The question of whether you can build muscle without a calorie surplus is a frequent one. Maybe you want to maintain a lean physique with visible abs year round or maybe you hate dieting whether it’s for a bulk or a cut.
Whatever your motivation is there is no denying that and ideal situation for the average gym goer would be to consume a ‘normal’ diet on a daily basis and continue to build lean muscle mass.
At the end of the day dieting is hard for the majority of people regardless of your goals and experience. Apps like Myfitnesspal are great but constantly monitoring your food intake can take a mental toll. Therefore I’m going to lay out whether you can build muscle without being in a caloric surplus in this article.
Can you build muscle without being in a calorie surplus? You can build muscle without being in a calorie surplus as a beginner, as long as you meet your daily protein requirements of 1g-1.5g of protein per 1lb of body weights and engage in frequent resistance training then you can continue to build muscle without a calorie surplus.
What Factors Influence Muscle Growth
When you hear or read about advice aimed at building muscle there is always a constant theme that rings true and it is always training, diet and rest. These three components are always discussed in some way and are often argued about what priority you should give each.
I’m not going to join that debate as the truth is there is no scientific data available to show the best possible routine that everyone can use to build muscle, if there was, then 99% of the training population would be doing the exact same thing.
What I will do is give a brief overview over why each is essential for building muscle (don’t worry, this does relate to whether a calorie surplus is needed).
A Training Stimulus Is Needed for Muscle Growth
The most important thing to consider when looking to build muscle is whether or not you are sending the necessary signals to your body to start this process.
Chewing food releases digestive enzymes and prepares your body for the digestive process. Seems like a random example to use but your body responds to external stimulus and your actions on a day to day basis.
If you live an extremely sedentary lifestyle (desk job, no exercise, sitting for hours on end playing games and watching tv) then chances are you will have a low level of muscle mass because it’s not required by your body.
We are adaptive beings and our body responds to the stimulus or demands that it is frequently faced with and for this reason some form of resistance training is needed to start the muscle building process.
At its simplest form, resistance training causes microscopic tears to your muscle fibres/muscle tissue with which your body will repair larger and stronger than before in order to be better equipped to deal with the stimulus that caused it in the future.
It’s why lumberjacks have large forearms or cyclists have large quad and calf muscles, a repeated stimulus over time means that your body will look to adapt to that level in order to be able to better handle it on a regular basis.
Ballet is another example where constant plantar extension (being on your tiptoes) means a constant contraction of the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) and as a result ballet dancers will have better developed calves than the vast majority of gym goers and even bodybuilders!
Resistance training also kick starts the chemical and hormonal processes that are needed to build muscle, one of which is protein synthesis.
Protein Synthesis Is Needed for Muscle Growth
This point is by far the most important and most relevant and that is the process of muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
At a cellular level your body regenerates new cells all the time and I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that the body replaces its cells on average over 7 years. Well this process is also at work from a muscle perspective with muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown (MPB).
When you are in MPS you are building new muscle tissue and this is known as an anabolic state, when you are in MPB your body breaks down muscle proteins and you are known to be in a catabolic state.
Rather than MPS and MBS you are likely to be more familiar with anabolic and catabolic terminology and the aim of the game is to be in an anabolic state more often than you are in a catabolic state in order to build muscle.
The more often you are in an anabolic state the more muscle you will build as a result.
muscle protein synthesis > muscle protein breakdown = muscle growth
Anabolic hormones are testosterone, increased insulin sensitivity and protein synthesis whereas catabolic processes for building muscle are usually cortisol, insulin resistance and protein breakdown. I first started reading about this stuff on T-Nation when I was 15 and didn’t have a clue what any of it meant.
Therefore to keep it simple, in order to build muscle you want to be in a state of protein synthesis whereby you utilize amino acids (proteins) for muscle recovery and growth that has occured due to resistance training.
That’s how those two pieces fit together, for protein synthesis to be optimal you need to first switch it on through resistance training and then ensure you have enough readily available protein to be utilized.
Sufficient Recovery Is Needed for Muscle Growth
Finally, you need to be able to recover from a training session in order to grow and build muscle. Training is only the stimulus, rest and recovery is where the muscle building process occurs and this is where most people go wrong when building a physique.
Too much training and not enough resting is unfortunately not the recipe for muscle growth and this is where many fall down in their endeavours to build muscle mass.
