Can You Build Muscle In A Calorie Deficit? How To Burn Fat + Gain Muscle

Our diet and nutrition resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Diet and Nutrition Guidelines.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the majority of people would love to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, which would give them a much more toned physique or lean but defined body.

But, is building muscle while losing weight possible? In other words, can you gain muscle in a calorie deficit? Can you build muscle and lose fat at the same time?

In this guide, we will give you the calorie deficit meaning, answer your question, “Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit,” whether a 500 calorie deficit is too much to gain muscle while losing weight, and the best approach to building muscle while losing fat.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Caloric Deficit?
  • Can You Build Muscle In A Calorie Deficit?
  • How Can I Build Muscle and Lose Weight At the Same Time?

Let’s get started!

A dial with a daily calorie count on it.

What Is a Calorie Deficit?

Before we look at whether it is possible to gain muscle and lose weight at the same time and whether a 500 calorie deficit will allow you to build muscle while losing fat, let’s start with the basic calorie deficit meaning.

In other words, what is a calorie deficit?

In short, a calorie deficit simply means that you are burning more calories per day than you are consuming.

If you think of two sides of a balance, when the number of calories you are taking in equals the number of calories you are burning in a day, your weight will remain the same.

When you are in a calorie deficit, you are expending more energy than you are eating in your diet; therefore, you will lose weight. 

Finally, when you are consuming a higher number of calories than you are burning in a day, you will gain weight because you are in a caloric surplus.

Therefore, when people reference things such as a “500 calorie deficit,“ they mean that you are in a net negative energy balance with your calories in/calories out equilibrium such that you are burning 500 calories more than you are eating in a day.

Two people doing kettlebell squats.

Can You Build Muscle In a Calorie Deficit?

So, why does any of this matter? How does a calorie deficit play into answering the question: Can you gain muscle in a calorie deficit?

First, the goal of “losing weight” is extremely common, but when most people say that they have a weight loss goal, what they really are referring to is wanting to lose body fat.

Body weight refers to your total body mass with all of the different types of tissue, including muscle, whereas losing body fat refers just to fat tissue alone.

Although this may seem like merely a matter of semantics, the distinction between losing weight vs. losing fat has a significant bearing on a common question posed by bodybuilders or those thinking about building muscle and getting shredded (losing fat):

“Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit?”

It is possible to lose body weight simply by being dehydrated after a hard workout or cutting carbs and sodium for a few days, for example.

A toned abdomen.

On the other hand, losing body fat requires generating the calorie deficit we previously discussed.

Body fat is essentially a reservoir of stored potential energy that accumulates when you are in a caloric surplus (eating more calories than you burn).

One pound of body fat essentially provides 3500 calories worth of energy to the body.

When you create a caloric deficit of 3500 calories, you will lose 1 pound of fat, and when you consume an excess of 3500 calories over the number of calories you burn, you will gain one pound of fat.

Building muscle and losing body fat are somewhat opposing body composition goals because, in general, you need a consistent caloric deficit to lose body fat, while most evidence suggests that you need to be in a caloric surplus to build muscle.

Note that in addition to a slight caloric deficit and adequate protein intake to support muscle growth, you also need to be providing your muscles with the stimulus to “grow “ by performing heavy resistance training workouts with the right volume and intensity.

Learn more about hypertrophy workouts to build muscle here.

Battle rope workout.

This poses a paradox when it comes to body recomposition (gaining muscle while losing fat): for one goal, you are supposed to be in a caloric deficit, and for the other goal, you need to be in a caloric surplus.

For this reason, bodybuilders tend to follow bulking and cutting phases independently from one another.

This means that they might first follow a bulking diet to build muscle and then follow a cutting diet plan and cutting workout program to lose fat. 

Then, depending on whether they are training for a physique competition or just trying to improve body composition overall, they may cycle between bulking phases and cutting phases, lasting several weeks each until they have reached the body composition they are looking for.

In other words, rather than trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, they focus on building muscle or losing fat first and then address the other physique goal.

This strategy is often used so that the needs in terms of a muscle-building diet plan and a fat-loss diet plan (and workout program) are not “butting heads” and counteracting one another. 

