Whether your goal is muscle gain, fat loss, performance enhancement or weight maintenance for your sport, the single most important piece of the nutritional puzzle is getting your energy intake right.
Not macros, not timing, not avoidance of alcohol, gluten, dairy or any other specific food, calorie intake.
Today we’ll cover the calorie part of the nutrition puzzle. This is the exact set-up system that I have used and refined from work with clients over the last 4 years. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- How to choose appropriate fat loss targets based on your current body-fat percentage.
- How to set muscle gain targets based on your current training experience.
- How to calculate your energy intake for those targets defined above
- Why energy calculations are only a ‘best guess’ and need to be adjusted.
- How to adjust your calorie intake to get back on target if things don’t go as planned.
Fat Loss & Muscle Gain Fundamentals
People generally have one of two goals – fat loss or muscle gain – though everybody wishes for both. Our ability to gain muscle while being in a calorie deficit decreases with body fat percentage, training advancement and the size of that calorie deficit.
Essentially, the fatter you are and the less training experience you have, the more likely you are able to achieve both, provided you don’t cut calories too far and hamper your ability to do this. Deficits can (and arguably should) be greater than surpluses.
- Fat can be lost quicker than muscle is gained, so those cutting will experience quicker and more obvious visual changes than those looking to gain muscle.
- Gaining muscle requires the building of new tissue and connections in the body. It takes time and requires patience. Think of building a house versus burning one down. The former takes time, the latter is much quicker.
- An excessive energy surplus when bulking (stuffing yourself with food every day) will lead to muscle growth, but also excessive and unnecessary fat gain. As we are looking at nutrition from a physique (and secondly performance) perspective, we want/need to curb this. We will therefore refer to a muscle gain phase as a “slow-bulk” rather than bulk.
- Therefore, the energy deficit to burn fat can, and should, be greater than any energy surplus to build muscle.
Diet changes should be used to create an energy deficit or surplus, not manipulations in training.
- It’s easier and more effective to control the energy balance through diet, i.e. eating more or less, rather than moving more or less.
- Training should be determined by goal, not used to address the energy balance equation.
- Adding in extra weight training (this includes metabolic conditioning circuits) will interfere with the recovery balance from your workouts. When bulking this threatens to steal from your gains. When cutting, the increased energy and recovery demands will add to systemic stress, and those knock on hormonal effects will negatively affect fat loss and cause muscle losses if overtraining occurs.
- Cardio, while it can be used to help create calorie deficit required for fat loss, should never be the primary means of doing so in my opinion, as it sets people up for failure.
Calculating Your Calorie Needs
The likely range for your maintenance caloric needs, needs to be calculated first.
Step 1. Calculate your BMR
I like to call BMR your ‘coma calories’ – the energy intake you need, should you fall into a coma, to maintain your body weight. There are a variety of formulas, all of which produce a guess at best, so don’t worry about trying to calculate things perfectly. We’ll adjust our intake based on how we progress.
For now we need a figure to work with. Here are two good formulas I like, but please choose a different method if you wish.
Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 x weight in kilos) + (1.8 x height in cm) – (4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 x weight in kilos) + (5 x height in cm) – (6.8 x age in years)
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.4 x weight in lbs) + (4.6 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + (6.2 x weight in lbs) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years)
If you’re obese then the above formula will overestimate your BMR, and if you are very lean then the above formula will underestimate your BMR. If you have an idea of your body-fat percentage then you’re best using the Katch-McArdle BMR Formula.
BMR (men and women) = 370 + (21.6 x lean mass in kg)
BMR (men and women) = 370 + (9.8 x lean mass in lbs)
Note: I use this latter formula, gauging body-fat percentage by eye when clients send me photos.
So how do I find out my body-fat percentage then?
If you have no idea on what your body-fat percentage is, get an estimate either through body-fat calliper measurement (only if you are fairly lean), or the BIA machine your gym will likely have. (DEXA, Bodpod and underwater weighing are other options if available.) There are flaws in all of these methods so do not use them to gauge progress, just use them for the initial guesstimate for the calorie calculation.
