Calculating calorie needs for bodybuilders

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You will find a lot of calculators on the internet with which you can calculate your energy needs. But the results are not accurate enough for bodybuilders. Read here how you can estimate your maintenance level fairly accurately.

Key points:

1.   It is impossible to precisely calculate your daily energy requirement; it is always a fairly rough estimate. By following certain measuring points during the process (bulk, cut, body recomp, maintenance) (weight, waist circumference, fat percentage) you will gradually find out whether you are at the right level.

2.   Nevertheless, try to estimate as accurately as possible and use a calories app to track your food intake.

3.   Most calculators on the internet estimate the energy consumption from physical activity, including work and sports, much too broadly. It is therefore better to calculate only your ‘bare’ maintenance level and manually add the calories from physical activity to that. See our step-by-step plan .


As a natural bodybuilder it is important to know exactly how much energy you consume on a daily basis. After all, based on your calorie requirement, or maintenance level, you have to calculate how many calories you need daily to build muscle mass (bulk), lose fat (cut), do both at the same time (body recompostion) or stay on maintenance.

You will never be able to calculate your daily energy consumption very precisely. There are too many personal variables that you can’t see, especially the physiological ones. You can therefore only know for sure whether you are using the right calorie surplus (bulk) or calorie deficit (cut) by closely monitoring your weight during the process and, for example, by regularly measuring your waist circumference. Ideally, you should also have your fat percentage measured regularly, but for many people it is too much hassle or too expensive to (accurately) do this.

Of course you can (read: should) use a calorie app to determine your calorie intake. But no matter how carefully you do this, if you misjudge your maintenance level, you will still eat too much or too little.


Well, you want to make the most accurate estimate possible of your daily energy requirement. Your starting point for this is the revised Harris and Benedict formula of Roza and Shizgal, from 1984. There is an even more precise formula, that of Katch-McArdle, but for that you need to know your body fat percentage.


The Harris and Benedict formula allows you to calculate your resting energy expenditure quite accurately. However, the formula also includes supplements for physical activity, the so-called PAL values, and that is where things often go wrong: the descriptions for those values ​​are far too vague. For example, a multiplier of 1.375 applies to people with a “slightly active job” or who “exercise 1-3 times a week”.

Those values ​​are not practical either: you do not work or exercise every day, so your maintenance level is not the same every day. In addition, a multiplier is missing for people who do not do physical work but do a lot of sports, as there are probably many among our readers.


Our advice is therefore not to charge supplements for extraordinary physical activity, such as walking and cycling long distances, heavy physical work, cardio, strength sports and other sports. Only calculate a supplement for the general exercise during the day (multiplier 1.2) and add the rest of your physical activity successively.

There are several ways to calculate the energy expenditure of physical activities.


The most convenient way is to use a calorie app. In addition to nutritional values, you can also calculate the calorie consumption of all kinds of sporting and non-sporting activities. An alternative is an activity tracker.

Keep in mind that the results can differ considerably from the actual number of calories burned, but that is also the case when you do the math yourself. When calculating yourself with MET values ​​(see 2), however, you can have the body weight counted.

Note: officially you only have to add up the calories that you burn extra. That means you have to subtract the calories you would burn at rest (sitting on the couch, for example). Your calorie consumption at rest (also known as 1 MET – see below) is 1 kcal/kg/hour, so for example 70 kcal if you weigh 70 kg.

At the same time, physical activities also have a so-called afterburn effect (EPOC), although it is relatively small: it usually amounts to only 6-15% of the total number of calories burned during the activity. It is slightly higher for intensive activities, such as HIIT and strength training. In that case MET and EPOC will more or less cancel each other out, so you don’t have to apply a correction.


A second way to calculate the energy consumption of certain activities is to use the MET values ​​just mentioned.

The MET (Metabolic Equivalent of Task) value is a unit of measurement within physiology for the amount of energy required by a given physical effort, compared to the amount of energy required at rest. One MET corresponds to the resting (or basal) metabolic rate, the amount of energy expended while sitting still. The heavier the effort, the higher the MET value.

The MET value is expressed as the amount of burned kilocalories (kcal), per body weight in kilograms, per number of hours. In this table you will find the MET values ​​of common activities and sports, ranging from washing dishes to swimming.

To obtain the number of kcal per minute of an activity, you still have to do some calculations, using the following formula:

(MET value x 3.5 x weight in kg) / 200

Example: brisk walking (5-6 km/h) has a MET value of 4.3. So someone weighing 70 kg who walks at that pace for half an hour burns:

(4.3 x 3.5 x 70) / 200 x 30 = 158 kcal


For a successful bulk, cut or body recomp you need to estimate your energy needs as accurately as possible. ‘Estimate’, because a calculation always remains an estimate. Practice will show how close you are to reality. But with the following step-by-step plan you should be able to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate of your energy needs.


Calculate your basal energy needs according to Roza and Shizgal’s revised Harris and Benedict formula.

Formula man:
88.362 + (13.397 x body weight in kg) + (4.799 x body height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

Female formula:
447.593 + (9.247 x body weight in kg) + (3.098 x body height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)

The outcome of this formula is your daily energy expenditure at rest, so without your daily exercise.

Example in a 30-year-old man of 70 kg and 1.80 m tall: 1720 kcal (basal maintenance)


The supplement factor 1.2 is used for people who do not exercise and who do sedentary work. Use this to get your energy expenditure including everyday movements, but excluding activity from work, sports, and so on. Now you know your actual, ‘bare’ maintenance level.

Example: 1720 x 1.2 = 2064 kcal (maintenance)


If you don’t do sedentary work, try to estimate as accurately as possible the extra physical activity that will result.

For example, if you work in the hospitality industry and walk a lot, check by phone or activity tracker how many meters you make in a day. Then you calculate how many calories you burn with that.

Rule of thumb: the number of kcal you burn per kilometer of walking (at a normal pace) is approximately equal to your body weight. If you weigh 70 kg and walk a total of 2 km during your work, you burn about 140 kcal.

Example: 2064 + 140 = 2204 kcal (maintenance + work)

Instead of calculating yourself, you can also use a calorie app.


Add to your maintenance level the extra calories you burn walking, cycling, cardio at the gym, and so on.

You can calculate the energy consumption of these activities using a calorie app or activity tracker, or by using the MET values.

Example: 2204 + 300 = 2504 kcal (maintenance + work + endurance activity)


Although strength training is meant to build muscle and/or get stronger, it also burns calories. A 70 kg person burns an average of 100 (normal intensity) to 250 kcal (high intensity) with half an hour of strength training. That does not include the so-called afterburn , which amounts to 50-100 kcal after an hour of strength training. But because that roughly corresponds to 1 MET, you don’t have to apply a correction in principle. More explanation in this article.

Example with 60 minutes of fairly intensive strength sport: 2504 + 450 = 2954 kcal (maintenance + work + endurance activity + strength sport)


Do you do any other sports, such as soccer or martial arts? Try to estimate that as accurately as possible. Of course you only take this energy consumption into account on the days that you practice these sport(s).

You can calculate the energy consumption of these activities using a calorie app or activity tracker, or by using the MET values.

Example: 2954 kcal + 500 kcal = 3454 kcal (maintenance + work + endurance activity + strength sports + other sports)

You now know your total energy requirement.


Practice will show to what extent your calculation is correct. A matter of try and error .

In the bulk, an average bodybuilder should gain ~0.25-0.5% of his or her body weight per week. That with a calorie surplus of 10-20% of the maintenance level.

In the cut, with an energy deficit of 20-25%, you should be able to lose 0.5 to 1 kg per week, assuming that this is largely fat mass.

Also keep in mind that your maintenance level gradually changes, partly under the influence of metabolic adaptation. To what extent this happens varies greatly from person to person.

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