That said, not everyone has the time or luxury of necessarily following separate muscle-building diet and workout programs and fat or weight loss diet and exercise programs, or they may feel more inclined to try and build muscle and lose fat at the same time even if results are slower. 

A scoop of protein powder.

How Can I Build Muscle and Lose Weight At the Same Time?

So, what about building muscle while losing weight at the same time?

As can be seen, there’s a bit of a paradox in terms of building muscle in a caloric deficit.

But, it is actually possible to build muscle in a caloric deficit, which then means that you can build muscle and lose weight at the same time (fat, not just overall weight).

Building muscle in the caloric deficit is all about being strategic with the timing of your calorie intake and protein/carb intake.

A general “caloric deficit for weight loss“ or “caloric surplus to build muscle“ happens on a minute by minute basis throughout the day rather than the total caloric equilibrium over a 24-hour period.

Basically, what this means is that your body doesn’t know what’s coming up later in the day for calories in or calories out.

Therefore, if you do a hard workout and haven’t eaten yet, you are temporarily in a caloric deficit. On the other hand, as soon as you eat, particularly if you haven’t worked out yet in the day, you are in a caloric surplus.

A person at the gym drinking a protein shake.

Therefore, if you are strategic with your weight loss diet and hypertrophy workout timing, you can build muscle while in a caloric deficit overall by the end of the day.

This concept has been provided in studies that show that you can gain muscle in a caloric deficit as long as you perform resistance training workouts that progress in load and volume while simultaneously following a high-protein diet with frequent protein intake throughout the day. 

Evidence suggests that the most effective diet to follow for how to build muscle in a caloric deficit is to consume 2.3-3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, spread over 3-6 meals per day. 

Specifically, the meal prior to and immediately after the resistance training workout should provide 0.4-0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Then, 15-30% of your total calories from fat, and the remainder of the calories that you need per day after factoring out the grams of protein should come from carbohydrates. 

Other studies have confirmed that you can build muscle in a caloric deficit if you consume a diet that provides 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight rather than one that provides just 1.2g of protein per kg of body weight.

A person drinking a protein shake.

For example, let’s say you weigh 75 kg (165 pounds):

If we go with 2.4 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, you should consume 75 X 2.4g = 180g of protein per day and about 75 x 0.5 = 37.5 grams of protein in the pre-workout meal and post-workout meal. 

Because there are 4 kcals per gram of protein, if you are eating 180 grams of protein per day, you are consuming 720 calories from protein.

Generally, to build muscle and support high-intensity exercise like hypertrophy weight lifting workouts, you should consume 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day at a minimum.

So, if you weigh 75 kg, aim for 75 x 4g = 300 grams of carbs per day. 

Carbohydrates also provide 4 kilocalories per gram, so 300 grams of carbs would be 1200 calories from carbs per day.

If we add the calories from the protein and carbohydrates, we are up to 1200+720 = 1920 calories.

Because the percentage of calories from fat should constitute about 15 to 30% of your total daily caloric intake, you would need to consume a minimum of 2,208-2,496 (2,200-2,500) calories per day.

A fit person lifting weight.

Note that all of these values that we have calculated represent the minimum number of grams for each macro when trying to build muscle in a caloric deficit.

If you are more active and your total daily energy expenditure is significantly above 2500 calories, you will need to bump up all of these macros and calories accordingly.

This is because even though you do need a caloric deficit to lose fat while building muscle, you need to keep the caloric deficit to a minimum.

Research suggests the goal rate of fat loss while building muscle should not exceed 0.7% of body fat per week.

So, if you weigh 75 kg, this works out to 75 x 0.007 = 0.525 kg or 1.2 pounds per week.

Because a 3500 calorie deficit will result in 1 pound of weight loss, your maximum weekly caloric deficit would be 4200 calories, which works out to a daily caloric deficit of 600 calories.

You have to remember to be strategic in timing your nutrients around your workouts.

To estimate how many calories you are burning in a day, you can use an online calculator such as this one.

A calculator, notebook, and plant.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.