guide to calculating macros and calories for muscle gains

by Jason Stallworth

December 11, 2020

You want to take your physique to the next level and see just how much muscle you can gain while keeping your body fat low. And you know you need to dig into calories and macros.  

But the problem is tracking and keeping with this stuff can be downright stressful. On top of that, with all the gurus out there telling you what to eat, it’s tough to choose which macro ratio you need.

That’s okay because I’m going to simplify this process for you in this post.

There are two things to keep in mind about calories and macronutrients:

  1. You need to first be clear about your goals. Are you building size? Are you going for more strength? Are you trying to get lean and cut?
  2. In regards to calculating macronutrients, there is no one-size-fits-all, and you’ll hear me say this more than once. 

I’m going to give you a solid starting point showing you how to calculate your daily calorie requirements. And you’ll also learn some different macronutrient ratios that cater to specific goals, like gaining size versus getting leaner.

DISCLAIMER: There is no one-size-fits-all meal plan that works for everyone. You’ll read that several times again throughout this post.

Also, I’m not a licensed nutritionist. I’m only providing information based on my own experiments and results, and also those of others that I’ve worked with.

I do, however, believe you can use this post as a guide and that it will help you create a sustainable nutrition plan that works for you.

Calculating How Many Calories You Need for Your Goal

food - eggs oatmeal blueberries

First, you need to find out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight. However, make sure that you make gradual changes. 

Fortunately, there are some simple formulas you can follow to help you eat the appropriate amount of calories for your goal. I’ll cover those below. 

  • Mass gains: current body weight x 16-17
  • Getting lean: current body weight x 14-15
  • Maintenance: current body weight x 15-16

Calories for Gaining Mass

If you weigh 175 lbs you need between 2,800 and 3,000 calories per day to put on size based on the formula: current bodyweight x 16-17.

If you’re currently far from that, don’t increase your daily calorie intake substantially, right away. Rather, you should gradually work up to your requirements. 

A good strategy is to start by adding about 200 calories per day to your meal plan. Once you reach that goal, you can continue adding but in smaller increments.

The problem with making extreme sudden changes, especially when it comes to adding calories, is that you’ll end up gaining more body fat and will probably feel sluggish as you’re not used to eating that much. And that will also impact your training.

So, again, be patient and make gradual changes. 

Calories for Getting Lean

Based on the lean formula, current bodyweight x 14-15, one who weighs 175 lbs. would need to eat about 2,450 to 2,625 calories to get leaner. 

Just like with gaining mass, you don’t want to make sudden substantial changes to your diet when you’re trying to leaner while preserving muscle. If you cut calories too fast you’ll end up losing muscle, which defeats your ultimate purpose. 

You can try reducing your calorie intake by about 200 calories each day until you hit your target caloric intake. Once you hit it, you can still continue decreasing but at a slower rate.

Of course, at some point, you’ll need to stop reducing your calories and focusing on maintaining the level you’re at. This is typically the point where you’re either trying to dial it in to get those striations and details in your muscles to show more or maybe it’s time to shift your focus and start adding more lean muscle.

Calories for Maintenance

If you’re happy with the way you look and feel right now, or once you get to that point, you may want to maintain that look for a while. To do this, a person who weighs 175 lbs. would need between 2,625 and 2,800 per day. 

This is actually a healthy place to be if you’re in between gaining mass and getting lean. From here, it’s much easier and feasible to add a little more mass or get a little leaner as opposed to being further away from either goal.

The adjustments needed aren’t as substantial, so that’s less stress on your body. You could call this a happy place!

Resources for Gaining Mass and Getting Lean

To take things to the next level for any goal, there are two types of supplements you may want to consider. You can read about my thoughts and experience below on a particular brand:

TestoFuel Test Booster
Instant Knockout Fat Burner

Calculating Macronutrients

Mexican food for mass

Along with calories, macronutrients are just as important for building muscle, whether you’re going for mass or getting lean. 

Calculating macronutrients can be a subjective topic, especially in the bodybuilding and fitness community. But the whole point of this post is to provide you with a sensible nutrition plan for building muscle. That also means sticking to a meal plan that’s sustainable for you. 

That’s the problem with many trendy and fad diets. Many of them are extreme and they’re not sustainable long-term. And that can be more harmful to both your health and physique in the long run. 

We’re all different and where one macronutrient ratio may work for me or someone else, that same ratio may not work the same for you (or others).

The important thing to keep in mind here is that:

  • You need protein to build muscle
  • You need carbs for energy
  • You need fats for heath and to function

That said, I’m going to give you some general options for macronutrient ranges. Again, these may or may not work for you but it’s a good place to start. 

Macros for Maintenance

  • 40% protein
  • 40% carbs
  • 20% fat

This ratio is one that works well for me, personally. Those ratios do not have to be exact, but it’s a good place to start if you’re new to or haven’t been paying attention to your macronutrient ratios. From here, it’s easy to make adjustments to dial in what works best for you.

