Lifting Weights While on a Calorie Deficit (What Are the Benefits?)

As far as overall body composition goes, I’d hope that everyone lifts weights and performs some kind of resistance training at least 2-3 times per week. This is regardless of any individual goals that you might have. 

If you are going into a calorie deficit on a cut and even considering ditching the weights for more cardio to “burn more fat” then you need to quickly reconsider this approach. 

Lifting weights while on a calorie deficit? Lifting weights on a calorie deficit will help you to preserve muscle mass and also increase energy expenditure which will facilitate the fat burning process. Lifting weights alone is not enough however, you should still be looking to maintain strength on a calorie deficit to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. 

The paragraph above sums up nicely the important lifting weights on a calorie deficit, maintaining your muscle mass should be the priority for many people that start a cut. Often the focus is on fat loss at the fastest possible rate and this is usually at the detriment of hard earned muscle mass in the process. 

In this article I’ll outline just how beneficial it is to keep lifting weights on a calorie deficit and if you are intrigued about prioritising muscle retention over fat loss on a cut then you can check out my article where it outlines the process here.

Lifting Weights While on a Calorie Deficit

As mentioned, I think people should be lifting weights and engaging in resistance training multiple times per week. It doesn’t matter if you work a desk job or are a bricklayer, if you are 20 years old or 60 years old and more importantly whether you are bulking or cutting. 

Now just to be clear I feel most people should lift weights in general but I can appreciate most wont be thrilled at the idea of being told they should lift more weights. For me however it’s a lifestyle and I’ve even got a personal gym in my living room!

Just to note I did have a rental space for this but then COVID-19 happened….

For more context though, what I really mean is that everyone should lift weights if they are particularly concerned with body composition. This is what all the information I put out is focused on, improving the way you look to both perform, feel and look better. 

Therefore when I see people asking if they should lift weights on a calorie deficit (which is a very common question on forums – source 1, 2) I immediately worry because that mentality will risk all of your hard earned progress. To me it’s like quitting a job with no savings, no plan and a mortgage to pay, it just doesn’t make much sense. 

If you don’t want to consider any of the rationale behind it then just take away that you should lift weights, even when (or especially) when on a calorie deficit. 

Should You Lift Weights When Cutting

The reason most people want to cut is for two reasons, both of which are quite similar and lend well to the other. The first is to simply lose body fat, no deeper meaning other than they have too much body fat, have gone up a jean size and need to cut down. 

The second reason is that people want to display a lean physique (which ultimately means cutting body fat) to either show their hard earned muscle mass or to just look and feel better in everyday life. 

Whatever your defining purpose for a cut is, the methods to burning body fat are the same and despite what people might think they are also straightforward. 

Consume a calorie deficit, this means you consume less calories than your body needs to maintain weight so will use fat stores as an energy source. The other side of the coin is to increase energy expenditure so that the energy you require is more than you consume through calories so again your body will use body fat stores as a source of energy. 

There are thousands of fat loss concepts and fad diets floating around but the reason a diet of soup works just like a 1,500kcal per day juicing diet works is because both involve putting your body into a deep calorie deficit. 

It’s not fancy terminology though and you can’t really market a ‘calorie deficit’ as well as a ‘14 day juicing detox’. I realise I’m a bit off topic here and sound like I’m having a keyboard warrior session but I just wanted to point out that calorie deficits are what will burn body fat up to a certain level. 

It’s often thought that cardio is the way to burn additional body fat through increasing energy expenditure but lifting weights also gets some credit for doing a similar thing. What many don’t realise however is the additional benefits that come with lifting weights when cutting and this is why it should be done alongside a cardio routine. 

Shortly I’ve got an easy to digest bullet list of the benefits you get when lifting weights in a calorie deficit but I just want to cover something very quickly first. 

What Happens If You Eat Less and Lift Weights

Many think that if you eat less and lift weights that you will get weaker and (due to less calories) and lose muscle mass (because you can’t lift heavy weights). What people don’t realise however is that lifting weights will better help you partition nutrients and put you into a fat burning state. 

If you prioritise your lifting sessions, and I mean really prioritise them making them the most important aspect of your days. Your demand for macronutrients (carbs and protein in particular) is increased and the muscles will take priority for how your body utilises these carbs. 

The more body fat you have combined with a sedentary lifestyle, the harder it is to shuttle nutrients to your muscles and therefore the more likely and easy it is to store any excess carbs or fat as body fat. This is why overweight people can gain body fat at an accelerated rate, it’s a snowball effect of the worst kind when it comes to body composition. 

Lifting weights however increases the muscles demand for these nutrients and slowly over the days, weeks and months as you lose more body fat your body becomes more sensitive to utilising these muscles for weight training instead of storing them as fat. 

