Building muscle seems to either come easy or extremely difficult for some people. If your goal is to put on more muscle and increase strength, you probably already know you should be eating in a calorie surplus and lifting heavy weights.
However, it may not be that simple... If you are new to weightlifting or just starting to buckle down on your nutrition, you may not know how to approach counting calories or macro tracking and that's okay!
Increasing your calories may be intimidating and can even be difficult to add in more food to your daily diet. However, when done with the right approach and getting a better understanding of how to track your macros and calories, counting your calories for building muscle might not be all that bad!
This article will go over everything you need to know about tracking macros and calories and how to determine if you should track your macros to build muscle! Keep scrolling to learn more!
Macros... What does that mean?
I'm sure you've heard people say the word "macro" or the phrase "tracking macros before." If you've been in the fitness community for a while, you might already know what macros are all about.
What is a macro?
The word macro is short for macronutrient. There are three macronutrients that make up the food category: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. On the flip side, there are micronutrients,which essentially means the nutrients we need in small amounts, like vitamins and minerals.
The three macronutrients that make up the food we eat give us energy as they each contain a set number of calories. Keep reading to learn the macronutrient breakdown and how they make up your daily intake!
Carbohydrates are one of the primary sources of energy for your body. There are two forms of carbohydrates: simple, high-glycemic carbs and complex, low-glycemic carbs. Simple carbs are faster to digest and broken down more rapidly compared to complex carbs that take longer to digest. Each gram of carbs will give you 4 calories. So, if a food item has 20 grams of carbs, 80 calories of it will be from carbohydrates.
Sometimes carbs get a bad rep and many people think they need to stay away from them to stay lean. However, when you're lifting heavy weights, you'll want to increase your carbs to your muscles grow and recover.
Complex carbs like oatmeal, brown rice, and bread are lower glycemic and take longer to digest. These carbohydrates are good for pre-workout meals that are 2-3 hours prior to exercise. Having a bowl of oatmeal prior to your workout can provide the body a great amount of sustained energy before and during your workout!
Protein is not only essential for building muscle, but also for boosting your metabolism and increasing fat burn. Increasing your protein intake will benefit your weight lifting ability and help you put on muscle much faster.
For every gram of protein, there are four calories that make up that gram. For example, a 4oz chicken breast contains 35 grams of protein, which essentially means 140 calories of the chicken breast are made up by protein.
Increasing your protein is important to muscle building as they are chains of amino acids that are bound together to make up the muscle tissue. Additionally, protein is essential for making up organ tissues, many hormones, and connective tissue.
In order to build muscle, it is important to have complete protein sources in your diet. These proteins are essentially proteins that contain all 9 essential amino acids. You can find the best quality proteins for building muscle in sources like:
Lean ground beef
Whey protein powder
Although carbohydrates and protein are key macronutrients for providing quick energy and building lean muscle mass, increasing your fat intake will also be effective in muscle growth.
Fats are essential to your diet as they are useful for protecting and improving the nervous system, proper hormone production, and aid in nutrient absorption.
Foods like eggs, fatty fish, nut butter, and olive oil are all great sources of healthy fats. For individuals who train longer durations and lower-intensity exercise, fat is the main fuel source as it will keep you fuller and fueled for longer.
Also, fat is also different from carbs and protein as it contains 9 calories per every gram of fat. So, if something has 8 grams of fat, 72 calories will be made up by fat and the rest will come from carbs and protein.
Calorie Counting vs. Macro Counting
So what's the difference between counting your macros vs counting your calories?
Counting your macros is very customizable as you can set a specific gram-age for each of the macronutrients. Tracking calories looks at the day as a whole where you're not too specific on the macro amount, but try to hit or not go over your overall calorie goal.
A calorie is a unit of energy. Most of every food or drink has calories in it; therefore, when you are configuring your daily calorie intake, it is important to be aware of how many calories are in the foods you are eating.
If you consume more energy than you use (caloric surplus), your body stores the excess towards new muscle growth or fat. If you burn more than you consume (a calorie deficit), you will lose weight overtime.
Focusing back on the calories coming from your macronutrients, remember:
1 gram of carbohydrates is equal to 4 calories
1 gram of protein is equal to 4 calories
1 gram of fat is equal to 9 calories
How to Calculate Macros for Muscle Building:
1. Establish Your Daily Calories
When you're looking to build muscle, you will need to be in a caloric surplus. This is done by taking your maintenance calories and adding additional calories toward that number to be in a surplus.
So, how do you find your maintenance calories?
The easiest way to find your maintenance calories is to take your body weight and multiple it by 14-16. This range is based off of your activity level. If you find yourself to be far more active (consistently hitting 20k steps per day), multiple your body weight by 16. If 10k steps or less is typical for you, use 14.
For example, a very active 220 pound man would configure his daily calories like this: 220 lbs x 16 = 3,520 calories.
Once you have established your maintenance calories, it's now time to assemble your personalized macronutrients for your caloric surplus.
2. Set Your Protein Intake
Protein is a great macro to start with. This macronutrient is the powerhouse of building muscle and without it, well... You probably wouldn't gain any muscle.
