You’ve heard it before, but it’s so important that I’m going to say it again.
What you do in the gym is only half the story when it comes to getting big. Without enough food, all your muscle-building 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 3000 calories per day. But you’re only eating 2000 calories per day. In this case, taking in an extra 1000 calories will lead to a faster rate of muscle growth.
But just because those extra 1000 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 year of training might be able to gain 2 pounds of muscle each month, and will need a calorie intake to support that rate of growth.
But if you’ve been training for 3 or 4 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 5 years and simply can’t build muscle that quickly.
Of course, the big problem with training age as a variable is that it assumes you’ve been using a sensible program for the entire length of time you’ve been training. And let’s face it, most people (me included) haven’t.
Someone who’s been following Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 6-day, 30 sets per muscle group routine for the last 2 years (not a great idea by the way) and gained little in the way of muscle may have roughly the same potential for growth as someone in their first year of training when they start training properly.
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.
This level of calorie intake should allow you to gain 2-3 pounds per month, most of it in the form of muscle, which represents good progress for anyone with six months or more of serious training under their belts. For advanced trainers, gaining one pound per month is a decent rate of growth if you want to maintain a reasonably low level of fat.
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 20-page special report (PDF) I put together to debunk 10 popular myths that are still widely believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You can click here to download a copy.
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.