What Happens If You Eat At Maintenance And Lift Weights?
Updated September 23rd 2022
Eating at maintenance and lifting, is that a good idea?
If you are a beginner who has just started working out, you might not be fully aware of the importance of diet.
Diet is important because it affects how much energy we have which impacts our performance in the gym, how much muscle we build, and has an effect on our overall physique.
Right now, you might be going to the gym.
You might even lift weights in a cold garage.
But are still eating the same food you always eat.
This might be fine if your goal is to remain the same size but if you want to lose weight or get even stronger, you might need to alter your diet and what you eat.
What you do in the kitchen is just as important as what you do in the gym, and has an impact on:
- your strength
- how much muscle you build
- your physique
- your overall results.
In this article, we will discuss why diet is important for building muscle, optimizing energy levels, and how it can alter your body shape.
Eating at maintenance and lifting
In the short term, you will be able to lift and get stronger while eating the same amount of calories. This can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
However, lifters may make slower progress by eating at maintenance since there is no room for improvement in the body.
Your body does not have excess fuel in order to repair and grow your muscles.
As a result, you opt for a more natural way of growing stronger, through time.
And this is the slowest progress of all.
However, you will retain your physique and strength levels at this rate.
But it also depends on your goals.
For all Strongman competitors, they will never eat just at maintenance.
They will eat a caloric surplus because that is the easiest and time-tested way to get stronger the quickest.
It worked 30 years ago and continues to work now.
So, we can take that lesson into our own diet and see that if we do want to get big, strong, or a combination of the two, we must be realistic with our eating and lifting.
Everything is about Calories
You may have heard of the terms such as eating at a caloric surplus, maintenance, or deficit.
These are the three stages that you can be in while on a diet. We will talk more about this later.
To start off, what exactly is a calorie?
A calorie is a unit of energy.
Our body uses energy on a daily basis:
- to help us move
- maintain our body temperature
- fight infections
- a whole lot of other functions
The amount of energy our body uses also increases based on our physical activity.
This is why after a workout you might feel hungry because your body wants to replenish the energy it used up.
In order to recharge this energy, we must eat food that gives us energy in the form of calories.
Every food has a calorie level assigned to it (For example, banana = 105 calories, egg = 74 calories, etc.).
When we eat the same amount of calories as our body burns, we are in the stage of caloric maintenance.
When we eat more calories than we burn, we are in a caloric surplus.
When we eat fewer calories than we burn, we are in a caloric deficit.
But what is the significance of each of these stages and what are the implications?
Significance of the different calorie stages?
Calories are used for a variety of functions in our body.
It is used to:
- Store energy for later use
- Fuel our metabolism (regulate body temperature)
- Growth (Bones, muscles, etc.)
- Repair (skin, muscles, etc.)
In order for your body to perform all of these functions optimally, it must be taking in enough calories.
At a caloric maintenance, we have the minimum amount of calories needed to perform all of these functions adequately.
At a caloric surplus, our body will have excess calories dedicated to muscular growth and repair, and more energy can be stored for later use.
At a caloric deficit, our bodies lack the calories needed to perform our necessary functions.
As a result, our body will break down fat and muscle in order to use it as energy.
After reading this you might be thinking that a caloric surplus is the way to go, but all of these stages have their own drawbacks.
In a caloric maintenance, you will not build muscle very fast because you are only supplying your body with the minimum amount of calories it needs.
In a caloric surplus, you will gain the maximum amount of muscle you can build, but much of the excess calories will be stored as fat.
In a caloric deficit, because your body is breaking down muscle, you will lose muscle and strength.
With all the benefits and drawbacks of each stage, what stage should you be in?
What stage you should be in depends on your goals.
If you are trying to lose weight, you should be in a caloric deficit.
If you are satisfied with your current weight, you should be at caloric maintenance.
If you are trying to maximize the amount of muscle you build, or are trying to gain weight, you should be in a caloric surplus.
Now that you know what a calorie is, and the importance of calories, how do you know what stage you are in?
In order to figure out what stage you are in, you need to do a series of calculations.
How to calculate what stage you are in?
First, you calculate your base metabolic rate using an online calculator.
Your base metabolic rate is how much your body burns on a daily basis to perform your body’s essential functions.
Let’s say your body burns on average, 1800 calories every day.
Total calories burned: 1800
Let’s say you work out, and according to your Fitbit, you burned 200 calories during your workout.
Total calories burned: 1800 + 200 = 2000
Now we need to calculate the food you eat, or how much calories you are taking in.
Let’s say you had a huge bacon and egg breakfast (~300 calories) chipotle burrito (~1100 calories), and a whole pizza for dinner (~2,200 calories).
Add these all up:
Total calories taken in: 300 + 1100 + 2200 = 3600 calories
And then we calculate our net calories for the day (Total calories taken in – total calories burned)
Net calories: 3600 – 2000 = +1,600
That means we have a caloric surplus of 1600!
