Working out is a given, but do you have to count calories to build muscle? No, you don’t have to, but you absolutely should. In this article, I am going to give you many reasons why you should count calories and why I was held back for so long.
There is a reason that I am so adamant about counting calories. I was super skinny. Scrawny as some people would call me as an insult. If you looked at me in high school, you would think that this guy never has a chance of building muscle.
In fact, I thought I never had a chance to build muscle. I was the type of guy that thought that people got lucky or if they built any sort of muscle, they took steroids. I will let you know, I never tried steroids or anything else like it.
After spending 7+ years going from gym to gym, trying everything I could, I finally realized that I was doing something wrong. And I needed to do something about it. I was working out 5-7 days per week. And it just wasn’t working.
It turns out, I wasn’t eating enough calories. And once I figured that out, I was off to the races. I put on 20+ pounds of muscle in the first year of dialing in my diet. This never would have been possible without counting my calories. I had no idea how many calories it would actually take to build muscle.
Calculate your maintenance calories before anything else
This right here is where you need to start. Calculating your maintenance calories. I wrote a whole entire article about how to calculate your maintenance calories, but I will make it fairly brief here.
Your maintenance calories are the amount of calories that you need to eat per day without losing or gaining weight.
You calculate your maintenance calories by eating what you normally eat for 2 weeks, and writing everything down. I personally use MyFitnessPal to track all of my calories.
After 2 weeks of tracking everything, weigh yourself and determine if you have gained or lost weight. If you have stayed the same, or are within a half pound, you are ready for the next step.
Add up all of the calories for that 14 day period and divide by 14. That number will be your daily maintenance calories. For example, if during a 14 day period, I ate 35,000 calories. I would simply divide that by 14 to get my daily maintenance. 35,000/14 = 2,500.
If you gained weight during the 14 day window, you are probably eating at a caloric surplus. If you lost weight, you are probably in a caloric deficit. You cannot build muscle in a caloric deficit.
Make sure that you weigh yourself at the same time for each weigh in as to not muddle the data. The best time to weigh yourself is in the morning after urinating, before you eat or drink anything. That will give you the most accurate weight.
Counting calories to build muscle
We have our maintenance calories figured out now. So it is time to put those numbers into action. We learned in the previous section that you cannot build muscle in a caloric deficit. So what does that tell us? We need to be in a caloric surplus to build muscle.
In fact, we need to be in a constant caloric surplus to build muscle. As a young adult in college, I made the mistake of thinking I was eating enough. On the weekend I would eat a ton of pizza, wings, and cheeseburgers. On the weekdays, I was eating sandwiches, cereal, and chicken.
This never worked out for me, because even though I was eating a ton of calories on the weekends, my total calories over the long run never exceeded my maintenance calories.
So that means we have to constantly be monitoring our calories and make sure we are over each day. I recommend starting with 500 calories over your maintenance per day. If you found out your maintenance calories were 2,500 per day, that means your caloric surplus target should be 3,000 calories per day.
It is important to note that everyone has a different maintenance calorie number. Meaning blanket advice on this topic is not going to work for you. This is why I always encourage people to calculate their own maintenance calories and go from there.
After eating 500 calories over your maintenance for one week, it is time to weigh in. If you have not gained at least a half of a pound in one week, you should up your calories by another 500. So if your maintenance is 2,500, you should now be at 3,500.
Keep doing this every week until you have gained at least a half pound.
Calories before macros
You may have heard the term macros or macronutrient ratios thrown around in the fitness industry before. These are the ratios of protein, fats, and carbs that you are consuming on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, there is a trend in the industry that promotes macros as the end all be all for muscle building. Yes, there is a best macronutrient ratio for muscle gain. But, that ratio is completely useless if you are not eating enough calories to begin with.
I know this because I made the same mistake. My macros were perfect. I thought muscles would be popping out of my body. They weren’t and that is ultimately because I was actually eating under my maintenance calories.
This is the order of importance for muscle building. If you follow these in order, you will certainly gain muscle:
- Eating at a caloric surplus
- Weight training
- Dialing in your macros (least important)
There you have it. Just by eating at a caloric surplus will have you gaining weight. If you are weight training with that, the extra weight will turn into muscle. Only after that is when you should worry about your macros.
I have discovered that people who struggle to put on muscle shouldn’t be focusing on macros at first because it takes a lot of effort to learn how many calories your body needs for muscle building.
Doing the right exercises to build muscle
We now know that you need to be eating at a caloric surplus in order to build muscle. But what about working out? I told you that I essentially wandered my way around gyms for over 7 years before I finally figured myself out.
I recommend starting with 5 workouts for skinny people to gain muscle. If you did these 5 exercises 3 days per week, you would no doubt gain muscle. And that is actually what I did for a few months before I decided that I needed more of a workout plan.
That plan started with a pen and paper, then morphed into an excel spreadsheet, and now converted into an app that is robust. That workout plan is called 3 Day Overload, and is available on our app All Workouts: Personal Trainer (iOS | Google Play).
If you don’t want to download the app, that is understandable. We have a plethora of resources on this site that will help you put on muscle. Even a free workout plan like our beginner bodybuilding routine for mass will get you started.
The whole point here is that you need to get started with a plan and stick with it. You can eat at a caloric surplus all day, but if you don’t workout, those extra calories will go to fat instead of muscle.
Main Point: Do you have to count calories to build muscle?
By now, I think it is safe to say that we have answered this question. Do you have to count calories to build muscle? For me, the answer was yes. For you, maybe it is different.
The reality here is that if you don’t know what is going into your body, you can’t expect it to change to where you want it.
Every time I bring up counting calories in a conversation, it’s like the record scratch you see in a movie when someone says something crazy. Everyone wants to run. They say it’s not for them.
I am here to tell you that it is for you, and you really have no choice but to do it in order to get the body that you deserve.
Remember to calculate your maintenance calories before you do anything. This is an important step because your maintenance calories are going to determine all of your future goals.
Also remember that as you build muscle, your maintenance calories might change. So don’t be frustrated if your weight gain slows down. Simply add more calories to your daily goal.
Eating at a caloric surplus is the most important thing to do when it comes to building muscle. Next is weight training. Don’t be fooled by those who use macros as the end all be all for muscle building.
Macros are important ONLY if you are eating at a caloric surplus and working out at least 3-4 days per week.
What do you think about all of this? Do you have to count calories to build muscle?
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