Estimating Calorie Needs for Bodybuilding Cutting, Bulking and Maintenance

Updated April 5, 2019

Bodybuilding is 80% nutrition and 20% training. And your calorie intake is by far the most important factor when it comes to your diet. For example, even if you eat super clean and are 100% disciplined with your diet, you’ll still gain fat when cutting; if you’re eating too many calories.

Also many fitness models on social media reveal that they eat junk food every day, yet are shredded to the bone. This is because although their food choices aren’t healthy, they’re still eating in a calorie deficit and thus they don’t add any fat.

Caloric needs. There are numerous methods to estimate daily caloric needs for bodybuilding. Please remember that every method is simply that…a method to estimate your needs. The numbers from this article are merely guidelines; a launching point.

It is up to you to perform regular bodyfat testing using a skinfold caliper, and to make necessary adjustments. If you do not own a skinfold caliper, a serviceable one is relatively inexpensive. This is the one I own. Bulking or cutting without a skinfold caliper is like driving blind….it just doesn’t work well. To maximize your bodybuilding efforts, you must get scientific. Get a caliper.

Lean mass. Determine your current lean muscle mass. This is your total weight, less bodyfat. Plug this number into the following formulas for cutting, bulking and maintenance to determine your daily caloric needs.

Again, these needs will vary based on lifestyle, age, and other factors. BUT, they are a great reference point, and should serve you well.

Formulas. Multiply your lean body mass by the following numbers…

  • Cutting. Lean body mass x 15
  • Bulking. Lean body mass x 23
  • Maintenance. Lean body mass x 19

Adjustments. The cutting multiplier is set up to help minimize muscle loss while losing fat at about a one pound per week pace. If you find that you are losing weight more slowly than anticipated, drop your daily calories by 200, and monitor your progress over a month’s period of time.

The opposite applies as well…if you are gaining fat on a cutting diet, drop your daily calories by a more significant number.

For bulking, it is better to eat more calories then estimated, so that you maximize muscle growth. That rule applies to everyone except lifters who tend to put on fat more easily. Consider the caloric bulking estimate a minimum requirement.

An example. Let’s look at an example. A lifter with 165 pounds of lean mass (most likely an intermediate lifter, and not a beginner) would require…

  • 2,475 calories during cutting periods. (165*15)
  • 3,795 calories during bulking periods. (165*23)
  • 3,135 calories for muscle mass and weight maintenance (165*19)

Final note. Many online calculators estimate your daily caloric needs based on your total weight. These calculators do not service bodybuilders very well, because bodybuilding is concerned with the maintenance (cutting) or growth (bulking) of muscle.

Do you agree with the advice in this post? How many calories do you eat a day? Have your say in the comments below!


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