Bodybuilding 101: Article #2: Determining Caloric Intake

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Calculating Caloric Intake

In the first article of our Bodybuilding 101 series we discussed goal setting and how to set appropriate goals. At this point, you now have a goal. Maybe you want to add muscle, maybe you want to lose fat, maybe you want to gain strength, or maybe you have some other fitness-related goal. The remainder of this series will be dedicated to going through the basic information needed to help you reach your goals. Although this series will focus on basics and application, if anyone is interested in a further scientific discussion of topics covered in this series, I encourage you to read two recent peer-reviewed papers on natural bodybuilding contest preparation that I recently co-authored with Eric Helms and Alan Aragon [1, 2].

The next several articles in this series will pertain to nutrition. The first step in creating an effective nutritional approach is to determine appropriate caloric intake. This article will discuss how to determine appropriate caloric intake to help you reach your goals.

Finding Maintenance Caloric Intake

The first step to determine the caloric intake needed to reach your goals is to determine your current caloric intake. From my experience, many individuals have no idea what they are eating calorically and their intake may drastically differ from day-to-day. For example, it is not uncommon for a young male trying to add muscle to tell me they are eating 5000calories/day and not gaining weight or a middle-aged woman trying to lose weight tell me they are eating 1000calories/day and not losing weight. However, it is not uncommon that after tracking caloric intake the young male realizes he is really eating ~2500-3000cals/day and the woman realizes she is eating ~1800-2000cals/day. This is also supported by research showing that caloric intake may be underestimated by as much as 47 percent in individuals trying to lose weight [3]. These types of discrepancies between perceived and actual intake can significantly impair progress. Therefore, an accurate idea of what you are currently consuming is needed.

How do you accurately determine current caloric intake? I would recommend starting by finding a reliable tracking app. There are a number of good nutrient tracking apps out there. Some that are commonly used include: myfitnesspal, mymacros+,,, and many others. Personally, I still track pen/paper/calculator because I’m old school. Others have elaborate spreadsheets they have created.

The mode by which you track your intake is not important as long as it allows you to be accurate

I would recommend tracking for at least 7 days and including both weekdays and weekends. Be sure that you are eating as you normally have been during this period so that you get a true idea of what you are eating. Don’t be surprised if the numbers you are getting at the end of the day aren’t what you expected. The most important part is that you are getting an accurate representation of what you have been doing.
Fitness Tracking

During this period of tracking your normal caloric intake, I would also keep an eye on what is happening to your body weight. I would recommend taking your weight first thing in the morning at the beginning and end of a 7-10 day tracking period while eating normally so that you are able to compare your weight under the same conditions. This will give you an idea of how your weight is affected by eating at this caloric intake. Ultimately, the goal at this point is to get an idea of where your maintenance caloric intake is so that you can set up an effective initial plan moving forward.

What is your goal?

Now that you have an idea of where your maintenance caloric intake is currently, the next step is to determine a plan moving forward. Is your goal to lean bulk, drop body fat, or maintain your current weight? As we discussed previously, significantly increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat is not likely to occur at the same time in someone who is trained and natural. Therefore, you will be better served picking one goal and sticking with it. The following sections will outline appropriate rates of gain and loss.

Lean Bulk
When gaining weight, a combination of fat and lean mass will be gained; however, the goal will be to minimize fat gain by slowly gaining weight at an appropriate rate. The appropriate rate of gain may differ from individual to individual and depend on factors such as training status, age, gender, genetics, and others. An individual who is at the earlier stages of a training career has an ability to gain muscle at a faster rate than someone who has been training for a number of years. In addition, males can add muscle mass at a greater rate than females of a similar training status (Figure 1).

General guidelines on appropriate rates of gain have been proposed by a number of individuals. I tend to favor guidelines Eric Helms recently proposed. If you are a beginner, I would begin with a roughly 300 calorie/day surplus and shoot for a rate of gain of 2-3lbs/month. For an intermediate lifter, start with an approximately 100cal/day surplus and shoot for a 1-2lb/month rate of gain. For advanced lifters, I would shoot for an even slower rate of weight gain (< 1lb/month). In addition, I would recommend that women stick to around roughly half of this rate because the rate at which they can add muscle is lower than men.

