Gaining muscle mass in a deficit vs. bulking (research review)


Written by
: Adam Tzur
Acknowledgements
: Brandon Roberts
Article length: ~3200 words
Last updated: 21.05.2017 – Added more studies
Studies reviewed: 60+

   

 

 

 

Summary


  • Beginners and people with relatively high fat percentages (i.e. >20% bf for men) can gain muscle mass & strength in a deficit (aka cut or fat loss program). Intermediates might be able to as well. If your body fat is low and you’re well trained, it’s safer to go for a slow/lean bulk.
  • A dirty bulk might lead to quicker muscle gains but also much more fat gains. Yet, the evidence for muscle gains isn’t very strong and we need more studies.
  • Studies suggest that it’s harder to gain muscle mass compared to strength in a deficit, if you’re trained. But, you might be able to do both depending on the factors listed in this article.
  • Is there one diet that is best for everyone? Probably not, given the data on how differently we respond to similar diets and training programs. The research suggests we need to individualize diets and programs based on body fat, energy expenditure/energy needs, muscle mass, training level, gender, genetics, adherence, and goals. How well you can stick
    to a training program & diet over time is one of the most overlooked factors when we’re talking about which approach is best.
  • Limitations: There’s a lack of studies directly comparing bulking, cutting, recomping, and deficit gaining. The studies we have today are usable and relevant, but we need to make logical inferences when comparing them to each other. This involves some speculation.

Definitions

  • Untrained = Someone who is new to lifting. A beginner.
  • Trained = These are intermediately trained lifters. Usually, they will have 2+ years of experience with strength training. They need to have a certain strength level for 1RM (I calculate this myself based on subject body weight, lean body mass, strength level, and training experience).
  • Advanced = These people are usually athletes or bodybuilders. They are very strong in relation to body weight, and usually have a lot of lean mass (i.e. rugby players). Or, they could be bodybuilders with a lot of lean mass and low body fat %.

 

 

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Can we gain in a deficit?


Before we answer this question, let’s get some things out of the way:

  1. We might lose muscle mass if we cut calories without doing strength training (Villareal et al., 2016). Hence, it’s important to do strength training while cutting to avoid muscle loss (Stiegler and Cunliffe 2006; Miller et al., 2013; Churchward-Venne et al., 2013; Trexler et al., 2014; Helms et al., 2014a; Helms et al., 2014b; Murphy et al., 2014; Hulmi et al., 2016). But in older adults, aerobic training in itself could preserve more muscle mass than being sedentary (Weinheimer et al., 2010).
  2. Cutting should be done with small or moderate deficits (i.e. around -500 kcal) to avoid loss of muscle mass (Garthe et al., 2011; Sundgot-Borgen and Garthe, 2011; Trexler et al., 2014; Helms et al., 2014a; Murphy et al., 2014; Khodaee et al., 2015; Manore et al., 2015; Hulmi et al., 2016). Very low calorie diets might lead to more muscle atrophy (Chaston et al., 2007).
  3. There are other negative effects of rapid weight loss (hormonal, physiological, and psychological) (Sundgot-Borgen and Garthe, 2011; Franchini et al., 2012; Trexler et al., 2014; Khodaee et al., 2015; Manore et al., 2015; Hulmi et al., 2016; Aloui et al., 2016; Hulmi et al., 2016). I will review this in more detail in another article.
  4. You might want to eat a high-protein diet when you go on a cut to preserve muscle mass (Stiegler and Cunliffe 2006; Wycherley et al., 2012; Churchward-Venne et al., 2013; Pasiakos et al., 2013; Phillips, 2014; Trexler et al., 2014; Helms et al., 2014; Helms et al., 2014a; Murphy et al., 2014; Manore et al., 2015; Kim et al., 2016; Hulmi et al., 2016).
    For example, 1.5-1.8 grams protein per kg bw (Phillips, 2014; Murphy et al., 2014; Hulmi et al., 2016). Maybe even more (i.e. >2 grams per kg bw) (Phillips, 2014; Murphy et al., 2014; Helms et al., 2014).

