Calculate How Many Calories to Bulk Up

Whether your goal is to gain, lose or maintain weight the determining factor will be the amount of calories you consume each day.

Of course there are other factors involved, but its your calorie intake that matters the most.

Now, to gain more muscle we need to answer this question…

How many calories do you need each day to gain muscle?


Calculating Calorie Needs for Building Muscle

How we gain or lose weight is dictated by one thing… the amount of fuel we feed our bodies and the amount of energy we burn.

Simply put the number calories going in versus the number of calories going out and the remaining energy balance determines whether we gain weight, lose it or maintain it.

Now the calorie in vs the calorie out scenario can result in these 3 scenarios:

Calorie Surplus

Consuming more calories than you burn creates a calorie surplus.

In this scenario you have more calories than you need.

The problem, is the surplus has to go somewhere.

Unfortunately, the extra calories are not going to evaporate into thin air (if only).

No, the body is forced to store the surplus for future energy needs.

The body has two options it can store the surplus calories in muscle tissue or fat cells.

As you can see a calorie surplus has the biological effect of making you gain something.

And that gain can either be more fat, more muscle or more of both.

OK, lets look at what happens when we eat fewer calories.

Calorie Deficit

When you eat fewer calories to support your energy needs you create a calorie deficit.

This is same as spending over the credit limit on your Master Card.

Your body is busy burning energy to carry out all the functions to keep you a live and more only for the fuel tank to run dry.

Thankfully, unlike a car that’s run out of gas your body does not come to grinding halt. Instead, it looks for an alternative source of energy.

And if you remember the body has two sources.

Can you remember what they are?

They’re your fat cells and muscle tissue.

As a surplus will always cause you to gain something a deficit will always cause you to lose something.

And that something will either be fat or muscle.

In most cases, a calorie deficit is going to make you lose fat.

And that’s what you when you go into a deficit - were your forcing the body to burn off stored to fuel your energy needs.

But there is a risk of going into the red where you end up not only losing fat but forcing the body to use muscle tissue as an energy source.

Of course this is a scenario you’ll want to avoid. 

Maintenance Level

Maintenance is the level at which you maintain your weight.

You achieve this when you consume the same number of calories a day that you burn off. In other words, calories going in are equal to calories going out.

Nothing lost. Nothing gained.

So, to gain muscle and strength your caloric intake needs to exceed your maintenance level.

If you’re goal is to lose weight you need to be below your maintenance level

As you can see, knowing your maintenance level is important because it provides a base line that determines the calories to gain weight or lose it.

So, how do we calculate our maintenance level.

Calculating Our Maintenance Level

If you’ve been into fitness and bodybuilding for a while you may be familiar with the term Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE for short.

Basically, its a fancy word for your maintenance level.

As its name suggests, TDEE calculates the total number of calories/energy that you burn every day (24 hours).

To arrive at that calculation it factors in the following:

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

Your BMR is the number of calories the body needs/burns while resting just to keep you alive and functioning.

So, even if you’ve slept in bed for 24 hours, completely still you’re still burning energy and the number of calories that allow you to do that is your BMR.

It estimates resting calories burned.

Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA)

This accounts for the number of calories you burn to move your body.

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

This accounts for the energy you burn digesting and absorbing food.
When bringing together the energy the body burns to stay alive, exercise/workouts, the digestion and absorption of food we arrive at our TDEE.

Even though the TDEE calculation is considered the most accurate its only an estimate.

There are too many variables involved to arrive at an accurate figure.  And that’s OK, because its all we need to get started.

Now we have to calculate it.

Don’t worry you don’t need a PHD in Mathematical Science to work this out.

Maintenance Level Calculation

Step 1: Calculate your BMR

There are several formulas and none of them are going to give you a 100% accurate answer.

In this example I’m using the Harris Benedict Formula which goes like this…

Calculation for Men

BMR = 88.362 + ( 13.397 x weight in kg ) + ( 4.799 x height in cm ) - ( 5.677 x age in years )

Calculation for Women

BMR = 447.593 + ( 9.247 x weight in kg ) + ( 3.098 x height in cm ) - (4.330 x age in years )

As an example, a 40 year old male who weighs 74kgs and is 182cms in height works out as follows:

88.362 + (13.397 x 74kg) + (3.098 x 182cm) - (5.677 x 40 years) = 1417 calories

Now that we have our BMR we need to factor in the other two energy expenditures and activity levels.

The Harris Benedict Formula uses the following activity multipliers.

All you have to do is select the activity most relevant to you and multiply with your BMR.

