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Deficit or Surplus?

During this time of the year I get this question a lot, “How can I lose fat and build muscle?” It is a great question, but it is not that easy or straight forward. The two goals in that question are actually pretty opposed. One happens best at a calorie deficit, and the other happens most readily with a surplus of calories. So can you do both, yes. At the same time? Not so much…

deficit diet P90X
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Important Definitions: Deficit, Surplus, and Hypertrophy

Let’s start with a deficit. A calorie deficit is any time when you eat fewer calories than your body burns in a day. We can create large a deficit two ways, restrict calorie intake or increase calorie output. P90X, X2, X3, Insanity MAX 30, all do a great job increasing your calorie output, but it is still not that hard to eat too many calories to offset the work you are doing. So in that case, we also restrict how many calories we are taking in each day. That creates our deficit. Our body is in a state where it is needing to pull on stored energy, namely fat, to power you through the day. Even a program like Body Beast which we typically think of for adding mass does a great job of burning calories and keeping that metabolism going (See Body Beast is for Losers for more).

A surplus of calories happens when you eat MORE calories than your body needs in a day. You have calories left over. You can increase a surplus by limiting activity (i.e. reducing cardio in a mass building round) or by eating more. Here your extra calories are ideally used to enlarge muscle mass but they can also be stored as fat.

Muscular hypertrophy is the process of increasing muscle mass. Very simply, it relies on our stimuli from exercise and protein synthesis (converting dietary protein into amino acids and then into skeletal muscle). Resistance training actually increases protein synthesis! Muscle mass = rate of protein synthesis – rate of protein breakdown. Resistance training obviously increases our breakdown of protein from our muscles, and it does the great thing of increasing the rate of protein synthesis. We just need to fuel properly to have our protein synthesis come out equal or greater than our protein breakdown so we have a neutral or positive effect on muscle mass.

Running a Surplus

So what does running a surplus mean? When you run a surplus it is much easier to swing that equation of muscle mass in your favor. There are many factors that go into your rate of protein synthesis, but the main one is enough calories and most importantly protein. You will have abundant amino acids from all your protein and then extra calories to build muscle mass. We limit how big our surplus is because there is a cap on how much we can add in a day. If we eat too large of surplus our rate of protein synthesis won’t be enough to keep up and we will just store the excess as fat.

Running a Deficit

While at a deficit, we don’t have the luxury of abundant calories. We do manipulate our protein intake to assure that we have enough to fuel as much protein synthesis as possible. But again, it is called a deficit, you are below what you need. Your aim here is not to gain mass (though you can gain a little even on a deficit), it is only to maintain what mass you have. You are breaking down skeletal muscle with your lifting and again you are speeding up your protein synthesis from lifting too… this could get bad if you didn’t supply your body with enough protein to handle the processes! That is where post workout protein is so crucial in balancing the equation. You are still at a deficit of calories overall, but you have given yourself enough amino acids through your protein intake to maintain your muscle mass. Your fat will decrease, exposing your hard kept muscle.

But why can’t I do both?

You can’t eat enough while running a deficit, and still be in a deficit, to really swing the equation in your favor. Each day you are providing your body with less than what it needs to maintain your weight. That is good, you don’t want to stay the same weight! If you want to get ripped, don’t worry about the scale. Worry about eating properly to maintain your muscle mass, and drop the fat. It is really true that the best way to look like you’ve gained 5 pounds of muscle is to lose 5 pounds of fat! For those that don’t like the idea of shedding fat first, and instead take on the noble mission to “exchange body fat for muscle” while maintaining your weight, you are looking at a LONG, LONG road ahead. You will never reap the full benefits of a deficit (great fat loss) or the full benefits of a surplus (better gains). I encourage you to drop the fat with a deficit and once you are lean, you can add back calories and even move into a surplus. Then you’ll be able to make gains and stay lean!

** For more of a discussion on  the topic of building muscle and losing fat, see: Big Ripped / Small Ripped

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