Heavy training and fancy routines are often heavily promoted as the secrets to muscle growth whereas the boring topic or rest is often ignored. The truth is however, that your training is only as effective as your ability to recover from it.
If you want to build muscle without a large calorie surplus, or even just in general, then you need to be resting 2-4 a week without question. This will vary based on the individual but when it comes to training, more is not always best.
Can You Build Muscle Without Being in a Calorie Surplus
The above are the three key factors that are needed when it comes to building muscle and what you will hopefully note is that I’ve not mentioned a calorie surplus in any of those headings and this is because a calorie surplus is not needed to build muscle.
The key with building muscle is the above three factors but from a dieting perspective the most crucial aspect that you need to get right is covering your daily protein requirements. This is one of the key factors that I often discuss when it comes to maintaining muscle mass when cutting however it is equally as important when building muscle.
Protein is quite literally the building block of your muscles and if you cover this aspect sufficiently then there is no reason why you can’t build muscle without a calorie surplus. In fact you could still build muscle whilst in a calorie deficit depending on what your starting body fat percentage is.
At a low body fat percentage you are unlikely to have the energy stores to support muscle growth when in a calorie deficit however at a higher body fat percentage you can prioritize fat and muscle glycogen stores for energy whilst preserving and and even promoting muscle growth.
This is why the majority of beginners can change their physique so drastically and experience both fat loss and muscle growth. There are a range of factors to consider but when your diet, training and recovery is optimal then it’s very much possible.
Is a Calorie Surplus Needed to Gain Muscle
The stumbling block is of course when you become more advanced in your training and carry a high level of muscle mass. The more muscle mass you have the more energy your body requires to support it.
With more muscle comes a significantly higher level of strength, when training naturally to build a solid base of muscle you would have had to get stronger over time in heavy compound movements. This isn’t debatable about pump training or lighter weights for more reps, a natural bodybuilder needs to lift some serious weight and the same is true for an average gym goer.
If you are in the 0.001% of amazing genetics and you build muscle walking then that is fair enough but for most people reading this you will need to have built up your muscle through some hard work and heavy weights.
Your nervous system contributes to your strength just as much, if not more than overall muscle mass however there is still a correlation between muscle mass and strength to a degree, especially for a natural lifter.
Therefore, even though strength progress is non linear and works in waves, over time with progressive overload you will be lifting a lot more relative to when you first started training. This is also true of muscle growth, what you did to build your first 10lbs of muscle will not work to build the next 10lbs.
Over time to get stronger (and ultimately build more muscle) you will need to go into a calorie surplus in order to facilitate your workouts. You can’t constantly push your workouts without an ample supply of nutrients to facilitate this and as a result a calorie surplus will be required to muscle at an advanced level.
Hopefully that makes sense, a simple summary would be that you don’t need a surplus of calories to directly build muscle but you will need one to facicialte your training sessions which will then lead to muscle growth. It’s an indirect requirement at the intermediate/advanced level.
How to Calculate the Calories Needed to Build Muscle
The main macronutrient that you should be focusing on when looking to build muscle is your protein intake. As mentioned protein is quite literally the building block of your muscles and is the key ingredient when it comes to protein synthesis.
Water and glycogen are important for muscle appearance in terms of fullness and the visual appearance of size but first and foremost you need to make sure that your protein intake is high enough to support muscle growth.
There are a range of studies around the necessary protein intake for muscle growth from high intakes to low intakes. As of now there is not a universal required amount however there is a general guideline that you should look to consume. (source)
At a minimum you should look to consume 1g per 1lb of body weight, a 200lb individual would therefore require 200g of protein on a daily basis.
The accurate amount would be based on lean body mass but the majority of people don’t have the tools required to accurately give this reading (perhaps one day with technological advancements) so overall body weight will suffice.
A more common approach for muscle gain is anywhere from 1g-1.5g per 1lb of body weight and while there are some that go even higher than that, it really isn’t proven to be necessary.
Whilst I said you can build muscle even one a cut your best bet is to cover your calorie intake based on your maintenance calorie requirements. This is how many calories you require just to maintain your current weight so not a surplus or deficit.
This is slightly trickier to calculate so I put together this guide here for anyone looking to work out their calorie requirements.
If you cover your protein requirements and tick the requirements I mentioned earlier then you can certainly build muscle without a calorie surplus, just keep in mind that this is more relevant to beginners.