Most people will tell you that you need to eat more if you want to get stronger and more muscular. But how many calories should you eat to gain muscle?
The number of calories you should eat for building muscle is about 5% to 10% more than your total daily caloric expenditure. Your daily expenditure is the total energy needed to sustain your body weight at rest and support your physical activity, including exercise and work. For example, a 200lb man burns ~2,700 calories per day, so you'd need to eat between 2,835 and 2,970 calories to gain muscle.
In this article, we will show you how to calculate your daily expenditure, so you can know exactly how many calories you need to eat to gain muscle. You'll also learn the difference between gaining muscle weight and fat weight, and everything you need to know to gain muscle properly.
If you’re looking to lose fat instead and want to start powerlifting to reach your goals, check out our guide on how to use powerlifting for fat loss.
What is the Difference Between Muscle Weight and Fat Weight?
If you increase your calorie intake to gain muscle, you will gain weight that consists of muscle weight and fat weight. This is inevitable for the vast majority of people.
However, there is a difference between muscle weight and fat weight. Muscle weight consists largely of living tissue or protein, which requires calories to exist. This will ultimately contribute to your basal metabolic rate or BMR. The BMR is the number of calories required for basic functions (such as breathing and pumping your heart) at rest.
Fat weight is more of an energy store and helps insulate your body to trap body heat. Having more fat weight on your body frame does not increase your BMR.
Visually speaking, muscle weight is a lot denser than fat weight. This means that fat takes up more space and volume for the same weight of both muscle and fat.
Each pound of muscle your body has also burns about 6 calories per hour, while each pound of fat only burns about 2 calories per hour.
How To Calculate How Many Calories You Need to Gain Muscle
To determine how many calories you need to gain weight, follow the steps below to estimate where to begin.
Step 1. Figure Out Your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)
You can use a formula to manually calculate your BMR or fill out your information in an online calculator.
Manual BMR Formula
This formula relies on the Mifflin St. Jeor method of estimating your BMR.
If you are male, use this formula:
- Metric version:
BMR = (10 x weight (in kg)) + (6.25 x height (in cm)) – (5 x age (in years)) + 5
- Imperial version:
BMR = (4.536 × weight (in lbs)) + (15.88 × height (in inches)) − (5 × age) + 5
If you are female, use this formula:
- Metric version:
BMR = (10 x weight (in kg)) + (6.25 x height (in cm)) – (5 x age (in years)) – 161
- Imperial version:
BMR = (4.536 × weight (in lbs)) + (15.88 × height (in inches)) − (5 × age) − 161
Online BMR Calculator
If you don’t want to do manual math, you can use this online calculator to figure out your BMR.
Step 2. Figure Out Your Daily Expenditure
To figure out your daily expenditure or maintenance calories, you need to estimate your weekly physical activity level. Your level of weekly physical activity will be associated with a multiplier figure, which you should multiply against your BMR.
- If you perform little to no exercise, your multiplier is 1.
- If you perform easy exercise or exercise between 1 to 3 days per week, your multiplier is 1.1.
- If you perform moderate exercise 2 or more days per week, your multiplier is 1.2.
- If you perform intense exercise 3 or more days per week, your multiplier is 1.4.
- If you exercise twice or more per day, your multiplier is 1.6.
Step 3. Figure Out the Number of Calories Needed To Gain Muscle
Once you figure out your energy expenditure, you need to figure out how many calories you need to put yourself in a positive energy balance. A positive energy balance means you have a higher calorie intake than your calorie expenditure.
This will put your body in an anabolic state. An anabolic state is an environment where a net increase in physiological processes leads to the repair and build-up of muscle tissue.
If you want to build muscle but be more conservative with your weight gain to reduce the chances of gaining excessive body fat, you can increase your daily calorie intake by 5%, which will likely only increase your weight by 0.5lbs per week.
For example, if your daily calorie expenditure is 2500 calories, you can eat 2625 calories to build muscle.
However, if you want to increase your muscle-building potential easily, you can increase your calorie intake by 10%. This will increase your weight by about 1lb a week, give or take.
For example, if your daily calorie expenditure is 2500 calories, you can eat 2750 calories to gain weight and build muscle.
6 Diet Rules for Gaining Muscle
Here are some useful guidelines to keep in mind for dieting for muscle gain.
- Ensure sufficient protein intake
- Evenly spread protein throughout the day
- Have good quality protein
- Do not neglect carbs and fats
- Weigh and track your food
- Consistency over perfection
1. Ensure Sufficient Protein Intake
The first most talked about macronutrients needed to build muscle is protein. Protein is the building block of muscle tissue in the body. Sufficient protein is necessary to optimize muscle growth regardless of how many calories you eat to build muscle.
