Calorie intake and gaining modest amounts of muscle
June 20, 2007 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Calorie intake and gaining modest amounts of muscle (i.e. not hardcore body-building). Plus, what is happening when your muscles are getting stronger and harder, but you've been running on a calorie deficit and losing weight?

I know that the question of "can I gain muscle while I lose fat?" is plastered all over the internet, and the answer from anyone remotely reputable is "no" followed by a bunch of stuff that seems to muddle the answer, summed up with, "not really."

So I think I understand the basics: to lose fat you consume fewer calories than you expend. To gain muscle, you must do weight-bearing exercise and eat more calories than you burn. But is that last part correct? Must you eat more than you burn, or do you try to break even with calories in/calories out? This would be for an average (in height, weight, and fitness level) woman who is trying to gain 5 or 10 pounds of muscle.

Also, I know that there is no such thing as "toning" or "firming" a muscle. You can build muscle or lose muscle. So what is happening when your muscles are getting stronger and harder, but you've been running on a calorie deficit and losing weight?

Note I am not talking about just the definition of the muscle, which is probably just from fat loss allowing the muscle to show, but actual physical hardness of the muscle, plus the ability to lift more or heavier weight.
posted by peep to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My own experience tells me that it is possible to gain muscle while losing weight.

YMMV, but anecdotally, I've lost 30 pounds in the past six months, while increasing my strength gains by a factor of 2.

Also, you can look at the 300 guys. Some of them lost up to 40 pounds in their training regimen, and they're also putting on serious muscle.

As to the second part of your question, I don't think your muscles are getting harder. I simply think your muscles are getting bigger, and there is less fat between your muscle and skin. Muscle is more dense than fat, so it gives off the impression of being "harder."
posted by unexpected at 2:34 PM on June 20, 2007

I think you're a bit confused on the underlying concepts. Any exercise you do will have multiple effects. One is that it will help strengthen the muscles that you use (building those muscles) The other effect is that the exercise will consume a certain amount of calories. (the energy to move those muscles has to come from somewhere!)

If you eat less calories than you burn, your body will use it's energy storage reserves, which primarily exist in the form of fat. Thus, most forms of exercise will allow you to do both.

If you're a bodybuilder with 3% body fat, then it may be difficult to both burn fat and gain muscle, since there's very little fat there to scavenge for calories. For anyone else it shouldn't be a problem, though.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:35 PM on June 20, 2007

My understanding is that muscles burn a lot more calories to maintain so cutting caloric intake and gaining muscle may very well speed up the rate at which fat in adipose tissue will be consumed.

However, you should keep in mind that you'll need dietary amino acids in which to build up the muscle.

Toning/firming comes from burning the fat intermixed/sheathing muscle in addition to increasing muscle fibre mass. If you have major deposits around your belly/thighs, you might need to burn those off before the fat in your, say, arms start to decrease. Your mileage will vary depending on your genetics. An example is working on developing a 'six pack' abdominals. Most people need to maintain less-than-their optimal weight in order to have "good" abs because of the underlying healthy and useful deposits of abdominal fat.

When I first started working out, as a skinny guy, I lost weight after a month of slowly putting it on. Now, I eat much more than when I first started but my weight gain has plateaued meaning that I should probably try to stuff myself with more calories every day in order to gain more muscle mass.
posted by porpoise at 3:06 PM on June 20, 2007

Response by poster: Let me distill my second paragraph to this:

Let's say a person is burning 2000 calories each day. This person is eating 1500 calories per day. Could they possibly gain 10 pound of muscle while doing this?

(I believe the answer is no, but I really do not know. It would seem you would have to eat at least 2000 calories, maybe more.)
posted by peep at 3:15 PM on June 20, 2007

I would tend to think it is possible. To make up the calorie deficit, your body would reach it's fat storage.

It would take the fat, convert back into calories, and build muscle with that.

This process is definitely not as efficient as having a calorie excess with which to build muscle with and you wouldn't gain muscle as fast, but you only asked if it was possible
posted by unexpected at 3:23 PM on June 20, 2007

Best answer: I would agree with 'possible' with the caveat that protein would need to be providing a fair proportion of those 1500 calories, and also that there would need to be enough fat present to supply to provide the energy required to build that muscle.