So, how much protein do you need? You have probably read up somewhere that the proper amount of protein should be anywhere from .8 g-1 g of protein per kg of your body weight. If you're really trying to put on size and strength, that range is almost too low.
According to a study done on protein intake for bodybuilders, "Dietary protein intake is recommended to be 1.6–2.2 g/kg/day with a focus on sufficient protein at each meal (0.40–0.55 g/kg/meal) and an even distribution throughout the day (3–6 meals)." (Iraki, 2019).
A good rule of thumb to start at would be to take 1 gram of protein per pound of your GOAL bodyweight. So, if my goal was to be 135lbs, a good protein goal to start would be no less than 135 grams per day.
So 1 g of protein per goal bodyweight might still not be enough to see muscle growth, so you can simply just keep increasing this number as you feel comfortable!
Once you have established your protein goal, carbs and fats will amount after that to make up the rest of your daily calories.
3. Set Your Carbs & Fat
To establish your daily carbohydrates and fat intake, it's pretty simple and definitely personalized to each individual.
For instance, if you find yourself performing better off of a high-carb diet, simply keep your carbohydrates high and lower your fats a bit.
Marathon runners and athletes who partake in long duration exercises may perform better off of a higher fat diet. When configuring your macros, this is where you would increase your fat and keep carbs a tad bit lower. However, it's important to note that carbohydrates are your body's preferred source of fuel during exercise.
To put this into perspective, let's take our 3,520 calories diet from earlier. The man was 220 pounds, so let's say his protein intake is at 240 grams -- essentially making up 960 calories of his daily calories. That said, 2,560 calories are remaining for carbohydrates and fats.
If you want to take a more balanced approach, we will limit this man's fat intake to 100 grams of fat. 100 x 9 = 900 calories. So now we have 960 calories from protein and 900 calories from fat (960 + 900 = 1, 860 calories).
Now taking our total of 3,520 calories, subtract 1, 860, to get 1,660 calories remaining for carbohydrates. You would then divide this number by 4 (1,660/4 = 415) 415 grams of carbs.
So the macros for this scenario would be:
This might seem a bit complicated, but trust me, it get's easier the more you do it!
How to Calculate Calories for Muscle Building:
So, after reading through this entire article, you may either want to start tracking macros religiously or don't want anything to do with it. That's okay! If you're still looking to put on muscle mass, but want to stay on track and dial down on your nutrition, counting calories is another way to go about!
To establish your calories you will first need to calculate your BMR (basal metabolic rate). This is the number of calories that you need to eat in one day to maintain your current weight.
To calculate your BMR, use one of the following formulas:
Female = 655.1 + (4.35 × weight in pounds) + (4.7 × height in inches) - (4.7 × age in years)
Male = 66 + (6.2 × weight in pounds) + (12.7 × height in inches) – (6.76 × age in years)
Next, calculate your total daily energy expenditure. How active would you say you are? Are you working in construction or working a desk job?
You can search a TDEE calculator on the internet or use one of the following to establish your TDEE:
Little or no exercise = 1.2 x BMR
Light exercise = 1.375m x BMR
Moderate exercise = 1.55 x BMR
Heavy exercise = 1.725 x BMR
Intense exercise = 1.9 x BMR
So if someone's BMR is 1,896 for example, you would multiple this number by your activity level based on the numbers above. For moderate exercise your TDEE would be (1,896 x 1.55) = 2,938 calories.
Easy part is up next, don't worry! If you are looking to sustain a caloric surplus, it's advised and recommended to increase slowly by adding anywhere from 250-450 calories to your maintenance calories.
Using the example above, this person's calories for muscle mass would be anywhere from 3,188 to 3,388. From there you can adjust and slowly add in more as weeks go by.
Should You Start Tracking Your Macros?
So how do you know if tracking macros is right for you?
People who thrive on structure may benefit the most from tracking macros and/or counting calories.
Macro tracking is perfect for those wanting to dial in on their nutrition and to get an overall better understanding of the foods we eat.
Additionally, tracking macros is common for many bodybuilders, especially when getting ready for a competitive bodybuilding show. So this tool is extremely important for those who are on a strict diet/meal plan.
That said, counting macros isn't for everyone. For some, focusing of food intake this closely may trigger disordered eating patterns or even develop such behaviors.
On the other hand, counting macros can be a great tool to help people lose weight and reach specific health goals. So this is where you're the only one who can determine your needs.
The Bottom Line:
The term "macro" refers to macronutrients. Carbohydrates, protein, and fats are the three macronutrients that make up the foods you consume. Of these macros, each one has its own role in building muscle. If you want to build muscle and gain weight, increasing your protein and carbohydrate intake is essential.
If you're just getting into tracking macros, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. There seems to be a lot of numbers and calculations, but I promise once you get the hang of it, you'll be calculating macros for you and all your friends! Also, there are many macro and calorie calculators on the internet where you can plug in your metrics and will generate your macros for you!
If building muscle is your main goal and want to ensure you're hitting your protein goal everyday, tracking macros may be beneficial for you. Plus, when you track your food you will get a better understanding of the different food groups and what each macronutrient provides to your body's needs!
We hope that this article gave you all information you need to start tracking calories on your own!
Iraki, J., Fitschen, P., Espinar, S., & Helms, E. (2019). Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(7), 154. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7070154