Creating A Calorie Surplus For Muscle Gain

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 30, 2023

Building muscle requires more than going to the gym and lifting weights. In addition, you need to eat more calories than you burn to gain lean mass.

But finding your calorie surplus for muscle gain is sometimes easier said than done because your ideal energy intake depends on several factors.

In this article, I will teach you how to find your optimal calorie target to build muscle without gaining excess fat. And you can even try my free calorie surplus calculator.

Calorie Surplus Cover II

Calorie Surplus Q&A

Before we dive into the calculations, let me answer a few common calorie surplus questions.

What Is A Calorie Surplus?

A calorie surplus is simply eating more calories than you burn. By doing this, you give your body more energy than it needs. And that leftover energy can be used to build new tissue like muscle.

Calories In > Calories Out = Calorie Surplus

Calorie Surplus

You’ve probably heard of a surplus in the context of business. Basically, it means spending less money than you have in your budget. When that happens, you can spend the extra money on something else to use up your budget.

If you’re a fan of The Office, you probably remember when Oscar explains the concept of a budget surplus in terms of a lemonade stand. But numbers are hard, and Michael still struggles to grasp the idea.

So let’s think about a surplus another way.


Calorie Surplus Meme

Oscar explains the concept of a surplus to Michael in simple terms… but he’s not quite grasping it yet. 😂

How Does A Calorie Surplus Help You Gain Muscle?

Keeping with the office analogy, Michael would be wise to spend the surplus on a replacement copier or new desk chairs. Both of which are worn out and need to be replaced.

In the same way, resistance training breaks down your muscles which means they need repair. So your body is likely to use the energy surplus to build your muscles bigger and stronger.

Unfortunately, Michael has another option: keep the surplus and receive a bonus check. Likewise, your body can keep the extra energy and store it as fat.

Calorie Surplus Meme II

Michael attempts to convince the office that their chairs work just fine so he can save the surplus and get a bonus. 🤦🏻‍♂️

Will A Calorie Surplus Make You Gain Fat?

You will gain fat when you regularly eat a large enough calorie surplus. In fact, this is your body’s default option! Because it wants to save that excess energy for when food is less available.

However, remember that your body will use the surplus to build muscle if you give it a reason to do so. Again, breaking down your muscle with resistance training is the stimulus needed to use the extra calories for good weight gain.

Still, fat gain can happen if your calorie surplus is too large. When you overeat, your body has enough energy to build new muscle and store fat.

How Big Should Your Calorie Surplus Be?

The magnitude of your calorie surplus depends on your body type and fitness goals. Typically your surplus will be anywhere from 5 to 25% more calories than you burn. We’ll get into this more below.

First, it’s essential to understand that people who have difficulty gaining weight (ectomorphs) can usually get away with a larger surplus. In comparison, people who gain weight quickly (endomorphs) should stick with the minimum surplus needed to gain weight.

In addition, you need to think about your goals. For example, do you want to maximize muscle gain at the expense of gaining some fat (bulking)? Or would you rather minimize fat gain with sub-maximal muscle gain (lean bulk)?

Phases Of Muscle Gain

How To Calculate A Calorie Surplus

To calculate your calorie surplus, you must first know how many calories you burn—also known as total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

TDEE is made up of calories burned through your basal metabolic rate (BMR), everyday activities like walking around, and any additional exercise.

You can calculate your BMR based on your body composition (I always adjust for your body type too). While the number of calories you burn through physical activity depends on the intensity and duration of the activity.

calorie deficit calculator calories burned

Once you know how many calories you burn, the next step is calculating your calorie surplus based on your fitness goals.

To maximize muscle gain, shoot for a 15 to 25% surplus. In other words, multiply your daily calories burned by 1.15 to 1.25.

For example, Steve burns 2,400 calories daily, his goal is bulking, and he’s a hardgainer. So he’s aiming for a 25% calorie surplus.

Steve’s calorie intake for bulking: 2,400 x 1.25 = 3,000 calories per day

Calorie Surplus For Bulking

Now let’s say your goal is to gain muscle but minimize fat gain. Then your calorie surplus should be smaller.

For lean bulking, target a 5 to 15% surplus. Again, multiply your calories burned by 1.05 to 1.15.

For example, Sarah burns 2,000 calories per day, has an endo/meso body type, and her goal is lean bulking. So she’s aiming for a 5% surplus.

Sarah’s calorie intake for lean bulking: 2,000 x 1.05 = 2,100 calories per day

Calorie Surplus For Lean Bulk

This calculation is easy when you know your daily energy expenditure. But finding your TDEE isn’t always easy to do on your own.

Not to mention, your target changes with your daily activity level. That’s why I created a calorie surplus calculator that finds your surplus for days you work out and take it easy.

calorie surplus calculator

Complete the following form to get your personalized calorie surplus.

Calorie Surplus Diet Tips

To get the most out of your diet, you need to know about all 4 pieces of the nutrition puzzle. Those pieces are calories, food choices, macros, and meal timing.

calorie surplus bodybuilding nutrition

My simple nutrition framework = 50% calories, 30% foods, 10% macros, and 10% meal timing.

