Start at 11 calories per pound of bodyweight on a fat loss diet and 16 calories per pound of bodyweight on a muscle growth diet.
So if you’re a 185-pound lifter, you’d start with a caloric intake of 2035 if your goal is losing fat and 2960 if you’re trying to build muscle.
These numbers may change depending on your activity level. Someone very active (working construction) will need a higher caloric intake even when trying to lose fat, whereas someone who has a very high body fat will need a lower number. For example, if you weigh 330 pounds with 40% body fat, a 4000 calorie intake might be too high by 700-800 calories. The real key is making weekly adjustments to the caloric intake.
Also, if you’re serious about making optimal changes in body composition, measure your food. It’s tedious, but how can you adjust calories by 250 if you don’t know how much you’re eating already? Also, most people underestimate their caloric intake when they don’t measure it.
Adjusting Caloric Intake
The key is the weekly intake adjustment. If your goal is to lose fat, you want to lose the optimal amount of fat. Too little and you’ll lose motivation; too much and you’ll increase the risk of losing muscle and having crappy workouts.
For muscle growth, you can’t force-feed muscle onto your body if you’re natural. Yes, consuming a caloric surplus will increase your capacity to build muscle, and you can increase protein synthesis via mTOR activation when you consume enough carbs and protein to spike insulin. But your capacity to build muscle is limited by your natural physiology. The “bulking” approach doesn’t work well for the natural lifter.
What about the enhanced lifter? Bulking can work great for them. Anabolic steroids and other drugs increase protein synthesis by a large margin. This means they can build muscle faster and to a greater extent than the natural person.
To build muscle, you need protein and a lot of energy. When you’re enhanced, your muscle growth will be closely related to your calorie and protein intake. The higher your dose of steroids, the more additional food will be beneficial. This is even more true for bodybuilders taking growth hormone.
Secondly, enhanced bodybuilders who use growth hormone, certain steroids, and fat-burning drugs like clenbuterol won’t get as fat from the excess calories as natural lifters.
Yes, an enhanced lifter can get fat when he eats like an idiot, but he has more leeway than the natural athlete. A natural lifter should be more precise.
Weight Loss Expectations
You should weigh yourself every 7 days after waking up. Shoot for a weekly loss of around 2-3 pounds. Use your judgment. If you’re a lean individual or a small person, losing 1 to 1.5 pounds per week might be satisfactory.
In the first week, you might drop more because of lowered glycogen stores and water. But generally speaking, the 2-3 pound drop per week when you have a normal (or highish) body fat is what you should be shooting for. This kind of drop won’t lead to muscle loss, and you should be able to keep training hard.
This drop in weight is fast enough to achieve a significant change in a reasonable period. If you lose 2 pounds per week for 12 weeks, that’s 24 pounds of fat off your body. You’ll look like a completely different person.
Reasons Weight Loss Would Stall
As your fat loss progresses and weight decreases, it’s possible the caloric intake that initially allowed you to lose 2-3 pounds per week now won’t lead to any loss. Why? Several possible reasons:
1 You’re carrying less weight around
If you lose 10 pounds, your daily energy expenditure decreases, especially if you’re physically active. That’s because fat is extra weight you carry around all day. Carrying extra weight increases the amount of energy you use for locomotion and physical tasks.
2 Subconsciously lowering NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis)
NEAT is every physical activity you do aside from intentional exercise, like walking to your job, climbing stairs, and carrying groceries. When you lower your caloric intake, your body will try to decrease caloric expenditure. As you lose more fat, you can become lazier, and you won’t even notice it. You decrease your NEAT by moving a little less every day, in the gym and out.
3 Lowered metabolic rate
While you won’t have a huge drop in metabolism like many believe, there can be a slight drop. Loss of muscle is a possible cause, but more likely, it’s from excess cortisol, which is released to mobilize more stored energy. And if cortisol production becomes chronic and excessive, it can lower the T4 to T3 conversion, decreasing metabolic rate a bit. Not by much, maybe 3-5%. But this is enough to halt your progress.
If fat loss stalls, you’re no longer in a caloric deficit. Either you spent less energy by being less physically active, or your metabolic rate has decreased. If you want to continue progressing, you need to drop calories down.
If a client drops 2-3 pounds in the week, we stick with the same caloric and nutrient intake for the next week. If they don’t drop weight, we decrease the caloric intake by a factor of 1. Instead of multiplying your body weight by 11, multiply it by 10. If you drop 2-3 pounds the next week, you stay there. If your weight still doesn’t drop, you decrease it by another factor of 1 (bodyweight x 9).
If you gain some weight (and didn’t cheat), you might decrease your intake by 1.5 or even 2.
If you lose 1 to 1.9 pounds, it’s a judgment call. Normally when it’s closer to 1 pound, we’ll drop caloric intake by a factor of 0.5 or 1. If it’s closer to 1.9, we keep calories the same the week after.
Note: Protein intake should not be decreased. The drop in calories should come from an equal ratio of carbs and fat. So if you need to lower your daily calories by 250, cut 125 calories from carbs and 125 from fats.
Carbs have 4 calories per gram, so 125 calories from carbs would be 30 grams. Fat has 9 calories per gram, so 125 calories of fat is 14 grams. So you’d cut carbs by 30 grams and cut fat by 14 grams per day.
Caloric Intake for Optimal Muscle Growth
If you gain more than a certain amount of weight, you’re likely adding a significant amount of fat. When you’re natural, you can’t force your body to build muscle faster than your physiology allows.
Dr. Fred Hatfield had a table indicating how much muscle you could build per week. For men, it averaged out to 0.25 to 0.5 pounds (for women, it’s about half that).
That’s accurate for the majority of people. And as you get more experienced, it’s even lower than that. An average man can hope to add 40-50 pounds of muscle above what would’ve been his normal adult weight. This is pure muscle we’re talking about; you can gain more “weight” than that, of course.
There are exceptions. People genetically gifted to build muscle (lower myostatin expression, naturally higher testosterone and IGF-1 levels, and having the ACTN3 RR gene variant) can build more. People who are exercise non-responders might be lucky to gain 15 pounds of muscle over their lifting lifespan.
Adding muscle without gaining any fat certainly is possible. It requires a humongous amount of precision and control over every variable – stress, rest, food intake, training, NEAT, etc. Even when all these are accounted for, it can slow the process.
While we don’t want to get fat while trying to add muscle, adding a little bit might make it easier to build muscle. It’s not because fat makes you more muscular, but because eating enough guarantees you’re getting plenty of nutrients to fuel muscle growth.
When trying to add muscle, shoot for a weekly increase of 0.5 to 1 pound of scale weight. This will give you minimal fat gain, though there will be some water weight gain, muscle glycogen, and fat increases.
- If you gain between 0 and 0.49 you should increase calories by a factor of 1. For example, you could go from bodyweight x 16 to bodyweight x 17.
- If you DROP weight, then you should increase intake by a factor of 1.5 to 2.
- If you gain more than 2 pounds, decrease caloric intake by a factor of 0.5.
- If you gain between 1 and 1.9 pounds it’s a judgment call. You can either stay at the same level or decrease intake by a factor of 0.25 to 0.5.
- If you need to boost calories, increase protein, carbs, and fat equally. If you need to add 250 calories per day, you’d add 84 calories from protein (21g), 84 calories from carbs (21g), and 84 calories from fats (9g).