Step 2. Adjust for Activity
You need to add an ‘activity multiplier’ (x1.2~x1.9) to your BMR depending on your lifestyle/training.
- Sedentary (little or no exercise): BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (training/sports 2-3 days/week): BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (training/sports 4-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
- Very active (training/sports 6-7 days a week): BMR x 1.725
- Extremely active (training/sports and physical job): BMR x 1.9
It’s essential to realise that any calculation will just be a best guess, which is why I used the words “likely range” to describe the calculations above. This is because spontaneous physical activity (a.k.a. NEAT, written about here) – fidgeting, moving around, propensity to take stairs vs elevator etc. – will vary greatly between people.
This means that two 6ft, 200lb males, with the same 15% body fat and training regimes may find their maintenance calorie needs vastly different. One guy may need 2500kCal a day to maintain his weight, the other 3250kCal.
No calculation can take into account these individual NEAT differences. However, we need a starting point, so we make a calculation regardless.
From these two calculations we now have our approximate daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Step 3. Set weight-loss (or gain) targets
Set weight-loss targets based on current body fat percentage, or weight-gain targets based on training status (beginner, intermediate, advanced).
Step 4. Calculate the theoretical deficit or surplus needed to achieve that.
Step 5. Adjust energy intake upwards or downwards
Adjust these based on how the scale weight* changes over a few weeks of consistent implementation.
*For ease and simplicity we’ll assume fat loss is linear and any scale weight change reflects pure fat loss in a cut, or weight gain (muscle and a little fat) in the slow-bulk. That probably won’t be the case, so I’d recommend you track body changes more thoroughly. You can see how I do this here: How to Track Your Progress When Dieting
Calculations – A guess and nothing more
It’s essential to realise that any calculation will just be a best guess, which is why I like to use the words “likely range” to describe the calculations above. This is for three primary reasons:
1. The calculations were developed based on averages, but some people’s basal BMRs will be 10-15% higher or lower than prediction.
2. The activity multiplier is a little arbitrary.
3. We all vary in our subconscious reaction to calorie surplus or deficit circumstances – some people get more fidgety and move around more throughout the day when in a calorie surplus, some people get very lethargic when in a calorie deficit. This is known technically as NEAT (more here) and it varies greatly between people.
This means two 6ft, 91kg males, with the same 15% body fat and training regimes may find their maintenance calorie needs vastly different. One guy may need 2500kCal a day to maintain his weight, the other 3250kCal.
No calculation can take into account these differences. Tracking after the initial calculation and then making refinements is therefore essential.
Cutting: Choosing Fat-loss Targets and Setting Calorie Intake
How much fat can I lose per week?
There is a theoretical limit to how much fat can be released from the fat stores in a single day and this is inversely proportionate to how lean we are. If we go over this limit, we will lose muscle mass, regardless of whether we keep our protein intake high (specifics covered in next article on macro setting).
Simply put, fatter folks can get away with greater rates of fat loss than leaner people.
Maximum fat-loss recommendations depend on a person’s body fat percentage rather than total body weight. If you shoot for the following, in my experience, you should be ok for preserving muscle mass:
|Body fat %||Loss /week|
|30%>||~2.5 lbs / 1.1kg|
|20-30%||~2 lbs / 0.9kg|
|15-20%||1.25-1.5 lbs / 0.45-0.7kg|
|12-15%||1-1.25 lbs / 0.45-0.6kg|
|9-12%||0.75-1 lbs / 0.35-0.45kg|
|7-9%||0.5-0.75 lbs / 0.2-0.35kg|
|<7%||~0.5lbs / 0.2kg|
NB. the above figures are my guidelines, not theoretical limits.
- Obese people significantly over 30% body fat will be able to lose more per week without muscle losses, but I don’t advise it for skin elasticity reasons (i.e. you risk being left with sagging, loose skin).
- Short people should shoot for slightly less; taller people may be able to go slightly higher.
