Increasing your current daily calories
In a previous post we mentioned that a key component towards gaining weight and building a strong physique has to do with increasing your daily calorie intake. There are a few ways to approach this which we will cover below. What is most important is finding a method that works for your and fits your lifestyle. Just like there is no “one-size fits all” approach to weight loss, the same applies for weight gain. The method that works 100% of the time for 100% of the people is the one that you can implement, stick with and be consistent for the rest of your life! You heard it right its not just for 30 days, 90 days or 1 year, this is something that needs to become a long term sustainable habit that you also enjoy. Lets face it, if you hate the method you choose then you are less likely to maintain it.
First – what are calories
Food contains energy—calories. When you consume fewer calories than your body needs, you lose weight because your body is forced to burn fat/muscle to get the missing energy. When you consume more calories than your body needs, you gain weight because you store the extra energy as fat/muscle.
Calorie surplus = weight gain
Calorie balance = no change in weight
Calorie deficit = weight loss
So “being in a caloric surplus” simply means “eating enough to gain weight.” This makes weight gain simple. Not easy, but simple: if you’re not gaining weight as quickly as you’d like, you need to increase your calorie intake.
There are two ways to calculate how many calories you need. The first is by taking your diet as it is now and adding in enough calories to grow. The second is by starting from scratch and calculating your body’s calorie needs from the ground up.
Option #1: Adding Enough Calories to Grow
Gaining half a pound of muscle per week requires approximately—very roughly—1,750 extra calories per week. So if you’re aiming to gain half a pound per week, you’ll need to add 200–300 calories per day. After a week step on the scale, see how you did, and adjust your calorie surplus as needed (usually in increments of around 200 additional calories per day).
This option is simple and effective, but it only works if you already have a very consistent nutrition routine. If you wake up in the morning and have breakfast, bring a packed lunch to work, and then come home and eat dinner with your family, for example. In this case, since you know exactly what you normally do, it’s very easy to strategically add in extra calories without changing your regular routine.
Here are some strategies:
Increase three meals by 100 calories each. Perhaps you do that by adding a small glass of milk or natural fruit juice to your meals. Liquid calories are fairly easy on the appetite, so this should be fairly achievable.
Adding in a couple 150 calorie snacks. Snacks have been shown to instinctively cause people to eat more, and they will allow you to keep your main meals reasonably sized. These snacks could be as simple as a homemade protein bar split in half, a whey protein shake, a handful of trail mix, or a couple pieces of fruit or handful of nuts.
Adding in a fourth meal. Maybe a small fruit/protein smoothie, or some muesli cereal with milk and frozen berries, a homemade protein bar, or a store bought one—like a Quest bar. All of these options are quick to prepare and consume, rich in fibre, contain a fruit or vegetable (except for the Quest bar), and contain enough protein to spike muscle protein synthesis.
Dessert. If you already eat a pretty healthy diet that’s rich in protein and made up mostly of whole foods, perhaps you could just have a 500 calorie dessert after dinner. Bonus points if you make the dessert yourself.
This method relies on your schedule being consistent though, otherwise you may add 200–300 calories in somewhere, feel fuller than normal, and then accidentally subtract calories out elsewhere.
If, for example, you make a sugary Starbuck’s run twice a week to satisfy some cravings… maybe those cravings are gone, you forget to go to Starbucks, and you eliminate the calorie surplus you so diligently worked to create.
Since your appetite will naturally cue you to eat enough to maintain your weight, these subconsciously caloric adjustments are very common.
So if your diet is sporadic, option number two is better.
Option #2: Using an Algorithm to Guesstimate your Ideal Calorie Intake
This option is best if you want to rebuild your diet from the ground up. The goal here is to develop a good, consistent routine though so that you can eventually switch back to option #1. Counting calories every day is not a realistically sustainable practice for most of us. That’s more something that people do when fitness is their day job.
Sometimes though, we have to do it in the shorter term order to accomplish our physique goals. We turn fitness into a passion hobby for a while, get things under control, and then resume our other hobbies while leaving fitness to simmer pleasantly on the back burner. After all, once you gain the weight you’re after, you’ll go back to maintaining your (new) bodyweight, i.e., you’ll go back to doing what your appetite wants you to do.
Anyway, calorie algorithms are incredibly complicated because so many factors need to be considered. Heres a simple one to try: for a decently fit woman eating a balanced diet with a moderate protein intake and doing around 3 hours of strength training per week, this should get you very close to your maintenance calorie needs.
Maintenance Calories = weight (pounds) x 13
Then adjust a little based on your lifestyle:
- If you wake up, ride to work and sit at a desk all day, decrease the multiplier (13) by 1, making it 12.
- For every extra hour of relatively intense exercise that you do during the week in addition to your three weekly workouts add an extra 1 to the multiplier. This includes sports and other activities, but not low intensity stuff like yoga or casually biking to work. For example, if during the week you play two soccer games that each last an hour, your multiplier would be 15.
This should roughly reflect what you’re currently eating. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a good, educated guess. If the number seems way off, feel free to adjust it up or down a further 10%. Metabolisms vary from person to person, and chances are that you already know whether yours is larger or smaller than average. Now we just need to add in the calorie surplus. Just like with option #1, this means adding 200–300 calories per day on top of your maintenance needs.
Option #3: Using an online resource to guesstimate your caloric requirements
Check out the calculator below for an online easy way to determine your caloric requirements. *note I don’t receive any money or kickbacks for referring people to bodybuilding.com, it is just a great FREE resource with a lot of really good information.
Adjust Your Calories Each Week (if Needed)
Either method will give you a rough starting point, but everyone is a little different. To absolutely guarantee that you’re consistently building muscle you’ll need to track your results and adjust as you go. (This will also correct for calorie tracking errors or too-loose guesstimations.)
Weigh yourself each week and see how much your weight has changed. We recommend waking up on Sunday morning, peeing, and then stepping on the scale. This will keep your stomach contents, hydration, etc. as consistent as possible each week. Then, if you aren’t seeing the weight-gain results that you want, simply adjust your daily calorie goals up by 200 calories. If you are gaining weight too fast, you can adjust your daily calorie goals down by 200 calories.
If you’re trying to build muscle you’ll probably want to gain 0.3–0.5 pounds per week, so you’d adjust your calories up or down to get closer to that pace. 0.3 pounds per week is good if you’re more afraid of gaining fat, 0.5 pounds per week is good if you’re more eager to gain muscle. This is how you absolutely guarantee progress. If something isn’t working, you strategically adjust it until it does. When it comes to body-weight change, calorie intake is the variable that you want to adjust. If you finish up a few weeks of weightlifting, you still weigh the same amount, and you’re thinking “Damn, where’s all my muscle at? Why isn’t this working?” Well you’re just looking for the problem in the wrong place. The recipe is fine, you just need more ingredients—more calories.
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