Expected Muscle Gain Chart

Figure 1. Theoretical rate of year muscle gain over the course of a training career. Individual rates of gain may differ among individuals. Please note, this data is totally made up to give you an idea of the general trend.

Fat Loss

During a caloric deficit, both fat and lean mass are lost [4, 5]; however, the goal is to lose body weight an appropriate rate to minimize muscle loss. Studies investigating rate of weight loss on body composition and strength have found that dieting at faster rates resulted in a greater reduction in muscle mass, strength, and anabolic hormones [6, 7]. Based on these studies and my own observations and experience, I would recommend losing at no faster than 1% of bodyweight per week [2]. For example, for a 200lbs male this means shooting for ~1-2 lb loss/wk while for a 120lb female it may be more like ~ 0.5-1 lb/wk weight loss.

Now that you know the rate of weight loss you are shooting for weekly, how do you adjust your diet to get there? In theory, you will need a 500cal/day reduction in caloric intake to observe a 1lb/wk rate of loss; however, this many not always be the case [8]. I’ve seen individuals need to drop anywhere between 300-700cals/day from maintenance in order to see a 1lb/wk rate of loss. If you are aiming for a 1 lb/wk rate of loss, I would start out by reducing calories by around 300/day from maintenance and see if you can get away with more food prior to reducing further.

In general, it is best to keep food as high as possible while still making appropriate progress while dieting to help decrease muscle size and strength losses

How do I track progress?

As discussed in the previous article, tracking progress over time is key to reaching your goals. I generally recommend weighing in first thing in the morning when tracking progress and looking at trends and averages over time rather than any individual daily weigh-in. I also recommend taking pictures to determine long-term progress. If you find you are gaining or losing too quickly or slowly, it will be important to make adjustments.
Bodybuilding Scale

Making Adjustments:

Plateaus are a normal occurrence during weight loss and weight gain. When plateaus happen, adjustments in caloric intake need to be made; however, these adjustments do not need to be large. If you reach a plateau, add or remove 50-200 calories/day and see if you can get progress moving again. Often times, when individuals reach a plateau they make much larger adjustments than needed, particularly when the goal is weight loss. However, I would recommend making small adjustments and giving it 1-2 weeks prior to making another small adjustment, if needed, in order to keep food as high as possible while still making appropriate progress.

Take Home Points:

  • In order to determine appropriate caloric intake to reach your goals, you first need to determine your current caloric intake.
  • The rate at which muscle mass can be gained differs between individuals based upon a number of factors such as: training experience, age, gender, and genetics.
  • During a fat loss stage, shoot for a rate of weight loss of no more than 1% of body weight per week.
  • A general rule is to keep caloric intake as high as possible at all times while still making appropriate progress towards your goals.


  1. Helms, E., et al., Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2014.
  2. Helms, E.R., A.A. Aragon, and P.J. Fitschen, Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2014. 11: p. 20.
  3. Lichtman, S.W., et al., Discrepancy between self-reported and actual caloric intake and exercise in obese subjects. N Engl J Med, 1992. 327(27): p. 1893-8.
  4. Kistler, B.M., et al., Case Study: Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2014.
  5. Rossow, L.M., et al., Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2013. 8(5): p. 582-92.
  6. Garthe, I., et al., Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab, 2011. 21(2): p. 97-104.
  7. Mero, A.A., et al., Moderate energy restriction with high protein diet results in healthier outcome in women. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 2010. 7(1): p. 4.
  8. Hall, K.D., What is the required energy deficit per unit weight loss? Int J Obes (Lond), 2008. 32(3): p. 573-6.

Bodybuilding 101 Series

Part 1 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #1: Series Intro And Goal Setting
Part 2 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #2: Determining Caloric Intake
Part 3 – Bodybuilding 101: Article #3: Macronutrients and Food Sources

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