheese (2.6 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Feta cheese (1.5 g per 100 g of protein)

Plant-based Foods High In Leucine

The amount of leucine available in plants is relatively low, comparing to animal products. Some of the foods like nuts, millet, or corn contain quite large amount.

Plant-based foods that are high in leucine include:

  • Millet (1.3 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Corn (1.1 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Buckwheat (0.8 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Beans (0.4 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Chickpeas (0.5 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Lentils (0.4 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Green beans (0.1 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Potatoes (0.1 g per 100 g of protein)

Nuts High in Leucine

Nuts that are high in leucine include:

  • Pine nuts (2 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Almonds (1.4 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Pistachios (1.4 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Cashew nuts (1.2 g per 100 g of protein)

Fruits High In Leucine

Fruits that contain leucine include:

  • Banana (0.02 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Apple (0.01 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Avocado (0.3 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Grapes (0.01 g per 100 g of protein)
  • Orange (0.02 g per 100 g of protein)

Does a Calorie Deficit Burn Fat or Muscle?

The calorie deficit can burn fat and muscle. A hypocaloric diet low in proteins will accelerate muscle protein breakdown and lead to muscle loss. During a caloric deficit, it is important to include high-protein foods because it will ensure weight loss occurs from the fat mass, not muscle mass.

In other words, if you stay in a calorie deficit, and you disregard the number of proteins you eat, not only you will lose strength, but also muscle mass. The easiest way to prevent strength loss is by having a protein-rich diet.

How To Prevent Muscle Loss During Calorie Deficit?

Here is the list of things you can do to prevent muscle loss during calorie deficit:

Regular strength training

Regular strength training will help you prevent muscle loss during calorie deficit because resistance training stimulates muscle protein synthesis and muscle re-modeling. Gradually increasing the weight will influence muscle adaptation and initiate muscle growth (source).

Here are some types of typical resistance training:

  • Bodybuilding
  • Powerlifting
  • Calisthenics
  • Strength training
  • Olympic lifting
  • CrossFit training

Diet rich in protein foods

Diet rich in plant-based or animal-based protein foods will ensure enough available essential amino acids for protein synthesis and helps with muscle and strength loss.

High protein foods include:

  • Animal products
  • Diary
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans and legumes
  • Grains

Taking protein supplements

In case you don’t have protein available, you can always use a protein supplement that can enhance further your weight loss and help you build up lean body mass. Whey protein and casein protein are found the most effective to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

Can You Build Muscle Without Protein Supplements?

You can build muscle without protein supplements. Protein supplements are only the convenient way to add extra protein to your regular diet, but they should not be the main source of proteins because food rich in proteins contains also essential vitamins and micronutrients.

Can You Build Muscle And Lose Fat On Maintenance Calories?

You can build muscle and lose fat on maintenance calories. Maintenance calories are when your calorie intake meets the calorie expenditure, and with regular resistance and aerobic training, you can build muscle mass and burn fat at the same time.

Regular resistance training can include:

  • Compound exercise (squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull-ups, rows)
  • Isolation exercises (biceps curl, triceps extension, leg extensions, abdominal crunch)

Regular aerobic training can include:

  • Walking
  • Cycling
  • Running
  • Swimming

How Many Calories Should I Consume To Gain Muscle and Lose Fat?

To gain muscle and lose fat you should consume at least the amount of calories as your basal metabolic rate. BMR accounts for 70% of your daily calorie expenditure, and with regular exercise, you will create a calorie deficit and be able to gain muscle mass.

To find out an exact number of calories you need to first calculate your BMR, followed by the number of calories you consume.

How To Work Out BMR?

To work out BMR you can use Mifflin-St Jeor formula:

  • For men (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
  • For women (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161

This way you will be able to establish your daily calorie needs and by adding extra strength training you will create a calorie deficit (source).

Conclusion

You can build strength on a calorie deficit as long as you eat enough daily proteins and do regular strength training. Staying on a calorie deficit is not easy and without paying attention to the diet, it can lead to lethargy and strength loss.

The easiest way to get your proteins, without counting calories, is to make sure that each meal has a decent chunk of protein, wherever its a plant-based or animal-based.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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