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Muscle Building Nutrition: Part 2

Let's talk about calories

In the first instalment I talked about protein and some of its magical properties. In regards to muscle building it plays important roles like being an ‘on’ switch in the muscle building process, as well as being one of the main building blocks. It’s not ALL about protein, though. Today I'm going to talk a bit about another nutritional aspect that we can and sometimes need to think about. Let’s talk about calories.

Calories are energy and you need that to build those buns of steel and/or chesticles that you saw on instagram and now want for yourself. Let’s state that context is super important, and that we’ll talk in general guidelines in this article. Most people want to eat in a small caloric surplus when gaining muscle. How much? Let’s say 200-300 calories is probably enough, because rates of muscle gain are slooooooow. Especially as you get past the novice stage. In the table below you’ll find a way to estimate your gains.

Alan Aragon's model of rate of muscle gain

But hold your horses! First we need a way to estimate your maintenance calories. There are several ways to estimate energy needs, but they always involve Basal Metabolic Rate (how much energy you need to stay alive while resting), thermic effect of food, and ways to factor in activity. Basically you just want to pick one method and weigh/measure to see if the maintenance calories you calculated are indeed your maintenance calories. The Katch-McArdle and The Mifflin-St Jeor are probably the most popularly used equations. Here are some calculators that you can use, made by Leigh Peele:

While it’s not impossible to build muscle when being in a caloric deficit (taking in fewer calories than you burn), it certainly makes it harder for most people out there. Yes there are clear exceptions to this rule, namely beginners and those who are regaining lost muscle, but as a whole being in a deficit does make it harder. Not impossible, mind you, as long as you eat protein frequently enough, hit the leucine threshold often enough and get in enough total protein (read part 1 for more on this), but definitely harder.

Even though you can build significant muscle mass in a deficit as a beginner, it doesn’t mean that you should. In my opinion - depending on context of course - when you’re in that sweet sweet newbie period, you especially want to eat a moderate calorie surplus, because you’ll want to get as much as you can out of this phase. It gets so much harder later on, so enjoy it as much as you can. That doesn’t mean you have to eat like a hog, though. Go mostly for wholesome products and sprinkle in your favorite hyperpalatable calorie-dense foods (AKA cookies, chips, peanutbutterchocolatebananacake, etc) when you have some calories left in your budget.  

A small surplus would be around 200-300kcals, and a moderate surplus around 300-500kcals. Most people don’t have to go higher than that or all that extra tissue that they’ll build will be fatty. This is something a lot of people struggle with. They go off into their ‘BULK’ period hoping to come out of it as the Hulk, but end up looking like the Michelin man instead. This is mainly because of the faulty mindset thinking that bulking equals shoving more than copious amounts of whatever is in sight into their bodies. Basically we want to control that extra energy intake, because even 500kcals isn’t that much extra food.

Our body is a very dynamic and adaptive system, so we can’t always guess energy demands right. Things like NEAT (Non Excercise Activity Thermogenesis) or heat can have a huge impact on calorie expenditure. Meaning that if you ate a few hundred kcals more, you could unconsciously start to move around more or even get a bit warmer and burn it off just like that. So we can’t always guess right, and since calorie counting is a wholly inexact science anyway, nutrition labels can be off as much as 10-20%. So it’s very important to monitor your progress. This can mean bodyweight, skinfolds, circumferences, photo’s, clothing, strength in the gym, etc. If you know what’s happening to your body then you can adjust if necessary. Which you will probably need to at some point.

In the end most people will ideally eat a slight calorie surplus when building muscle. You want to go relatively slowly (look at the rate of muscle gain table), which means not 'overshooting' your calories. Monitor your progress on several fronts and adjust your course if necessary. Don’t be in a hurry, you’ll get there as long as you are consistent. And the most important thing is to just keep training.

Nurdin Pattipilohy

Certified nutritionist and intimate lover of food. Coaches at the Vondelgym in Amsterdam.

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