If you are in a caloric deficit, this number will be negative which means you are burning more energy than you are taking in.
Example of caloric deficit:
Net calories: 1200 – 2000 = -800
If you are in a caloric maintenance, the net calories will equal close to zero.
Example of caloric maintenance:
Net calories: 2000 – 2000 = 0
For beginners, we do not want to be in a caloric deficit because it will limit the amount of muscle that we build.
So should we be in a caloric surplus or at maintenance?
Should a beginner be in a caloric surplus or at caloric maintenance?
I recommend that beginners be in a caloric surplus when following a strength program.
Something similar to Greyskull LP.
This is because while on a caloric surplus, you are maximizing the amount of muscle you gain so that you can progress sufficiently with every workout.
Not only that...
- This is the easier time to make progress, in strength
- Small wins right now compound over years and decades
- You are building healthy habits for a fulfilling life later on
When are on a caloric surplus, you will be able to lift with maximum effort which results in increased strength.
But let’s say that you don’t want to gain weight or fat when you are lifting.
Can you still make progress while on a caloric maintenance?
Can you still make progress while eating at maintenance?
Yes, you can still make progress in your lifts when you eat at maintenance.
This is because your neurological system will adapt to being able to handle heavier and heavier weights.
Confusing? Let me explain.
How much you can lift depends not only on the size of your muscles but also on how effective your nervous system is in recruiting muscles.
Two people may have the same amount of muscle, but the person with the most effective nervous system can activate more muscle fibers which results in being able to lift a heavier weight.
For beginners, it is not uncommon for them to gain around 50 lbs or 100 lbs in their squat, bench, or deadlift before they start to stall.
This is primarily because most of the gains at this stage are due to adaptations of the nervous system, rather than muscle growth.
So yes, it is possible for beginners to progress in their lifts while eating at maintenance because most of the gains beginners make is not because of muscle growth, but rather due to neurological adaptation.
With that being said, eventually, you will reach a point where you start to plateau and are unable to continue progressing in your lifts every week.
"Why do muscles take so long to recover?"— this might be one of your first questions.
At that point, your diet plays an even bigger role in how fast you can progress.
Eating at a caloric surplus will allow you maximal strength but, at the same time, you will also gain fat.
When you eat at caloric maintenance, you may not be getting enough calories for maximum muscle growth, but at least you will still remain the same body shape.
Whether you wish to lift at a caloric maintenance or a surplus depends on your goals as a lifter and what you want to achieve.
If you want to remain the same bodyfat, eat at a caloric maintenance
However, if you are not worried about putting a little extra fluff on the sides while maximizing your strength, eat at a caloric surplus.
But just know that as a beginner, whether you choose to eat at maintenance or in a surplus, you will still progress in your lifts for at least the first 6 months due to neurological adaptations.
So, is it possible to get fat while on a caloric surplus even if you are lifting?
Is it possible to get fat while eating in a caloric surplus as a beginner?
It is 100% possible for you to overeat and gain a lot of body fat even if you are still lifting.
Lifting weights does burn calories and will help you lose fat, however, if you are in a huge caloric surplus, no matter how much lifting you do, you will gain fat.
How much fat you gain depends on how big of a caloric surplus you are undertaking.
For example, if you are 1000 calories over your maintenance level, you will surely gain a lot of fat.
Maybe a burger after workouts every single day is not such a good idea...
This is why it is important for us to find a healthy medium because we don’t want to gain too much fat while on a bulk.
In order to develop the maximum amount of muscle without gaining too much fat, eat in a moderate caloric surplus.
A surplus of 500 calories should be enough for you to maximize the amount of muscle you gain while minimizing the amount of fat you gain.
Diet, bulking, and cutting are all balancing acts.
If you go too far one way, you risk falling off the scale.
So for maximal muscle gains, and minimal fat gains, eat at a moderate caloric surplus.
Why am I gaining weight going to the gym?
- Gaining both muscle and fat
- Other systemic health issues
It comes down to your diet but during your first 30 days, you should see some change in body weight and/or composition if you are eating at a caloric surplus.
Do not be alarmed if the weight gain is minimal.
Be realistic and enjoy the process.
Day-to-day fluctuations should not blind you from long-term results and trends.
You cannot have the best of both worlds.
But you can push your body to great lengths to test your hypothesis.
It may not be pretty but you will learn something.
Eating at maintenance and lifting will not get you the fastest results but you will stay a similar physique.
Doing compound exercises only for physique may be easier on both strength and muscle gains.
You can get stronger slowly and you will need to accept that.
Whereas if you eat at a caloric surplus, you moved your strength ceiling much higher.
I cannot tell you what is right or wrong for you.
You will need to weigh out the risks and rewards and make a decision on what is best for your life.