Setting Calorie Intake

{Dutch version of this article on the Bell Coaching website!}

In the previous article I discussed why it is important to set a clear, defined body recomposition goal for yourself: either prioritizing building muscle through a lean gaining phase (calorie surplus), or lose fat through a cutting phase (calorie deficit). I explained that putting in half-assed effort in your endeavors, and alternating back and forth between the two phases too frequently is usually a waste of your time. Finally, I gave my personal recommendations on whether you should bulk or cut, based on your starting physique, and encouraged you to stay within healthy bodyfat levels most of your training career and life!

In this article, it is time to do some math, as we are going to set caloric requirements for your well defined goal!

Looking at caloric intake on a WEEKLY level > Looking at caloric intake on a DAILY level

Instead of looking at caloric intake on a day-to-day basis – I find it is much more efficient to look at calorie intake on a weekly basis, and setting the deficit (for prioritizing fat loss) or surplus (for prioritizing gaining muscle) on that weekly number! Further on in this articles series I will explain how to effectively distribute your weekly calories & macronutrients through calorie cycling. And no, calorie cycling not the “macro wizardry” some people may think it is. It needs to have common sense and math behind it (a clear surplus or deficit) for it to work.

A random example: this person is training 5 times per week (5 high calorie days) and has 2 rest days per week ( 2 “low days”). The thing that ultimately matters is the weekly average. In a deficit he will be losing fat, in a surplus he is more likely to put on body mass (I already discussed it is possible to put on muscle during a cut, it’s just not as efficient as being in an energy surplus).

I generally favor calorie cycling approaches (alternating between “higher” calorie and “lower” calorie days) over “same calories everyday” (also referred to as “linear dieting”). One of the reasons is that linear dieting can seem like a constant drag – a fluctuating calorie intake makes things more “interesting”. During a cut, low days are doable because a high day is not far away (if you set things up right). Physiologically it also makes sense to eat more on training days, in the post workout hours (seeing as you have expended energy during training, and you will be eating to stimulate growth and recovery). Also, research finds that calorie cycling diets usually turns to be either as sustainable or just as sustainable as traditional linear/static diets.

How I put calorie cycling into practise will be covered in the article on meal timing.

Estimating your maintenance calories

Your maintenance calorie intake = your caloric requirement to maintain your current physique and bodyweight. You will remain weight stable in this isocaloric/eucaloric state.

I find that “true maintenance calories” are a little bit tricky to determine. The body is a dynamic beast after all, and many things can influence your caloric requirement. Just think of variables such as energy expenditure. On days where you are more active or more stressed than usual, you will be burning more calories than on day where you are sedentary and relaxed. This is something to keep in mind when speaking about maintenance calories – it’s something that is dynamic in nature, and thus it will fluctuate a bit. You can’t just rely on 1 number and say that’s your maintenance.

However: if we do not make effort to estimate maintenance calories at all, it will be quite hard to set a solid starting frame to throw a deficit (for cutting) or surplus (for bulking) on.

As such, we will estimate your maintenance caloric intake anyway: simply to have a reasonable starting point! Just keep in mind that sticking to a set number religiously is unnecessary and silly. You should always adjust caloric intake based on progress measured over time (what data you should be monitoring I will discuss in another article). I also feel it’s worth mentioning that you can use different caloric intakes for different days, especially if you have a fluctuating lifestyle (think of: low active day without training, low active day with training, highly active day without training, highly active day without training, etc.).

STEP 1: Calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

The first step for determining caloric intake is estimating your daily BMR. Very simply put, you can see BMR as the amount of energy/calories you need to stay alive and function as a human being.

There are multiple scientific formulas for determining BMR. Two popular ones are the Harris & Benedict formula and the Katch McArdle formula. I personally like to use the Katch McArdle formula nowadays, because bodyfat% is part of the equation and it is suitable for an athletic population.

How do you find out what your bodyfat level is, so that you can use the Katch McArdle formula yourself?

If you are untrained or very overweight, you can use the BMI-to-bodyfat% formula obtained from this study. You can find out your BMI here.