Even for those of the higher body-fat ranges I typically recommend 0.45-0.6kg a week of fat loss to clients, as higher than that tends to push the boundaries of what is sustainable in terms of adherence. Ideally people should feel almost like they’re not dieting for the longest time possible.
Just because you can lose more, doesn’t mean you should if it makes your life miserable.
How do I adjust my calculations to do that?
You may have heard the rule that it takes 3500kCal to burn a pound of fat (~0.45kg), ~7700kCal for a kilogram. This is not an absolute figure and it will depend on circumstance, but to avoid being unnecessarily technical, it’s a good guide so we’ll roll with it.
If based on that chart above you have determined that a ‘suitable’ rate of fat loss for you is 0.45kg a week, then you’ll need to have a calorie deficit of 3500kCal for the week to do that. This can be as simple as reducing calorie intake by 500kCal each day.
The other option is to fluctuate your intake to have more food on training days than on rest days for the theoretical recovery and nutrient partitioning benefits. Even if you choose to add this layer of complexity, you still need to maintain the same weekly deficit. For example, if you are training 3 days a week that could be: maintenance +500kCal on training days, maintenance -1250kCal on rest days.
More on this in the fourth part of this series…
Step 3. Set a weight-loss/gain target
Tom could lose 0.7kg of fat per week. However, he sets calorie intake a little higher so that he only loses 0.45kg per week. This is because as a novice trainee, he has a good chance of gaining muscle while he drops the fat off, as long as he doesn’t set his deficit too high.
Step 4. Calculate appropriate calorie intake for your goals:
- Suggested daily calorie intake = TDEE – fat loss target per week (kg) * 7700/7kCal
- Suggested daily calorie intake = 2647kcal – (0.45*1100)
- Suggested daily calorie intake = 2152kCal
It’s important to note here that the 3500kCal rule and thus the 500kCal deficit/day is just what will happen in theory. Alongside the individual energy requirement variances that make the initial maintenance calculation just a best guess, we also have the issue of NEAT swings with dieting (this is the subconscious activity that we mentioned earlier).
Basically some people will experience greater swings in their NEAT than others when their calorie intake changes upwards or downwards. Which partially explains why some people tend to struggle and claim of being very lethargic when dieting, but others don’t.
Also, there’s the issue of metabolic adaptation, your calorie needs will decrease as you progress with your diet. Meaning that things aren’t always going to work out as the math said. You need to track your progress and adjust your calorie intake upwards or downwards according to the scale weight changes to get yourself back on target. You’re best to take the average of 3 or 4 weeks weight change.
Additionally, it’s not uncommon for some people to find that the scale weight suddenly stops moving and stays there for several weeks. This is due to water retention – the fat loss is still happening, but as the fat cells empty they fill back up with water.
This is caused by rises in cortisol, which happen when we are stressed. A calorie deficit is a stressor, training is a stressor. All you can do to avoid this is sleep well and work to reduce other stress in your life then just hope for the best.
A gradual decrease in the rate of fat loss over the weeks is to be expected and does not indicate water retention (in this case you’ll make an adjustment to your calorie intake downwards to bring up the rate of fat loss), but a sudden stall indicates that it is water retention marking the fat loss, as there is no physiological mechanism whereby your body will suddenly cease to burn fat if you are in a calorie deficit.
This has potential to drive everyone crazy, but there is little you can do but wait it out. One morning you’ll wake up to find yourself a couple of kilograms lighter. This is known as a whoosh. It happens with both sexes but is especially common with women.
Bulking: Muscle Growth Expectations and Setting Calorie Intake
Muscle Growth Expectations
We know that our level of training advancement determines our rate of muscle growth potential, which decreases with experience – contrast this to when we have a fat-loss goal: body-fat percentage determines how quickly we can lose fat and has nothing to do with training experience.
By categorising our training advancement, we can get a reasonable estimate of the amount of muscle we can hope/ expect to gain per month, which becomes very useful when setting calorie intake and bodyweight gain targets.
Classifying your training experience/ status is a sticky area, but fortunately some smart guys have done this hard work for us. Lyle McDonald does it by ‘Years of Proper Training‘, Alan Aragon, Martin Berkhan and Eric Helms go by ‘Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced‘ categorisations.
