I know that when I'm on a caloric surplus, I stimulate hypertrophy best if my training intensity lies somewhere between 6-12RM.

Now let's say I'm on a caloric deficit. What intensity is optimal for preventing my muscles from atrophying? Is it simply the same as above? Or should I (as hypertrophy is difficult/impossible anyway) rather train for strength (lower rep ranges) then?

3 Answers 3


I really think this would have to do more with diet than exercise.

I've heard that the best way to slow the muscle loss while cutting calories (don't believe there is a way to stop it) is to eat lean protein/or protein shake both right before and right after your workout. (NOTE: While you see a lot of people on the forums who drink protein shakes for no particular reasons, I believe this is one of the cases where supplementing with protein shakes makes sense).

The logic is simple; basically, by giving your body surplus protein when you're most likely to lose it you're going to decrease the amount of muscle mass you burn.

I'm not aware of any studies which confirm/contradict this though.

The only other thing I would say is keep in mind there is a physiological limit on how much protein your body can absorb and if you go over that limit your basically using up your kidneys for little to no benefit. May not matter now but dialysis doesn't look fun so you might as well do what you can to avoid it in your golden years.

  • My question is about training intensity, not nutrition. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 5:28

You continue to train for your goals. The best way to curb muscle loss is to eat at a slight caloric deficit, as opposed to an extreme deficit. The more extreme the deficit, the more muscle your body will break down for energy. And since the idea of weight loss is generally to retain as much muscle as possible and shed as much fat as possible, slow and steady wins the race. Like anything fitness related, patience and persistence will reap the rewards.

  • My question is about training intensity, not nutrition. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 5:28
  • As long as you aren't entering an aerobic state, the difference between high weight + low reps vs hypertrophic ranges is going to be negligible. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 13:21
  • With "aerobic state" you mean caloric surplus? Why is the difference negligible then? Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 13:38
  • No, by "aerobic state" I mean the training intensity. When you enter an aerobic state, your body will use your muscle tissue as fuel more readily than fat stores. When you start getting into much higher reps (like with endurance training) you are more likely to enter an aerobic state. So the difference between doing 3-5 reps at high weight vs 6-12 at lower weights is negligible, since in both cases you aren't in an aerobic state. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 14:15

I'm unaware of any evidence that the differing effects of training in various rep ranges changes due to caloric surplus or deficit. How much one is eating determines recovery and mass gain, but the body is still reacting (or trying to react) to the training stimulus in the same manner.

When I'm on a calorie deficit, I train at just barely submaximal intensity for strength:

  • 2-3 reps per sets
  • circa 3 sets, less for the deadlift, more if I'm feeling energetic

This is because I recognize my ability to build muscle is limited, so I avoid the hypertrophic rep ranges entirely. I can do this because my goals are health, strength, and power. If my goal was muscle mass then I might disregard my calorie deficit, work in the 6-12 range, and recognize that my recovery ability is going to be strained.

Regardless of my goals, any cutting diet should be high in protein in order to minimize the negative effects of a caloric deficit. Protein is dense and satiating, which helps with coping with hunger, and high-protein diets have been shown to encourage the body to spare muscle.

  • Why do you think that someone whose goal is muscle mass should train within the "hypertrophic rep ranges" when he is on a caloric deficit? That's exactly my question: Does the science that holds for a caloric surplus situation apply to a caloric deficite situation as well? I think this is non-trivial. Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 16:06
  • Because I think training in non-hypertrophic rep ranges won't help build muscle mass, whereas training in the hypertrophic rep range while on a deficit might work to a diminished degree. It might be the case that such an approach is doomed from the start and the best approach is to work on reducing body fat or maintaining strength. I think your question lacks context, that is, why are you on a calorie deficit? Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 19:11
  • I'm not on a caloric deficit, just found it to be an interesting question :) Commented Apr 24, 2013 at 19:18
  • @zero-divisor Certain rep ranges produce certain types of results. Caloric deficits make it hard to achieve goals, particularly hypertrophy. Beyond those basics, I think this is a "pick whichever suboptimal approach matches your long-term goals best" question. Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 16:47
  • 1
    I think this question is very clearly formulated and should be answerable in a vacuum IMO, regardless of any longterm goals. "What rep range is best for preventing atrophy when on a caloric deficite?". Commented Apr 25, 2013 at 19:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.