Updated: Oct 10, 2021
TL;DR: It is possible to gain muscle while cutting, providing you have adequate body fat. However, it is more difficult to gain muscle while on a calorie deficit.
Cutting is the term for reducing caloric intake in order to help lose weight. But can you gain muscle while cutting?
I'll explain if it's possible to gain muscle while on a caloric deficit in this article.
Table of Contents:
Can You Gain Muscle While Cutting?
Cutting down your weight and fat is sometimes required for bodybuilding competitions or other competitions.
Typically, this weight loss is accomplished via a reduction in caloric intake and an increase in physical activity, this is known as cutting.
It is possible to gain muscle while cutting and still losing body fat; however, gaining muscle is still much harder when you are consuming fewer calories.
In order to lose weight and reduce body fat, you must expend more calories than you consume on a daily basis, use a TDEE calculator like this one to work out how many calories you should consume.
In contrast, in order to build muscle, you must consume higher quantities of calories in order to sustain an increase in rigorous exercise.
It may seem as though you are engaged in two diametrically opposed activities at the same moment.
Managing to pull this off may be challenging, but it is not impossible.
Building and supporting muscle requires extra energy expenditure due a multitude of reasons, such as the following.
Increased resting metabolic rate (RMR), non-exercise thermogenesis and exercise-induced energy expenditure.
Increased energy cost of muscle hypertrophy and metabolically active tissue
Increased energy expenditure from increased calorie consumption.
Increased metabolism following exercise.
This increased energy expenditure from muscle growth meaning it'll be much less expensive when training in a caloric deficit.
However, this does not mean it's impossible.
Providing that you have enough stored endogenous energy in the form of fat or other stored energy forms then your body will be able to use that energy to facilitate the creation of new muscle mass.
Muscle creation still requires protein and amino acids, energy just supports this creation and growth.
The rate of new muscle mass created will likely be much lower than that of training while consuming an energy surplus.
Based on the research, I can conclude that muscle can be created while in a caloric deficit purely from endogenous energy sources. (1)
Energy Cost of Muscle Hypertrophy
As mentioned briefly earlier, resistance training and the creation of new muscle mass results in, or requires, extra energy consumption.
This is due to a variety of reasons and processes, from facilitating the creation of new muscle or providing energy for the resistance training.
Potential Elevation In NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis)
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the amount of energy spent by the body for any activity that is not sleeping, eating, or engaging in sports-like activity.
NEAT can be increased by activities such as the following:
Walking to work
Engaging in DIY activities
Fidgeting and twitching
Resistance exercise may increase non-exercise energy expenditure such as walking or driving to the gym, preparing meals and other similar activities that wouldn't usually be done otherwise.
Energy Cost of Exercise & Post-Workout Metabolism Boost
Like any physical movement, workouts and training requires energy; the more intense the workout, the more energy is required to facilitate it.
This can add to the energy cost of building muscle.
Another effect of resistance training is the posit-workout metabolic boost.
For around 14 hours after a workout, your metabolic rate is increased significantly, further adding to the energy cost of building muscle. (2)
Whether this increase in metabolism is caused by the anabolic process or not is unclear.
Energy Cost of Increased Post-Workout Protein Turnover
Metabolising protein within the body has a significant energy cost.
This protein metabolism includes synthesis, folding, targeting, regulation, and breakdown of protein, all have an energy cost associated with them. (3)
Immediately post-workout (and possibly during), protein breakdown starts to increase, possibly over taking the rate of protein synthesis resulting in a net negative protein balance, actually reducing muscle growth temporarily. (4)
Eventually, muscle protein synthesis will over take the rate of protein breakdown, and for longer, resulting in muscle growth in the long-term.
This metabolism of protein and the protein breakdown and synthesis itself has an energy cost.
Additional baseline energy is required post-workout due to this process.
Energy Cost of Diet-Induced Thermogenesis (DIT)
Some studies suggest that it's possible exercise may affect DIT due to indirect changes in the balance of factors affecting thermogenesis. (5)
Because exercise is essentially required for muscle hypertrophy, a possible increase in DIT after exercise may increase the baseline metabolic rate of the body, adding another energy cost to muscle hypertrophy.
Increased Metabolically Active Tissue
With muscle growth comes more metabolically active tissue to maintain.
This is the reason people who are bigger in size require more calories than those who are smaller.
Muscle is very metabolically active and requires lots of energy to function, maintain and grow.
Therefore, muscle growth has an affect of resting metal colic rate (RMR), non-exercise induced thermogenesis (NEAT) and exercise energy expenditure (ExEE).
With exercise muscles contract and use energy to do so, with more muscle to contract, more energy is required.
Essentially, muscle growth and hypertrophy results in and requires extra calories for a variety of reasons.
The energy cost of muscle hypertrophy is more significant than previously thought.
An increased energy expenditure from muscle hypertrophy can be facilitated by the body's own endogenous energy storage, such as from fat mass or liver glycogen storage.
Providing you're consuming adequate protein and amino acids, and you have enough stored energy (which essentially everyone does), you could gain muscle while cutting still.
However, muscle growth would likely be at a slower rate than it would be with a calorie surplus.
Written by Billy White
Billy White is a qualified Kinesiologist and Personal Trainer. He is an aspiring bodybuilder, fitness enthusiast, and health and fitness researcher.
He has multiple years of experience within the fitness, bodybuilding and health space. He is committed to providing the highest-quality information.
This section contains links to research, studies, and sources of information for this article, as well as authors, contributors, etc. All sources, along with the article and facts, are subjected to a series of quality, reliability, and relevance checks.
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This evidence-based analysis on gaining muscle while on a calorie deficient diet features 5 references, listed below.
1. Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Front Nutr. (2019) ✔
2. Knab AM, Shanely RA, Corbin KD, Jin F, Sha W, Nieman DC. A 45-minute vigorous exercise bout increases metabolic rate for 14 hours. Med Sci Sports Exerc. (2011, Sep) ✔
3. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. The Role of Protein and Amino Acids in Sustaining and Enhancing Performance. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US). (1999) ✔
4. Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2013, Jan) ✔
5. Ohnaka M, Iwamoto M, Sakamoto S, Niwa Y, Matoba H, Nakayasu K, Nakaya Y. Does prolonged exercise alter diet-induced thermogenesis? Ann Nutr Metab. (1998) (Clinical Trial) ✔
✔ Citations with a tick indicate the information is from a trusted source.
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