What you do in the gym is only part of the story when it comes to building muscle. Without enough food, much of your efforts in the gym will go to waste.
However, that doesn’t give you a license to go and eat anything and everything in sight.
Thats because there’s an upper limit on the amount of nutrients you can take in and turn into muscle. If you’re currently eating below this upper limit, then you’ll build muscle faster by increasing your nutrient take.
But once you’ve “maxed out” your rate of muscle gain, simply adding more calories won’t automatically lead to a faster rate of growth.
Let’s say that your upper limit is 2500 calories per day. But you’re only eating 2000 calories per day. In this case, taking in an extra 500 calories will lead to a faster rate of muscle growth.
But just because those extra 500 calories have helped you gain muscle faster doesn’t mean that twice as many calories is going to result in muscle being built twice as fast. Any additional calories that aren’t used to fuel muscle growth will just end up being stored as fat.
So if your main objective is to gain muscle mass, you have to eat more nutrients than you need to maintain your weight, but you shouldn’t eat so much that you end up gaining more fat than muscle.
If you’re trying to figure out how many calories you need to build muscle, the simple answer is that there is no simple answer.
Like most things, it depends on a few factors, most notably your training age, genetics, body weight and activity levels.
The greater your training age (i.e. the number of years you’ve been training with weights), the slower the gains are going to come.
Someone in their first few months of training might be able to gain a couple of pounds of muscle each month, and will need a calorie intake to support that rate of growth.
But if you’ve been training for several years, the rate at which you can gain muscle will have slowed down. So you’ll need to adjust your calorie intake to compensate.
There’s no point taking in a large calorie surplus designed to support a 2-pound per month rate of muscle gain if you’ve been training for five years and simply can’t build muscle that quickly.
Once you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training (and assuming you’re not rebuilding lost muscle), you’ll be gaining no more than a pound or so of muscle every month or two.
If you’re putting on weight more quickly than this, there’s a good chance you’re gaining more fat than muscle, which is a situation you definitely want to avoid. Rather than eating too many calories and having to burn them all off again, it makes a lot more sense just not eating them in the first place.
Your calorie requirements are also linked to your bodyweight and activity levels.
All other things being equal, a guy who weighs 200 pounds will need more calories than a guy who weighs 150 pounds. And if you’re very active outside the gym, you’ll need to eat more to compensate for all the extra calories you’re burning.
So how many calories do you need each day if you want to build muscle without gaining large amounts of fat?
- Firstly, calculate your lean bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 175 pounds at 20% body fat, you have 35 pounds of fat and a lean bodyweight of 140 pounds.
- Multiply your lean bodyweight by 20. Using a lean bodyweight of 140 pounds, that gives you 2800 calories per day.
If you find that you’re not gaining any weight, increase your calorie intake by around 250 calories per day until the scale starts moving in the right direction.
I know that might not sound like much, especially when you compare it with some of the 5000 calorie “bulking” diets out there. But you can’t force your muscles to grow faster simply by stuffing yourself with food. All that’ll happen is that you get fat.
That said, it’s perfectly natural to gain some fat when you’re focused on adding muscle. Guys who try to stay lean all the time are often the ones who struggle to make any appreciable gains in size. But you shouldn’t get to the point where you’re gaining more fat than muscle.
My advice is to always stay within eight weeks of your leanest look.
In other words, never put on so much fat that you couldn’t get rid of it without too much trouble in eight weeks or less.
One strategy that’s worked well for a number of Muscle Evo users is to treat the deload week as a fat loss week. So you spend the first three weeks of each cycle in a calorie surplus. Then you use week four to burn off any additional fat that you’ve gained.
Assuming your diet was set up right in the first place, you won’t have gained more than a couple of pounds of fat. Getting rid of it over the course of a week won’t be too much of a problem.
NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, there's a good chance you'll also like Truth and Lies about Building Muscle: 10 Muscle Myths Debunked By Science.
It's a FREE 21-page special report (PDF) I put together to debunk 10 popular muscle myths that are costing you time and effort in the gym. To download a copy, enter your e-mail in the box below.
10 MUSCLE MYTHS DEBUNKED BY SCIENCE
We hate spam and promise to keep your e-mail address safe.
ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.