# Do I need to be over my maintenance or my actual calories burned to build muscle?

Attempting body recomposition by cycling calories on workout/non-workout days... but, I can't find any sources that really agree on how many calories I need to eat. For instance here's two articles written by the same guy that give me an 800kcal difference between them:

Now, one thing most of these calculations (including the above) have in common is the calories are based on your maintenance calories or BMR, plus some modifier for the muscle building.

However, basing it off your average maintenance calories seems like it should create an overall caloric deficit. So, if I normally burn 2,400kcal on an average day then I go weightlifting I'm burning an extra 500kcal for a total of 2,900kcal. Yet a formula that adds 15% to maintenance would only have me eating ~2700kcal for a roughly 200kcal deficit. (And that's assuming I don't do extra cardio!)

So, is it basically a matter of beating your "maintenance" so your body knows you have enough to maintain itself and will build muscle? Or should it be more than my actual calorie burn, meaning I should calculate/track calories I've burned and try to eat a little more than that? (I have a Jawbone UP3 fitness tracker, so the latter is doable... I just need to figure out the right thing to do.)

I'm also still a beginner and fairly overweight, so I know things work a little bit in my favor on this... but I'd like to optimize so I can improve faster, and get in the right habits for when I'm thinner/fitter.

The problem here is what you are defining your "maintenance" as.

I assume you've found a magic maintenance calculator, plugged in your details and got a number? In that case you want to add calories burned through training on top of that. What you need to worry about is total calories burned in your day. If you go above that you gain weight, if you go below that you lose it.

However the reality isn't that simple. Building muscle isn't an exact mathematical formula (it's not just "if I eat above maintenance I can build muscle, otherwise I can't"), your body is constantly simultaneously building muscle and breaking it down as a continuous process. When you do weight training you signal your body to build more than it breaks. When you eat in a surplus the signals are stronger. If you are in an overall deficit the rate of muscle gain is either the same as or normally a tad lower than the rate of muscle loss. Also, this means that the instant you eat a meal, even if you are overall eating under maintenance over the course of the day, at that point after the meal your rate of gain is higher than rate of loss. Once that influx of calories runs out things change. etc.

If you want to change body composition, think of it like tending a garden. You can't force changes to happen when you like, regardless of what your calories do. Just focus on making all the conditions right, and your body does the rest as and when it feels like it, in very random and sometimes inexplicable ways (you may not gain any muscle for months, then one month suddenly gain 2kg etc).

Keep at it over a long period of time = success.

Few pointers:

1. As on overweight beginner, it's very likely for a short period of time you can build muscle at the same time as losing weight.
2. Calorie calculators are very inaccurate, and only useful as a starting point. The best tool to determine your caloric needs is a weighing scale. Weigh yourself daily, and take a weekly average. If the scale is going up you week to week are in a surplus, if it's going down you are not. Adjust calories only once every few weeks, and check the results.
3. Don't try to control exactly what's happening, it will be frustrating and not beneficial. Just make the conditions right.
• The problem is feeling confident I'm creating that "garden." Especially after three different results from three different calculators... so after reading this my plan is: Stick to a lower calorie count as long as I'm lifting more each workout. If I can lift more, it must mean I'm building muscle or the weight is too light. Once I plateau, I'll increase calories until I progress again. Jun 15, 2016 at 18:32
• @Telos that's a solid plan. You can consider monitoring your bodyweight as you go, just so you have some data. Don't change anything or get worried, just monitor. Then you will know what that number of calories does for you, which will be useful later on. This game is all about learning how you respond to particular diet or training Jun 16, 2016 at 19:21
• Yeah was going to do that also, just ordered a new Withings scale because I'm not super confident my old body composition scale (different brand) was working correctly. Jun 16, 2016 at 20:48

Yeah I was wondering the same thing a few years back. But let's just reason this out here. So, in order to build something, anything, you need something to build it with. That's obvious right? You can't build a brick wall without bricks or a staircase without stairs. Now, let's say you order 1,000 bricks and you want to build a wall with 900 bricks. Assume, on the way over, from shipping, about 150 bricks are lost so now you have 850 bricks. Well, can you now build a 900 brick wall ? No.

Similarly, at least if you're thinking purely in terms of calories in vs calories out, then you need to beat your calories burned. Your maintenance calories, i.e your resting metabolic rate, is how many calories your body burns on average in one day, even if you were to not do anything. Well, even if you overcome this number with food, what is your body going to use to build itself if it doesn't have anymore calories left since you exercised and burned, lets say 500 more calories? It wont.

For example, think of it the reverse way, when bodybuilders are cutting for a show, or a gym rat is cutting to get leaner, why do they add additional cardio? Obviously to burn more calories.

Your body can't build muscle if it doesn't have the ingredients in the first place because they were burned up doing other things. But to be fair, it isn't so black and white. Yes, calories in vs calories out plays a huge role, but so does protein synthesis. In fact, this is the most important process when you're trying to build muscle. For example, let's say you start to eat over maintenance, (by the way, it's usually recommended that you eat 16-20x per lbs of bodyweight for weight gain, while 14-15x for maintenance, so this alone should answer your question, look online). Well, if most of these calories are from carbs and fats, then you're not going to invoke protein synthesis. Remember, all muscle building is, on a technical level is Protein Synthesis vs Protein Breakdown. To invoke protein synthesis, you guessed it, you have to consume a lot of protein, manipulate insulin correctly, and make sure your diet lets you consume the max amount of amino acids, as well as lots of sleep.

In addition to your actual question, whatever you do, DO NOT listen to any post on myfitnesspal regarding fitness or even diet, the quality and accuracy of the articles are actually horrifying. I should also mention that while it is good that you're trying to look up information on your goals online, the best way to accomplish your goal is through time with experimenting and seeing what works best for your body, it is unique to you. Some guys can get massive with pop tarts and coca cola, while some will look like a sumo wrestler the second they even look at white rice (look up insulin sensitivity if you want to "optimize"). There is NOTHING that will beat pure hard work in the weight room combined with lots of and lots of quality food, I wouldn't even start counting until after a few months of figuring out how your body responds to weight training. Just my opinion.

Short answer: you have to consider the actual calories (the remaining amount after burning calories off).

Example: Let's say I ate 2800kcal, burned 500kcal off and I need calculated 3100kcal to gain weight. On this day I won't gain muscle theoretically, because 800kcal are missing for that goal.

But one day does not matter. Always talke your weekly average calories into account!