The general rules of training and eating are typically, if you want to gain muscle mass then eat at a calorie surplus, and if you want to lose body fat then eat at a calorie deficit.
So, where exactly does strength fit into this equation?
Is it possible to get stronger eating in a calorie deficit or do you need to follow the same rules as building muscle.
Here’s what you need to know.
Can I Get Stronger in a Calorie Deficit?
Yes, you can definitely get stronger in a calorie deficit. This is especially true if you are new to, or have taken a long break from, strength training. With that being said, even someone who trains regularly can gain strength while in a calorie deficit. However, this will depend on the fat mass they carry, as well as how many calories below maintenance they’re eating.
1. Newbie Gains & Neural Adaptations
It is definitely possible to get stronger in a calorie deficit, but some people will have a much easier time of this than others.
This is especially true if you are very new to strength training or if you’ve taken a fairly long hiatus.
Firstly, you’ve probably heard of “newbie gains”, and perhaps even experienced them yourself.
In fact, this is often one of the most pleasing times for anyone who’s ever trained with weights.
Basically, you seem to get stronger and build muscle with each subsequent workout.
However, as with most things in life, all good things must come to an end, and eventually your gains will plateau.
With that being said, most newbie gains come about regardless of nutrition, and whether you’re in a calorie surplus or deficit.
In effect, you’re typically coming from an almost sedentary lifestyle, and suddenly your activity levels have increased.
And there is usually a lot of strength gains available at this stage.
This is often referred to as “neural adaptation”.
Whenever you strength train you’ll develop motor neuron pathways.
This is just another way of saying that you increase your brain-body coordination.
So, in effect, your brain will tell your body to recruit certain muscles to help you perform a movement.
However, neural adaptations will gradually decrease over time, i.e. newbie gains have stopped and you’ve been training regularly for a while now.
Funnily enough, the exact same phenomenon occurs in someone who has previously strength-trained, but has taken a long break from working out.
In effect, they have to go through the whole process of “starting out” again, and can therefore initially achieve some significant strength gains, irrespective of nutrition.
2. Be Wary of Excessive Calorie Deficits
Okay, so it seems like great news for new lifters and those who’ve had a long break.
But, what about the rest of us who train regularly?
Once more, you can definitely increase strength as a regular lifter, while in a calorie deficit.
However, you shouldn’t expect your strength gains to be as momentous as those new to training.
In fact, new lifters will even experience muscle growth while at a calorie deficit, although this is much harder as an experienced lifter.
Basically, calories and your overall nutrition are much more important once your body has adapted to training.
I still say that it is possible for an experienced lifter to get stronger in a calorie deficit, but this also depends on how much of a deficit.
The main reason that most of us choose to eat in a deficit is to either lose weight or body fat.
And the more fat mass you carry, the more likely it is that you’ll get stronger and perhaps even achieve some muscle gain too.
With that being said, as someone who lifts regularly I would suggest that you keep your calorie deficit to the bare minimum if you also want to get stronger.
Therefore, try to eat 200-300 fewer calories than maintenance.
This should ensure that you have adequate energy to train effectively.
In essence, you probably won’t lose more than 0.5-1lb per week eating at a calorie deficit like this.
However, this will allow you to lift weights, get stronger, while increasing your metabolic rate (so you burn more calories while at rest).
3. Protein is the Key
Probably the best way to gain strength while in a calorie deficit is to ensure a large percentage of your calories come from protein.
Gaining strength not only comes from regular strength training, but also protein muscle synthesis.
So, it makes a great deal of sense that the more protein you eat, the stronger you can effectively get.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can ignore carbs or fats, as they both play a role in energy demands and your overall health.
How much protein you should consume will very much depend on your starting physique.
But, if you’re eating at a calorie deficit and want to get stronger then I’d suggest eating around 1 – 1.25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Therefore, as an example, a 180lb man should aim to eat:
180 x 1.25 = 225 grams of protein a day.
There are 4 calories per gram of protein, so this amount of protein is the equivalent of 900 calories.
You can use the following Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) calculator to determine your maintenance calories (and then subtract 200-300 calories for your deficit calories).
Having used the above TDEE for a 180lb man, it tells me that they should eat 2,463 calories per day (300 calories below maintenance).
So, we now know that 900 of these calories should come from protein, whereas the remaining calories should be “filled” with carbs and fats.
How Much Protein Per Day For Muscle Growth & Fat Loss
4. Test & Evaluate Your Calorie Deficit
Something else I would suggest is that you regularly track, test, and evaluate your training and nutrition.
Your aim is to get stronger, while simultaneously losing weight or body fat.
However, as I’ve mentioned, your gains as an experienced lifter are somewhat limited.
Therefore, it makes sense to track everything for 10-14 days and then make changes if necessary.
For me, one thing I have noticed is that I would typically feel short of energy if my training volume was high when in a calorie deficit.
However, it worked out very well when I kept the volume of my workouts low, but increased my training frequency.
In effect, my strength-training workouts would last 30-35 minutes, but I was training 5-6 times a week.
But, due to the fact that my protein intake was high I managed to maintain lean muscle mass, lose body fat, while gaining strength.
Admittedly, it took me a while to get the right mix of training volume and frequency.
Basically, when I was training for an hour per workout for 4 days a week I found that I was running out of energy.
In effect, the last 20 minutes of each workout saw me make little effort, while training at a fairly easy intensity.
This of course is not what you want.
So, make sure that you regularly test and evaluate both your nutrition and workouts.
Eventually you’ll find what works for you.
So, as you can see, it is indeed possible to get stronger in a calorie deficit.
Admittedly, this is much easier for those new to training or people who have taken a long break from strength training.
However, strength gains are still possible for an experienced lifter, but these definitely won’t be as significant.
You can increase your chances of gaining strength in a calorie deficit by ensuring that a large percentage of your nutrition comes from protein.
This will allow you to maintain muscle mass, while progressively overloading your weight training to increase strength.
Plus, it makes sense to regularly track your progress and re-evaluate if and when necessary.
If you’re looking to gain strength, build muscle, and lose body fat at the same time then I’ve got just the thing for you. Bodybuilder Frank Rich has created a 12-week workout program to help you achieve your goals. You can see exactly what I thought of Frank’s program in my Massthetic Muscle Review.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.