I’m not saying you go from one extreme to the other and that lifting weights means that every calorie goes towards building muscle, it’s more about improving the percentages. 

Therefore even though you start to eat less, if you still increase the muscles requirements for calories to fuel and recover from training sessions then you then can place a greater emphasis on using stored body fat as an energy source. 

The deeper into a calorie deficit you go the more difficult it is to maintain strength and train with heavy weights (which we’ll cover shortly) but the benefits of doing so far outweigh the downsides. 

As a beginner even if you eat less the new stimulus means that you can actually build muscle and burn body fat at the same time so don’t shy away from the weights and worry about any negatives because there are none even worth mentioning here. 

Is It Possible to Build Muscle Lifting With a Calorie Deficit

I just touched on this point and while I said earlier that your focus should be on maintaining muscle mass during a calorie deficit there is actually an exception that means you can build muscle while in a calorie deficit. 

This would of course mean that lifting weights while on a calorie deficit would be a no brainer, who wouldn’t want to build muscle while burning body fat?

The exception of course is for beginners and a beginner is someone with less than 1 years training experience, not necessarily someone that has never trained before.

The human body is highly adaptable and overtime something that initially caused a certain effect or response will be substantially lessened over time. The best example of this is caffeine in the form of coffee. 

When you first start taking coffee you are hypersensitive to the effects of the caffeine and will get a buzz, feeling of alertness and mental focus. It’s why pre workouts recommend you start with a minimum recommended dosage. 

Over time however, your body gets used to the caffeine and you require more and more coffee to get the same effect (in some cases your receptors are too desensitized to ever get the same stimulus). 

The same is kind of true with lifting weights, at first the new stimulus triggers your body to adapt and grow and you can do so at an accelerated rate known as beginner gains. Over time however, what you did to grow 5lbs of muscle mass will not work to grow the next 5lbs. 

When you’re a beginner you are so sensitive to the effects of lifting weights that even with lower calories you can build muscle mass. As your strength and training volume increases however then it becomes increasingly difficult/impossible to maintain this which is where bulking and cutting cycles come into the equation. 

Therefore it is certain possible to build muscle in a calorie deficit as a beginner, especially at a higher body fat percentage because you already have the fat stores to use as energy while your body makes use of other calories to support muscle growth. 

What Are the Benefits of Lifting Weights in a Calorie Deficit

As promised here is a list of the benefits that you can get from lifting weights on a calorie deficit. It’s by no means comprehensive but hopefully it will be enough to ensure you keep lifting and don’t let your progress go to waste. 

  • You will increase energy expenditure without having to do additional cardio
  • You will maintain and retain as much muscle mass as possible (my personal number 1 benefit, building muscle is hard work so why sacrifice it so easily)
  • You will improve nutrient partitioning from fat storage to muscle utilization
  • As a beginner you can build muscle while still burning body fat at the same time
  • Lifting weights releases endorphins and increases dopamine meaning that can elevate your mood (something that can often suffer during a cut and I discuss that here)
  • You improve your hormonal balance (testosterone and insulin sensitivity) which are often affected when at a higher body fat percentage and during a cut
  • You get a mental break and distraction. This is one of the most important things when in a calorie deficit and feeling hungry. Boredom and no clear focus often lead to overeating and people falling off the wagon during a cut. 

Should You Lift Heavy on a Calorie Deficit

Finally, I just wanted to touch on the importance of lifting heavy on a calorie deficit. I’ve said it’s important to continue to lift weights and look to maintain muscle mass but usually the advice you will come across for a cut is to lift lighter weights for higher reps. 

This is probably the worst thing you can do, especially as a natural lifter. In order to maintain muscle you need to place the same or similar demands on your body as those which caused the initial adaptation (muscle growth). 

The human body is very efficient and will not hold on to excess muscle mass if the demands placed on it from a daily and weekly basis do not require it. This is even more true when you are cutting and a calorie restriction causes a survival like response. 

The more muscle mass you have the greater the energy requirements are which is why the majority of people are 220lbs of lean muscle mass. The energy requirements are too high and most people don’t need that much muscle. 

Therefore you need to give your body a reason to hold on to your hard earned muscle mass and the key to doing that is to maintain strength and lift heavy. The term heavy here is relative to your own strength level. 

If you always bench press around 225lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps then this is what you should be striving to maintain when cutting. I’m not saying this is easy and as you cut calories it will get harder and harder meaning you will lose reps and eventually need to drop the weight slightly. 

The key is to maintain as much strength as possible so while it won’t be easy you will need to lift heavy relative to your usual workouts even with a calorie deficit.