The current consensus from scientific literature suggests that 1.8 grams per kg (or 0.82 grams per lb) of body weight is sufficient for maximizing muscle protein synthesis, the process of using protein to build muscle. This number is the same regardless of your body composition (how much lean mass you have compared to fat mass).
For example, if you are a 175lb male, you should consume about 140-175 grams of protein daily.
2. Evenly Spread Protein Throughout the Day
It is important to evenly spread protein consumption throughout the day. Research shows that evenly spreading protein throughout the day is better than concentrating protein at some meals more than others, even when total calorie and protein consumption are equated.
The reason for this is that protein gets digested and broken down into amino acids. Your body does not do a good job storing amino acids (I’ll discuss what amino acids are in the following tip).
For example, if you are a 175lb male who needs 140 grams of protein per day and eats 4 meals daily, you need to consume 35 grams of protein per meal.
3. Have Good Quality Protein
Protein is broken up into amino acids when it is digested. There are 20 main amino acids. Some are essential, and some are nonessential. Essential amino acids are amino acids that we need to get from food. Nonessential amino acids can be made within our bodies.
Some sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids, which are called complete proteins, whereas some other sources of protein do not.
Examples of complete protein sources include meat, fish, eggs, and milk. Examples of incomplete protein sources include nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
A diet that supplies a complete protein profile of amino acids is essential for optimizing muscle building. You can get your protein from incomplete protein sources as long as you eat a variety to ensure you get all the amino acids your body needs.
If you are vegan, you may wish to include plant-based complete proteins (such as peas, soy, and quinoa) or consume various incomplete protein sources to get all the essential amino acids.
4. Do Not Neglect Carbs and Fats
Carbohydrates and fats are as important as eating enough calories to build muscle. Carbohydrates are useful for building muscle because they are protein-sparing, meaning the body uses stored glycogen instead of breaking down muscle for energy.
Fats also contribute to the production of important muscle-building hormones, including testosterone and growth hormone.
5. Weigh and Track Your Food
If you don’t track your calories, you may eat more or less than you need to build muscle. Eating too few calories will prevent you from gaining muscle, but eating whatever you want and exceeding your daily calorie goals can cause excessive fat gain.
When tracking the actual food, it’s important to weigh everything you eat with a food scale.
I recommend weighing foods like meat and raw vegetables before cooking for the most accurate results. You can then add them to your calorie-tracking app based on their raw weights. If you eat pre-packaged food, nutritional information is normally written at the back. You can manually plug that information into the app or use a barcode scanner to log your meal if your app has one.
6. Consistency Over Perfection
When creating a dietary plan, it is important to be consistent rather than perfect. Aim to meet your calorie intake for muscle gain about 80 to 90% of the time, and allow yourself more flexibility with your diet 10 to 20% of the time.
Ultimately, you will still make very good progress by being consistent. This is an important mindset to have because being a perfectionist may lead to you to deviate from the process.
Once you’re satisfied with your muscle-building progress, you may want to start a cut to shed some excess body fat you may have gained. Check out our powerlifting cutting guide for tips on creating a fat loss plan.
Additional Tips to Follow When Trying to Gain Muscle
Eating enough calories to gain muscle is very important. However, you also need to manage your training and lifestyle to give your body the best chance of success.
Here are some things to keep in mind outside of how many calories to eat per day to gain muscle:
1. Get Good Sleep
Sleep is one of the most important lifestyle factors if you want to maximize muscle growth. Research has shown that sleep deprivation reduces how much muscle you can build.
Taking naps after working out can also help you increase muscle gain, as your body releases hormones such as testosterone when you sleep.
2. Manage Training Fatigue
Training hard is important, but it does not mean you should overreach yourself frequently. When you train beyond a certain limit, your body can’t recover and repair the damage you impose on yourself when you train.
Allow yourself to be able to either repeat the same workout or the same workout with more intensity every week most of the time. If you find chronic fatigue building up, causing you to lose performance, implement deload weeks where you reduce the training difficulty.
As a rule of thumb, beginner exercisers should train up to 3 days per week with 4 rest days per week. Intermediate and advanced exercisers can train anywhere from 3 to 5 days per week with at least 2 rest days per week.
3. Have Realistic Expectations
Muscle building is a very slow process. It is important to have realistic expectations regarding how much lean mass you can put on.
If you are in your low-30s or younger and relatively new to weight training, you may gain 1-2lbs every month. If you are in your mid-30s or older and/or have a few years of consistent training, you may build less than 1lb of muscle per month.
3 Ways to Tell if You Are Gaining Muscle or Fat
When you increase your calorie intake to gain muscle, you’ll inevitably gain fat as well. However, if the ratio between the two is well-balanced, you may be able to maintain the level of leanness you have. There are a few ways to tell if the weight you gain is from muscle or fat.
