Building muscle is simple, but I wouldn’t call it easy. Trust me, I’ve been focused on building muscle for the majority of my life.
I spent years searching textbooks and the internet, learning as much as I could store in my head. I'd ask my college professors questions and would experiment with my own training to see what worked.
It took me a while to understand how important it is to eat the right way. Believe it or not, it’s not only about how effective your workouts are. That said, if you're looking to build muscle, you’ve come to the right place.
I’m going to teach you exactly what you need to know when it comes to setting up your macros to build muscle. It’s different for every person, and you’ll have to do some math, but it’s worth the time & small amount of effort that goes into it.
Once you know how to do it, you’ll see what I mean. Let’s get into it!
What is a Macro?
First things first … what is a macro?
I’m sure you’ve heard the word “macro” before, because the term “macros” gets thrown around a lot in the fitness community. You also probably wouldn’t have clicked on this article if you weren’t curious about them.
The word macro is short for macronutrient. Some types of nutrients we need in small amounts, like vitamins and minerals, and those are called micronutrients. Some types we need in large amounts though, and those are macros (hence the name “macro”).
Ever heard of protein, carbs, or fats? Of course you have! Well, those are macronutrients.
They give us energy (calories), and protein gives us the raw materials for building and repairing tissue.
Let’s talk about the differences between these macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fats.
I’m sure you’re no stranger to protein if you’re trying to build muscle. It’s the single most important nutrient that allows you to do so.
However, it’s not the only important one either. While you can’t build muscle without protein, you also can’t build muscle effectively if you neglect the other two macros.
So really, what is protein?
Proteins are chains of amino acids that have been bound together to serve a specific function in the body. Muscle tissue is made of proteins, and your bones are made of proteins too.
Protein also makes up your organ tissues, many hormones, and connective tissue.
The question is ... how can your muscles and bones both be made of protein, but also be so different? It all comes down to the specific amino acids used, and the other components to them as well.
That’s why the types of proteins you eat can give you different benefits. Some can really help with your muscle building, and some not as much.
When it comes to building muscle, you need complete protein sources. Complete proteins are proteins that contain all 9 essential amino acids.
These are the amino acids you cannot produce in the body, and have to get from your diet.
So, to get the best quality proteins for building muscle, stick to these protein sources when you can:
• Whey protein
Now, if you are a vegan, your protein sources will look different. There aren’t many complete plant-based protein sources.
You’ll have to put foods together, like peas and rice, in order to get all of the essential amino acids. Your carb count will skyrocket in order to get enough protein while doing that though.
If this is you, I would highly recommend supplementing with a vegan protein powder. You can add it to your meals, or drink it on its own to help you get enough protein to build muscle.
Regardless of the protein source you choose, always remember that every gram of protein you eat gives you 4 calories.
Carbs are everyone's favorite, right? Okay, maybe not everyone ... but I know I love them, and you probably do too.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of fuel when it comes to exercise. This is partly due to the fact that your body can make energy from them faster than it can from protein or fat.
When you’re low on carbs, your workout performance will suffer. It’s just the truth ... and if you want to grow your muscles, you will benefit from them.
Some people should consult their physician before throwing too many carbs in though. If you have insulin resistance, diabetes, PCOS, or any blood sugar regulation problems … it’s best to talk with your doctor about how much is okay for you to have.
If you’re perfectly healthy, carbs will help you build muscle, assuming your workouts are on point.
It’s also important to know that every gram of carbs will give you 4 calories, just like protein.
Fat is a very important part of life, and you cannot live without it. I’m not saying you need to go out of your way to add in more fats, but I am saying you need them.
Many vital parts of your body, including your brain, are made of fatty tissue (1). Your cell membranes contain fat, and your body uses fats to make hormones, like testosterone and estrogen, too!
It’s also the main fuel source used in lower-intensity exercises of long duration, such as cardio. That type of exercise isn’t much for muscle building, but it’s still important to know!
