Last updated on September 16th, 2022 at 03:52 pm
You’re not the only one wondering, “Why Do You Need to Be in a Calorie Surplus to Build Muscle?”
It’s almost a given that if you want to build muscle that you’ll need to eat at a calorie surplus.
With that being said, it’s actually quite difficult to find evidence to support this claim.
Plus, you may even have seen with your own eyes people who appear to pack on muscle without consuming additional calories.
Allow me to explain what you need to know about eating in a calorie surplus and building muscle.
Why Do You Need to Be in a Calorie Surplus to Build Muscle?
You don’t actually need a calorie surplus to build muscle. In fact, some people are capable of building muscle in a calorie deficit. But, this is easier for those who are new to training or overweight. That said, even experienced lifters may be able to build a little muscle in a calorie deficit. However, muscle requires energy to grow. So, if you’re looking to pack on a lot of muscle you’ll require much more energy, which is typically best provided by a calorie surplus.
1. You Can Build Muscle WITHOUT a Calorie Surplus
Here’s the shocker – you don’t actually need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle.
In fact, there is a great deal of research and evidence which shows that people are actually building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
Plus, this typically requires them to be in a calorie deficit.
Okay, I’ll admit that your current physique and overall training experience have a role to play.
Realistically, someone very new to training will add muscle fairly quickly without having to change their diet in any way.
This is generally referred to as “newbie gains”, although it doesn’t last forever, and will eventually plateau.
If you think about it, someone new to lifting is stimulating their muscles in ways that they’ve probably never experienced before.
So, it is this that leads to new gains in muscle and strength.
However, as I say, this won’t last forever, and a newbie will probably only experience this type of growth for a month or two.
Furthermore, those who are overweight or obese can also build muscle without being in a calorie surplus.
By the way, this isn’t a case of fat turning into muscle, as they are two completely different types of body tissue.
Once more, this is simply due to the new level of stimulation through resistance training.
So, this all sounds great for those who are new to training or overweight, but what about the rest of us?
Well, it just so happens that even an experienced trainee can build muscle without a calorie surplus.
However, this does very much depend on your starting point, and as someone who is extremely lean it will be very difficult to build muscle without the additional calories.
With that being said, even someone who is very lean can add small amounts of muscle, even while in a calorie deficit.
But, in truth, this may be hardly noticeable to the naked eye.
Plus, it probably isn’t as much muscle growth as most of us would wish for.
2. Muscle Protein Synthesis Builds Muscle
Just in case you weren’t aware, how big your muscles can grow is determined by the relationship between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown.
Basically, as long a protein synthesis is greater than muscle breakdown you’ll build muscle.
So, whenever you train your muscles you will experience the breaking down of muscle tissue.
Then through rest, recovery and nutrition, a metabolic process which breaks down protein into amino acids occurs.
And as I’ve mentioned, as long as muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown, your muscles will get bigger.
There is also evidence which shows that muscle protein synthesis decreases if you’re in a calorie deficit for too long.
And this is why most people claim that you can’t build muscle while in a calorie deficit.
However, in truth, this is only if you’re in a calorie deficit for an extended period.
So, even for those who train regularly, a week or two in a calorie deficit is unlikely to impede muscle growth (as long as you’re training with the required intensity).
Conversely, there is actually an increase in muscle protein synthesis when you’re in a calorie surplus.
Therefore, a calorie surplus actually supports anabolism (the metabolic process that builds and grows).
3. Muscle Requires Energy to Grow
There’s no way around it, if you want to build muscle then you’ll require energy to do so.
And this energy has to come from somewhere, right?
So, when I spoke of someone being overweight being able to build muscle while in a calorie deficit, the energy is provided by their excess body fat.
When it comes to someone new to training, they will typically have “surplus” energy, which hasn’t been used due to living a sedentary lifestyle.
Basically, every time you eat you are literally topping up your glycogen stores, which can then be used for energy.
This glycogen-based energy is generally provided by all foods, but mainly from carbohydrates.
So, as you can see, fats and carbohydrates are a great source of energy to train and lift weights.
Plus, the requirement for protein should be obvious now, as your body needs to go through muscle protein synthesis in order to build muscle.
However, if you’re in a calorie deficit, or even eating maintenance calories, you need to get this energy from somewhere.
A calorie deficit could also be called an energy deficit, so as I say, you’ll need energy to train.
This energy can be provided by body fat when you’re not eating at a calorie surplus.
But, it should be obvious by now that someone who is lean and well-trained probably won’t have a great deal of body fat to call on for energy.
And this is the most obvious reason why most of us need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle.
Gain Muscle Without Bulking – Is a Calorie Surplus Needed?
4. Don’t Overdo the Calorie Surplus to Build Muscle
When it comes to eating at a calorie surplus to build muscle most people overdo it.
In fact, seeing that someone has increased their daily calorie intake by 500-1,000 calories worries me.
Basically, the aim of eating at a calorie surplus or “bulking” is to gain weight gradually.
Plus, your hope is that this weight gain is mainly muscle, as opposed to body fat.
In truth, if you are eating more calories than you’re burning you’ll gain weight, and some of this is likely to be fat.
However, you can keep this to the bare minimum by being sensible about the way that you eat.
Unfortunately, what most people do is to perform some type of a “dirty bulk”, gain loads of weight and body fat.
Then they’ll go on an extremely restrictive cut in order to lose body fat, while trying to maintain as much muscle mass as possible.
However, in reality, they’re probably just gaining fat and then losing fat, and not much more.
Furthermore, this way of eating by constantly fluctuating your calories can play havoc with your metabolism.
So, eventually you may even get to the stage where it’s really difficult to build muscle, and even harder to lose body fat.
For the vast majority of people you don’t really want to be gaining much more than 0.5-1 pound per week.
This way you can have more control over how much body fat you’re gaining, while ensuring that you have the required energy for your muscle-building workouts.
Personally, I prefer to increase my daily calorie intake by approximately 200 calories.
I’d then try that for 7-10 days to see how I feel and whether it’s making any difference.
I can then make any changes I deem necessary.
So, by all means, eat at a calorie surplus, but be wary of exactly how much you increase your daily food intake.
So, I hope you understand that you don’t actually need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle.
However, for the vast majority of us it helps by providing additional energy to train, as well as promoting muscle protein synthesis.
With that being said, energy can be provided by body fat, so anyone who is overweight can build muscle while in a calorie deficit.
The same can be said for someone new to training, as they’re body isn’t used to the stimulation.
And even for those of us with a lot of training experience there is the possibility of adding muscle when consuming fewer calories.
But, those muscle gains are unlikely to be significant.
So, it makes sense to eat in a calorie surplus to build muscle, but you don’t want to overdo this with excessive calories.
Are you looking to build muscle while keeping unwanted body fat at bay? If so, Frank Rich has created a 12-week muscle-building workout program. 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.