Building Muscle in a Deficit

Building muscle while burning fat. Muscle GAINZ while in a deficit.

The holy grail.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? In fact, we’ve been told that it’s impossible for decades. What if I told you that it’s in fact NOT impossible and that current research backs it up.  

The traditional model of “bulking” up and “cutting” down has worked for over a century, but is it really the best route for long-lasting, sustainable results? At Muscle Nerds, we’ve found that a long game, body recomposition approach always leads to the best outcome. 

Think about what most men do to build muscle and gain mass. They start with the best of intentions. They eat in a slight surplus, “clean” bodybuilding foods, lift weights 4-5 times a week. 

Everything is going well, they put on a good bit of weight in the first month, and then they hit a plateau. The common sense thing to do would be to add more food. Get those calories up, it worked the first month.

What they fail to understand, mainly because no one has taught them, is that the first initial jump is extra faecal matter, more stored glycogen (stored sugar in the muscles), and more water stored in the muscle. Glycogen is stored in skeletal muscle with 3-4g of water. So if you store 500g of glycogen, the total weight with water will be somewhere between 1.5-2.0 kgs of weight. Add some sodium on top and they’ll probably hold a little more than that. 

Adding more food, the scale keeps going up, and the lifter is incredibly happy. He looks big and full and awesome in clothes. Then one day he gets out of the shower, has a long look at his soft naked body, and thinks, “oh holy crap, I think I’ve taken my bulk too far.”

So what does he do? Jump into an extreme caloric deficit, adds in 5 hours a week in cardio, and strips the weight off. But, since he went to an extreme amount of activity and crashed his calories at the same time, he ends up burning off a lot of the precious muscle that he’s put on during his 9-month binge, bulk. 

So what’s the point? Why spend a good part of a year putting on size if you’re just going to lose the lean mass when you freak out and crash diet?

“The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”

-Albert Einstein

 Does this sound like you?

Are you ready to try something different?

If so, here are five tips to get you started:

1. Keep protein high. 

Studies have consistently shown that protein intakes of 2.2g/kg of weight are superior for holding on to lean body mass, and even increasing lean body mass when in a deficit. There have been studies as high as 4.4g! At Muscle Nerds, we recommend an intake between 2.2-4.4. Where do you fall in that continuum? Choose a protein amount that you can afford, digest, and desire. That’s it in a nutshell. I personally eat around 300-400g of protein a day, but I’m Texan, so that’s still on the low end. 

2. Don’t take the deficit too far. 

Instead of taking 30-40% of your calories away, only take away what you need to lose weight consistently. We recommend only losing .4-.5% of your weight per week. This is good insurance so that you are losing fat, and not wasting precious muscle tissue. Take your time and recomp. This is a long term mission, not a fast and transient transformation. Also, make sure to eat enough calories to provide for training, so calculate your daily intake with regard to your activity levels, then create a deficit from that. 

3. Prioritize resistance training. 

If you prioritize resistance training, especially in the bro bodybuilder ranges of 8-12 reps, you will provide enough stimulus to retain lean body mass. Take your sets to concentric failure, or until you hit one crappy rep, but no more than that. Provide enough stimulus to grow, no more, no less, and keep the volume per workout to a sane level, 20-24 sets per workout, or whatever you can tolerate.

4. Keep some conditioning in your program, but make it a side dish.

Maximize your cardiovascular conditioning by keep in a couple of sets of high output aerobic work in on days you aren’t lifting. Reverse Tabatas and Tabatas on the Rogue Echo bike are our numero uno choice.

5. Prioritize recovery. 

Make sure you are getting enough restful sleep every night, and try to be in bed and asleep before 10pm. Focus on 7-9 hours of restful sleep, and use apps like Headspace or Bliss to help you relax and fall asleep. You’ll be surprised at how fast you’ll progress if you just sleep more!

 If you’re tired of spinning your wheels with your physique, then stop chasing your tail! Try our recommendations, be patient and consistent, and enjoy the process!

We’re always available for online coaching and program design, so if you want expert help, reach out to info@musclenerds.net and have a quick chat with one of our world-class coaches.