 

“In determining an appropriate caloric intake, it should be noted that the tissue lost during the course of an energy deficit is influenced by the size of the energy deficit. While greater deficits yield faster weight loss, the percentage of weight loss coming from lean body mass (LBM) tends to increase as the size of the deficit increases [7, 13, 14, 15].” – Helms et al., 2014a

 

Gaining in a caloric deficit

There are several studies that suggest beginners and novice/intermediate lifters can gain muscle and strength while losing fat. Though, trained lifters might lose muscle mass when they cut. It depends on many factors. See the table below for an overview of the studies.

 

Overview of deficit gaining and body recomp studies

Note that I’ve excluded several studies from this table. For example, studies with unhealthy subjects, low protein intakes, and some studies where participants didn’t strength train. I do this because it’s normal to lose muscle mass when subjects don’t lift or eat enough protein. Studies below are RCTs unless stated otherwise.

[expand title=”CLICK HERE TO SEE THE STUDIES“]

 


Gaining muscle or strength while losing or maintaining fat (deficit or recomp)


Maintaining muscle or strength in a deficit


Losing muscle or strength in a deficit

Sigal et al., 2014

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 304
Duration: 22 weeks
Diet: not controlled
Untrained
Young (14-18 yo)
Boys and girls
Gained strength, lost fat (hypertrophy not measured)

Halliday et al., 2016

Case study
Contest prep
Duration: 20 weeks
Trained
26 yo w
oman
“Body fat (assessed via DXA) decreased from 15.1% (8.3 kg) at baseline to 8.6% (4.3 kg) by Week 20 of PREP. Lean mass was maintained at 44.3 kg pre and post PREP”

van der Ploeg et al., 2001

⋆ ⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆
N = 10
Duration:12 weeks
Trained
Mean age = 30-35 years
Women
Contest prep, they dropped down to 12% BF and lost some FFM

Treuth et al., 1994

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆

RCT
N = 22
Duration: 16 weeks
Untrained
Old (60 yo)
Men
Gained strength, 2kg FFM, lost 2kg FM

Mettler et al., 2010

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 20
Duration: 2 weeks
Resistance-trained”
Mean age 25 years
Men (athletes)
Control: lost 3 kg body mass, 1.6kg lean mass
High protein: Lost 1.5kg body mass, 0.3kg LBM
The short duration precludes hard conclusions, but a “loss” of 0.3kg LBM is so small that I consider this maintenance. Too many confounders.

Hulmi et al., 2016

⋆ ⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 50
Duration: ~20 weeks
Trained (3.5 years RT experience)
Mean age = 27 years
Women (IFBB competitors)
Contest prep
They lost about ~9-10% body fat and most lost FFM. They hit ~12% BF

Donnelly et al., 1993

Quality not assessed

N = 14
Duration: 13 weeks
Untrained
Obese women
800 kcal diet
16 kg weight lost
24% weight lost was FFM (glycogen/water mass loss?)
Gain in fiber CSA

Rossow et al., 2013

Case study
Contest prep
Trained
Man
Went down to 3% BF, lost FFM

Demling and DeSanti, 2000

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 38
Duration: 12 weeks
Untrained
Mean age = 34 years
Overweight men
Mean fat loss 2.5 to 7 kg over 3 different groups
Strength training groups gained 2 and 4 kg FFM. Strength increased 29 and 59%

Kistler et al., 2014

Case study
Contest prep
Duration: 28 weeks
Trained
Man
Went down to 7% BF, lost FFM

Arazi and Asadi, 2011


⋆ ⋆
N = 39
Duration: 1 + 8 weeks
Untrained
20 yo
Men
Increased arm circumference and strength, but body fat & decreased.

