How Much Calorie Surplus is Needed to Build Muscle?

A calorie surplus or ‘eating in a surplus’ is a state in which the amount of calories you consume is higher than the number of calories you burn. This leads to weight gain in the form of muscle. The process of gaining weight requires a combination of a calorie surplus and strength training routine. When you overload your muscles with strength training, your body directs calorie surplus to build muscle.

Yet, wouldn’t a calorie surplus just make people fat? The answer is YES. This happens when the body receives more calories than it requires, and the excess calories are then stored in the form of fat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, your body needs a calorie surplus (extra energy) for building muscle. A consistent proper strength training that is focused on progressive overload signals your body to utilize those excess calories to build muscle.

Progressive Overload as a Requirement in Building Muscle

Your body is programmed for one thing only, survival. It intends to keep you alive and functioning every single day. Initially, it has no regard in having or building muscle. Fortunately, your body is smart. It does whatever it takes to adapt to its environment, ensuring that you can adequately function in such an environment. If your goal is building muscle, you have to create an environment that makes your body understand that you will not survive without more muscle. One way to prove your body that it needs to build more muscle is through progressive overload. It involves an ever-increasing amount of work that you are making your body undertake. You can provide such an amount of work in the form of strength training. To keep the work ever-increasing, you strive to lift more weight or do more reps.

How to Progress at Strength Training

In your strength training program, there should be specific exercises during each workout. For each exercise, there should be a certain number of sets, reps, and the amount of weight. The most common form of progression works like this: (1) meeting the prescribed set and rep goal, (2) increasing the weight, (3) meeting the set/rep goal, and (4) increasing the weight.

Suppose you are currently lifting 40lbs in one of your exercises. The progression should be:

Meeting the Prescribed Set and Rep Goal

Set 1: 40lbs – 10 reps

Set 2: 40lbs – 10 reps

Set 3: 40lbs – 10 reps

Increasing the Weight

Set 1: 45lbs – 10 reps

Set 2: 45lbs – 10 reps

Set 3: 45lbs – 10 reps

Meeting the Set/Rep Goal Again

Set 1: 40lbs – 10 reps

Set 2: 40lbs – 10 reps

Set 3: 40lbs – 10 reps

Increasing the Weight Again

Set 1: 45lbs – 10 reps

Set 2: 45lbs – 10 reps

Set 3: 45lbs – 10 reps

And the Time After That…

Set 1: 50lbs – 10 reps

Set 2: 50lbs – 10 reps

Set 3: 50lbs – 10 reps

Generally, a larger calorie surplus results in faster weight gain. The common misconception, however, is consuming ridiculous amounts of calories. Even when your goal is weight gain, a larger calorie surplus only leads to excessive fat gains. A calorie surplus diet doesn’t necessarily equate to eating unlimited amounts of anything you see.

So, how much calorie surplus is needed for muscle building?

Before you aim for a calorie surplus that is relative to your strength training experience, find your maintenance calories accurately first.

Maintenance Calories as Requirement in Calculating the Calorie Surplus

In order to maintain weight, your body needs a certain amount of calories per day. This is called the calorie maintenance level. It’s the number of calories required by your body to do different functions (e.g. pumping blood, keeping organs in proper function). Your body utilizes calories for energy, so in order to do everything it needs to do, calorie maintenance is required—failure to supply your body with calories within and above the maintenance level results in a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit, in the most basic sense, is the complete opposite of calorie surplus.

How to Get your Daily Calorie Maintenance Level:

You can do this by using a Calorie Maintenance Level Calculator. Using the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation, this calculator finds your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Your BMR refers to the number of calories that your body burns at rest to do everything it needs to do in keeping you alive and functioning properly.

Aside from your BMR, the calculator also factors in your activity level to estimate the number of calories you burn per day. The figures given are the total of the two and is a close estimate of your maintenance calories.

Since these are only ballpark estimates, there’s a possibility that the figures could be too low or too high for you. There are just too many variables to consider: type of training, how hard you are working, how sedentary is a sedentary job, how active is an active job, and more. The calculator only asks broad questions, and if you run with whatever estimate it gives you, you could end up with either an under-estimated calorie surplus or an over-estimated calorie surplus.

If your calorie maintenance level is underestimated, you won’t gain any muscle at all. And if your calorie maintenance level is overestimated, you would gain muscle, but you also gain more fat than needed. A larger calorie surplus won’t make muscle gain any faster since the extra energy would just be stored as fat.

Therefore, we recommend you learn accuracy first before any estimation. To do this, track your food by using some accurate digital kitchen scales. Make sure to observe the scales. You need to eat the same amount of calories for a few weeks, and compare your average weight from week to week. You’ll know your eating at maintenance if you don’t find a significant change in your average weight from week to week.

Calorie Intake for Muscle Building

Whatever your calorie maintenance level is, you have to be 10% above it every day to create a caloric surplus. This way, you can consume more calories than you burn. For example, your daily calorie maintenance level is 2500 calories.

2500 calories x 0.10 = 250 (10% of 2500 calories is 250 calories)

2500 calories + 250 calories = 2750 calories

In this example, you should create 2750 calories per day.

Anything more than a 10% calorie surplus is more than you need. You might even need less. But the problem with settling for an even smaller calorie surplus is that you might accidentally take yourself out of your calorie surplus. As long as you don’t gain weight too fast, do not reduce the calories. Track your food intake very accurately, too!

How to Measure Muscle Gain:

It is important to note that just because the scale says you gained weight doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘gained muscle weight’. The rule of thumb is to measure your body fat percentage every 5-6 weeks as well as your body-girth measurements. If you put this into practice, you’ll be able to recognize whether the experienced weight gain is an increase in lean muscle or just fat.

The Reality on How Much You Can Gain Naturally

The muscle magazines and natural bodybuilders on social media led us to believe that anyone can build an infinite amount of muscle. But, the truth is, your body can only carry a certain level of muscle mass.

Even when your overall physique has dramatically changed based upon calorie surplus and strength training, your body will remain within its natural limits. This is due to genetic limitations. Your maximum muscle potential is dictated by certain factors, including myostatin, muscle belly length, skeletal frame, and testosterone levels.

The bigger and stronger you get, your ability to gain muscle mass diminishes.

No magical supplements can allow you to surpass your genetic limitations. The one supplement that can allow you to blow past your limits is the anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS). This supplement increases your androgen levels above the natural limits.

In Conclusion

The more advanced you get, the smaller your calorie surplus should be. In the first few months of strength training, you can expect to gain muscle relatively quickly. To support that rate of growth, your body will require a higher calorie intake. After training for several years, you can expect a slow down in the rate at which you can gain muscle. To compensate, you will need to adjust your calorie intake.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t keep getting leaner in other ways. There is still a chance to improve your performance once you’ve gotten close to your genetic limit. For instance, you can make smaller gains in overall mass or emphasize some areas more than others.

Whatever you do, never compare yourself to the impractical expectations set by those who use steroids. If you’ve added about 15 pounds of muscle and reduced your fat to about 20%, you’re still going to look incredible.