A new study on the interaction between caloric surpluses and rates of muscle gain might just change the way you formulate your next bulking phase. On Wednesday, Sep. 27, 2023, Dr. Layne Norton took to YouTube to break down the data.
The study in question, entitled “Effect of Small and Large Energy Surpluses on Strength, Muscle, & Skinfold Thickness” by Helms et al., (1) was initially submitted for journalistic review on July 20 and is still awaiting final verification. However, its findings were nonetheless highly interesting to Norton.
Check below for a detailed breakdown of the procedures of the study as well as Norton’s practical takeaways from the data.
Helms and colleagues wanted to assess what, if any, bodily changes would occur in trained individuals if they manipulated the degree of caloric surplus across several groups. Here are the main parameters of the study:
- 21 subjects with resistance training experience were recruited.
- Subjects were studied over an eight-week time period.
- Participants were separated into three distinct groups and instructed to consume maintenance calories, a 5-percent caloric surplus, or a 15-percent caloric surplus.
- All participants in every group performed strength training workouts three times per week under the supervision of the researchers.
- At the end of the study, subjects were assessed for changes in skinfold thickness (as a proxy for body fat increase), 1-repetition-maximum strength in the barbell squat and bench press, and muscular thickness in the biceps and quadriceps.
Going into the study, the researchers acknowledged previous scientific works (2) supporting the idea that a caloric surplus is not strictly mandatory for building muscle, even in populations with prior resistance training experience.
The paper in question reported some expected results and some surprising findings as well.
- Changes in muscular thickness weren’t strongly correlated with different caloric intakes and were fairly consistent across all three groups.
- The 5-percent caloric surplus group made more strength gains than both the 15-percent surplus group and the caloric maintenance group.
- Skinfold thickness increased slightly more in the 15-percent surplus group than either other group.
Dr. Norton’s Takeaways
Dr. Norton generally takes a pretty conservative, down-the-middle approach to emerging scientific research. In his discussion of the Helms study, he prefaced by acknowledging that the study’s small sample size somewhat muddies the applicability of its results.
That said, he noted that the paper continues to shed light on one of the longest-standing myths in bodybuilding circles: That a substantial and long-term calorie surplus is required for anyone who wants to get big.
“I think a calorie surplus is advantageous if you want to maximize your muscle-building,” Norton remarks. “But I think a lot of us have overestimated how much of a surplus we need.”
Norton cited his own experience with bodybuilding training and weight gain, saying that he began his lifting journey at around 140 pounds. At the time of the video’s publication, Norton weighs roughly 210 pounds and maintains a comparable level of body fat as well.
He postulates that 70 pounds of lean mass gain over his career would not have been feasible if he hadn’t created a net positive energy balance on a regular basis. Overall, though, Norton believes that this study continues to show support for the idea that most folks overestimate how many additional calories they’ll need to bulk up.
“Fat loss requires patience, but muscle gain requires way more patience, since you can’t see the outcomes as quickly,” Norton says. His final takeaway from the study was to implement a mild caloric surplus of, at most, 20 percent, and be very patient about what you see in the mirror.
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- Eric R Helms, Alyssa-Joy Spence, Colby Sousa et al. Effect of Small and Large Energy Surpluses on Strength, Muscle, and Skinfold Thickness, 02 August 2023, PREPRINT (Version 1) available at Research Square
- Barakat, Christopher MS, ATC, CISSN1; Pearson, Jeremy MS1; Escalante, Guillermo DSc, MBA, ATC, CSCS, CISSN2; Campbell, Bill PhD, CSCS, FISSN3; De Souza, Eduardo O. PhD1. Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?. Strength and Conditioning Journal 42(5):p 7-21, October 2020. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000584
Featured Image: Dr. Layne Norton on YouTube