BMI to Bodyfat % formula for untrained individuals

Adult Body Fat % = (1.20 * bmi) + (0.23 * age) – (10.8 * sex) – 5.4

(Males = 1 / females = 0)

If you are athletic/trained, either make an as-accurate-as-you-can guesstimation of your bodyfat level, or get it (semi-accurately) measured with bodyfat measurement tools (such as a DEXA scan or skinfold measurements). For reference of various bodyfat levels, here’s a decent image I googled for you:

Visual references for bodyfat percentages. No golden standards, just some ideas of what to base your guesstimates off of.

Aside of that picture for reference, check out this bodyfat level guide from Andy Morgan from RippedBody. It’s quite good!

Realize this: you do NOT need an absolutely accurate value for your bodyfat % in order to determine caloric intake – an honest estimate will suffice. We will be adjusting caloric intake eventually anyway.

STEP 2: Add PHYSICAL ACTIVITY LEVEL (PAL) to your BMR

Next, you multiply your daily BMR by your average Physical Activity Level. A few notes on this:

Important: when adding PAL on top of BMR, do not factor in your strength training session (or other “conscious” activities/sports). We will add that on toplater (“Energy Expenditure from exercise”). This PAL value is your “general physical activity level” outside of your conscious physical activities. If you already add PAL here and multiply that by 7 to get weekly calories – then distribute that average over the week, you will most likely end up overestimating your caloric needs for rest days, and underestimating your caloric needs for training days. In my opinion it’s better to underestimate your activity level than it is to overestimate it.

Some examples to help you get an idea of physical activity levels:

  • Example #1: Personal trainers and construction workers are on their feet most of their working day, so they can be considered active.
  • Example #2 People driving the car to their desk-job, taking elevators/escalators whenever possible – generally not making much effort to get activity in – can be considered sedentary.
  • Example #3: If you have a deskjob and you generally spend a lot of time on your ass (not passing judgement here!), but still make effort to stand up and walk around frequently, take the stairs, commute by bike etc. whatnot – you could consider yourself as low active.

Don’t fool yourself in regards to your activity level: be honest about your PAL outside of training. Do not overestimate your activity level, or you will end up overestimating your caloric requirements.

The number you have now (BMR + PAL) will almost be the “base” of your “restday maintenance calories” without training factored in. You just need to add TEF (thermal effect of food) on top of that (see step 4).

STEP 3: Add ENERGY EXPENDITURE from Training (and/or other sports)

Now it is time to add Energy Expenditure from training (and other sports/activities) on top of your BMR + PAL. You do this by multiplying the activity factor of an exercise (see table below) by your bodyweight, by minutes spent performing the exercise. So:

Calories burned = Activity factor X Bodyweight in KG X Time spent in minutes

Excellent table obtained from Advanced Nutrition & Human Metabolism (5th edition)

What multiplier to choose for lifting?

For traditional “slow paced” strength training sessions, I recommend using either 0.055-0.062 (Women – Men) as multiplier (energy level “f – heavy execise” in the image above).

If you make use of paired sets, don’t have very long rest intervals, do a lot of volume and train at high intensity, consider using 0.1 as your training multiplier. This is the number I obtained during the Bayesian Bodybuilding PT Course, and I found it works quite well for this style of training.

Math Example: How much calories does a male from 80 kg doing high intensity, high volume training for 90 minutes burn?

Approximately 0.1 x 80 x 90 = 720 kcal

If this male was training with low volume and taking long breaks, I’d change it like this:

0.062 x 80 x 90 = 446 kcal.

So yes, that is quite a difference. Be honest about your training effort, and pick the multiplier that resembles your way of training.

If you do any other sports/activities, consider adding that as well. I occasionally trick and do flips and cool stuff – and I eat a bit more food on days where I do this, because I expend more energy. Common sense.

STEP 4: Add THERMIC EFFECT OF FOOD (TEF)

TEF is the final variable to add. It is diet induced thermogenesis.  Simply put, it’s an increase in metabolic rate that occurs after eating. Your body must expend energy to metabolize that food, after all!

