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How to Adjust Calories when Bulking

In this article/video I’m going to talk about something that was very tricky for me in the beginning: Adjusting calories when lean bulking.

I wasted a lot of time eating too little during my first “bulks” because I was afraid of gaining fat. I now realize that eating too little can be just as big of a mistake as eating too much – maybe an even bigger mistake.

If you’re a beginner or intermediate you probably need to gain at least 20 lbs of muscle to achieve your goal physique. You have to gain weight to do that so you must eat a surplus of calories. The question is: how much of a surplus should you have in order to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain?

Answer: It depends. It depends on your training experience and your current muscle development. So in this article/video we’ll take a look at each situation one by one and see what is the ideal caloric surplus to have and how to adjust it as you’re gaining weight.

Let’s dig in.

Why Eating More is Necessary for Muscle Growth

First of all, let’s understand the role of nutrition in muscle growth. I think Eric Helms put it best: Nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth, the actual stimulus is training.

What this means is that we can’t stimulate muscle growth only through nutrition. If you had a perfect bulking plan but spent all day watching TV you wouldn’t gain any muscle, you’d just get fat. What’s missing is the stimulus for protein synthesis – training.

Here is the key to lean bulking: The maximum rate of muscle growth can be achieved by eating just enough food to permit the adaptation after training. This way we provide the maximum amount of nutrients our bodies can use to create new muscle tissue but we don’t exceed that limit. We wouldn’t grow faster if we ate more, we’d just get fat.

A good way to think of it is like a worker building a house. He won’t build the house faster if you give him more materials than he can use every day. In fact, the unused materials will just pile up around the house making a mess – as body fat will pile up around the muscle.

Dirty Bulking is clearly not the way to go. It doesn’t accelerate muscle growth and the fat you gain ruins your proportions and blurs muscle definition (defeating the purpose).

On the other hand, if you eat too little that’s a mistake too. If you give the same worker less materials than he can use he’ll build the house slower than he could. Or if you don’t give him any materials, he won’t be able build anything.

In my opinion, when you want to gain muscle, eating too little is a bigger mistake than eating too much. Yes, the guy eating too much will gain more fat than necessary but at least he’ll be growing. The guy eating too little will stay lean but he may not make any progress for several months.

So how do you find a balance between these two scenarios? How much should we eat to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain as much as possible?

How Fast can we Gain Muscle?

To answer that we need to look at how fast we can gain muscle. The amount of muscle you can gain every month differs depending on your training experience so the ideal caloric surplus changes as well.

According to Lyle McDonald the maximum rate of muscle growth per year is this:

 Years of training  Maximum Muscle Growth Potential
Year 1 20-25lbs (2lbs per month) / 9 – 11 kg (0.9kg per month)
Year 2 10-12lbs (1lbs per month) / 4.5 – 5.5 kg (0.45kg per month)
Year 3 5-6lbs (0.5lbs per month) / 2 – 2.7 kg (0.22kg per month)
Year 4 2-3lbs / 0.9 – 1.3 kg
Year 5+ 2-3 lbs / 0.9 – 1.3kg

Alan Aragon gives us another model, this time for beginners, intermediates, and advanced lifters:

Category Maximum Rate of Muscle Growth
Beginner 1-1.5% of lean body mass per month
Intermediate 0.5-1% of lean body mass per month
Advanced 0.25-0.5% of lean body mass per month

What you can see is that our growth potential differs a lot depending on our training experience. For each stage we want to eat enough calories to allow maximum muscle gains but not more because that will lead to fat gain.

Most people agree that it takes about 2500 calories to create 1lb of muscle. So this 2500 calorie surplus should be spread out over the time period it takes a person to build 1lb of muscle. This is where training experience makes the difference.


As you can see in the table, beginners can gain about 2lbs per month in their first year. This means they need a surplus of at least 5000 calories per month to maximize their potential.


Intermediates can gain 0.5-1 lbs of muscle per month so they need a surplus between 1200 and 2500 calories per month.


And Advanced lifters can gain muscle so slow that bulking doesn’t make any sense for them. Even if they bulked and gained 10lbs, they would still only gain 3-5 lbs of muscle per year. They only need to eat enough to allow for progressive overload in their training.

The surplus of calories you need, depends on how fast you can gain muscle. If you’re a beginner, you need a larger surplus. If you’re intermediate or advanced you need a smaller surplus.

Here are my recommendations:

*If you’re a beginner, eat about 350kcal above maintenance every day. This will result in approximately 3 lbs of weight gain per month.

*If you’re an intermediate, eat about 250kcal above maintenance every day. This will result in approximately 2 lbs of weight gain per month.

*If you’re an advanced lifter, eat around maintenance and when your strength stalls, eat 200kcal above maintenance on lifting days.

Factors influencing weight gain

You may have noticed that I recommended a larger surplus than would be needed to gain pure lean body mass. There are two reasons for that:

1. To maximize the rate of muscle growth you usually have to accept some fat gain as well.

2. The surplus you set on paper is often very different from the actual surplus that occurs.

When we gain weight our body starts burning more energy both at rest and during activity. This reduces the real surplus that occurs. Also when we eat more food, the energy required to digest and absorb the nutrients also increases. Most studies show that the thermic effect of food is about 15% of the total calories we consume. This also reduces the real surplus.