1. Check Your Body Composition
The first and most obvious way to check if you are gaining muscle or fat is to choose a strategy to monitor your body composition. Monitoring your body composition long term can give you a rough guide to see how well you are progressing.
It is important to not check your body composition too frequently, as there may be short-term fluctuations. A good rule of thumb is to monitor your body composition every 1 to 3 months.
Here are some methods of checking your body composition:
- Bioelectrical impedance devices
- Bod pods and DEXA scans
Calipers are a set of manual tools that pinch skin folds to measure the thickness at different sites across the body. Using different calculators, you can input the readings to project an estimated body fat percentage.
Calipers are one of the more accessible and affordable ways of monitoring body composition. The problem is you generally need someone to do it for you, and they need to be trained to do it well.
Bioelectrical Impedance Devices
Bioelectrical impedance devices can exist as handheld instruments or as part of a weighing scale. You can buy them online or at a pharmacy. They send small electrical signals through the body and measure the returning signal to give an estimated body fat percentage.
These are slightly more popular because they are quick and easy to use. However, they can be highly inaccurate and unreliable, as fluctuations in your hydration levels can change how accurate your reading is.
Bod Pods and DEXA Scans
Bodpods require sitting inside an airtight chamber where the air pressure inside is changed to measure total body volume. It then estimates body density and body fat mass. Check out this website to see where you can find the nearest bod pod.
DEXA scans require the use of a low-dose X-ray as you lie down on a table. The table measures how the X-rays are absorbed to estimate body composition. You may need to speak to a qualified medical doctor about getting a DEXA scan. Here is a website to find the nearest DEXA scan if this is something you’re interested in.
These methods are less accessible and can be very expensive. Most people cannot justify the price it costs to use them.
2. Monitor Your Training Performance
Monitoring your training performance over the long term can provide insights into whether you have built muscle or fat. If you can eventually perform more repetitions and lift more weight in various exercises over several weeks or months, you can be more confident that you have built muscle.
On the other hand, if you have gained weight but your performance has stalled or declined, you likely have gained more fat than muscle. This is because fat is a non-contractile tissue, and having more fat mass does not necessarily make you stronger.
Short-term evaluations of your progress are not a good measure of fat vs. muscle gain because so many variables can determine your performance on a daily or weekly basis. You should analyze how your training feels over several weeks or months rather than focusing on a single day or a couple of days to determine if you’ve gained muscle or fat.
3. Comparison Pictures and Weighing Yourself
Photographing yourself topless (or in a sports bra or bathing suit top if you’re a woman) can be a good way to see your body composition. Comparing it with your body weight can give you a rough clue of where you are.
If you have gained weight but look much leaner, chances are you have gained muscle. This is because, as I mentioned earlier, muscle takes up less space in the body than fat.
How Often Should You Eat When Trying to Gain Muscle?
In addition to determining how many calories a day you need to gain muscle, you should also pay attention to meal timing. You should try to eat 3 to 5 times per day if you want to build muscle.
I mentioned earlier that research suggests evenly spreading your protein intake is superior for building muscle. If you only get to eat once to twice daily, you may eat high protein concentrations at those meals. Eating 3 to 5 times daily is a good strategy for evenly spreading your protein intake to support your muscle-building goals.
Can You Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?
You can build muscle and lose fat in very specific circumstances. The most common situation where someone may be able to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously is when they are overweight and newer to exercise.
If you are overweight and have excess body fat on your frame, you will quickly increase your metabolism when you eat sufficient calories to gain muscle and implement a weight training program. You’ll also shed some body fat.
More experienced individuals will have a more difficult time trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. As you get more experienced, you need to be in a caloric surplus, making you gain muscle and fat. To lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit, which will reduce your ability to gain muscle and can even cause you to lose some muscle mass.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are 2500 Calories Enough To Build Muscle?
2500 calories may help you build muscle if you have a lower body weight and are newer to resistance training. It may not be enough for the average male (~197lb or heavier) with years of training experience. But it can be enough for the average female (~170lb) who is new to training.
How Do I Calculate Calories to Gain Muscle?
To calculate the calories you need for muscle gain, you need to find your basal metabolic rate based on your sex, height, and weight. You also need to know your daily energy expenditure (the calories needed to maintain your body weight, which you can calculate with this online calculator) and add a 10% calorie surplus.
How Many Calories Should I Eat to Gain Lean Muscle and Lose Fat?
Not everyone can eat to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously. If you are overweight and new to resistance exercise, you can figure out your maintenance calories with this online calculator and start resistance training. This will allow you to gain muscle and lose fat for a limited time, depending on the individual.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com