If you’re an avid gym go-er, it is likely that your goals involve some combination of strength and aesthetics. If your goal is primarily to get stronger, you know that eating more will help.
But, if you don’t want to be in a caloric surplus because of your aesthetic goals, can you still continue to get stronger? Yes, it is possible to get stronger without being in a caloric surplus as long as you are using a high-resistance training program and eating no less than 2.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight and 4-6g of carbs per kg of bodyweight each day. If your goal is to lose weight, build muscle, and get stronger, you should aim to lose only 0.7% of your bodyweight per week.
To understand the exact steps that you need to do to get stronger without being in a caloric surplus, we first need to understand why a ‘caloric surplus’ and ‘caloric deficit’ can change on a daily basis, how our bodies use calories to get stronger and what happens if we don’t consume enough calories.
What is a caloric surplus?
Before we get into how to get stronger without a caloric surplus, we need to understand the basics of energy balance.
First, calories are just another term for the energy that we get from the food and drinks we consume.
Energy balance looks at the amount of calories that we consume against the amount of calories that we burn. If the two are the same, we are in a state of energy balance.
A caloric deficit is when the amount of calories that we consume is lower than the amount of calories we burn. In a caloric deficit, our body mass decreases.
A caloric surplus is when the amount of calories that we consume is higher than the amount of calories we burn. In a caloric surplus, our body mass increases.
How do you know how many calories you burn?
There are a few different ways to calculate your theoretical caloric expenditure (i.e. how many calories you burn), the easiest being to input your personal stats into an online calculator like this one.
How do we get stronger?
To get stronger, we need our muscles to grow. Muscle growth comes primarily out of what we do in the gym, not what happens in the kitchen.
In order to produce muscle growth, we need a stimulus and an environment. Resistance training, or applying a stress to your muscles, provides the necessary stimulus for growth. Food then provides an environment for this stimulus by supplying energy.
When we lift weights, we are applying stress to our muscles and the muscle fibers then become damaged and breakdown.
After you workout, your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process called muscle protein synthesis.
During this process it fuses muscle fibers together to form new muscle protein strands or myofibrils. These repaired myofibrils increase in thickness and number to create muscle hypertrophy (growth).
Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown.
This process of breaking down and repairing muscle tissues requires an environment for growth by way of energy.
If you recall, we derive energy from the food and drinks we consume by way of calories.
Calories are broken down further into macronutrients, which include protein, carbohydrates and fats. The most efficient way to fuel muscle breakdown and synthesis during and after weight training is by consuming an adequate amount of energy through protein and carbohydrates.
What we want to avoid is having our body using stored protein as fuel, because this would mean breaking down our hard earned muscle without sufficient energy to repair it.
So yes, we need calories to build muscle and get stronger, but does this mean we need to consume more than we burn?
Let’s discuss further.
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Getting Stronger Without a Caloric Surplus
The concept of caloric surplus and caloric deficit is not as black and white as it may seem.
Regardless of whether or not our daily caloric intake puts us in an overall surplus or deficit, after we eat a meal, we are in a caloric surplus until our body utilizes the energy. Then after a while of not having any food, we’re in a deficit.
For example, when we wake up, we’re in a caloric deficit. Right after we eat breakfast, we’re in a caloric surplus. A few hours later, our body might have used the calories we ate during breakfast, and now we’re in a caloric deficit again. This cycle continues throughout the day.
So, when people talk about being in a caloric surplus or deficit they are referring to the net energy balance at the end of the day. While we’re constantly switching between being in a surplus or deficit throughout the day based on when we’re eating and how our bodies are utilizing that food, at the end of the day we’re either in a net positive or negative caloric state.
Therefore, if we are strategic about when we consume our meals, allowing for energy to be available to complete the necessary muscle breakdown and muscle synthesis to grow muscle, we can get stronger without a net caloric surplus.
In other words, ensuring that we are performing some form of resistance training at an adequately intense level while in a state of caloric surplus will provide the necessary stimulus and environment for muscle growth. This is true even if we are, at the end of the day, consuming less than or equal to the amount of energy we are burning in total.
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Understanding The Macronutrient Breakdown When Trying To Build Strength In A Deficit
It is important to consider factors such as the macronutrient composition of our diet and the size of the caloric deficit, if at all, we are in.
