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How Many Calories to Build Muscle Mass

First, congratulations on taking the crucial step in finding your optimal daily calorie intake requirements to build muscle – you’re one step ahead of the majority of gym rats out there.

Without a daily surplus of calories, your muscle building efforts in the gym will get you nowhere.

Seriously, nutrition is that important.

Most people are lazy and won’t take a short time to work this stuff out. Nothing is more important than ensuring that they’re hitting the daily calorie surplus essential to build muscle mass.

Do you really want to build muscle and turn heads in the gym?

Then you MUST get your numbers sorted or you will forever struggle to gain muscle. This is not a guessing game – don’t just stuff your face and hope for the best.

It’s crazy, the number of guys I see working really hard in the gym every week – but failing to make any significant gains because they’re not eating the right number of calories and macronutrients to recover and grow more muscle tissue.

There’s really no point in even lifting a weight until you have your numbers sorted, and a solid diet plan in place.

The purpose of this article is to help you find the optimum calorie intake to maximize muscle gains, while minimising fat gains.

What Are Calories?

Calories Explained
A calorie is a unit of energy. It is a unit of heat used to indicate the amount of energy that foods will produce in the human body.

A car may burn around 5 litres of petrol to drive 50 miles. Your body may burn around 200 calories from food to walk 2 miles.

Our body burns food (metabolites) that produces energy in the form of heat. This heat energy keeps our body warm and powers every physiological function.

When you read a food label, and it says 100Kcal, it means that metabolising the food produces 100 calories of heat that your body can use as energy.

Why You Need to Eat Calories to Gain Muscle

The only way to build substantial muscle is with a calorie surplus.

In other words, you need to consume more calories than you burn.

Let’s say you hit the gym hard, and you nailed a tough workout… awesome!

You then went on to consume 4 healthy meals over the course of the day.

Your meals consisted of quality proteins, carbs and vegetables. You downed a couple of whey protein shakes, too.

In total, you consumed 2,700 calories for the day.

But here’s the thing, you burned 3,100 calories, creating a 400 calorie deficit.

You burned off more calories than you consumed, and guess what? – You didn’t build any muscle.

Your awesome workout and your commitment to eating 4 good meals got you nowhere.

In fact, you created the perfect conditions for losing weight – by creating a calorie deficit, the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

Here’s why…

Everyone has something called a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which is the amount of energy (calories) burned while resting. It’s the energy required by the body to carry out its most basic (basal) functions.

Imagine if you were to stay in bed for 24 hours without moving a single muscle. All of your organs – lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, brain, nervous system and digestive system all require energy to function. Most of the calories your body burns are used to keep you alive.

Your BMR can account for up to 75% of the daily calories burned, and everyone has a different BMR. There are a number of factors that influence your BMR such as your weight, height, metabolism, age, gender and genetics.

Now let’s say your BMR (I’ll show you how to get this shortly) is 1800 calories. That means your body needs 1800 daily calories from food to function normally.

You also burn calories through daily activity; brushing your teeth, walking the dog, shopping, working, taking the trash out, cleaning… you know, the day-to-day essential activities that life demands.

Add to that the calories you burned during your workout at the gym and your total calorie expenditure for the day easily reaches 3,100.

You see, an additional surplus of calories is required to facilitate the building of new muscle tissue. Energy is needed to grow muscle, but if you’ve burned up all the available energy from your diet through BMR and physical activity you’ll have nothing left to build muscle – you can’t build muscle out of thin air.

You need to have a slight surplus of calories to form new muscle tissue.

I emphasise the word slight surplus because an excessive surplus will result in the rapid accumulation of body fat. The goal with a calorie surplus is to provide just enough additional energy to build muscle, while keeping lean.

We’ll talk more about the ideal calorie surplus in the next section.

Below is a visual representation of how 3,000 calories might be used up over a day with the goal of maximizing muscle gain while minimizing fat gain.

calories pie chart

You will seriously struggle to build muscle without those additional calories to support the growth process.

So, how do you find the ideal total number of calories to consume each day to build the most muscle, with the least amount of fat?

Daily Calorie Requirements for Muscle Growth

This is probably the most important thing you will do to achieve the body you want, so don’t skip this part. You only need to do this once every 3 months or so, and it takes just minutes to work these vital numbers out.

