Building Muscle in a Caloric Deficit: Is It Possible?

Oct 2, 2020 - 7 min read
Being in a deficit helps building mass

We often want a lot at the same time. Building muscle as well as getting that much-desired six pack . Both goals require a different approach. To gain muscle mass you have to eat more than you use up: a positive energy balance. For a six pack, you have to eat less than you use: a negative energy balance. But doing both at the same time, is it possible?

Ask a couple of people who are into fitness if you can get a sixpack and gain muscle at the same time. You’ll notice that, depending on who you ask, the answers will vary from “no way!” to “of course you can!”.

To get a good answer, it’s important to look at the scientific evidence. And I did just that for you, so keep reading.

Muscle Protein Synthesis

The foundation for muscle growth is protein synthesis and your  tracking diet . So before answering the question at hand, it’s useful to tell you something about protein synthesis. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it short and sweet and won’t bother you too much with jargon even I can hardly pronounce.

Simply put, synthesis means assembling. So, protein synthesis means the assembly of protein, and this takes place in the ribosomes. Proteins are viewed as the body’s building blocks – and that means they’re necessary to build muscle as well.

Ribosomes are found in all living cells and consist of proteins and ribosomal ribonucleic acid (rRNA). Via a process called translation, ribosomes read a “messenger RNA-molecule” (mRNA) and translate the sequence of nucleotides (a group of bio-organic compounds that form the building blocks for DNA and RNA) of that mRNA into a sequence of amino acids (Frank et al, 2002).

What is the purpose of protein synthesis?

As you may know, protein is formed by sticking amino acids together in a certain sequence. Before the translation can take place, a process called transcription takes place, but I’ll leave that out of consideration. This whole process, which of course is much more complicated than described here, is called protein synthesis.

Protein synthesis is an ongoing process. I can hear you thinking, why don’t I gain more muscle mass? Because we shouldn’t forget that besides the assembly of new proteins, proteins are constantly being degraded as well. A lot of scientific research doesn’t take this into account, which is why results from that research can be inconsequential.

Concerning muscle, the sum of protein synthesis and degradation can lead to three different outcomes (Tipton & Wolfe, 2001). Put simply, the outcomes are:

  1. More protein is being synthesized than is being degraded, which can lead to a net gain in muscle tissue.
  2. More protein is being broken down than is being synthesized, which might lead to a net loss in muscle tissue.
  3. An equal amount of protein is being synthesized and degraded, which will result in no gain or loss of muscle tissue.

Influence of Exercise and the Energy Balance

Research shows that exercise can lead to an increase in the speed of protein synthesis. It’s suspected that this is caused by the speed-up of the transportation of amino acids after exercise (Biolo et al., 1995). Especially strength training can lead to an increase of muscle mass, if of course enough amino acids are available (Phillips et al., 2002).

To build muscle mass, the body has a preference for a positive energy balance. This sounds logical. In a negative energy balance the body takes in less calories than it actually needs. This will result in weight loss and usually not in an increase of muscle mass. A positive energy balance (in combination with resistance training) will more likely result in maximal muscle hypertrophy (growth) because there are plenty of macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) available to supply enough energy and amino acids, which in turn allows for muscle hypertrophy.

Now we’re getting closer and closer to answering the question: “Is it possible to gain muscle when in a negative energy balance?” The answer is yes, but the context and the situation are extremely important!

Muscle responses to negative energy balance

Demling & DeSanti (2000) investigated the effects of a hypocaloric (negative energy balance) protein rich diet, combined with resistance training, in a group of overweight police officers. The test subjects where divided in several groups:

  • Just the diet (n=10)
  • Diet + exercise + 1,5g/kg bodyweight of protein and casein hydrolysate supplements (n=14)
  • Diet + exercise + 1,5g/kg bodyweight of protein and whey hydrolysate (n=14).

The results showed that all test subjects lost around 2,5 kilograms. But only the groups who did exercise as well showed an increase in fat free mass, which basically means there was an increase of muscle mass.

In an earlier research by Donnelly et al. (1933) 21 obese women were divided into two groups. The first group was put on a low-energy diet without exercising, while the other group was put on the same low-energy diet, which was combined with exercise. Both groups lost a significant amount of kilograms during the 90 day trial. However, only the group that exercised showed an increase in muscle mass.

Another thing to take into account is that when trying to lower the body fat percentage, the risk of losing fat free mass increases (Forbes, 2000).

In 2014, Helms et al. carried out a systematic review of existing literature and summarized the corresponding results of a protein-rich diet during a negative energy balance in athletes with a low body fat percentage. The results showed that a decrease in fat free mass can be prevented in people that have less experience with resistance training, or in people with a higher body fat percentage when they stick to a lower caloric deficit with a protein intake of 1,2 – 2,0 grams per kg of body weight.

Likewise, Garthe et al. (2011) reached the conclusion that when maintaining a lower caloric deficit, people who are very experienced in exercise are still capable of building muscle in a negative energy balance when combined with resistance training.

Can You Build Muscle on a Calorie Deficit?

In this article I have investigated through a study of available literature if it’s possible to build muscle mass in a negative energy balance. The body prefers to build muscle when in a positive energy balance, because in this situation sufficient amounts of macronutrients and amino acids are available that make muscle hypertrophy possible.

In certain situations, however, it’s possible to build muscle mass in a negative energy balance, depending on context and situation. It’s possible for people who are overweight, for people with little to no experience in resistance training, and with people who are very experienced in resistance training. In this case, the intake of sufficient protein (1,2-2,0 g/kg body weight) and maintaining a low caloric deficit is required.


  • Biolo, G., Maggi, S.P., Williams, B.D., Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. (1995). Increased rates of muscle protein turnover and amino acid transport after resistance exercise in humans.American Journal of Physiology. _268(3),_514-20.
  • Demling, R.H., DeSanti, L. (2000). Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 44(1), 21-9.
  • Donnely, J.E., Sharp, T., Houmard, J., Carlson, M.G., Hill, J., Whatley, J.E., Israel, R.G. (1993). Muscle hypertrophy with large-scale weight loss and resistance training. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 58, 561-5.
  • Frank, J., Zhu, J., Penczek, P., Li, Y., Srivastava, S., Verschoor, A., Radermacher, M., Grassucci, R., Lata, R., Agrawal, R. (2002). A model of protein synthesis based on cryo-electron microscopy of the E.coli ribosome. Nature, 276, 441-444.
  • Garthe, L., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P.E., Koivisto, A., Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2011). Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. I__nternational journal of sport nutrition_and _exercise metabolism21(2), 97-104.
  • Helms, E.R., Zinn, C., Rowlands, D.S. Brown, S.R. (2014). A Systematic Review of Dietary Protein During Caloric Restriction in Resistance Trained Lean Athletes:A Case for Higher Intakes*. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolims, 24*, 127-138.
  • Phillips, S.M., Parise, G., Roy, B.D., Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R., Tamopolsky, M.A. (2002). Resistance-training-induced adaptations in skeletal muscle protein turnover in the fed state. _Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 80(11),_1045-53.
  • Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. (2001). Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth*.* International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism,11(1), 109-32.

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Melania Armento

Melania is a SEO specialist at Virtuagym, one of the leading innovators in the digital health and fitness industry. With 6+ years experience in marketing, she loves fitness, ranking keywords with high monthly search volume, as well as taking advantages of long summer days and warm weather.