- If you’re a lifter that has been focused on gaining strength in the barbell movements, or has put those movements at the core of your workouts, then you can determine your training status fairly objectively using Martin’s guidelines, section Progress and Goals.
- If not, check out Lyle’s guidelines.
Here is a rough breakdown of the rate of growth you can expect based on these classifications if you do everything right:
Muscle Growth Potential
Training Status | Gains/month
Beginner | 0.9-1.2kg / 2-3lbs
Intermediate | 0.45-0.9kg / 1-2lbs
Advanced | 0.22kg / 0.5lbs
- Taller people will want to go with the higher end of the range.
- Novice trainees that are very well muscled already (through a life of sport perhaps or manual labour job) will probably be best to consider their growth potentials as that of the intermediate trainee.
The Three ways to Bulk
I feel that there are three legitimate ways to successfully bulk:
- Relaxed bulk – This is bulking without counting calories or macros. This is sometimes known as a “dirty bulk”.
- Controlled bulk (slow bulk) – maximise the rate of muscle gain, without gaining an unnecessary amount of fat,
- Aim For Lean Gains – maintain maximal levels of leanness while adding muscle.
These methods all have their pros and cons, something which took me 8000 words to fully cover and guide on in this article, but the long and short of it is that I recommend that you do the controlled bulk / slow bulk.
Technically, it’s possible to gain muscle without any significant fat gain. However, muscle growth rates cannot be maximised without a significant calorie surplus. Therefore, fat gain is going to come along with the muscle if you wish to grow at your fastest.
The key here is keeping this fat gain under control so that it’s easy to cut off later.
With the relaxed bulk you’ll get too fat and have to spend longer periods cutting. With the lean gains style the progress will be so slow and hard to measure that it will likely drive you up the wall.
An approximate 1:1 ratio of muscle to fat gain is realistic for most people.
I’ll save you the math but this means that to gain 1kg of muscle per month, you’ll need to gain 2kg of body weight, and will require a 440kCal daily calorie surplus.
Step 3. Set a weight-gain target
Bob is an intermediate trainee of average height. He can gain approximately 0.7kg of muscle per month which means he will target 1.4kg of weight gain per month.
Step 4. Calculate Appropriate Calorie Intake For Your Goals
- Suggested calorie intake = TDEE + muscle gain target per month (kg) * 440kCal
- Suggested calorie intake = 2833kcal + (0.7*440)
- Suggested calorie intake = 3141kCal
Adjusting Calorie Intake When Weight Doesn’t Change As Planned
Step 5. Adjust energy intake
For a Cut
- If weight is lost too quickly, there is a risk of muscle loss. Increase calorie intake.
- If weight is not lost quickly enough, decrease calorie intake.
- Suggested incremental change value: 200-300kCal/day, or ~5-10% of total calorie intake.
For a Slow Bulk
- If weight is not gained quickly enough, increase calorie intake.
- If weight is gained too quickly, you’ll have put too much fat on, so decrease calories.
- Suggested incremental change value: 100-200kCal/day, or ~3-6% of total calorie intake.
Remember to take into account water weight fluctuations, and always consider 3-4 weeks’worth of tracking data before making any changes.
Calorie Set-up FAQ
What about setting calorie targets for a ‘recomp’?
Depends what you mean by ‘recomp’. If you mean muscle growth and fat loss at exactly the same rate, then there will be no deficit or calorie surplus, so you just skip that part of the calculation. However, that is idealistic and simplistic and muscle growth rates will only match fat loss rates under very specific circumstances (generally, the skinny-fat novice trainee). For most people, even aiming to do both at the same time, it’s best to have a slight deficit or surplus. Full details in my Goal Setting Guide.
To minimize any muscle loss when cutting and minimize any fat gain when slow-bulking you’ll need to get those macros right. We’ll cover this next.
Prefer to keep with the web version? #2 Macros, Fibre & Alcohol →
Questions? Clarifications? Hit me up in the comments.