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Training in a Caloric Deficit

Before I really get into this, let me first start by clarifying who this information applies to:

  1. You are not brand new to lifting.

  2. You are not currently in a severe calorie deficit.

  3. You have reached true failure before, not just “it really hurts so I’m going to stop.”

Ok, we've cleared that up right? If you fit into those 3 categories, then this information will be helpful to guide you to develop a plan that allows for training in a caloric deficit.


When you take in fewer calories than you burn during a given day, you are in caloric deficit. In order to keep up with your energy demands, your body will tap into stored body fat, carbohydrates, and sometimes muscle tissue for energy. This can place additional stress on the body that it would otherwise not have to deal with. Something many people do not realize is that exercise is also a stress on your body. The more stress that you place on your body, the more it has to recover from. If the level of overall stress exceeds your body’s ability to recover from it you risk things like fatigue, irritability, muscle or joint soreness, illness, or even injury. Since your body is not adequately fueled for peak performance while in a caloric deficit there are some things you should take into consideration when training.


Training in a caloric deficit - Expert Tips


The first thing that you want to be mindful of is your overall training volume. Your training volume is the amount of total work you do in a workout. Think of the total number of sets, reps and weight used, that is your workout volume. Since your body has a decreased ability to recover when in a deficit you may not be able to keep the same amount of volume in your workouts. The best way to know if your volume has become too much is by how you are feeling and performing. If you are feeling more sore, more run down and fatigued, more irritable, your sleep quality has decreased, or you have some new aches and pains, then you probably should cut back on your overall workload. I would always recommend using your body and how you feel as the measuring stick for how something is working for you.


The next thing I would focus on is your ability to recover. Remember, you have less fuel and nutrients coming in, so you really need to put a larger emphasis on recovering as much as possible from your workouts. Luckily there are some things you can do to help your recovery. The first thing you need to do is make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet.


Recovery for training in a caloric deficit


Protein intake becomes even more important when you are in a caloric deficit. I like to explain it like this; your body has stores of both fat and carbohydrates that it can use for energy, but you do not have a storage form of amino acids (building blocks of protein). All three of these can be used for energy, so if you are running low on fat and carbs to use for energy AND you don’t have any amino acids flowing through your bloodstream because you are not eating much protein, your body will have no other choice than to break down muscle tissue to create amino acids for energy. I recommend .8-1 gram per pound of body weight. I will also say that as long as you are healthy, more protein, up to 1.5 grams per pound won’t hurt you and may even help you maintain muscle mass while in a deficit. Also, the bigger the caloric deficit the more important these high protein numbers become. If you have a lot of weight to lose, use your goal body weight to figure out your protein intake.


Another thing that can help recovery is massage. Unfortunately, getting regular massages can get pretty pricey and isn’t realistic for many of us, but if you have the ability to do so, one a week, or even one a month can really help your body to recover. Similar to a massage is foam rolling. This can help to break up adhesions in your muscles and help with blood flow to them. Try finding a tender spot and keeping your pressure there for 30 seconds up to two minutes as you try to relax and get the muscle to fully relax.


Stay Hydrated when training in a caloric deficit


Hydration is also even more important in a caloric deficit. This is because you are most likely eating less carbohydrates. Carbohydrates pull water into the muscle with them when they are stored which also gives you a bit of a storage of water. With less carbs comes less water storage, and an increased need to drink more water. Lastly, movement really is medicine, keep your body moving. Not to the point that it is fatiguing, but enough to stimulate blood flow to your different joints and muscles.


And finally...


My last recommendation when training in a caloric deficit is……… keep training hard and heavy. It is very common for people to drastically change the way they train once their goal becomes more geared towards burning fat. The most common thing I see is that people start taking very short rest periods, increasing their reps, and pretty much turning their weight lifting session into a cardio session. While this may burn more calories it definitely will not build or even maintain much muscle. Let me ask you this, would you be happy you lost 10 pounds if 5 of it was muscle? I highly doubt it. Your goal when in a calorie deficit should be the same as when you are at maintenance or a surplus- stimulate your muscle to adapt. Muscles adapt to stress placed upon them, like more weight and/or more reps with more weight. If you are not allowing your body to adequately recover between sets of an exercise there is no way that you are going to be able to lift the same amount of weight for the same amount of reps than if you let your body recover fully. Keep in mind that this rest time may actually need to be longer than when you are in a calorie surplus due a lack of fuel and resources. You can stave off a lot of strength and muscle loss that is commonly associated with a caloric deficit if you implement this strategy. Use your resistance training to build and maintain muscle, use your cardio to build your cardiovascular system, and use your diet (calorie intake), to allow you to lose body fat.


There you go. Some tips on how to properly train in a caloric deficit. If you have any questions or want tips on how to modify your current program, don't hesitate to reach out.


As always, before you begin any exercise program, you should consult with a physician to ensure it is safe for you to do so.


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