Fat is also quite important when it comes to nutrient absorption. You have four fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K.
Without eating some fat with these vitamins, you won’t absorb them as effectively. So, long story short, you need some fat in your life.
Also, keep in mind that every gram of fat contains 9 calories. So, every gram of fat contains over twice as many calories as a gram of carbs or protein.
Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of each macro, it’s time to talk about calories. Not just what they are, but how they can affect your ability to build muscle.
Alright, I know you’ve heard the term "calories" before, but do you know what a calorie is?
A calorie is simply a unit of energy, no different from measuring your weight in pounds or kilograms. Calories are the units we all use to measure the amount of energy we eat and drink.
This is because your body uses a certain amount of energy each day, and you consume a certain amount too.
If you consume more energy than you use, your body stores the excess, and you’ll gain weight over time. If you burn more than you consume, you’ll lose weight over time.
It’s that simple … a lot of people just tend to overcomplicate it. When you want to change your body weight, all you have to do is factor in the amount of calories you eat.
How do you measure that? Well, it’s all based on the amount of each macro you consume. Remember:
• Every gram of protein is 4 calories
• Every gram of carbohydrates is 4 calories
• Every gram of fat is 9 calories
So, what do you do with this information?
Start by taking how many grams of protein you eat, and multiply it by 4 (the number of calories in a gram of protein). Then, do the same thing for carbs and fats. Just remember that fat will be multiplied by 9 instead of 4, like protein and carbs.
For instance, if this is how much I eat every day:
225 grams of protein
300 grams of carbs
75 grams of fat
I would just take these numbers and multiply them by the appropriate number of calories per gram. Then, I’d add these numbers together for the total number of calories I eat.
Protein: 225 x 4 = 900 calories
Carbs: 300 x 4 = 1200 calories
Fats: 75 x 9 = 675 calories
900 + 1200 + 675 = 2775 Total Calories
It’s literally that simple to figure out. Once you do this enough, you won’t even have to think about it.
It will come naturally to you.
How Do You Calculate Your Macros For Muscle Building?
Now, this is where things get interesting. We just went over how to do the math to figure out how many calories are in the foods you eat.
But, how are you supposed to know the amount of each macro that is best for you? Allow me to explain.
When you want to build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus. This means you need to eat more calories than you burn. After all, building muscle is adding mass to your body. This takes extra energy for your body to accomplish.
Also, remember that your muscles are made of protein and water. Outside of getting enough calories, getting enough protein is crucial for muscle building!
If you get enough protein and calories, your body has what it needs to build new muscle. From here, your fats and carbs can fill in the blanks for the most part ... more on that later.
To start, let's get into how many calories you'll need.
How Do You Calculate Maintenance Calories?
This is where we break out the calculator!
So, we know that you must eat more calories than you burn … but how do you know how much you burn? Typically, it requires very expensive equipment in order to figure that out.
Now, I’m not going to make you spend the money for that ... so what can you do? Should you just break out your smartwatch and see what it says?
Well, it might be surprising, but that'd be the wrong move.
All smartwatches and fitness trackers are inaccurate regarding how many calories it says you burn. They’re good for showing differences in day-to-day activity, but the actual amount of calories is off.
Stanford School of Medicine actually studied the most popular smartwatches and fitness trackers and found exactly that. They usually measure your heart rate accurately, but can be way off regarding calories burned (3).
The most accurate was off by 27%, and the least accurate was off by a whopping 93% (3)!
Let’s say you are actually burning 2,800 calories on average. The most accurate fitness tracker would have read 3,556 calories, and the least accurate would have read 5,404 calories.
See how that can be a problem? It would totally throw off your results and could lead you to eat much more than you need. That can certainly lead to unwanted fat gain.
There are complicated equations to calculate your maintenance calories, but I’ll save you the trouble. There are simple calculations that will get you relatively close.
A good calculation to find an average maintenance calorie range for you would be to multiply your body weight by 14-16. You base which number you use on your activity level.
