Are you eager to build bigger muscles but don’t know how many calories you need to eat to gain muscle?
Protein and carbohydrates are crucial for building muscle, but calories are equally important. Without the right amount of calories, macros alone won’t bring desired results.
This blog post will provide insights into how many calories you should consume to build muscle.
So if you’re ready to take your muscle growth to the next level, keep reading!
What Are Calories
Calories are a way to quantify the amount of energy or heat generated by molecular activity. Specifically, a calorie is defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. (1)
In nutrition, calories come from amino acids, lipids, and glucose, also known as protein fats and carbohydrates or macronutrients. (2)
The number of calories a person needs varies depending on age, gender, body size, physical activity level, and other factors. Generally speaking, 1950-2250 calories for adult females and 2400-2700 calories for adult males. (1)
Calculating Calories to Build Muscle
Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is the number of calories you use per day and is made up of several parts, including: (3)
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – Energy used at rest. (4)
Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – Energy used to eat and digest. (5)
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – Energy used to move around and think. (6)
Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT). – Energy used to exercise. (7)
These categories of daily calorie use can be broken up into two groups, resting energy expenditure and non-resting energy expenditure.
When calculating the number of calories for building muscle, identify your BMR, add an activity factor, and add a 350-500 calorie surplus.
I am a dietitian who lifts, and durning my last muscle building phase, my BMR was 1850 calorie with about 925 claories for daily activity, I needed ~2700-calories per day to maintain my weight. I this added 500 calories for weight gain and muscle building bringing my totoal to 3200 calories per day.
Let’s look closer at identifying the number of calories it will take to build muscle mass.
Basal Metabolic Rate, aka Resting Energy Expenditure.
The basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the rate of energy humans use at rest. The BMR makes up about 60% of the calories we use daily and is enough energy for basic functions like the brain, heart, liver, and muscles to function properly – at rest. (8)
Men: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) + 5
Women: BMR = (10 × weight in kg) + (6.25 × height in cm) – (5 × age in years) – 161
Tips for calculating BMR:
2.2 pounds equals 1 kilogram – Divided your weight by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.
Multiply your height in inches by 2.54 to get the height in cm.
Your BRM will, for the most part, stay constant except for losing or gaining weight, specifically muscle mass. In your case, adding new muscle tissue will increase your BMR over time. I would re-calculate your BRM in a muscle-gaining phase every six months.
The second part of the Harris-Benedict Equation and finding the ideal calories for gaining muscle tissue is adding an activity factor. This accounts for all your daily activities, including taking a shower, walking the dog, and working a physically demanding job. (10)
While most BRM will be similar to comparable-sized people, the difference in lifestyle and activity can be wildly different. This is where you get an opportunity to account for your specific life.
Choose one of the following multipliers to apply an activity factor to your BMR. Your calorie needs will increase if you lift weights a few days a week. Four options range from 1.2 (lowest) to 1.9 (highest).
Sedentary (little or no exercise): 1.2
Lightly Active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): 1.375
Moderately Active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): 1.55
Very Active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): 1.725
Extra Active (very hard exercise and physical job or 2x training): 1.9
For the final step, multiply your BMR by your activity factor. If you have gotten up until this point, congrats! You know what your weight maintenance calories are. However, we have one final step: adding additional calories for optimal muscle growth.
Calorie recommendations are multifactorial. To determine calorie needs for building muscle, consider your resting energy expenditure, the extra energy you use when working out, and the increased basal metabolic rate resulting from muscle growth. (11,12)
The general recommendation is to increase your calories by 300-500 per day above your maintenance calories.
There are some exceptions to this general recommendation, which is the case if an individual carries a significant amount of body fat. In this case, sticking with maintenance calories is the current consensus.
We deconstructed how to identify the calories you need to build muscle. Let’s review.
Step #1: Identify your basal metabolic rate
Step #2: Personalize by adding calories to your daily activity
Step #3: Add 300-500 calories to your daily maintenance calories.
Now you are ready to figure out your macros for gaining muscle. This article will breakdown how to customize your protein fats and carbohydrates. Then you should read the 7 day meal plan for muscle gain.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the minimum calories to build muscle?
The minimum number of calories to build muscle will look different from person to person. Generally speaking, a woman needs 2000-2300 calories, and men need about 2500-3600 calories. Adding 300-500 calories to each would give you 2300–2600 calories for women and 2800-3900 for men.
What foods should you focus on when building muscle?
Focusing on a variety of food sources will ensure that you are receiving adequate amounts of nutrients. Focusing on lean protein sources, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy will help you with this. Check out the macro friendly foods list for more foods you should focus on to build muscle.
Is it better to do cardio or weightlifting to build muscle?
Weight lifting is typically more effective than cardio for building muscle. Weight lifting allows you to target specific muscles and continually lift more weight, leading to greater muscle gain results.
Can you build muscle while in a calorie deficit?
Calorie deficits are not ideal for muscle growth because your body won’t have enough energy to recover and build muscle. To maximize muscle growth, it is best to maintain or be in a calorie surplus.
Calculating your BMR and adding an activity factor is the first step to determining how many calories you need for muscle building. Consider your lifestyle and activity level to determine your total calories better.
Then, adding 300-500 calories to your maintenance calories per day is the next step. Once you have identified the number of calories you need to eat to build muscle you are ready to calculate your macros for gaining muscle.
If you focus on a nutrient-dense diet and prioritize weight lifting, you should see muscle growth results over time.
Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.