TEF can be added as a percentage on top of BMR + PAL + Energy Expenditure from exercise. Some guidelines for choosing a correct TEF value:

  • TEF can usually be set at  just+10%. But- it can vary depending on bodyweight, body composition, total food/macro intake and general food selection!
  • Basically, the leaner you are, the more muscle you carry around, the more protein you eat, the more “optimal” your diet is > the higher the TEF value you can add: up to +25%.
  • So, use 10-25% as a range for TEF.
  • If you are overweight, and/or you eat a lot of processed foods, or you feel your diet is far from optimal in general: I recommend sticking to the simple+10%.
  • If you are unsure what to do, stick to 10-15% for TEF. Just to “be safe”.
  • If you are confident your diet and body are excellent, add 15 to 20% for TEF. If you are 100% sure everything is awesome, add 25%, you alpha male you (or alpha woman).

Rest day maintenance: For estimating maintenance calories on rest days, you will take BMR + PAL and just add TEF on top (no Energy Expenditure for your training, seeing as you do not train here). This number is your Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) – your estimated maintenance for a “rest day”.

Training day maintenance: For the days where you do train, factor in the Energy Expenditure from exercise before adding TEF. That will be your maintenance calories for a training day.

STEP 5: ADD TRAINING + RESTDAY CALORIES FOR YOUR WEEKLY TOTAL

As mentioned in the intro, I want to look at “weekly caloric intake” (and eventually weekly macros) instead of calories on a day per day basis. So: add your amount of training day calories per week together with your rest day calorie to get your weekly caloric estimate for maintenance. Remember: a week consists of 7 days – don’t get that wrong haha!

MAINTENANCE CALORIES UNLOCKED

Voila! Now you have a good estimation of your weekly caloric requirements for maintenance. We will put the deficit (for cutting) or surplus (for gaining) on top of this weekly number.

STEP 6: Select the Surplus/Deficit for your Goal

CALORIE SURPLUS / BULKING / GAINING PROTOCOL RECOMMENDATIONS

You do not want to use an excessive calorie surplus (= dirty bulking, basically), ever. You will not gain more muscle by doing so (forcefeeding gains = laughable). You will just accumulate fat at a more rapid pace – cutting your bulk phase short.

Instead, use a modest surplus that befits your training category: bigger calorie surplus if beginner (for example, +10 to +20%), smaller surplus if advanced (+2.5 to +5%). Yes, the more advanced of a trainee you become, the lesser the calorie surplus you require. Why? Because the more training experience you have, the less mass you can put on. Read  Lyle McDonald’s “What’s my Genetic Potential?“ for more info about this.

If you experience a more rapid rate of weight gain within ±1 to 2 weeks of “testing” your calorie numbers, cut back on caloric intake. Not gaining weight? Increase caloric intake.

CALORIE DEFICIT / CUTTING / FAT LOSS RECOMMENDATIONS

For semi-lean individuals, the deficit you can use depends on your training category and/or body composition. Beginners + Fat = larger deficit (-10% up to -20% or even more), advanced + lean = smaller deficit (-5% to -10%).

If you are overweight/obese, you can push your calorie much deficit harder. Overweight/Obese individuals can use a something like a 50% deficit– or only focus on essential nutrients (basically, a PSMF style diet). They won’t lose muscle mass as easy as a lean person, and they simply need to get out of the “dangerous bodyfat” zone – because carrying around excess fat is not healthy.

You may notice that the more experienced you are, the more “careful” you should be with your deficit. Just as the more intermediate/advanced trainees require a lesser surplus because they can gain less muscle than a novice, the intermediate/advanced trainee benefits from a smaller deficit because they are often more prone to muscle loss during a cut. Still, an advanced athlete with a high bodyfat % may consider cutting at a bigger deficit than recommended above. Remember: they’re just that, guidelines.

Also, the leaner you are, the more at risk you are for muscle loss – hence the recommendation for a smaller deficit if you are quite lean already.