1. Calories

To hammer it home, calories are so important because they’re like your energy budget. You’re in a deficit if you use more energy than you have available. And you won’t have any energy left over to build new muscle.

The other three puzzle pieces don’t matter as much without this energy reserve. So step one is getting your calorie intake right, which you can do using the calculations above or the calorie surplus calculator.

2. Food Choices

Once your calories are correct, the next most significant piece of the puzzle is the foods that supply the calories. Again, whole foods are the best way to ensure you get all the necessary nutrients to build muscle.

You may be tempted to use junk foods to hit your calorie surplus target – dirty bulking. But, believe me, that choice will lead to excess fat gain.

The best rule of thumb is to stick with healthy foods 90% of the time to optimize muscle gain and overall health.

calorie surplus food list

3. Macros

Next up is macros; protein, carbs, and fat. On any muscle gain diet, you’re going to need high protein.

The general rule is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. But this rule doesn’t work well if you’re lean or overweight. So I recommend aiming for about 30% of your calories from protein.

You’ll also need a lot of carbs to create your calorie surplus. But you don’t want to eat too many carbs, or you’ll be more likely to store them as fat. So on days you work out, get about 40-50% of your calories from carbs. This target will be lower on days you don’t work out.

Then you fill in the gap with dietary fat. From the numbers above, that means 20-30% of your calories are from fat.

4. Meal Timing

Last is when you eat meals throughout the day, depending on your schedule. Generally, shifting most of your calories and carbs around your workout is a good idea.

For example, if you work out in the evening, more calories and carbs will be at night. And vice versa if you work out in the morning.

This calorie loading provides immediate energy, replenishes stored fuel, and controls blood sugar throughout the day.

bodybuilding meal plan

Calorie Surplus Meal Plan

Get a personalized calorie surplus meal plan designed specifically for your body and lifestyle. Including custom recipes formulated to fit your macros and calories – no counting required!

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Muscle Building Workout Routine

Of course, there’s more to muscle gain than just your diet. You also have to dial in your workouts to transform your body.

Like nutrition, four factors are involved in assembling an ideal hypertrophy training workout routine; rep range, rest periods, number of sets, and exercise selection.

1. Low to Medium Rep Range

Getting bigger and getting stronger go hand in hand. Low (1-5) reps are best to get stronger. At the same time, medium (6-12) reps are best for growth.

Therefore, I recommend you use a weight you can lift for 5-10 reps for most of your sets during a muscle gain phase.

2. Longer Rest Between Sets

Those heavy sets will get your heart pumping. And you need to let your heart rate come down before attempting the next set.

Otherwise, your cardiovascular system will get tired before your muscles. So take at least 90 seconds between sets and up to 2 or 3 minutes if needed.

3. Less Volume, More Intensity

Taking longer rests allows you to exert maximum effort on every set. In exercise terminology, this max effort is known as high intensity.

And when intensity is high, your workouts should be shorter regarding the total number of sets. Because if you try to combine high-intensity and high-volume training, you will burn out your nervous system. This is called overtraining.

4. Stick To The Fundamentals

Last but not least is exercise selection. When you’re in a calorie surplus for muscle gain, it’s no time for frills. So ditch the fancy exercises or new-fangled machines for the fundamentals.

Fundamental exercises are like eating the main course before moving on to dessert. They are compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, and bench press. These exercises are vital for developing overall strength and size.

Of course, you can include any other exercises that overload the target muscle group. And throw in some auxiliary exercises once you get the fundamentals out of the way.

exercise tablet 2

Custom Nutrition & Workout Plan

Get a personalized plan designed to fit your body and lifestyle. Including workout routines with goal-specific reps, sets, rest periods, and exercises.

All this for just $19.99! Click here to choose your plan.

Key Takeaways

To recap, a calorie surplus is necessary when your goal is building muscle. And your personal calorie surplus depends on your body and your goals.

Here are the key takeaways you should remember:

  • A calorie surplus is when you eat more calories than you burn
  • For maximum muscle gain (bulking) try to eat 15-25% more calories than you burn
  • To minimize fat gain (lean bulk) try to eat 5-15% more calories than you burn
  • Stick with healthy foods and be mindful of your macros and meal times
  • Focus on the fundamental exercises for 5-10 reps per set with longer rest periods and fewer total sets

More Muscle Gain Tips

The calorie surplus is hands down the priority when starting a muscle-building program. But there are many other factors and details to account for to reach your bodybuilding goals.

So here are handpicked articles for you to continue learning everything you need to know about muscle gain.

Best Pre-Workout Meal Ideas

Ectomorph Diet & Workout Guide

Top 12 Protein Bars for Weight Gain

11 Easy Weight Gain Shake Recipes

Does Creatine Make You Gain Weight?

7 Simple Steps to Meal Prep for Weight Gain

Lean Bulk Macros Bodybuilding

For more information about muscle gain and fat loss, check out some of my other popular articles below.

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