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Times When You Can Build Muscle Without a Calorie Surplus

Building muscle is going to do wonders for improving your look and overall health. 

Besides your look, adding more muscle will: 

The problem is that there are two common thoughts/strategies around building muscle that steers people away from it: 

You also dont realize that your methods, even though you are working hard, is what is keeping you from changing your body as you want. 

Muscle is an energy costly process and if you are constantly sending the signal to your body that you aren’t bringing in a lot of energy through a calorie deficit,  well then muscle growth is unlikely. 

There is some good news and some bad news for someone who is worried about getting out of a fat loss mindset and into a building phase.  

The good news? You dont have to gain a bunch of weight or body fat to build muscle. 

The bad news? You do have to get out of the mindset of having your most shredded look 100% of the time or having the scale show the least amount of weight as possible. 

In this blog, I want to go over times when you can build muscle without having to get into a calorie surplus. 

However, before you go on realize you will have to be ok with not having your smallest weight on the scale or your leanest look 24/7. 

I dont want to give you the idea that you can keep your leanest and smallest weight on the scale and continue to build muscle. It won’t happen. 

But you also dont have to gain a ton of body fat. 

If you struggle with this, read this article HERE on how to mentally deal with a building phase. 

Let’s dive into times when you can build muscle without having to be in a calorie surplus.

Getting out of a calorie deficit

Yes, just by simply getting out of a calorie deficit you will improve your ability to build muscle without having to go into a surplus. Especially if you have always restricted your calories.

There are so many people who have spent years chronically dieting for fat loss and restricting calories.

When you do this you are most likely missing out on essential vitamins and minerals that allow your body to look, perform, and feel your best.

All they need to do is to make sure they get enough calories to maintain their weight and this will put their body in a much better position to build muscle.

Your body will finally have enough energy to use towards muscle growth, rather than always playing catch up.

New to weight training

Pretty obvious, but your body is sensitive to muscle growth. Just getting on a consistent weight training routine will send the signal to build muscle. 

Too often I get people that reach out to me who haven’t lifted yet asking if they should bulk or cut. 

Or they say something like im going to just do cardio first to lose weight then build muscle. 

Like they have to choose between either-or. 

Bad idea. 

Since you are new to weight training you can do both, and you should. 

While adding muscle might slow weight loss down slightly, you will have a better composition and this added muscle will give you the benefits we talked about earlier:

If you go the cardio route first you will have more of the “skinny fat” look. Or just a very depleted look. 

Stop thinking you need to choose between fat loss or building muscle if you haven’t lifted before. 

Do both. 

Long lay off 

If you had to take a long lay off from weight training, whether that be from injury or life circumstances. When you come back your body is going to be primed to build muscle. 

You dont have to go into a surplus to build muscle if this is you. 

Now over time, this will fade and a surplus will become more likely in order to build more muscle. 

If you took time off for whatever reason and aren’t super satisfied with your look and you are figuring out if you should cut or go into a surplus you can do either and you will see improvements in your look. 

Training/nutrition has been suboptimal

Chances are your nutrition and/or training is suboptimal and by improving these things you will increase your chances of building muscle without having to gain a bunch of weight. 

With clients, their training may be good, but then they eat a low-quality diet. Whether that be a diet high in processed food, low in protein, or low in energy. Either way, this isn’t putting your body in the best position to build muscle. So there is some muscle growth you can eek out by improving this before going into a surplus. 

Or with training, they could be on a program that never has them dial back intensity or just is suboptimal for the goal of muscle growth. 

Again by improving this, you will be able to eek out some muscle growth without going straight into a surplus. 

By improving one or both, you will see muscle growth without having to add in a bunch of calories. 

This is a very common thing I will see with new clients. They think they need to get into a surplus to build muscle but all we do is make their diet and/or training more optimal for muscle growth and they see some great results. 

High levels of body fat

 If you are overweight/or just have high levels of body fat you can build muscle without having to gain more weight. 

This goes back to the person that asks if they should lose weight or build muscle first. 

You should do both. 

You are in a primed spot for body recomp here. Read about body recomp HERE

I talked earlier about how muscle is an energy costly process and a deficit isn’t conducive to that. 

However, if you are overweight you have plenty of energy available (body fat) that the body can use for energy without having to bring in more energy from food. 

Improve sleep

 A lot of times your sleep hygiene is garbage. By improving this you will put your body in a better position to build muscle. Again you dont need to go into a calorie surplus for this. 

A study had two groups, one was sleep-restricted the other was getting normal sleep, and they put both groups in a calorie deficit. 

Both groups lost weight, however, the sleep restriction group lost more weight from lean body mass (think muscle). 

If you are getting poor sleep, you need to work on this before worrying about going into a calorie surplus to build muscle. 

Improve stress management

Your lifestyle is a mess and you are constantly stressed. This puts your body in a suboptimal position to build muscle. Your body is focused on recovering and taking care of the stress before it has to worry about muscle. 

If you get this worked out, you will then put your body in a better position to build muscle. 


With most online clients they have never had these things all in place so by improving their limiting factor(s) we can get them to build muscle without having to gain a bunch of weight. 

Remember a big shift here is to get you out of the fat loss mindset. Meaning this is going to require a bit more food than what you have when you are trying to lose weight.

But realize you won’t have to gain a bunch of weight/fat to build muscle.  

For best results, you should aim to do this for atleast 16 weeks. From there you can try another fat loss phase to show off your progress. 

And the cycle repeats. 

The more muscle you put on, then the more likely getting into a surplus is going to be required in order to build more muscle. 

However, you can get away with more than you think by simply getting out of a deficit and working on the things above. 

If you need more guidance and accountability with your training/nutrition fill out the link HERE for our 1:1 Coaching program and let’s get to work.

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