Macros for Mass and Strength

  • 30% protein
  • 50% carbs
  • 20% fat

When it comes to gaining mass, many respond better to higher-carb diets while keeping their fat intake low. If you do this you’ll need to make sure that you’re getting healthy fats (we’ll talk more about best food sources later). 

This is also a great ratio for strength gains. Lifting heavy requires more energy for your workouts, and that’s where the higher carbs come in. 

Macros for Getting Lean

  • 45% protein
  • 25% carbs
  • 30% fat

Eating lower amounts of carbs are often associated with fat loss and getting lean. Simply put, that’s because it works. 

However, more importantly that cutting carbs, your calories intake is going to play a huge role in getting lean. 

Lastly, remember that your goal is not necessarily to lose weight. It’s to cut fat so that you can see those striations in your muscles. This is where the higher protein intake comes in as that will help you preserve muscle while cutting. 

Cycling Your Macros

One strategy worth mentioning is cycling your macronutrients. This mainly pertains to carbohydrates. Of course, if you raise any macronutrients you have to reduce one or both of the others to stay within your calorie range for that day.

As carbs are used for energy, some will eat more carbs on training days and reduce their carb intake on non-training days. On that note, some may choose to also raise their calories a bit on training days as you’re burning more on those days.

Here’s an example:

  • Training days: 30% protein, 50% carbs, 20% fats
  • Non-training days: 45% protein, 25% carbs, 30% fats

If you noticed, you’re adhering to the mass-gaining ratio on training days and lean ratio on your off days. 

This method can work if you find yourself getting bored eating the same types of meals everyday. It also makes sense to cater your meals around your workouts and activities performed that day.

For Meal Plans and Recipes

I’ve got posts that contain several meal plans, including calorie-specific plans, in the posts below:

Meal Plans for Mass Gains
Meal Plans for Getting Lean

Listening to Your Body

The most important thing you can do with your nutrition plan is to listen to your body. Age can impact this but your goals will also change with time.

For example, if you’re in a mass-gaining phase, you can only do that for so long. At some point, you’ll need to cut back.

Because when you’re going goal is to gain more size, you need to be in a calorie surplus. But you can’t stay in that surplus forever. Otherwise, you’ll start to gain body fat.

The same is true if you’re in a cutting phase. To get leaner, you have to be in a caloric deficit. But if you stay in a deficit for too long, you’re going to burn more muscle. And that defeats the purpose of building a strong and muscular physique.  

Again, you will need to experiment with your macronutrient ratios to find what works best for you. Regardless of whether the goal is mass or getting lean, some people respond well to higher carbs with lower fats while others may respond best to more fats with low to moderate carbs. 

How to Handle Cheat Meals

pizza cheat meals high carb meal

Giving yourself some leniency may actually help you stay on track with your meal plan as opposed to never rewarding yourself. In regards to how many cheat meals you can have, there are 3 things to consider:

  1. Where you currently are versus where you want to be
  2. Having a clear vision of your goal
  3. Being honest with yourself

Assessing those items will help you determine how many cheat meals a week you can have. On that note, it’s never a good idea to completely deprive yourself 100% of the time. 

Here’s a way to address cheat meal and your nutrition, in general for bodybuilding:

  • Going for mass and size: Do the 80/20 rule
  • Getting lean: Do the 85/15 or 90/10 rule

This means sticking to your meal plan the bulk of the time and having that small percentage of leniency.

It’s also a good idea to schedule your cheat meals. This may also help you stay on course and it will give you something to look forward to. 

Scheduling cheat meals can also help you keep better track of your calories and macronutrient ratio for those days because you can plan your other meals accordingly.

For example, if you’re going to have pizza that night, you can make sure your prior meals are high in protein but low in carbs and fats. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it helps you have a better balance for that day. 

Be Consistent, Sensible, and Honest with Yourself

You also need to be honest with yourself. Have you ever had a gym buddy that gained too much fat? You approach them about it and they say something like ‘Oh, I’m in a mass-gaining phase.’ 

Don’t use gaining mass as an excuse to get fat. Likewise, don’t use getting lean and cut as an excuse for extreme muscle loss and being skinny.

Instead, be honest with yourself. And have a mentor or someone who will give you blatant feedback on your physique. The mirror and how your clothes fit are also a great way to gauge your progress, as well as tell you when you’re off. 

If you find yourself getting off track, just revert back to the basic daily caloric formula for your goal. Then you can reassess your macronutrient ratios. 

There’s one final note I’d like to make in regards to calories and macronutrients. You don’t have to always be perfect. In fact, you won’t.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to stick to your meal plan. But it does mean that you should not become obsessed to the point where you’re stressed out about that. Stress will send your gains in the opposite direction, and it’s not worth it.

I truly hope this quick guide on calories and macros for building muscle helps you and encourages you.

**For training programs and more, be sure to visit my online shop here.

Train (and eat!) with Passion,

Jason