Robinson et al., 2015

Case study
Contest prep
Duration: 14 weeks
Trained
Man
The energy deficit was 882 ± 433 kcal/d and this led to a reduction of 6.7 kg’s (or 6.8% body fat or 33 mm using sum of 8 skinfolds) and 5.0 kg’s, in fat mass and FFM, respectively.“

Nindl et al., 2000

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 31
Duration: 24 weeks
Untrained
Mean age = 28 years
Women
10% decreased fat mass, 2.2% increase LBM. Increased rectus femoris CSA and total thigh CSA

Pasiakos et al., 2013

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 39
Duration: 3 weeks
Untrained
Did only non-overload “easy” RT

Adults
Military men & women
All groups lost FM and FFM

Out of the total body mass loss, protein groups lost 30-36% FFM and 64-70% FM.
RDA protein group lost 58% FFM.

Palumbo et al., 2017

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆

N = 16
Duration: 12 weeks
Untrained
Mean age = ~31 years
Women
Lost ~1.7 to ~2 kg fat
Gained ~1.2 kg LBM (DXA). LBM gains were only significant to the limbs they were training (upper-body group vs lower-body group)
Total body mass unchanged (recomposition).

Josse et al., 2010

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 20
Duration: 12 weeks
Untrained
BMI = 25-26
Mean age = 23 years
Women
Lost 1.6kg fat,
~2 kg gain in LBM
Strength increased in all exercises by 52-103%

Consolazio et al., 1975

Quality not assessed

N = ?
Duration: ~6 weeks
Untrained
Mean age = ?
Men
Protein group gained 3.28 % LBM and lost 2.21 kg fat mass

Eliot et al., 2008

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 42
Duration: 14 weeks
Untrained
Age = 48-72 years
Men
Whey Protein group increased arm bone-free FFM by 8.2% (*), and whole-body BF-FFM by 0.7 kg (non-significant). Fat mass was completely unchanged (0 kg).
Body recomposition

Hartman et al., 2007

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 56
Duration: 12 weeks
Previously trained / retraining
Age = 18-30 years old
Men
In the Milk protein group, Bone-free FFM increased by 3.9 kg (*), mean 1RM incline leg press increased by 102% (from 186 kg to 377 kg) (*), type II muscle fiber CSA increased by about ~36.5% (*), fat mass decreased by 0.8 kg (*)

Example

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N =
Duration:
Untrained
Mean age =
Men/Women

Verreijen et al., 2017

Quality not assessed

N = 100
Duration: 10 weeks
Untrained
55–80 year old obese men
Lost 3kg fat mass, gained 0.5kg LBM (PRO+EX group)

Josse and Phillips, 2012
Review
Women
Milk and other dairy foods (…), in combination with resistance exercise (…), have been shown to consistently improve body composition in women under both iso- and hypoenergetic conditions.”

Meirelles and Gomes, 2016

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 21
Duration: 8 weeks
Beginners
Mean age = 32-45 years
Overweight and obese
Men and women
BF decreased 3-5%, waist circumference decreased by ~4 cm,
maintained muscle thickness,
14-19% increase in strength

Meirelles and Gomes, 2016

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆
N = 21
Duration: 8 weeks
Beginners
Mean age = 32-45 years
Overweight and obese
Men and women
BF decreased 3-5%, waist circumference decreased by ~4 cm,
maintained muscle thickness,
14-19% increase in strength

Longland et al., 2016

⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆
N = 40
Duration: 4 weeks
Trained (intermediate), but “untrained” according to study
23 year old
Men
Increased LBM by 1.2kg, lost 4.8kg fat, and added 170kg to their leg press and 40 kg to their bench press.
Supposedly they were detrained football players retraining. However, this isn’t mentioned in the study.