Again, if not losing weight according to the recommended rate: reduce calories. If losing weight too fast, add more calories. Monitor and adjust.

STEP 7: Toss the SURPLUS/DEFICIT onto your WEEKLY CALORIES

Let’s say you determined your average maintenance at 2100 per day for rest days. You train 4x per week, and your maintenance for those days is 2650 kcal (just a completely random example).

  • 3 rest days per week = 3 * 2100 = 6300 kcal
  • 4 training days per week = 4 * 2650 = 10600 kcal
  • Add them together = 16900 kcal per week

Now let’s say you are a fairly lean intermediate and you want to lose some more fat. Let’s place a -10% deficit on that weekly calorie number for fat loss. That’s 15210 kcal for the week.

If you want the easy way to get your static “average everyday cutting calories”, simply divide by 7. That would be 2172 kcal per day. It would probably work “well enough” for your fat loss quest. However, as I stated earlier on: I deem this linear dieting approach as sub-optimal, and I do not recommend taking that lazy method, haha! Smart calorie cycling trumps it.

As mentioned before, I will discuss macro distribution throughout the week in the article dealing with meal timing. For now, it will suffice to say that I recommend eating the majority of your weekly calories on your training days (preferably in the hours following a workout, the “anabolic window”, to support growth and recovery), and fewer calories on resting days (further away from your training session, where you are not likely to be growing/gaining muss).

For the lazy people out there: THE QUICK CALORIE MULTIPLIER

The method I outlined above is a bit more complex than ye average“bodyweight multiplier to get a rough estimation of maintenance calories” – I fully realize this. Some may question if it is even worth going through this “hassle” – especially since it’s just to get an estimation of starting calories for a diet intervention, and calories will be adjusted eventually anyway. Personally, I feel it IS worth it – but I suppose I just like numbers and “calorie math, haha!

But for people that want a “quicker” solution without too much overthinking, you have the quick multipliers.

For example, Lyle McDonald uses the following multiplier for determining maintenance calories, and it often gets close enough to the values you obtain from the “big formulas”: Bodyweight in lbs x 14-16. The higher ends of these values are used for highly active people + males and the lower ends for less active people + females.

Also, if you don’t want to calculate calories and macros yourself, you could use an easy online calculator such as this one to help you get started.

In my opinion it’s better to put more effort in and get more “accurate” numbers > but for those that want quick numbers: feel free to use the quicker methods.

All this calorie & nutrition talk  – WHAT ABOUT TRAINING?!

Training is – hopefully obviously – very important if you want to build muscle or lose fat effectively! I will write about “proper training” in due time. In these series I focus on nutrition.

For now, the most basic guideline I can give you is to focus on getting progressively stronger in your exercise selection. If you are getting stronger over time, chances are that you are building muscle. If you are maintaining strength, you are most likely maintaining muscle (good on a cut, although you should still strive for bodyweight-relative strength gains when in a deficit).

Another thing to keep in mind is meal timing in regards to training. It makes sense to eat more nutrients in the timeframe following a training session (the “anabolic window”). As mentioned before though, I will keep it simple for now and introduce “effective weekly macro distribution” later on, when discussing nutrient timing.

The fundamental principle for both bulking and cutting: MAKING EFFECTIVE ADJUSTMENTS TO YOUR PROTOCOL

Always make dietary (and training!) adjustments based on progress. This is why it is important to monitor your progress – the changes in your body composition. In practice, it almost never happens that you can make constant long-term progress by sticking to a specific calorie intake over time. The body is a dynamic and adaptive beast. Learn to understand and play along with it. Make the right adjustments so that you can continue making gains. What data you should be monitoring (spoiler: bodyweight, tape measurements, bodyfat, strength levels, “mirror progress”) will be discussed in-depth) in another article in this series.

Now that we know how to set calories > LET US SET MACROS

By now you should have a good idea of approximately how many calories you need for your goal. Your caloric intake is the sum of your macronutrient intake: your protein, fat and carbohydrate intake. So let us dive deeper into these specific macros, and  set them up properly. Stay tuned for the next articles on protein, fat and carb intake!