Training in a Caloric Deficit: Why You'd Need it and What to Avoid

You've probably heard that if you want to lose weight, then you need to consume fewer calories than your body burns. We refer to this as a "caloric deficit."

To be very clear, while it's not always as simple as, "Eat less, lose more," for the purpose of this blog, we're going to focus on a caloric deficit as a means to reduce body fat.

A caloric deficit needs to account for the calories you burn during physical activity but also those that your body uses simply to function. This means you have to know your total daily calorie expenditure. 

Once you know your total number, then you'll know you need to consume less than that in order to lose weight.

person standing on scale

Now, let's start to factor in the aspect of training in a caloric deficit. 

Why Would You Train in a Caloric Deficit?

The reason for training in a caloric deficit is probably obvious: to not only encourage fat loss but also speed it up. 

Yes, depending on your current body composition, you can possibly shed unwanted fat simply by changing your nutrition. But for some people, this might not be enough. For others, they might simply want a more aggressive approach.

But it's about even more than that. 

Lose Fat While Maintaining Strength

One of the trickiest parts of weight loss is maintaining your strength and energy while you do it. We all know someone who went on a gimmicky crash diet and lost weight (which they probably gained back), but they felt sluggish and lethargic the entire time. 

This is a common side effect of dieting — or dieting incorrectly, rather.

Training in a caloric deficit makes it possible to maintain your strength while losing body fat. It's commonly believed that this isn't possible — that if you're losing weight (even unwanted fat), then your strength and energy automatically suffer as a result. 

woman doing situp

In actuality, though, it's possible to achieve, as long as you do so carefully.  

What to Look Out for When Training in a Caloric Deficit

Improperly training in a caloric deficit can be not just counterproductive but also downright dangerous to your health. A couple of things could easily go wrong. 

Firstly, you could train in too much of a deficit, not getting nearly sufficient calories on a daily or weekly basis. 

Or, you could train in a safe deficit but consume your macros in the wrong amounts — for example, not getting adequate protein.

Either way, you're looking at serious repercussions, and losing your strength and muscle mass is just the beginning. This could have a serious impact on your hormones, for example, which then leads to a whole menu of other problems. We're talking mood changes, trouble focusing, trouble sleeping, exhaustion, constant soreness and difficulty recovering, irregular periods for the ladies, and more.

The purpose of training in a caloric deficit is to maintain strength while losing fat.  It's a delicate balance, and you certainly can't find it if you're not fueling yourself enough and in the proper ways to hang on to the muscle that you've currently got.

man gripping barbell

Training stresses your body. This is why it makes us stronger. It's a must that you have a way to replenish and heal your body with food. 

1: Eat enough. 

2: Eat the right things. 

Great, But What Does That Even Mean?

Unfortunately, we can't say! There's no one-size-fits-all approach. Your nutrition is specific and unique to you. What works for one person won't work for the next. 

The best we can do is offer a few general tips that the fitness and nutrition communities widely agree on.

1. Cut Your Calories in Reasonable Steps — Not All at Once

This is a big one. When you cut calories too quickly, It's basically a crash diet in disguise — and it's not even a good disguise.

It might be tempting to eliminate 800 calories from your diet. Sure, you might lose significant weight quickly. You're also simultaneously wreaking havoc on your body and setting yourself up for long-term failure. 

We already discussed some of the drawbacks of undernourishing yourself. The health consequences can be devastating. 

You're not going to reach your fitness goals, either. Your strength and muscle mass will suffer. 

Lastly, because this isn't a lifestyle most of us can maintain, the body fat you lose will most likely come back — and extra fat on top of that, because you had deprived your body and as a result, it goes into starvation mode, clinging on to every last calorie for dear life. 

woman eating off plate

The fix? 

Baby steps. Maybe you start by cutting 200 calories a day. Adjust to the routine of eating 200 calories fewer than you're used to. See what kind of results that change brings. Then, reevaluate and revise your approach, if necessary. 

2. Play With Carbs and Fat Before You Change Your Protein

Most nutrition coaches will reduce your carbs and/or fat when they're helping you lose weight. The rule of thumb for protein is 1g per 1lb of body weight. So, if you weigh 150lbs, you should eat 150g of protein each day.

This rule especially holds true if you're training, and it's for a reason. Your body absolutely needs this protein. It's non-negotiable.

And it's not just to maintain your muscle, either. Every single cell in your body needs protein in order to be able to function properly. Protein is literally one of the building blocks of life. 

male athlete drinking protein shake

Now, that being said, your protein count might need to fluctuate slightly. Slightly! But, and this is a huge but, if it does, it likely won't be by much.

Carbs and fat, while still vital, are a little more flexible. As a result, these macros are very often manipulated long before protein when it comes to controlling body composition — both losing and gaining mass.

But, an important word of warning...

3. Don't Cut Any Macro Out Entirely

Write this down, because this is crucial. 

Your. Body. Needs. All. Three. Macros. To. Survive.

Especially since keto really hit the scene and took off, too many people are nearly challenging themselves to see how few carbs they can consume. 

And, despite science proving over and over again that low-fat diets are neither safe nor effective, there are still people avoiding fat macros like the plague. 

Each macro plays a vital role in all of your bodily functions. For instance, carbs give you energy and also help maintain, heal, and build muscle. Fat is good for your brain and your hormones, particularly for women. 

Plain and simple, your body needs carbs, fat, and protein to keep working. Attempting to cut a macro out entirely could literally be deadly. (Also, if it's even possible to achieve that, would that not be the most miserable diet ever?)

plate with frown face

Now, imagine completely blowing your nutrition while also training in a caloric deficit. Imagine how bad it could be. 

On the flip side, imagine totally rocking your nutrition while training in a deficit. Now we're talking.

It's Hard to Do it Alone... But You Don't Have To

Is your head spinning? We don't blame you, and you're definitely not alone. This isn't easy. How could it be? Training in a caloric deficit means finding a gym program that's safe and effective while eating less, while also finding the right nutrition plan that will keep your nourished and healthy but one that's also conducive to fat loss while maintaining muscle. 

Of course, it's not easy. 

You're going to need the right support system, tools, and resources. A qualified and experienced nutrition coach could be a game-changer and help keep you healthy and safe. 

You might also consider consulting a coach you trust about how best to tweak your programming, considering you'll be eating less. 

Finally, you're going to need a thorough and reliable way to track and measure your progress. That's where Atlas Wearables comes in. Your watch will help you track, plan, and adjust your programming; monitor your metrics (like HRV, VO2 max, and RHR); and get you where you want to be faster. Apply now.