Calorie Surplus: What is it? Does it build muscle?

What is a calorie surplus

To put it simply, a calorie surplus is when you consume more calories through your diet than you burn through maintaining bodily functions and overall activity output.

As you probably already know, Calories are a type of usable energy obtained through the consumption of food and beverages. But to truly understand the positive and negative effects of a Calorie surplus, we’re going to have to explore something called the Energy Balance Equation.

What is the Energy Balance Equation?

The Energy Balance Equation is an equation that determines whether we gain, lose, or maintain body tissue. For the sake of simplicity and for the purposes of this article, we will equate a change in body tissue with a change in body weight.

If you had a moment to check out our article on calorie deficit you’d have learned that when your body is placed into a calorie deficit for a period of time, your body will consequently look for an alternative fuel source.

Stored body fat would be that primary fuel source.

So what would you imagine to happen if you were to instead throw your body into the realm of a calorie surplus?

That’s right.
Over a period of time in which your body remains in a calorie surplus the result would be a gain of bodyweight through storage of additional body tissue.

Why would someone want to do this?

If you were a hunter-gatherer human living 10,000 years ago there would have been every right reason to aim for a calorie surplus!

Your environment would have been extremely unpredictable, meals would be often scarce, and the storage of food was rather difficult without the help of refrigeration (and cool, dark pantries).

In this case, you’d have probably wanted to store all of the body fat you possibly could.

However, with the help of weather reports, supermarkets, and fridge/freezers, life is… easier.

Do we still need a calorie surplus?

Well, yes and no.

For beginners to weight training and exercise in general, it is possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time through a slight calorie deficit. However, for those who are more experienced in the realm of weight training, an increase in calories is more needed.

We discuss this concept in more detail in our article regarding Body Recomposition(coming soon).

If your primary goal is to gain lean muscle mass and overall strength over time, you’ll need the additional calories to build that extra muscle and strength!

Like the cement for a new house extension, with a tonne of extra energy to build it.

An increase of calories as well as a spike in carbohydrates and protein is almost absolutely necessary for building new muscle mass.

Purposely putting your body into a calorie surplus is also colloquially known as ‘bulking’ within bodybuilding circles.

Arnie quite possibly used this term on a day-to-day basis. He also trained his biceps just as frequently.

Is it healthy?

The big question indeed!

Is a calorie surplus healthy?

Well, just like a calorie deficit, it really depends.

If you’re fully committing to the calorie surplus, and as a result, storing plenty of additional body fat along with it then NO!

Too much body fat is never healthy!

The key is finding the right calorie surplus to fuel your workouts as well as recover while building new strength and lean muscle mass.

The gains, baby. The gains.

Of course, you’re less likely to be malnourished in a calorie surplus than in a calorie deficit, but be careful to not let this fact support the ‘anything goes while in a surplus’ mentality.

Baked goods, sweets, soft drinks, and deep-fried foods, although high in calories, are not ideal choices for reaching that desired calorie surplus.

You’ll probably find they hinder your progress rather than aid it.

Instead, make an effort to consume a varied diet rich in micronutrients. Having an optimum level of vitamins and minerals while in a calorie surplus is only going to help you reach your goals faster, as well as maintain them for longer.

Check out our Meal Planner for free! It’ll automatically generate a healthy meal plan personalized to you and your goals – the recipes provided are a delicious, simple, and healthy way of reaching that calorie surplus.

It also allows the addition of cheeky treats – because that’s what the weekend is all about, right?

How many calories should I eat to build muscle

This number can be a little tricky to find. Going into too much of a surplus could result in an unwanted, rapid increase in body fat, which can not only destroy motivation to continue, but can also mask potential lean muscle gains made through your training plan.

On the other hand, going into too little of a surplus could result in very slow progress being made – which will make you question the training plan and your goals entirely.

What needs to be found is a healthy surplus that meets somewhere in the middle. Providing enough micronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and calories for optimum lean muscle gain, without the unnecessarily high levels of unwanted body fat storage.

Like with a calorie deficit, there is no magic number. But we can get you somewhere close!

Generally, for a lean bulk, an optimum surplus has been shown to be about a 10 – 20% increase of a person’s Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).

For example, if your TDEE was 2,500 calories, then you should be aiming for between 2,750 and 3,000 calories per day during your bulking phase.

But remember, keep that protein intake on the higher side while performing muscle building exercises as part of a progressively challenging workout regime.

Related: How much protein should I eat to gain muscle?(article coming soon)

Can you lose fat in a calorie surplus

It is generally accepted that any body weight you gain during a calorie surplus will not be 100% muscle.

So… will I gain fat?

Almost certainly! But this doesn’t necessarily mean it will impact your body composition for the worse. You can gain a little fat, and lose it pretty quickly once you’ve built some lean muscle underneath it.

Furthermore, a gain in body fat can be minimised by not being in too much of a calorie surplus.

As mentioned before, it’s much easier for beginners to gain muscle while in a surplus. Ultimately, the more advanced you are, the more subtle you want your calorie surplus to be.

This can be as little as a 100-calorie increase on your TDEE.

How to calculate calorie surplus

First of all, you should calculate how many calories, on average, you burn a single day. This is your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).

Once you know your TDEE, you will then need to decide how much of a calorie surplus you would like to make (roughly based on your training experience, training frequency, and goals).

We take all of this into account on our free Calorie Surplus Calculator(coming soon) where you can calculate your surplus very quickly.

Remember, your TDEE will change over time. With a change in body composition, activity levels, and age; it will need to be recalculated on a regular basis.

Final notes

The route to getting stronger and gaining muscle over time will no doubt include some form of calorie surplus. What matters most is the type of calorie surplus you decide to take on.

Make it nutritious: high in protein, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, while drinking plenty of water.

Start with a slightly smaller surplus and work your way up, keeping regular tabs on your body weight, lean muscle mass, and body-fat percentage.

Maintain a higher-intensity progressive training regime, and always aim to recover properly with adequate rest days and sleep.

For a fitter, stronger, healthier you.

Calculate your macro and calorie targets, generate a meal plan you'll love, and level-up with structured workout plans.