So, how do you really work out how many calories to consume for maximum muscle gains?

You’ll need three things:

  1. Good Estimate of Lean Body Weight
  2. Your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)
  3. Daily Calories Burned Through Activity

Calorie Calculations – The Methods

There are a few methods available to find out your calorie requirements.

But before we get into that, I just have to say that no method is going to be 100% accurate. It’s impossible – for you, or anyone else – to know your exact daily energy expenditure to the last calorie.

We just need a good guide to work with here – just enough calories to support your BMR, activity and muscle growth.

So, don’t stress or obsess over every crumb on your plate. We’re getting an educated estimate of your daily calorie requirements, which makes a good starting point.

I’m providing two methods here, both of which are quick and easy, and fairly accurate.

Method 1: Basic Multiplier

The first step with this method is to find out your fat-free mass (lean body weight). Your lean body weight is the amount of weight you carry on your body that isn’t fat.

Here’s how to work this out.

First, step on the scales and find out your total body weight. In this example, I will use 190lb.

Bodyweight: 190lbs

Next, get a good estimate of your body fat percentage. There are a number of ways you can do this.

You could use Body Fat Calipers. With these, you would pull the skin/fat away from your muscles, pinch them with the calliper, take the measurements, and compare the numbers with a body chart interpretation chart to figure out your body fat percentage.

Another method would be to use electronic body fat scales. With these, an electrical current is sent through your body and uses “biometrical impedance analysis.”

The good news is that you don’t need to be 100% accurate in measuring your body fat percentage. You just need a good estimate to work with. You can use the pictures below as a visual comparison guide to help you estimate your body fat percentage.

bodyfat example

In this example, we’ll estimate that our 190lb person has a body fat percentage of 20%

Now for some calculations:

Step 1: Bodyweight x body fat percentage = BF (190 x 0.20 = 38lbs. of body fat)

Step 2: Bodyweight – body fat = fat-free mass (190 – 38 = 152lbs. fat-free mass)


  • Bodyweight: 190 lbs.
  • Body fat Percentage: 20%
  • Total Body fat: 38lbs
  • Fat Free Mass: 152 lbs.

After running these calculations we now know that our example person has 152lbs of fat-free mass.

Your Muscle Building Calorie Calculator

Now all we need to do is take this number and multiply by 19 to get our daily calorie surplus needed to build muscle.

152 x 19 = 2888 calories

BOOM! – the result is 2,888 calories per day, which should cover BMR, general daily activity, training, and a surplus to facilitate new muscle growth.

I don’t want you to think that you need to hit exactly 2,888 calories, it’s a guide. In this case, you’d be shooting for around the 3,000 calories per day mark – or close to whatever your number might be.

Method 2: BMR + Activity Calculator

This method will also require that you first find your lead body weight, as shown in method #1.

We’ll use a 152lbs man for this example.

Now, to calculate your BMR you can use a calculator and crunch some numbers, but there’s an easier way.

Thankfully, there are a number of helpful online BMR calculators that use a formula so that you can easily find your BMR, by filling in a few fields with your stats.

Now, head online and find a good BMR calculator.

This one – My Fitness Pal BMR – will work just fine.

Next, fill in your details – height, lean body weight, age, sex, and hit “calculate”.

BMR Calories calculator form

After you hit calculate, the form will spit out a number. This is your BMR, the amount of calories your body burns at rest.

calorie count calculation results

In this example, we have a BMR of 1,693 calories. Now we need to add an activity multiplier to make up the additional calories burned through activity and training.

Here’s how to do that.

The activity multiplier is known as the Harris Benedict Equation and is a formula that uses your BMR and then applies an activity factor to determine your total daily energy expenditure in calories.

To determine your total daily calorie needs, multiply your BMR by the appropriate activity factor, as follows:

  • If you are sedentary (little or no exercise): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.2
  • If you are lightly active (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.375
  • If you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.55
  • If you are very active (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days a week): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.725
  • If you are extra active (very hard exercise/sports & physical job or 2x training): Calorie-Calculation = BMR x 1.9

Now what you do is multiply your BMR (1693) by an activity level.

In this example, we’ll use “moderately active” which would be the ideal choice if you’re following a progressive training program to build muscle.

