How To Set Your Calories For Fat Loss And Muscle Gain (Part 2 Of 2)


In Part One of this article, we talked about how to find your daily caloric maintenance; or the number of calories you need to eat each day to maintain your bodyweight.

This is important because we are going to talk about how to use that number to set a caloric deficit or surplus, depending on if you want to lose fat or gain muscle.

Setting a Caloric Deficit for Fat Loss

Your deficit is going to be largely dependent on how much fat you have, and how much you would like to lose. The more fat you have to lose, the larger your deficit can be.

The best way to set a deficit is to use percentages. This way, your deficit is customized a lot more to your situation. Sure you could arbitrarily cut say 500 calories a day from your maintenance, but a 500 deficit is going to have a much different affect on someone whose maintenance is 3,500 calories, compared to someone whose maintenance is 2,000.

By using percentages, your deficit is much more customized to your individual maintenance. Here is what I would recommend for deficits.

Small: 15-20% below maintenance

Moderate: 20-25% below maintenance

Aggressive: >25% below maintenance

Before you set a deficit, you need to take into account a few things:

  • Body composition and rate of fat loss

If you have a lot of fat to lose, you can get away with a larger deficit. If you are already fairly lean however, a large deficit probably doesn’t make sense. If your deficit is too large you also run the risk of losing lean muscle mass, which you don’t want

  • Hunger

With any caloric deficit, the risk of hunger is real. You are eating less food after all. But a larger deficit comes with a greater risk for hunger as well. If you find you’re someone who doesn’t get hungry, a larger deficit may work. If you get hungry easily however, a smaller deficit may be better.

  • Training Performance

How much you eat has a direct impact on your performance in the gym. The less food you take in, the harder it is going to be to train with intensity because it will be harder for your body to recover. You want your calories low enough to see fat loss, but not so low that they affect your gym performance.

Unless you have a lot of fat to lose, a small or moderate deficit will work best for most people. These types of deficits are more sustainable than large deficits. They also don’t come with a lot of the side effects, such as increased hunger, muscle loss, nutrient deficiencies and poor training performance, that larger deficits do.

In general you want to aim for a 1-2 pound loss per week. For a majority of people this is the rate at which you can expect to lose fat without sacrificing muscle. Unless you are obese, any more than this will put you at risk for lean tissue loss as well.

Setting a Caloric Surplus for Muscle Gain

Like setting a deficit, setting a caloric surplus is going to be dependent on a number of factors. You generally do not want to be as aggressive when setting a surplus because you want to minimize fat gain as much as possible while trying to build muscle. The general recommendation is to set your calories somewhere between 10-20% above your maintenance level.

If you are someone who gains muscle or fat easily, you probably want to start with a surplus closer to 10%. If you are someone who has a hard time gaining weight, it may make more sense to start with a more aggressive surplus closer to 20%.

Detailed tracking is important whether you are trying lose fat or gain muscle, but is especially important when gaining muscle. You need to track your progress and adjust accordingly.

When eating in a surplus, your weight and strength should be going up every few weeks. You should be adding weight to your lifts each workout and gaining approximately 1-2 pounds every two weeks. If you’re not seeing either of those things, bump your calories up by another 10%. If you’re gaining strength, but also gaining weight faster than a pound a week, cut back on your calories by 5%.

Some fat gain is inevitable when gaining muscle, but the goal is to find that caloric sweet spot where you maximize your muscle gains while also minimizing fat gains. That is why keeping track of your progress is so important.

What Should You Do?

Whether you want to lose fat or gain muscle, it is important to take into account your own situation when setting your caloric intake. Be honest with yourself about what is acceptable progress. Set a calorie goal for yourself, hit it every day, see where it takes you, and adjust accordingly.

Click here to go back to part one of How to Set Your Calories For Fat Loss And Muscle Gain