But the biggest difference however comes down to Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT). When we eat more, our body usually tries to defend against weight gain by increasing our spontaneous and unconscious movements to burn energy. This is exactly the opposite of what occurs during a fat loss phase.

So when you eat more you may discover that you start fidgeting more. You may bump your leg on the floor, play with objects, change your position often, doing all kinds of spontaneous movements. A lot of energy can be burned through these movements, sometimes canceling out the surplus completely.

So we eat more than we’d think would be necessary in order to make sure we really are in a calorie surplus.

If you want to learn more about this stuff, read my article “The Complete Guide to Lean Bulking“. That article will show you exactly how to set your calories and macros and also expand on the effects on NEAT while bulking.

How do you know you’re gaining muscle?

Now before we wrap up this article, I wanted to address one more thing. How do you know you’re gaining muscle and not fat?

One of the best indicators is your waist measurement. If you’re steadily gaining weight and waist doesn’t get bigger, that means you’re probably gaining muscle with very little fat. So always check your waist measurement, not just your weight.

But the best indicator in my opinion is relative strength. When you’re gaining body weight, make sure that your lifts are going up at a much faster rate. Each pound you gain should results in a 3-4 lbs increase on your bench press and weighted chin ups, 1-1.5 lbs on shoulder press and 5-6 lbs on Sumo Deadlifts/Squats. This will ensure that the weight you gained was predominately lean mass.

If you gain weight but your lifts stay the same or increase very little, you’re doing something wrong and you should change your plan.


What’s your take on lean bulking? Have any questions or anything else to add? Leave a comment below and let me know. I read and answer all comments.

Do you want to build a muscular, lean, and proportionate physique like Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love?

Then you should check out the Greek God Program.  This is a workout and nutrition plan geared towards building muscle strategically while staying lean for the aesthetic look of a Greek God.

It is also the program I used to build my physique.

Click Here to learn more about it.


  1. Alex on July 15, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Salut, cum poti trisa cu alimentatia in perioada de pus masa? Inteleg ca in cele 2800 de calorii de exemplu, imi pot introduce linistit inghetata si ce imi place mie. Dar, sa zicem ca intr-o seara ies cu prietenii si am pofta sa mananc o pizza mare si clatite cu ciocolata. Pot avea o masa sau doua ca cea de mai sus pe saptamana, fara sa le contorizez? Un fel de cheat meal.

    • Radu Antoniu on July 16, 2015 at 3:47 pm

      Bună întrebare Alex.

      Da, poți include liniștit ce mâncăruri vrei în limita de calorii. Săptămânal poți avea un cheat meal. Efectele vor fi foarte mici dar tot vor fi acolo. Spre exemplu dacă mănânci 700kcal în plus îți dai seama că nu se va simți aproape deloc, dar tot sunt 700kcal în plus. În decursul unei luni asta înseamnă 2800kcal în plus, asta poate însemna vreo 200g de grăsime.

      Din nou, nu e mare lucru, dar e acolo.

  2. Haitam on July 10, 2016 at 1:48 am

    Hey Radu

    How often should you calculate the maintenance caloric intake

    Thank you

  3. Kundan on October 13, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    Hi Radu,
    My name is Kundan, I am from India.. I have been watching your video from 3 to 4 weeka and exactly following it. I had approx 25% body fat and now its reduced to 20%… from past 3 weeks I was in calorie deficit and strictly following fat free diet, my calorie intake was around 1500 approx per day. Today was my first day at gym… And I want your advice regarding diet(specially proteins) to stay lean.
    Weight – 64kg
    Height – 167cm
    Waist – 85cm

  4. Deo on October 31, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Hi Radu! I’m a big fan of yours! I know this is an old article but I just want to thank you for giving me courage to raise my caloric intake to meet my goals. Bulking and cutting are really easy when you know how to balance your macros. Kudos to you!

    Maraming SALAMAT!

  5. Gemma on April 11, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Hi there!
    I am a 32 year old female and I have been working out for the last two and a half years. I am happy with my weight and where body fat is sitting and am planning on bulking for strength and possibly training for powerlifting.
    Currently I train only compound lifts, alternating between deadlift, back squat and hip thrusts; planning to add bench press in exchange for hip thrusts. I train what I consider to be heavy- attempting to increase my 1 rep max as often as possible. My 1 RMs are currently sitting at 65kg for squat and 85kg for deadlift, with my body weight at 52kg.
    I have tracked my food intake since beginning my fitness journey with mfp and am fairly sure that my maintenance calories are around 1700. I have been increasing these by 100 each month for the last two months to slowly allow my body to adjust to the increase.
    My questions are can/should I continue to add an additional 100 cals each month during my bulk? (planning on going till the end of august).
    Do I need to change anything in my training apart from consistently increasing weight and/or volume?
    Should I only eat more on the days that I’m training and if so, only afterwards? So for evening sessions only eat more after and before bedtime?

    Thanks in advance and sorry for the extremely long post!

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