If you get 10,000 steps or less per day, then use 14. If you are getting 15,000, then use 15. If you are consistently hitting 20,000 steps per day, then use 16.
Also, feel free to adjust that if you feel you have a higher or slower-than-normal metabolism.
For me, I’m 195 pounds, hitting 20,000 steps most days. So, in my situation, I will do this: 195 lbs x 16 = 3,120 calories.
Now, once that maintenance calorie number is found, let’s check what route to take from here.
Calculating Calories For Building Muscle
There are a couple of ways to go about this. You could go more conservatively, add a couple hundred calories, and see how your weight fluctuates. After that, you just adjust the calories depending on whether you move in the right direction (toward your goals) or not.
Or, you could take a more aggressive approach and use another calculation. Rather than multiplying your body weight by 14-16 for maintenance calories, you would multiply by 18-22.
This is actually what I tend to recommend most often. Really, I just mean it’s aggressive relative to adding a couple hundred calories and waiting to make adjustments.
Multiplying by 18-22 would add an extra 12.5-37.5% calories on top of your maintenance. That will throw you right into a calorie surplus, and you can get to building muscle more quickly.
The reason I give both choices is because you may add some body fat as you build muscle in a calorie surplus. If your calories are higher than they need to be, you’ll add more fat than you have to.
It’s up to you to decide how much body fat you’re okay with potentially adding. Once you understand that fully, you can choose which route to take.
Again regarding which number 18-22 to use, I would base it on your activity level. If you’re getting less than 10,000 steps per day, use 18. If you’re hitting 15,000 regularly, use 20. If you hit 20,000, use 22.
Obviously, if you feel there is some middle ground like you hit 15,000 steps per day, but you add fat easily, use 19 instead of 20. It’s not rocket science, and no matter how you start, the key is to make the right adjustments over time.
Now that you have your calorie goal set, how do you figure out your macros? I’m about to get into that, and we’re going to start with protein.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
So, how much protein do you need? While you might see the RDA for protein intake says all you need is 0.8 g of protein per kg body weight … that’s WAY too low.
That’s the minimum amount of protein necessary to prevent malnutrition. It’s absolutely not even close to the amount you need to add muscle tissue effectively.
Some studies show you should actually have as much as 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight to build muscle effectively (2). That’s equal to 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight.
Personally, I eat more than that. I follow a simple rule of thumb: 1 gram of protein per pound of my goal body weight.
So, if you are 185 pounds and want to be 200 pounds, I would eat at least 185 grams of protein, but shoot more for 200 grams of protein.
Now, let me address something really quick. There is a lot of old science out there claiming your protein intake should be a certain percentage of your overall calories.
Some say it should be as low as 10% of your total calories.
I actually learned that in school when getting my exercise science degree. The thing is, I knew even then that the information was outdated because it would cause your protein intake to be too low.
If I were to eat 4,000 calories when trying to add muscle, 10% of those calories from protein would only give me 100 grams of protein.
It’s best to figure out the right amount of protein you need and figure out your carb and fat amounts after that.
How Many Carbs and Fats Do I Need?
After figuring out how much protein you need, the rest of the process is fairly simple. It doesn’t matter all that much outside of hitting the right amount of calories.
That, and getting more of whichever macro you enjoy more and see better results with.
For instance, if you’re a type 2 diabetic, you might do better with less carbs and more fats.
Or, if you really don’t enjoy eating high-fat foods, then having higher carbs may be best.
I will throw this caveat out there though. Carbs are your body’s preferred source of fuel during workouts, and how hard you push yourself in the gym plays a big role in building muscle.
So, if you don’t have issues eating more carbs than fat, it may benefit your muscle-building efforts. Personally, I think you’ll get better workouts that way. I know I do.
But, if you don’t like to eat high carbs, and prefer higher fats, you can still get awesome workouts in, and see great results!