Sedentary = Little to no regular exercise (multiplying factor of 1.2)

Light activity level = light to moderate exercise for 30 minutes 1 to 3 times a week. If you don’t exercise, but walk frequently for long periods would mean you meet the requirement of this activity level. (multiplying factor of 1.375)

Moderate activity level: Moderate exercise for at least 30 to 60 minutes 3 to 4 times per week. (multiplying factor of 1.55).

High activity level: Intensive exercise for 60 minutes or more for 5 to 7 days per week. You would also meet the requirements of this level if you have a labor-intensive job such as construction work, farming, landscape gardening etc.(multiplying factor of 1.7)

Extremely active level: Very intense exercise or hard labor for very long periods. This would include pro athletes with intense training 6 to 7 days a week or very physically demanding occupations. (multiplying factor of 1.9)

Now you should have an estimated maintenance level to work from.

As the goal is to gain muscle we need to determine how many extra calories we need above our maintenance level.

How Many Extra Calories Do We Need to Gain Muscle

When it comes to gaining muscle mass we need a caloric surplus however, there’s an exception.

For example, beginners with a high body fat percentage can take those stored calories and utilize the energy to fuel muscle growth.

And its possible to do this on a moderate caloric deficit as long as your nutrition and gym training are dialed in.

For the most of us who want to gain strength and extra pounds in weight, we need to add more healthy protein calories to our diet meal plans. For fat loss you take away calories.

Which means we have to make sure we’re consistently eating above our maintenance level to create that surplus.

The next we question we need to answer is… how many extra calories above our maintenance to we need

If you spend any time on popular bodybuilding websites and forums you’ll often hear that a huge caloric surplus is needed for bulking up.

As if a flame thrower is the only way to light a fire.

They all assume more is better.

That more calories equal more muscle.


You don’t need to eat thousands of calories above your maintenance to gain muscle.

In fact, a bigger calorie surplus is more likely to make you fat!

Here’s what I suggest:

Men: maintain a daily caloric surplus of 250 calories above your maintenance level.

Women: maintain a daily caloric surplus of 125 calories above your maintenance level.

Again, I must emphasize that the maintenance and caloric surplus number you’ve calculated are only estimates.

They’re not to be taken as gospel truth.

So don’t get hung up about calculating a 100% accurate number at this stage.

Fortunately, there is a way to find your sweet spot.

Your Own Guidance System

A flight from London to New York City, or any destination for that matter, never flies in a straight line.

There are too many factors such as turbulence that keep knocking the airplane off course. 

Even so, most flights arrive at the correct destination and within the designated time.

This phenomenon does not happen by luck.

Between the airplanes own guidance system and traffic control, pilots are constantly course correcting, to ensure it arrives at the right place at the right time.

Just like an airplane pilot you need to consistently make course corrections with your calorie intake, to ensure you’re going in the right direction.

So, how do you that?

Simple, follow these 2 steps:

Step 1: Weigh yourself everyday

Best time is first thing in the morning when you get up.

And write it down in a note book. I always keep a weighing scale notepad beside my bed. It makes the habit automatic.

Step 2: Focus on weekly averages

Its important to ignore the daily fluctuations because they provide an accurate picture of your progress.

Instead, focus on the weekly averages and how they compare week on week. 

After 4 weeks a picture should be emerging whether your calorie surplus is having the desired effect.

Look at your weekly averages and ask yourself… “Is my weight moving in the correct direction at a rate I'm happy with?”

If you’ve answered yes, great. Keep doing what you’re doing.

If you answered no. Not a problem. You just need to adjust your course by adding more calories.

I suggest an extra 100 to 200 calories over the next two to four weeks and see what happens. 

Again, is your weight moving in the correct direction at a rate your happy with?

If yes, great… keep at it.

If no, then you should know the drill by now.

Rinse and repeat until you nail. You will eventually as long as you stick to the process.

Lets Recap

The point of this article is to calculate the amount of calories you would need to gain muscle.

And we did that by…

  • Calculating your maintenance level
  • Taking your maintenance level and calculating the extra calories (surplus) to build muscle
  • Monitoring your progress and course-correcting where necessary.

Here’s an important point I want to end with.

All the fancy formula’s, calculators and calorie surplus/deficits are great but, they can never provide the accurate data, unique to your biology, to move your weight in the direction you want.

The only way to get this data is through your own monitoring. Its that simple.

When you discover that sweet spot, when your weight moves in the right direction, that data is worth its weight in gold.

Gene Dasci

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