How Many Calories Do I Need? Part II
Posted by Michael Vacanti
Lakes, pool parties and BBQs – summer is coming. It’s swimsuit time. Maybe you want to add mass to your shoulders and chest. Maybe you want to tighten things up or “tone” (read: fat loss). We’re gonna get into all that fun stuff here.
We covered calorie counting and estimating caloric maintenance in part I.
This taught us how much to eat if we want to look the same for the rest of our lives. Real helpful. “That’s why I came to your site dude – because I’m thrilled with my current body.”
Calories Consumed – Calories Expended = Weight gain/loss
OK, so how much to eat if:
- I Want to Gain Muscle
- I Want to Lose Fat
- I Am Skinnyfat and Confused (and don’t even know what the word “skinnyfat” means)
I Want To Gain Muscle
There are two schools of thought on muscle gain – I only endorse one of the two.
- Option 1: Eat everything in sight
Forget counting calories, eat your face off until you want to die… and then crush a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Eat pounds of peanut butter, fried chicken, ice cream and steak. Dump olive oil on all your food – even your oatmeal. You will be huge in no time.
This advice is generally pushed on hardgainers – your 6’2″, 140 pound friend who leaves no guesswork on the placement of each rib in the cage come beach season.
I think this is bad advice. Here is why:
Mr. Skin&Bones eats everything he can get his paws on. He averages a 1,500 calorie per day surplus for six months. He is seeing great progress in the weight room.
But, let’s not forget that even beginners can’t expect to gain more than 0.5 lbs of muscle per week. Mr. S&B is gaining 3 pounds per week on this surplus, and 2.5 of it is fat.
Six months down the road S&B has made great progress and is much stronger. His body weight jumped from 140 lbs to 218 lbs.
But of his 78 pounds gained, 65 pounds of fat were accumulated.
I appreciate aesthetics. When you are done packing on muscle (whether it be in 12 weeks or two years), I think the next logical step is to chisel off the fat.
I like the classic 1970s bodybuilder physiques – a muscular build with a V-taper and trim waist. Certainly sub 12% body fat. Nothing overly roided though.
That is my opinion. Not everyone agrees. Mark Rippetoe, founder of Starting Strength, is a strength coach who has his own opinion.
Gains on gains on gains. Abs? WTF are abs?
If your goal is solely to gain strength with no interest in an aesthetically pleasing physique (or a different definition of aesthetically pleasing), then this might be the best option for you.
But, if you’re partial to a physique with less body fat, then packing on 65 pounds of excess waste leaves you a long fat loss journey ahead. And eating a caloric deficit isn’t fun.
That is why, ideally, you want to gain as little fat as possible during your muscle gain phase.
- Option 2: Eat 500 calories above maintenance and adjust accordingly
500 calories has become the golden rule for the caloric surplus that optimizes maximum muscle gain and minimum fat gain.
Personally, I have run both 500 and 1000 cal surpluses. I did not notice a difference in the rate of my strength training progression, but I did gain weight faster when eating a 1000 calorie surplus. This leads me to believe that the additional weight gained was primarily fat.
Adjust accordingly? Adjust to what?
As I have mentioned before, there is no perfect method to calculating caloric maintenance. Each individual is different, and even if we knew their maintenance level for certain on a given day, it would be likely to change based on changes in bodyweight, activity level and caloric intake.
So, pay attention to the rate of your weight gain and listen to your body. If your 500 calorie surplus was leaving you nice and full for the first couple weeks of your program but that same caloric intake now leaves you wanting more food, then you should bump it up a few hundred calories.
On the contrary, if you are putting on weight much faster than expected (10 pounds in one month for example), then you might want to reduce your surplus by a couple hundred cals.
Lastly, remember to get your 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight. Fill the rest of your calories with whatever carbohydrates or fat you desire.
I Want To Lose Fat
Maybe you looked in the mirror this morning and decided to make a change. Maybe you have been eating big and lifting hard, but now it is time to shed the excess fat. Maybe you decided to regain your younger, better physique. Let’s do this.
You already calculated your caloric maintenance; now it is time to decide how large a deficit is appropriate for you and your goals.
- I want to blast as much fat as possible. Asap. (Wedding, vacation, etc)
You are extremely motivated. The carrot is dangling out in front of you – some big event four weeks out. You want a large deficit.
Large deficits are more appropriate for the short term as diet adherence will suffer on a long-term large deficit. Personal preference, mental toughness and motivation will all determine how much you can handle. Three weeks for some, three months for others.
How large a deficit? Pick something in the 30-50% range.
- Maintenance: 3000 calories
- Deficit: 40%
- 3000*40% = 1200 calorie restriction
This means you’ll be eating 3000 – 1200 = 1800 calories per day (possibly partially supplemented with some cardio – see note below)
1200 * 7 days / 3500 = 2.4 pounds per week
That’s 10 pounds lost in a month.
And that doesn’t even include the additional 2-10 pounds you will lose during the first week of the diet caused by a decrease in glycogen stores (this weight will come back when you increase calories to maintenance, but you won’t do that prior to the big event!).
