The internet seems to be filled with endless “secrets” and “hacks” for gaining muscle and/or shedding pounds of fat. At the end of the day, though, there’s no magic behind either putting on a few pounds or getting rid of some — it all comes down to how you maintain your energy balance or how you manage calories in vs. calories out. (1)
Of course, it’s a little more nuanced than that. Manipulating your energy balance also involves tracking what types of calories you put into your body, the rate at which you burn those calories, the type of activity you do outside the gym, and a whole lot more. Having a little know-how behind these subjects can make your bulking or cutting phase a smooth one.
In this piece, we’ll discuss ways you can responsibly add or drop a few pounds from your frame from multiple angles. At the end of this piece, you should be able to chase your dream physique — whatever that may be — without any internet “hacks.”
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
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What to Know About Calories
Calories are a unit of measurement used to calculate the energy content of food and beverages — or how much fuel they provide your body. Your body uses these calories for everything from temperature regulation to lifting heavy iron at the gym.
All calories, though, aren’t created equally, and certain types can have different effects on the body, which makes understanding their ramifications vital when you’re seeking specific physique changes.
That’s where macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) come into play. Below is a breakdown of all three and a guide on how many calories come with each.
Protein is the macronutrient most gym-goers are familiar with, as it’s the one responsible for repairing broken down muscles following intense training sessions. But it does a lot more than that — protein has been shown to increase satiety, or the feeling of being full, more than carbs or fats.
It also increases thermogenesis in the body, meaning it takes more calories to digest protein than any other macronutrient. Protein also helps the body maintain lean muscle mass, which burns calories faster than fat. (2)
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There are also two types of protein: complete and incomplete protein. A complete protein is a protein molecule with all essential amino acids — the strands that make up protein molecules. Incomplete protein molecules are missing some essential amino acids, which must be obtained through food because the body can’t make substantial amounts on its own.
Animal proteins, such as chicken breast and eggs, are complete proteins and plant-based proteins, except soy, are incomplete.
Calorie count: Each gram of protein comes with four calories.
Carbohydrates are essential for performance in and out of the gym, as it’s the body’s preferred energy source. The carbs are converted into sugar and used for everything from your everyday life to finishing your workout.
But you may have read in some tabloid headlines that carbohydrates are evil and need to be avoided at all costs. This demonization of carbs most likely started because most carbs people eat in the United States are simple carbohydrates — sugar, white bread, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. These things are present in sodas, pastries, most snack foods, and breakfast cereals. (3)
These simple carbs are digested by the body more quickly than complex carbohydrates — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. The more quickly you use that energy, the sooner you’ll need more energy. On the other hand, complex carbs provide more sustained energy — meaning you’ll be more energized for longer.
Calorie count: Each gram of carbs comes with four calories.
Fats are essential for two bodily processes: vitamin absorption and hormonal functions. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning for them to be absorbed in the body, there needs to be some fat. Fat is also necessary for some hormonal functions. Low-fat diets have been linked to lower testosterone counts in men — and testosterone is vital to muscle growth and other activities conducted outside of the gym. (4)
And while carbs are your body’s preferred energy source, fats can also provide some fuel — as followers of the Keto diet can attest to. When our body lacks carbohydrates, it goes into a state of ketosis (where the popular diet gets its name from), a metabolic state where the body creates ketones from fat.
Keto is no better at helping you lose weight or gain muscle than any other eating regimen.
Calorie count: Each gram of fat comes with nine calories, so they live up to their name by being a little more fattening than protein or carbs. But again, that doesn’t mean you should get rid of them.
Eat ‘Healthier’ Calories
There’s one more caveat when it comes to calories and weight — and that’s making sure you’re eating healthy examples of protein, carbs, and fats. Studies have shown that food quality is just as important if not more important as the number of macronutrients or calories you consume in a day. In other words, you’ll want to get your carbs from whole food sources like whole-wheat bread and brown rice over sugar-laden pastries. (5)
How to Calculate Caloric Intake for Weight Loss/Gain
Here’s the real (not-so-secret) secret to losing or gaining weight: if you want to lose calories, you need to be in a caloric deficit (where you burn more calories than you consume), and if you want to gain weight, you need to be in a caloric surplus (you consume more calories than you burn).
And despite what Instagram influencers may tell you, no one diet is better than the other in achieving this — it can be accomplished via Keto, intermittent fasting, or the Dessert with Breakfast Diet (yes, that’s a real thing).
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So how do you find out how many calories you need for weight loss or muscle gain? First, you need to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight. This number is also how many calories your body needs to sustain all its daily functions, from regulating your temperature to helping you get out of bed in the morning.
If you’re looking to lose weight, you’ll want to subtract 100-300 calories every day. Eating any less than that deficit may help you lose weight quickly but in an unsustainable manner, and you’ll likely gain back most of the weight. (6)
If you’re looking to pack on some muscle, you’ll want to add 100-300 calories per day. Again, eating any more than that may help you pack on weight, but it won’t be the good kind.
