When it comes to building muscle, one of the first things most people talk about is a calorie surplus, but how many extra calories do you really need to build muscle and what can you do to make sure that you’re gaining muscle and not fat during the process?
In order to answer these questions, and more, we’re going over everything you need to know to gain weight safely and effectively. But before we dive into too much detail, let’s first talk about what a calorie surplus actually is and how it ties into the muscle-building process.
What is a Calorie Surplus?
To understand what a calorie surplus is and how it works, it’s important to first understand the concept of energy balance.
The calories that we take in through our daily diets -- i.e. through the foods and drinks we consume -- serve as our body’s primary source of energy. Our bodies need these calories to fuel all of the different biological processes involved in keeping us up and running.
Our bodies are constantly burning up energy and ultimately, in order to support all of the different biological processes involved in maintaining homeostasis, we need to be taking in an adequate supply of calories.
When we take in the same amount of calories as our bodies burn off, it’s known as an energy balance, and when you’re in a state of energy balance, your body mass stays the same.
A calorie deficit (AKA a negative energy balance), on the other hand, happens when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off. When you’re in a calorie deficit, you lose body mass.
A calorie surplus is the exact opposite of a deficit. It happens when you take in more calories than your body requires to maintain homeostasis and leads to increases in body mass over time.
Do You Need a Calorie Surplus to Build Muscle?
When we’re talking about building muscle, what we’re really talking about is increasing our lean body mass, and as we’ve just discussed, in order to do that you need to be taking in more calories than your body burns off in a day.
Before anything else, your body uses the calories from your diet to support vital biological processes and maintain the tissues that it already has, so it won’t waste any of those precious calories on building new muscle tissues (aka increasing your lean body mass) unless there’s more than enough to go around.
In other words, in order for some of the calories from your diet to go towards the muscle-building process, you need to have a surplus of calories coming in.
How Large Should Your Calorie Surplus Be?
At the end of the day, a calorie surplus is not going to look the same for everyone. While multiple factors can potentially affect how large of a calorie surplus you’ll need to build muscle, nothing is more important than your level of training experience.
When you’re first starting out lifting weights, your muscle-building potential will be at its highest. In the first few months, when your muscles are especially receptive to new stimuli, most people will be able to pack on some serious muscle mass -- a phenomenon known as newbie gains -- so you want to have plenty of extra calories at your disposal to fuel that growth.
But as you gain more training experience, building muscle will be a longer and more difficult process. After you have years of experience under your belt and you’ve already built up a considerable amount of muscle mass, you may only be able to gain a couple of pounds in lean body mass over the course of a multi-month period, which won’t require as large of a surplus.
While the size of your surplus is going to vary based on your training experience, one thing that you want to avoid no matter how much experience you have is too large of a surplus.
Although you’ll certainly need enough extra calories to build muscle, you don’t want your calorie surplus to be so big that you’re also gaining substantial amounts of body fat. Here’s how large of a calorie surplus you should shoot for based on your training experience.
- Beginners (< 1 year of training experience): somewhere around 500 extra calories
- Intermediates (1 - 5 years experience): Somewhere around 250 extra calories
- Experts (> 5 years experience): 150 extra calories
How to Setup the Perfect Calorie Surplus
Step 1: Figure Out Your Maintenance Calories
In order to create a calorie surplus in your diet, you first need to know how many calories you’re actually burning off, which is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Also known as your maintenance calories, your TDEE represents the number of calories it takes per day to maintain your current weight.
One of the easiest ways to figure out your maintenance calories is to use a TDEE calculator, which will give you a relatively accurate estimate of how many calories you burn off in a day given your weight, height, age, gender, and activity level.
Step 2: Add in Your Calorie Surplus
Once you have a reliable estimate of how many calories it actually takes to maintain your current weight, you’re ready to add in your calorie surplus. Again, how many extra calories you add into your diet should be based on your level of previous training experience -- the more experience you have, the smaller your surplus should be.
Ultimately, you want to take in enough extra calories to support the muscle-building process without going too far overboard so that you’re also gaining substantial amounts of body fat along the way.
So, for example, if you know that it takes 2,300 calories a day to maintain your current weight and you have very little previous training experience, you’d be shooting for a calorie surplus of around 500 calories, which means you’d been looking to eat 2,800 calories per day. If you have the same maintenance calories and couple years of experience, on the other hand, you’d be shooting for a surplus closer to 2,550.
Step 3: Count Macronutrients For Extra Precision
While a calorie surplus is a good start, you’ll also need to be staying on top of your macronutrient intakes in order to truly maximize your muscle-building potential.
When it comes to adding lean muscle mass to your frame, no macronutrient is more important than protein. All of the muscles throughout your entire body are made up of proteins, which are constantly being broken down and replaced. In order to build muscle, your body ultimately needs to synthesize more new protein than the amount that is broken down.
For that to happen though, you need to have an adequate supply of protein coming in through your diet. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that between 10 - 35% of your total daily calories should come from protein, which contains 4 calories per gram.
A decades-old rule of thumb in the bodybuilding community has been to consume 1g of protein per pound of body weight, which should fall neatly within the NIHs recommended ranges for most people. So for example, if you weigh 150 lbs, you’d be shooting to consume 150g of protein per day.
The NIH recommends that somewhere between 45 - 65% of your total daily calories should come from carbohydrates, which like protein, also contain 4 calories per gram.
So for example, if you’re going for 2,800 calories per day and looking to have 50% of your daily calories come from carbs, you’d be shooting for 350 grams of carbs. Here’s what the math looks like:
2,800 x 0.5 = 1,400
1,400/4 = 350
However, because carbs are your body’s primary fuel source, you’ll want to consume them strategically to be at your best during your workout -- at the end of the day, performing better during your workouts improves your muscle-building potential.
For the best results, make sure to include plenty of complex carbs in your dailyl, they provide you with a steady continuous supply of energy instead of the quick spikes and crashes that come along with simple carbs like sugar and corn syrup.
While dietary fat often gets a bad rap, we need an adequate and regular supply of it in our daily diets to support a number of different biological processes, including the muscle-building process.
The NIH recommends that somewhere between 20 - 35% of your total daily calories should come from healthy fat sources. In order to best support your overall health, you’ll want to focus on unsaturated fats and minimize trans and saturated fats in your daily diet.
Step 4: Adjust Your Calories and Macros as Necessary
This last tip is especially important for those who are just starting out with a calorie surplus and weight lifting in general. Over time, as you put on muscle and gain weight, your body’s metabolism and calorie needs are going to change.
As your muscle mass increases, so will your metabolism, which means that it will ultimately take more calories to maintain your weight compared to when you were just starting out. Ultimately, that means you’ll need to recalculate your maintenance calories and surplus from time to time to assure that you’re seeing gradual and continuous progress.
A calorie surplus occurs when you take in more calories than your body burns off in a day and is the cornerstones of the muscle-building process. While you’ll almost certainly need a calorie surplus to make significant improvements to your lean mass, how large of a surplus you’re going to need will depend on your training experience.
Those with little to no training experience may require a surplus of around 500 extra calories a day, while those with extensive training backgrounds may do better with a surplus closer to 150 extra calories.
In order to figure out your calorie surplus, you’ll need to first establish your maintenance calories, which can be easily estimated with a TDEE calculator. From there, simply adjust your calorie intake based on your training experience.
For even better results when it comes to building muscle, you’ll also want to stay on top of your macronutrient intakes. Protein is especially important when it comes to supporting the muscle-building process and consuming somewhere around 1g of protein per pound of body weight each day appears to be an ideal strategy for most people.