Large deficits are also a good way to kickstart a diet. Seeing strong initial progress in the first few weeks will motivate you to stick with it. From that point, you can increase calories a bit up to a moderate deficit diet (20-30%) for a longer term fat loss program.
- I am very serious about not losing an ounce of muscle during this fat loss phase
You want to run a small deficit, ~10-20% in my opinion.
A 2011 study (2) compared two groups of athletes on fat loss programs of different caloric restrictions to determine the effect on both body composition and strength. Group 1 was on a diet to lose 0.7% of their total bodyweight per week (a 23% caloric deficit). Group 2 was on a diet to lose 1.4% of their bodyweight per week (a 46% caloric deficit).
Results: Athletes in the smaller deficit group gained more lean body mass (as a percent of total weight) than athletes in the larger deficit group. This means the small deficit led to less muscle lost as a percent of total weight lost.
This study isn’t any kind of nail-in-the-coffin piece of evidence.
Some of the best minds in the industry say that you can run a large deficit and not lose any muscle. They might be right. However, my personal experiences, research and the fat loss regimens of people I know or follow suggest a correlation between smaller deficits and less muscle lost.
That said, with regards to minimizing muscle loss, factors more important than the size of the deficit include:
- Adequate protein
- Strength training
If you aren’t getting enough protein or you are aren’t lifting heavy weights while running a deficit of any size, you are going to lose both muscle and fat.
That means at least 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight and a good barbell strength training program. If you need help picking a program, check out my beginner’s guide.
- I want to lose fat, am not in a huge hurry and don’t want to be miserably hungry 24/7
A moderate deficit is more appropriate for you. Pick something between 20-30%.
- Maintenance: 3000 calories
- Deficit: 25%
- 3000 * 25% = 750 calories
750 * 7 / 3500 = 1.5 lbs/week
6+ pounds per month is a respectable number for this 200 lb male.
While you will have to settle for a slower rate of fat loss on a moderate deficit diet than you would on a large deficit, there is plenty of upside.
Moderate deficit diets nicely balance speed of fat loss with quality of life. And they do not have as negative a metabolic impact as large deficit diets (metabolic impact: decrease in calories burnt and effect on hormones caused by lower caloric intake).
*Note* Relevant to all fat loss goals
I promote diet as the way to achieve your deficit. What that means is a 700 calorie deficit will be reached by eating 700 fewer calories than your maintenance level. However, you can use cardio to supplement some of these calories.
Remember, the only reason I am “anti-cardio” is because I assume you have better things to do with your time. Maybe you have abundant free time or a wife/mother who kills it in the kitchen. Maybe you enjoy being outside and performing cardio. Or maybe you can’t restrict calories that severely for other reasons (social, love of food, etc). Here is how you combine diet and cardio to reach a deficit.
- Set your deficit – 700 calories per day
- How many cals you burn through cardio? There are tons of calculators available. Plug your weight and activity. Use a few of them to get a good average because I can’t attest to the reliability of one, specifically.
- Remaining deficit achieved through diet
Ex: 700 calorie deficit. You will burn 400 calories through cardio. You only need to eat 300 calories fewer than your maintenance level.
I Am Skinnyfat and Confused
You’re underweight, but you have love handles. How is this possible?
- Lacking muscle
- Possessing excess body fat
- Generally sedentary
“Well this is easy; I’ll just add muscle and lose fat simultaneously.”
Errr. No you won’t. That is a tall task, impossible for many and impractical for almost all. More on this subject in the near future.
You gotta ask yourself one simple question:
What do you hate more – your toothpick arms or your flabby midsection? We’re going to take things one step at a time and either put you on a muscle gain or fat loss program. You get to choose which one.
However, I’m still going to give you my opinion.
Remember, you don’t have any muscle. So if you decide on fat loss first, your new abs will more closely resemble starving African child abs than ripped alpha celebrity abs.
Ladies are a bit different – the no muscle no fat look works better for females than males. In fact, this is the runway model body type. I would still recommend gaining a bit of muscle first, but girls can successfully choose either route.
Skinnyfat men, I encourage you to gain muscle first because:
- (some muscle + some fat) >>>> (no muscle + no fat)
- It will be easier to lose fat once you have added some muscle. Your caloric maintenance will be higher because (a) you weigh more and (b) your increase in muscle mass will increase your BMR.
- Positive feedback. Your strength gains will be noticed by those around you whereas your fat loss probably won’t be. This creates a positive feedback loop which promotes adherence to the program.
- And lastly,
“You can’t chisel a pebble”
Once you decide on muscle gain vs. fat loss, set the caloric surplus or deficit that is appropriate for your specific goals. Lift heavy weight. Be disciplined and motivated. Look great this summer – and year-round for that matter.
Leave comments or questions in the comment section below and I will address them.
References 1. Body Recomposition: "Setting the Deficit - Small, Moderate or Large" 2. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Apr;21(2):97-104. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes.