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Your body runs on calories – and a calorie surplus is what happens when you eat more than you use.
Today, we’re going into a little detail on what is a calorie surplus, when it’s helpful, and some of the most important questions around the term.
In this article, we’ll dispel some confusion, answer burning questions about weight gain and muscle gain, as well as fat loss, and how many calories you need.
Let’s look at how caloric surplus affects your body, first…
What is a Calorie Surplus?
A calorie surplus is a high-energy state where you consume more calories than you burn, leading to growth. This is a state that signals muscle growth, better post-exercise recovery, and other “calorie expensive” processes. These are important for maximum strength gains and muscle growth.
Energy availability is also important for other processes in the body.
Chronic energy availability makes it easier to recover from intense exercise, supports performance in weight training (the main driver of muscle gains), and gives you extra calories to spend on adequate protein and anaerobic exercise (1).
Simply put, a calorie surplus is when the number of calories you consume is more than the number of calories your body burns. In other words, the calorie intake is higher than the calorie expenditure, and the extra calories are used to increase your body mass.
Calorie Surplus and Body Weight
A calorie surplus is the main lever in increasing body weight – as well as one of the most important conditions to gain muscle. It’s the energy availability that your body needs to divert resources to building more muscle, as well as improving recovery and the health of other tissues – like tendons.
Learning the connection between a calorie surplus and your body weight is one of the most important steps in maximizing weight gain and improving control over body composition.
Calorie Surplus: Eating More Than The Calories You Burn
Calorie surplus only happens when you’re eating more calories than you burn – it’s the caloric surplus after your body has the energy it needs for basic maintenance. To understand caloric surplus, you need to understand your maintenance, calories burned, and how your body uses energy.
Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories your body uses at base. How many calories do you need daily? That depends on your age, sex, size, existing muscle, fat mass, and other factors. You can calculate these roughly online (2).
What matters most, however, is what happens when we add your BMR to calories burned through physical activity, non exercise activity thermogenesis, and the thermic effect of food.
The result is total daily energy expenditure – TDEE – the average calories burned per day or even per week.
Calorie surplus happens when you’re above this number from food, after accounting for exercise.
TDEE and Calorie Requirements
One important thing to remember about calorie demand is that it’s not static – it changes with you as your muscle gain increases calorie demands, as you lose weight, as you gain weight, or as your hormone levels change.
TDEE: An Evolving Calorie Baseline
The things you do and your current physique change your TDEE. It’s a dynamic amount and we only ever estimate it. It’s easy to fall out of your caloric surplus and lose weight or stall in muscle gain due to not regularly adjusting your TDEE for weight gain, muscle gains, and lifting weights more often.
These are important lifestyle factors that go into your caloric needs – and more demand means you need to compensate in your diet.
Caloric deficit is only a small amount of change away and can easily plateau your muscle gain during a weight gain diet.
Remember that TDEE is an estimate and very personal. You need to watch what happens in training, on the scale, and make your weight gain diet personal – it needs to adapt to the changes it causes (or the lack of them).
Side Effects Of Calorie Surplus: Is Weight Gain Healthy?
A chronic calorie surplus does have some of its own risks and side effects – such as extra body fat, health changes, extra energy causing hormone levels to change, and changing how and what you eat.
Caloric Surplus: Moderation For Health
Calorie surplus diets can help build muscle, but they can also lead to fat gain if you’re eating too many extra calories or not getting adequate amounts of protein. Your overall surplus may be too great (as in the long-term over-eating “dreamer bulk”), and building muscle may not be the only result.
Prolonged or reckless bulking diets have a calorie surplus, but also more energy than required, an excess of calories, promoting increases to insulin resistance and other adverse effects.
Bodybuilders and strength athletes often report health risks like pre-diabetes during long periods of eating more calories.
Regular Calorie Deficit for Health and Fat Loss
The human body functions best with regular periods of calorie deficit and less food – energy deficit promotes better cell health and consuming healthy foods.
Make sure your calorie goal is deliberate, relies on healthy foods, and is not excessive. Punctuate it with periods of eating maintenance calories, or even energy deficits, to regulate hormone levels.
This is how combat athletes and bodybuilders lose body fat, build big muscles, and get into excellent shape without muscle loss. Try to schedule regular refeeds and maintenance weeks to prevent long-term muscle loss and keep your body healthy.
Do You Need a Calorie Surplus To Gain Muscle?
Building new muscle is easier on a calorie surplus, but it’s not always necessary. Beginners can build lots of muscle mass with only maintenance calories – and it’s possible to build muscle while you lose weight and burn fat.
This is called recompositioning and it’s quite difficult because it has strict diet and exercise requirements.
Gaining muscle mass is easier and faster when you’re eating more calories and maintaining energy surplus.
Caloric Surplus Supports Energy Availability for Exercise and Recovery
Lean body mass and muscle growth are easier to signal during a high calorie diet, while also making it easier to get the protein you need to grow muscle by simply eating more (3).
More energy also helps lift weights and train at high intensity. It’s hard to build muscle without overloading in training, making a weight gain diet even more effective for those with intense physical activity.
You should increase calorie intake relative to your high intensity training, how often you exercise per week, and to compensate for your (evolving) basal metabolic rate as you build muscle.
Nutrient Considerations to Build Muscle on a Calorie surplus
Calorie surplus alone will not be enough to optimize muscle growth, but it is the first step( you also need a calorie surplus diet). Other factors like protein intake are important for muscle recovery and growth.
Getting enough calories is important, but all the nutrients that constitute those calories are also important.
Calories burned through non exercise activity thermogenesis, metabolic rate, and using your muscle tissue need to be replenished. Then you need enough protein to repair muscle tissue and tell your body you have the important nutrients that will be used to build more.
Carbohydrates are a source of extra energy for most people trying to get into energy surplus.
They’re also more rapidly absorbing than dietary fat, contribute to the muscle tissue signaling process mentioned above, and pair perfectly with protein for muscle growth – especially after a workout full of intense exercise.
Does A Calorie Surplus Cause Body Fat Gain?
Body fat gain only occurs optimally during a calorie surplus in healthy, active people. This is what happens when your body gets excess energy – such as in a large calorie surplus or prolonged ‘dreamer bulk’.
Energy availability without a goal (like muscle growth) is stored as body fat for future use. You gain fat during excessive calorie consumption, and your body burns it later.
You’ll see more fat mass as your intake increases, or if your exercise levels go down. Fewer calories can be useful during a calorie surplus to ensure it produces lean muscle mass development.
Weight Gain vs Fat Gain: Controlling Calorie Surplus
Weight gain and fat gain are different things – you may want to gain weight, but you probably don’t want that to be fat. Even skinny ‘hardgainers’ want to make sure their caloric surplus will build muscle and not just fat.
The quality of your weight gain refers to the ratio of fat to muscle growth. You can improve muscle gain and reduce fat gains with a higher protein intake.
How Does Protein Intake Affect Calorie Surplus Diets?
Scientific literature shows that higher protein diets increase the calories you burn, reduce fat mass, and increase muscle gains simultaneously. This makes it a top priority when trying to build muscle and improve your resistance training performance.
Body fat and muscle gain depend on protein balance, intense resistance training, and recovery factors. Things like sleep quality and quantity, micronutrient intake, and proper rest and recovery after workouts.
Body appearance and make-up change reflect what you do, how you recover, and what you eat. A mild calorie surplus (around 250-500 above your maintenance calories) is perfect for building muscle mass without gaining fat.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Does a calorie surplus build muscle?
Yes – a calorie intake above your basic needs helps to build muscle mass. While it’s not enough by itself, you can gain weight and with a higher calorie intake, helping to gain muscle.
Muscle is expensive and requires lots of calories to build – typically around3500 extra calories per week for 1lb of muscle gain.
2. What happens to a person who is on a continual calorie surplus diet?
A calorie surplus is simply increasing the number of calories in your day-to-day diet. When a person is on a calorie surplus diet, they gain muscle or body mass over time. Increasing the number of calories increases the body mass or leads to the growth of extra muscle in the body.
3. How many calories is a surplus?
The calorie intake needed for a caloric surplus depends on your TDEE. Anything more than your TDEE is a surplus, even if it’s only a few calories over. The typical calorie surplus is an estimate, so we use a few hundred calories more than your baseline needs.
A typical calorie surplus is from 250-500 calories more than you need, gaining muscle without storing too much body fat. The long-term averages and habits are most important for your outcomes.
Higher calorie intake means more fat gain. You should moderate your total calorie intake – especially your weekly average.
4. What calorie surplus for bulking up?
The more intense your caloric surplus, the more you will gain.
The typical calorie surplus for bulking is around 500 per day, on average – a good balance between weight quantity and quality.
The idea is to gain muscle with as little fat as possible – lean muscle gain. This is easier when you’re patient: slower bulking diets are better for your physique, health, and wellbeing.
Why You Should Gain Weight Patiently: Fat Mass, Caloric Surplus, and Long Term Muscle Gain
You’ll gain muscle regardless, and there’s a hard limit on what you can gain per week, based on things like hormone balance, genetics, and your frame. It’s important to accept these limitations early and commit to the long game of building muscle and getting stronger!
Some larger people need more calories for muscle gain, with bulking diets in the 500-1000 calorie region.
These are for larger and more muscular people – typically men with muscular physiques and regular, intense exercise. Diets for gaining muscle are personal: muscle gain can require higher calorie intake, but a more patient approach is usually better!
5. How to eat a calorie surplus without gaining fat?
You gain fat more quickly when you’re eating more calories, and this is exaggerated if you’re not eating much protein. Just like protein protects muscle during fat loss, it tips the scales towards muscle gain when you’re in a calorie surplus.
Studies show that diets with very-high-protein (around 4g per kg of body mass) don’t even gain fat when eating very high calories.
These diets show that lean muscle gain is a priority in line with your exercise levels and the protein content of your diet.
Caloric surplus won’t cause fat storage by itself, and a more patient approach is the key to better long-term body composition (and less body fat).
6. What Calorie surplus for lean bulk?
A lean bulk is just a slower bulk that tries to build muscle without fat. It’s a patient approach that uses healthy caloric surplus foods and high protein content with fewer calories to build a small caloric surplus – reducing gains in fat.
This prevents the cycles of weight gain and fat loss that characterize the large swing of some bodybuilding diets. You don’t have to focus on fat loss if you don’t gain it in the first place which is why staying lean all year is gaining popularity.
Typically, you should add around 300-500 calories above maintenance for a lean bulk. Food quality should also be high, with a focus on protein and carbohydrates from high-quality sources, as well as plenty of vitamins and minerals.
Lean bulks simply require more patience, and the result is slow but consistent muscle gain without unwanted fat.
7. Calorie surplus to gain a pound?
Most studies estimate a pound of muscle ‘costs’ around 3500 calories, and thus requires around 500 calorie surplus a day, per week, to gain a pound.
Estimates are around the same for burning fat, where fat loss typically occurs at an energy deficit of around 500 calories per day for a week.
The body responds slowly to these kinds of changes – and more so for muscle mass. The amount of change you can cause per week is limited, so a patient approach to muscle gain is most reliable and healthy.
8. Can you eat a Calorie surplus with healthy foods?
You can eat a caloric surplus with healthy food, as in the mythical lean bulk. You may find that you have to eat more frequent meals (common in the fitness industry), you need to consider your appetite levels, and that you even experience fat loss along the way.
Caloric intake doesn’t depend on food healthiness, which is more closely related to the protein content, quality of carbohydrate content, type of fats, and the vitamin and mineral content.
Foods that are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and unsaturated fats can still be calorie dense!
Some healthy foods are great for muscle growth – such as avocado, fatty fish, blueberries, bananas, whole grains (like oats and brown rice), and others.
Beans and legumes are also great, while many animal foods like red meats and cultured dairy mix calorie density with high protein content.
9. What is the best caloric surplus for muscle gain?
The best caloric surplus for muscle gain is as much as possible without more fat gain. This is a fine balance to land – but for most people it occurs between 300 and 600 calories above TDEE. This is the most common recommendation, because it’s a patient but effective approach.
For natural trainees, caloric surplus above this number begins to add more body fat. Equally, calorie surplus below this level will likely lead to detraining or just sub-optimal muscle gain. It’s a simple but effective place to start.
If you struggle to recover, feel very sore, or aren’t gaining weight, then you need to adjust your daily calories.
Make sure you’re not neglecting carb and protein intake, too, as these are independently useful for your recovery after workouts and gaining weight.
Conclusion: Our Final Thoughts
You gain muscle when you give your body the calories it needs to fuel growth – and the protein required to turn hard work into muscle tissue. Muscle gain depends on energy availability – which doesn’t require caloric surplus every time, but it’s the most effective state for gaining weight.
You can lose fat and build muscle at the same time but you run the risk of poor recovery and losing some potential muscle gain along the way.
Weight training, caloric surplus, and high protein intake are the 3 essential factors for improving your muscle gain and maximizing your return on effort.
If you’re willing to experiment, you can use this simple method by tracking your calorie intake, prioritizing protein, and letting the results on the scale change your daily calorie goals!
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Rohan Arora is a Certified Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist and has been actively involved in sports and fitness for over 8 years. He now leads the team of fitness specialists and personal trainers who help people around the world with personalized workout and nutrition plans, along with providing the right information on sports supplements.