It's unclear what the exact requirements for muscle building are - certainly if someone were running at a caloric deficit, they would still grow hair, so it's definitely possible to build certain things in the absence of a caloric surplus.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:31 PM on June 20, 2007

Best answer: Let's say a person is burning 2000 calories each day. This person is eating 1500 calories per day. Could they possibly gain 10 pound of muscle while doing this?

It depends. If they have lots of fat deposits and are getting lots of protein, yes.

There is a point, though, where you no longer have the energy to build additional muscle. Hence my point about the bodybuilders. They have extremely low body fat, so if they're running a caloric deficit, they don't have the energy reserves to call upon. Their body will begin scavenging other systems for nutrients. (including their muscles).

A normal, slightly overweight american has plenty of energy reserves, though, so the same logic doesn't apply.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:35 PM on June 20, 2007

Best answer: There are three types of nutrients:
carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

These have different CALORIC values assigned to them. Carbs and proteins are about the same (4 kcal per gram, after the energy required to turn proteins into amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and muscle) and fats are 9 kcal per gram.

You need to eat protein to build muscle. But you also need some fats and some carbohydrates to build it, too (and to be eating healthy and not screwing your kidneys with too much protein).

When you are using energy but haven't eaten, your liver starts making glucose for your brain. It also makes ketones for the energy for the rest of your body. It makes these things by breaking down BOTH fat AND muscle. (I don't know the ratio of how much to how much.) So, just from a pure physiology standpoint, I think it'd be hard to gain 10 pounds of muscle while decreasing your calorie stores (and, maybe not very healthy for you, either, because you'd need to make up those 1500 calories from mostly protein).

Sure, you can gain muscle while losing fat, but 10 pounds seems like a lot.

It would take the fat, convert back into calories, and build muscle with that.

calories are a unit of measure. I think you may mean carbs. But fat cannot be converted into protein/amino acids, only glucose or ketones.
posted by gramcracker at 4:52 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is possible, albeit difficult.

There's a study (please, don't ask me to find it, it was ten plus years ago when I read it) where they took rats, severed one of their leg tendons and watched the progression in strength of the remaining muscle.

Fed normally: The remaining muscle hypertrophied (got larger)

Fed less: The remaining muscle got larger.

Fed nothing (starved): the remaining muscle, under load (walking) got larger; cannibalizing other tissue to deal with the need for the muscle to be stronger.
posted by filmgeek at 5:38 PM on June 20, 2007

Best answer: You can gain a little muscle while in a calorie deficit if you are new to weight training, but nowhere near 10 pounds.
If your muscles are getting firmer you are probably losing the fat covering those muscles. You might also be retaining more water in your muscles, giving them more of a pump and making them appear slightly larger.

Building muscle is hard. Because muscle is metabolically active your body cannibalizes excess muscle first when you eat less than you burn, unless you actively use that muscle hard to prevent it. It makes no sense for the systems of your body to raise your metabolism (by adding muscle) when you are not getting enough calories; that way starvation lies. So no, you are probably not going to burn fat to get the calories to build a lot of muscle, even if you aren't at extremely low body fat.

That's ok, though, because strength != muscle. You can gain a lot of strength without actually increasing muscle mass very much. A lot of the strength gains you see starting out are actually your central nervous system adapting to the exercises.

If you are gaining muscle of any significant amount without actually gaining weight, you probably aren't actually gaining that much muscle. It's hard to really figure out how much muscle you might actually be gaining since body fat readings are so fickle and it is easy to have a lot of "lean" weight in water held by the glucose your muscles hold on to when you lift reguarly.

Alas, there are no shortcuts.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:30 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

steroids. I bet a lot of the aforemntioned "300" dudes would fail a CIO urinalysis
posted by matteo at 12:31 PM on June 21, 2007

huh. from various links related to 300:
the only study that Lou has ever seen where athletes lost fat and gained muscle at the same time the athletes used only snatches and clean and jerks.
from here
posted by Chris4d at 2:25 PM on July 20, 2007

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