How Big Should My Calorie Surplus be to Build Muscle?
If you’re here, hopefully it’s because you understand that to build muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus.
If you don’t understand this, I recommend you go back here and read about how to build muscle.
You’ll be needing some digital kitchen scales – I recommend the following:
How big should my calorie surplus be to build muscle?
Your surplus doesn’t need to be big! In fact, it shouldn’t be.
Unfortunately there’s a lot of rubbish spread around which makes people think they’ve got to eat an absolute mountain of food in order to gain any muscle.
They see what someone like The Rock eats, and think they need to be doing that too.
There’s a bit of excitement that goes along with this too. Eating high calorie foods is fun.
Gym bros will encourage each other to eat as much as possible, and they don’t care too much if it’s “clean” or healthy. Burgers, fries, ice cream – it’s all encouraged by some.
“You’ve got to eat big to get big, bro!”
I’ve seen it on message-boards online too. Some kid who’s just beginning his gym journey will post a question with a picture of himself (looking a bit skinny) and everyone will reply with things like:
“Don’t overcomplicate it, just lift and EAT!”
“Whatever you’re eating now, double it.”
“I made great gains when I did the GOMAD diet (gallon of milk a day). You should definitely do that, but maybe do it with chocolate milk.”
I know because I was that skinny beginner. This was me when I started:
Once I realised that I needed a calorie surplus to build muscle, I started eating A LOT more food! I gained a lot of strength fast, but I also gained a LOT of fat.
I gained about 30 pounds in 3 months. Some of it muscle, most of it NOT. At the time I thought it was all muscle, until I realised – I’d gotten fat!
You Don’t Need to Eat a Ridiculous Amount of Food if You’re Skinny to Build Muscle
This kind of advice is completely harmful. Yes, skinny newbies do need to eat in a calorie surplus (as does everyone). But making them gorge themselves on an unknown quantity of food to get into a calorie surplus of an unknown (but probably massive) size is just irresponsible.
No-one questions how many calories they’re eating already, how much they weigh, what their level of activity is. You do need to know what your TDEE is, and then eat slightly more than it.
Slamming down high calorie foods just to “eat big to get big” will result in creating a much larger surplus than needed. It’s the cheat day problem, but every single day!
Trainees who follow this advice are going to gain fat at an alarming rate whilst gaining muscle no faster than they could have done with a smaller surplus.
Unfortunately, people receive this advice early in their lifting journey when they don’t know enough to properly question it.
You need to ACCURATELY find your maintenance to get to your calorie surplus
This bit requires a bit of patience. I understand how hard this is. You want to get to building muscle STRAIGHT AWAY, so you’ll probably skip this step.
It’s taken me until now (4 years) to develop this patience. I’ve had to learn by making mistakes and having some less efficient bulks than I could have had. You’ll probably think this sounds like a good idea, but you don’t want to spend anywhere from a week to a couple of months figuring out what your maintenance calories are. You want to get into a calorie surplus straight away, and who cares if it’s a bit too big?
I urge you to reconsider! Knowing pretty much EXACTLY what your maintenance calories are can be the difference between a bulk that lasts a whole year with a decent amount of muscle gained, and one that you have to cut short after a few months because you’ve gained too much fat already, and hardly any muscle.
But can’t I just get my maintenance calories with a calculator?
You can get a ballpark estimate of your maintenance calories by using an online calculator. Give me a bit more information and I’ll give you my best guess too.
But these are only estimates. These figures could be too high or too low for you. I mean, what does “training hard 3-5 days a week” really mean? How much cardio is that? What type of training? How hard are you working? And how active is an active job? How sedentary is a sedentary job? There’s way too many variables to expect an accurate number to come out of a calculator that asks such broad questions.
If you run with whatever figure the calculator gives you for your maintenance you could end up with a bigger surplus than you really want – which will mean faster fat gain.
Does this really matter?