BMR (1693) x 1.55 = 2,624

This is the total number of calories you need to maintain your current weight. This covers the energy to fuel BMR, general daily activity and training, but we now need to add some additional calories to facilitate the growth of new muscle tissue.

To do this we start by adding around 250 calories to the total.

2624 + 250 = 2,874

The final result with method #2 is 2,874 calories per day, which should cover BMR, general daily activity, training and a surplus to facilitate new muscle growth.

You’re looking to add in the range of 250 – 500 calories per day on top of calories total to build muscle optimal.

If you’re a very skinny “hard gainer” then you must make sure your daily calorie surplus is closer to 400 – 500 every day. This is an ideal surplus of calories, big enough to build muscle yet small enough to avoid excessive gains in unnecessary fat.

Our example male above will take his daily calorie maintenance level of 2,639 calories and consume an additional 400 calories. So, he will now eat 3,040 calories per day to build muscle mass.

Of course, there’s no perfect set-in-stone calorie surplus, some people might do great with 250, while others do better with 500. You might find that you’re gaining too much fat with 500, and you need to cut back a bit.

Bottom lineconsume slightly more calories than you burn each day and adjust if necessary.

Which Method do I Recommend?

So, which method is best for calculating muscle-building calories?

Well, as you can see when you compare the results of both methods we have a difference of just a few calories, 2,888 Vs 2874.

However, results will not be so closely matched every time because method #2 takes into account individual height, age and sex which will change from person to person. Therefore, I would say method #2 is going to be slightly more accurate, but both formulas work well.

For quickness, I’d recommend using method #1.

And, remember, it’s an accurate estimate. You’re looking to round both numbers up to 3,000 anyway.

Calorie Cycling to Stay Lean

The number of calories you eat on training days will differ from that of non-training days, because your calorie expenditure will change. Fewer calories are required on rest days Vs training days.

For example, on training days your calorie intake will need to cover:

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

  • Exercise
  • General Activities
  • Muscle Growth

On non-training days your calorie intake will need to cover:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
  • General Activities
  • Muscle Growth (because muscles grow on non-training days)

Remove around 200 calories from your diet on non-training days to avoid excessive surplus and fat storage. You may not need these extra calories, so cut them out when you’re not using them so that you’re able to build muscle and stay as lean as possible.

Cycling your calories would look something like this over a week:

calorie cycling chart

Reduce calories on the days you don’t train by reducing carbs from your diet. Do not lower calories by reducing protein intake.

For example, 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories.

So, to cut back on calories you would reduce 50 grams of carbs from your diet. This could be from one meal or 25 grams from two meals.

Calculation: 200 ÷ 4 = 50grams of carbs

Conclusion and Adjustments

There you have it, just take your BMR, multiply it by an activity level and add an extra 250 – 500 calories and you have your ideal daily calorie range for building muscle while minimising body fat.

Or, simply multiply your lean body weight by 19 and you’re set.

Most people struggle to put on muscle because they fail to consume an adequate calorie surplus.

You don’t need to be bang-on accurate to the calorie here, but taking the time to get a good estimate of your numbers will ensure you’re eating more calories than you burn, creating an environment where muscles can grow at an optimum rate.

You will need to keep an eye on your weight and body fat levels on your new high-calorie diet. The goal is to see a steady increase in body weight (around 2 pounds per month) without a dramatic increase in body fat.

If after one month your weight has remained pretty much the same as your starting weight, add 100 – 200 calories to your diet. Check your weight again one month later and adjust again if necessary.

If you find that you’re gaining more than 2 pounds per month, but most of the weight seems to be fat, cut 100 – 200 calories from your diet.

You may find your daily calorie requirements for muscle growth using the methods above is optimal, but do keep an eye on things and make sensible adjustments when needed.

You must always be gaining more muscle than fat. A slight increase in body fat is acceptable and can be trimmed off later.

I have provided you with the details on the starting point, but it’s up to you to monitor and make tweaks where necessary.

Make sure that your calories come from healthy whole foods in a ratio of 50% complex carbs, 30% lean proteins and 20% healthy fats.

“The Path to Added Muscle is Consuming More Calories Than the Amount Needed to Keep Your Current Bodyweight Unchanged.” – Dorian Yates, 6x Mr Olympia

NEXT: Calculate Your Macronutrient Ratio to Optimize For Lean Growth