Kerksick et al., 2006

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 36
Duration: 10 weeks
Trained
(5.3 years experience)
Mean age = 31 years
Men
Whey and Casein group gained 1.9 kg LBM (*), bench press increased by 8 kg (*), fat mass was unchanged (0.1 kg)
Body recomposition

Cribb et al., 2007

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 26
Duration: 11 weeks
Trained
(mean training experience = 4-6 years. ~100kg 1RM bench at baseline, body mass=70 kg for WP group)
Mean age = ~24-25 years
Men
Whey Protein group gained 1.3kg LBM (*), added ~20 kg to their bench press (*), muscle fiber CSA increased (*), fat increased 0.4 kg (non-significant)
Body recomposition

Garthe et al., 2011
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 30
Duration: 8.5 weeks for slow cut group
Novice and intermediate lifters
Mean age = ~21 years
Men & women
Slow cut group reduced BW by 5.6%, total LBM increased by 2.1%. Bench press and squat 1RM strength gains were 12-14%.

Garthe et al., 2011
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 30
Duration: 8.5 weeks for slow cut group
Novice and intermediate lifters
Mean age = ~21 years
Men & women
Fast reduction group maintained LBM while losing fat

MacKenzie-Shalders et al., 2016

⋆ ⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆
N = 24
Duration: 6+6 weeks
Trained elite rugby athletes
Baseline mean body mass = 101.5kg, 75.5 kg LBM
Mean age = 20 years
Men
They added 2.7 kg LBM in 12 weeks while losing about 2 kg fat
Maybe on steroids

Burke et al., 2001

Quality not assessed
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 42 (23 in final analysis)
Duration: 6 weeks
Trained (4+ years RT)
Age = 18-31 years
Men
Whey group increase LBM by 2.3 kg (*)
Fat mass decreased by 0.6 kg (not significant). Strength 1RM gains
Hence, body recomposition

Hoffman et al., 1990

or ⋆ ⋆ ⋆
(depending on outcome)
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 61
Duration: 10 weeks
Trained
Baseline BW between 75 and 125 kg. Bench press 1RM between 95.6 and 156 kg
Mean age 20 years
Men
Gained chest and thigh circumference and increased strength, while losing body weight

Dudgeon et al., 2017

⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆
N = 16
Duration: 8 weeks
Intermediately trained (RT for 2 years) Baseline: ~67 kg LBM and ~12 kg fat
Age = 21-28 years
Men
protein group
gained strength while losing fat mass

Dudgeon et al., 2017

⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆
N = 16
Duration: 8 weeks
Intermediately trained (RT for 2 years) Baseline: ~67 kg LBM and ~12 kg fat
Age = 21-28 years
Men
protein group
preserved lean mass while losing fat mass

Crewther et al., 2016

⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆

N = 24
Duration: 4 + 4 weeks
Trained
(2+ years experience 3x per week)

Mean age 29.8 years
Men
Both groups gained squat and BP 1RM strength while decreasing body fat %. FFM increased (
skinfolds!)

Hulmi et al., 2016

⋆ ⋆ ⋆
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
N = 50
Duration: ~20 weeks
Trained (3.5 years RT experience)
Mean age = 27 years
Women (IFBB competitors)

Contest prep
They lost about ~9-10% body fat. They hit ~12% BF.
Some of the women increased FFM

Robinson et al., 2014

Case study
Duration: 12 weeks
25 yo
Woman
“Body mass loss was 1.10 kg. Fat mass loss was 1.55 kg and lean-tissue mass increased by 0.45 kg.”

Marks et al., 1995

Quality not assessed

N = 44
Duration: 20 weeks
Inactive, overweight
Women
20-49 yo
Body mass loss for intervention groups was between -3.7 to -5.4 kg. Strength 1RM increased significantly for both DR and DRC.

Marks et al., 1995

Quality not assessed

N = 44
Duration: 20 weeks
Inactive, overweight
Women
20-49 yo
Body mass loss for intervention groups was between -3.7 to -5.4 kg. All groups maintained FFM.

[/expand]

 

Deficit gaining, recomping, or bulking?