YES – you need to ACCURATELY find your maintenance before you start “eating in a surplus” using the estimation that the online calculator gave you.
If your maintenance calories are under-estimated, you may not get into a surplus when you add 10% to it. This definitely matters because you won’t gain any muscle at all without a surplus.
If your maintenance is overestimated, you’re going to have a surplus that is bigger than it needs to be. Increasing the size of the surplus beyond the optimal amount does not result in gaining EVEN MORE muscle.
With a surplus that is larger than necessary you’ll definitely be gaining muscle (if training, protein, recovery are spot on too) but you WILL also gain more fat than you need to. A bigger surplus doesn’t make muscle gain any faster! All extra energy you take in above and beyond what you need to build muscle will just go on the “store as fat” pile.
Just 100 calories over the optimal surplus per day will add up to an extra pound of fat per month (12 pounds or 5.5kg of extra fat gain per year). If you have an extra 200 calories more than you need per day, then you can double those previous fat gain projections. 11kg of fat gain? That’s significant! 200 calories is nothing. 2 pounds of fat per month is NOT nothing! Many are overshooting their maintenance by A LOT more – 500 or even 1,000 calories per day if they think they can get away with eating tubs of ice cream.
You WILL need some accurate digital kitchen scales so you can track your intake of food. Estimation is not good enough for most people. You need to learn with accuracy FIRST before you estimate. I strongly recommend these ones if you’re in the US, or these ones if you’re in the UK.
If you gain fat too fast, you’ll have to end your bulk sooner and go back to a calorie deficit to lose fat. If you keep doing this, you will spend more time dieting and less time building muscle (as you need to be eating in a calorie surplus to gain muscle)!
While you diet you could possibly lose the little muscle you gained and then be back at square one when the diet is over. Don’t spend your time spinning your wheels by doing this!
These effects will compound over your training lifetime. Each additional year you train is another year you built less muscle than you could have and gained more fat than you should have. You would look significantly worse than someone identical to you who had their nutrition on point every time.
For reference, here’s what I look like now. It took YEARS of training and building muscle to get to this point. I could not have looked like this if I had to stop every bulk after 3 months or less because I gained fat too quickly. I had to keep my calorie surplus in check!
Once you’ve got your maintenance number you need to review your weight and make careful adjustments
Hopefully you now understand why it’s important to be really accurate when tracking your intake of food, and to carefully watch the scales. For a few weeks you need to eat pretty much exactly the same amount of calories (to within a few % margin for error). Then take your average weight from week to week and compare.
Ideally, you won’t see any change in your average weight from week to week. Then you’ll know you’re eating at maintenance. This is when you bump up your intake by 10% and keep reviewing your scale weight.
There will probably be some daily fluctuations, especially right after you increase your intake due to you taking on more water and having more food in your digestive system. This is why you take your average weight across a week. For maximum accuracy you should always weigh yourself under the same conditions. First thing in the morning after going to the toilet and before eating or drinking anything works best.
Why a 10% calorie surplus?
Anything more than that is more than you need. You might actually need less. The problem with going for an even smaller surplus is that it’s too easy to accidentally take yourself out of your surplus. You might automatically up-regulate your activity to deal with the extra energy being provided. This means your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is increased. You fidget more. You get up and walk around more. Tap your feet more, etc.
You might also take yourself out of the surplus by having longer, harder workouts, or going for walks that you weren’t taking before.
The bottom line is to always track what you eat very accurately when you’re in a muscle gain phase, and review your weight closely too.
If you’re gaining weight too fast, reduce your calories.
Want More Info on Building Muscle?
I’ve written a 70+ page ebook containing everything you need to know about building muscle.
Everything you need to do has been laid out for you and organised, and everything that is a waste of time and doesn’t work has been exposed!
There’s sample workout programs you can apply (and it teaches you the principles you need to know to design one that makes sense for you), a huge chapter on nutrition, and all the principles you need to know to get great results from your gym ventures.
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