With that being said, it’s time to get to the numbers.
I personally choose to start with whichever fuel source I choose to limit. If you’re going low carb, for men I’d recommend about 125-150 grams of carbs per day. For women, I’d recommend 100-125 grams of carbs per day.
You can do less if you want, but if you want to build muscle, I don’t recommend it.
If I’m going low fat, I never set men to lower than 50 grams of fat per day, and women no lower than 40 grams of fat. This is for essential fat utilization in the body. After all, you can’t live without them.
You can choose a more balanced approach too, but I always figure out which one I want to limit the most. Then, the rest of the calories go to the other macro.
So, let’s take me at 3,500 calories for instance at 200 grams of protein. 200 grams of protein is 800 calories, so 2,700 calories remain for fats and carbs.
Because this is a lot of calories, I prefer a more balanced approach. Let’s say I want to limit my fats to 100 grams. That’s 900 calories from fat, and 800 calories from protein, or 1,700 calories total.
3,500 - 1,700 calories leaves 1,800 calories for carbs. 1,800 divided by 4 calories per gram comes out to 450 grams of carbs per day.
So the macros come out to this:
Putting These Macros Into Practice
In order to be sure you are eating these macros, you have to track your food. Weigh it out, measure it, and record it.
It sounds complicated, but it’s actually really easy. You just need a food scale for most things.
Let’s say you eat a chicken breast with a baked potato and a side of green beans. Put your plate on the scale and zero it out. Add the cooked chicken breast, and record the weight.
Zero it out, and then add the potato. Record the weight, and zero it out. Add green beans. Record the weight, and zero it out.
All you need to do is input those weights and foods into an app like the 1st Phorm App. The app figures out the macros and calories of each item for you, and it makes tracking it SO EASY!
A saying we use often here at 1st Phorm is "What you can measure, you can manage" ... and it's so true when it comes to tracking food. If you don’t keep track of your diet, you’ll never know if you’re giving your body what it needs.
Tracking your food also takes the guesswork out of it, and allows you to streamline your results. It makes sure you’re eating the right way in order to achieve the result you want.
When you don’t pay close attention to what you eat, like when tracking macros, you are bound to fall off when life gets busy. It’s how I see it every time.
Start Tracking Your Macros to Build Muscle
Building muscle isn’t rocket science, although it can seem difficult at first. That’s only because you don’t know what you don’t know.
Plus, when you track your food, you WILL see better results than when you don't.
The issue is that we all plateau at some point. Your body adapts to how you are eating, and you’ll have to adjust your numbers when that happens.
You could consult a dietitian or nutrition coach, but it’ll be expensive. It could easily cost you $100 or more depending on who you go to. While that’s not totally out of the question for one session, many times, you will be paying that per visit.
That’s where the 1st Phorm App really shines!
Not only do you get food-tracking software, but you can also work one-on-one with a certified advisor inside the app! On top of that, you’ll get access to:
• Workout programs catered to your goals
• Training, nutrition, and supplement educational live streams 5 times per week
• Metrics to track your progress and results
• Instructional exercise videos
…and so much more.
Your personal advisor can also help you get set up and adjust your macros along the way. That way, as long as you follow the plan, results will come!
So, check out the 1st Phorm App today, and if you have any other questions, reach out to us. Our team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Nutrition Coaches is available to talk every day from 6 AM - 10 PM Central. Just give us a call at 1-800-409-9732 or send us an email at CustomerService@1stphorm.com anytime!
(1) Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009 Dec;18(4):231-41. PMID: 20329590.
(2) Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients. 2018 Feb 7;10(2):180. doi: 10.3390/nu10020180. PMID: 29414855; PMCID: PMC5852756.
(3) Dusheck, Jennie. “Fitness Trackers Accurately Measure Heart Rate but Not Calories Burned.” Stanford Medicine, 24 May 2017, med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/05/fitness-trackers-accurately-measure-heart-rate-but-not-calories-burned.html