Here are 3 important principles to understand:
Consuming a diet high in protein is necessary to build muscle, especially when in a caloric deficit
Fueling resistance training with adequate amounts of carbohydrates to provide the energy necessary to get stronger
Keeping a caloric deficit within a safe range can contribute to the success of getting stronger without a caloric surplus
What The Science Say About Getting Stronger in a Caloric Deficit
Let’s summarize some nutritional research that backs the claim that you can get stronger in a caloric deficit.
High protein diet for muscle and strength gain
Research suggests that it is possible to build muscle when we are in a caloric deficit if we follow a progressive resistance training program and consume a high protein intake.
This leads us to ask the question: what is a ‘high protein’ intake?
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 0.8g per kg of body weight, but this has been shown to be insufficient for getting stronger without being in a caloric surplus.
Studies that specifically looked at high protein diets while not in a caloric surplus suggested a protein intake of 2.4g per kg of body weight to increase lean body mass, when accompanied by an intensive weight training program (Longland et. at., 2016; Helms et. at., 2014).
There was also a study that compared high vs. low protein diets while not in a caloric surplus. The results showed that during an energy deficit, consumption of a diet containing 2.4g per kg of body weight was more effective than consumption of a diet containing 1.2g per kg of body weight in promoting increases in muscle and losses of fat mass when combined with a high volume of resistance and anaerobic exercise. (Longland et. at., 2016)
Let’s say you weigh 80kg. You should aim to eat 2.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight
The equation being: 80 X 2.4g = 192g of protein.
Let’s now look at carbohydrate consumption.
Carbohydrates for muscle and strength gain
We know that our body requires energy to fuel our resistance training sessions and that energy is used for muscle breakdown and protein synthesis to grow our muscles and make us stronger.
The primary energy system that is used for high intensity, shorter duration (<2 hours) activities like resistance training is the glycolytic system. This system’s primary energy source is carbohydrates as it works by breaking down glucose and glycogen (recently consumed and stored carbohydrates) into usable energy.
Therefore, in order to get stronger without a caloric surplus, we need to ensure our body has the necessary energy available to build muscle during and after resistance training sessions. Inadequate carbohydrate can impair the resistance training necessary for muscle growth, and consuming adequate carbohydrates prior to resistance training can fill these stores to optimize this system and may therefore enhance performance and increase strength.
Recommendations range from 3g per kg of body weight up to 12g per kg of body weight dependent on the level of intensity and time spent exercising (most commonly 4-6g per kg of body weight). However, achieving the necessary caloric deficit while consuming adequate protein and fat would likely not allow consumption at the higher end of this recommendation. (Helms et. at., 2014).
Let’s say again you weigh 80kg. You should aim to eat 3g per kg of bodyweight. This means you should consume 240g of carbohydrates per day with the option to scale up if you feel low energy during your workouts.
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What Happens If You Lift Weights But Don’t Eat Enough?
Now, just because you can get stronger without a caloric surplus doesn’t mean a sufficient amount of energy isn’t required.
If we don’t maintain a sufficient caloric and protein intake, we run the risk of our body resorting to stored protein (muscle) as usable energy. As mentioned before, this would result in muscle breakdown without the energy required for protein synthesis to occur (i.e. our muscles would not be able to rebuild themselves and grow).
In order to avoid this, research suggests that those who want to gain muscle and increase strength in a caloric deficit combined with resistance training should aim for a weekly bodyweight loss of 0.7% (Garthe et. al., 2011) or 0.5 kg (Mero et. al., 2010).
For example, if you weigh 80kg and want to continue getting strong while building muscle and losing body fat, you don’t want to see a weekly loss of more than 0.56kg on average (80kg X 0.007).
It is possible to get stronger without being in a caloric surplus, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, maintaining a high level of intense resistance training is absolutely necessary to continue to build muscle. Second, ensuring that at the time of your resistance training sessions, your body has the necessary nutrients to utilize as energy to build muscle will provide an ideal environment for muscle growth. Third, keeping your caloric intake within a safe range, avoiding extreme deficits and crash diets, will allow your body to continue building muscle without being in a caloric surplus.
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About The Author
Maggie Morgan is a level 1 PN certified nutritionist who specializes in sport, exercise and performance nutrition, a strength training coach, and an elite level athlete. Maggie has competed in bodybuilding, and is an international-level powerlifter. Currently undertaking her Masters in Counselling Psychology, Maggie is not only able to lead others in strength and aesthetics through her personal experiences and scientific nutritional foundations but additionally by addressing the psychological and behavioural implications of exercise and nutrition. Through her writing and work with clients, Maggie works to provide information that’s responsible, rational and backed up by research, science and fact within the health and fitness industry.
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