We are similar, yet different

Athletes gain differently when bulking, as shown in the graph below. The same is true for cutting (Garthe et al., 2011). Not everyone can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. It might depend on factors like:

 

Garthe et al., 2012 – Athletes respond differently to bulking.

A great deal of studies show that there are high-responders, low-responders, and non-responders to training. This means that our bodies react differently to similar training programs and diets. I won’t go into details here, but check out my article on it, and Greg’s, as well.

Cutting with little body fat

You might be more likely to lose muscle mass if you cut calories when your body fat is already low (i.e. below 7-10% for men) (Rossow et al., 2013; Helms et al., 2014a; Kistler et al., 2014; Huovinen et al., 2015; Robinson et al., 2015). In two studies on women bodybuilding competitors, they lost fat and muscle mass during contest prep but it was probably because they hit 12% body fat by the end (van der Ploeg et al., 2001; Hulmi et al., 2016). This is very low for women! To illustrate it, women suffering from anorexia nervosa have 9-13% body fat (Mayo-Smith, 1989; Mayer et al., 2005). The menstrual cycle can stop when body fat becomes very low (Halliday et al., 2016). Some suggest 12% for women is akin to 4% for men. Here’s a comparison image from Builtlean:

I don’t want to encourage you to drop to unhealthy bodyfat levels that are akin to eating disorders. So please consider your level of body fat before you decide to restrict calories. Drastic calorie reductions might lead to disordered eating (Manore et al., 2015). Although, this shouldn’t be a problem for most of us since we’re more likely to have too much body fat rather than too little.

 

What is the best method to gain muscle and lose fat?

Preface

“The best method” depends on your diet and program (Helms et al., 2014b). As we see in the graph below, some women were able to gain lean mass, but most did not (though they did go to very low body fat levels, which affects gains!). They all used their own diets and training programs.


Figure by Hulmi et al., 2016

With that caveat out of the way, let’s see what the research has to say.

Bulking

Bulking (eating in a surplus) is the traditional way of gaining muscle mass. You can gain slowly (lean bulk) or quickly (dirty bulk). It’s sometimes said that a dirty bulk is better for putting on muscle mass, but you will also gain a lot of fat at the same time (Garthe et al., 2012). In the figure below, the dirty bulk group gained a lot more fat than the lean bulk group.

“The excess energy intake in a weight gain protocol should (…) be considered carefully since greater rates of gain are likely to include larger increases in body fat storage in already strength-trained athletes” – Garthe et al., 2012


Bar chart by Garthe et al., 2012 (Edited for clarity) – The white group (NCG) ate ~3600kcal, black group ate ~3000kcal

Some have pointed out that the amount of energy you consume affects how much muscle you can build:

“a significant correlation between total energy intake and gains in lean mass (r = .43, p = .04) was demonstrated” – MacKenzie-Shalders et al., 2016

Others support this idea as well, the more energy and protein you consume, the more gains. From a metabolic ward study:


Figure by Bray et al., 2012 – Note that the participants were in a metabolic ward and they did not strength train during the intervention and still gained LBM. High and medium protein groups increased their energy expenditure by about 200 kcal by the end of the study

Though if you don’t consume enough protein, the extra energy is stored as fat, as you can see in the low-protein group (same study):

Bar chart by Churchward-Venne et al., 2013, based on Bray et al., 2012. This shows us that it’s necessary to consume enough protein if we want to gain LBM.

“With the low protein diet, more than 90% of the extra energy was stored as fat. Because there was no change in lean body mass” – Bray et al., 2012

In conclusion for bulking, there’s some evidence that more calories might lead to greater LBM gains, but the evidence isn’t very strong and we need more studies.

Gaining in a caloric deficit

It is possible to gain muscle mass and strength in a caloric deficit, but there are many factors that decide whether it will work for you or not. It’s probably a good idea to go for deficit gaining if you’re overweight, or a beginner/novice. If you’re both, even better.

If you are, however, a lean athlete with years of strength training experience, it might work, it might not. I can’t speak in certainties. You could try it, just make sure to keep protein high (i.e. 2g per kg bw), go for a slow cut (maximum -500kcal per day), get enough sleep & recovery, avoid excessive stress, have the right genetics, and use a solid strength training program. The better your body composition is, the harder deficit gaining will be for you, in all likelihood (Helms et al., 2014b; Rossow et al., 2013; Kistler et al., 2014; Huovinen et al., 2015). The graph below shows that endurance athletes with lower body fat %, lost FFM on a cut. Those with body fat over 10% did not.


Correlation by Huovinen et al., 2015. Note that they didn’t follow a strength training program in this study and that the sample size was small.

Gaining strength is easier, because more studies suggest that you can gain strength even if you’re quite well trained (see the study overview table above for details).


Bar chart by Garthe et al., 2011 – Novice/intermediate lifters gain more strength on the BP during a slow cut (SR) compared to a quick cut (FR).

 

Limitations


Measuring FFM with DXA is imperfect, but not useless

DXA and FFM measurements are imperfect (also read the section below: Glycogen/water mass can affect beginner gains).

For trained athletes, SEM is a couple of % for fat, and around 1% for FFM, according to Garthe et al., 2012 and their repeated DXA measure tests.

“For DXA reproducibility, 10 male and female athletes did two repeated measurements within 24 hours, and the coefficient of variation in DXA Lunar Prodigy total body scan for repeated measurements was 3% for FM and 0.7% for LBM.” – Garthe et al., 2012

Others find little difference between DXA and MRI measurements:

“Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry and magnetic resonance imaging fat mass measurements showed good agreement (r = 0. 72-0.92); their lean mass measurements were similar as well, showing approximately 5.5% increases in leg lean tissue.” – Nindl et al., 2000

This is just a snapshot from two studies. I will have to write a separate article on body composition measurements, and look at the literature in its totality.

Glycogen/water mass can affect beginner gains

Beginners gain glycogen and water mass when they first start strength training programs. I’ve previously written about this here. This is a bit of an issue since “noob gains” are partially glycogen/water gains (Ribero et al., 2014). This affects lean body mass (LBM), fat free mass (FFM), or cross-sectional area (CSA). Muscle glycogen/water content even affects MRI measurements (Nygren et al., 2001). But, there are several studies that show beginners lose or maintain FFM when they go on a cut. Probably due to a reduction in carb (glycogen) or protein intake. Hence, it’s not a given that beginners will increase FFM when they train and cut.

In trained lifters, it is unlikely that FFM increases are glycogen/water mass. Here’s why:

  • Trained lifters already had their “noob gains” for glycogen/water mass. These water gains come relatively quickly when we first start to train (Ribero et al., 2014).
  • In a deficit, we eat less carbohydrates. Carb intake regulates muscle glycogen stores. If anything, glycogen stores will shrink slightly in a deficit.

Comparing gains/fat loss across studies with different methodologies is difficult

There are few studies that directly compare bulk/cut vs. recomp vs. deficit gaining

Other considerations

  • Several of the studies have deficit gaining as a secondary outcome (i.e. they’re testing other things in the study, while the deficit gaining is more of a side-effect)
  • Fitness research is based on probabilities and averages. Some people might be able to gain in a deficit, some may not be. Many factors affect whether you will be able to successfully gain in a deficit.
  • Survivor bias: Several of the studies had many dropouts. This means that only those that “survived” the study, are measured and evaluated. Those that had no improvements might have become frustrated and dropped out. This could inflate the study results (muscle gain/fat loss).
  • In some studies, i.e. Ploeg et al., 2001, the women who were preparing for a bodybuilding contest did excessive cardio (10h per week), for part of their prep period. They lost FFM, but they might have been able to avoid that if they didn’t do so much cardio (interference effect) (Helms et al., 2014b). They also dropped down to very low body fat levels.

For more info on limitations, read the following article: Why study results don’t always apply to you (the limitations of research)