These are general guidelines, and you may need to go over these numbers, but you should consult a certified trainer or nutritionist before doing so.
Measure Your Calories
When you’re pursuing a specific goal, eyeballing your portion sizes won’t cut it. The nutrition facts on any label are based on a precise amount of food, measured via a scale and not by volume.
Peanut butter might be the best example. The next time you’re making a PB&J, eyeball what you think is 32 grams (a standard serving size) into a bowl. In another bowl, weigh out exactly that much. Then weep over the disparity. Not knowing proper position sizes can either lead you to eat too much while trying to cut or too little while you’re trying to bulk.
As you consistently weigh out food, you’ll eventually be able to eyeball portions over time. However, start by weighing everything you eat.
This knowledge will also help you nail your macro counts. Your calories come from different sources, so you’ll want to make sure you’re getting exactly the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats. But how much of each should you eat? Let’s dive into that.
How to Set Your Macros to Lose or Gain Weight
While your macronutrient doesn’t directly influence weight loss (again, it’s a matter of total calories in vs. total calories out), a well-crafted split can help make the process a lot easier. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicines recommends 45-65 percent of your calories come from carbs, 10-35 percent from protein, and 20-35 percent from fat. (7)
You don’t have to stick with that, though. You might do better on a higher fat diet compared to a higher carb. Again, that doesn’t mean Keto works better than any other eating regimen — it just means that’s what works best for you. It’s all about what works best for you.
Another way you could split your macros is one that we like:
- Protein: 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
- Fat: At least 0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight, depending on total calories.
- Carbs: The remainder of calories.
You can also use BarBend‘s macronutrient calculator to find a split to start with.
What to Know About Energy Expenditure to Lose or Gain Weight
Adjusting the amount of food you eat is one way to achieve a caloric surplus or deficit. Still, the other way is to adjust how many calories you burn throughout the day, otherwise known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This doesn’t just include how many calories you burn at the gym, but also how much you burn by climbing a flight of stairs, helping your friends move, and any other movement during the day.
Someone looking to lose weight will want to increase their TDEE, while someone bulking may want to keep it to a minimum to avoid getting into a caloric deficit. As with everything else, there are many components to TDEE.
Resting Metabolic Rate
Your resting metabolic rate, sometimes called your basal metabolic rate, is how many calories you burn at rest. In a sense, this is how many calories your body naturally burns with minimal activity.
Your resting metabolic rate will depend on many things: your height, weight, sex (men generally have a higher RMR than women), and more (8).
It also depends on how much lean muscle you have on your frame. You’ve probably heard that muscle burns more calories than fat, and that’s true. So two people at the same height and weight may have different BMR if one has more lean muscle than the other. This is why trainers recommend resistance training for people looking to lose weight — because you’ll be able to burn more calories while at rest if you have more muscles. (9)
Speaking of resistance training…
Exercise is, of course, the easiest way to burn unwanted calories. And as we discussed above, it has more benefits than just burning calories during your workout.
What type of exercise you’ll want to do is, once again, dependent on your goal. A bodybuilder would, of course, want to do plenty of weightlifting with some cardio to increase muscle mass and maximize fat loss without losing too many calories.
Others who are just looking to lose some pounds and not necessarily transform their physique may be better off doing an hour of cardio to burn as many calories as possible.
Harvard Medical School listed several popular activities and calculated how many calories the average person might burn during a 30-minute session. These aren’t exact numbers, but they give a pretty good guide on what you can expect out of a certain activity.
|Activity||125-pound person||155-pound person||185-pound person|
|Standing in line||38||47||56|
|Walking: 3.5 mph (17 min/mi)||120||149||178|
|Weight Lifting: general||90||112||133|
|Weight Lifting: vigorous||180||223||266|
|Stair Step Machine: general||180||223||266|
|Bicycling, Stationary: moderate||210||260||311|
|Rowing, Stationary: moderate||210||260||311|
|Circuit Training: general||240||298||355|
|Rowing, Stationary: vigorous||255||316||377|
|Swimming: laps, vigorous||300||372||444|
|Bicycling, Stationary: vigorous||315||391||466|
|Running: 7.5 mph (8 min/mile)||375||465||555
[Related: Best Pre-Workout Supplements for Strength, Cardio, and More]
Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy you use for all non-workout-related activities: walking, your job, playing with your children/nieces and nephews, and more.
This type of activity actually plays a huge role in your metabolism. NEAT can account for 15-50 percent of total calories burned throughout the day. Someone who’s not very active — aka someone who sits on the couch all day and plays video games — will have low NEAT compared to someone who takes the stairs instead of the elevator, walks a lot, and moves around at home. (10)
NEAT-related activities don’t have to be strenuous either. You can easily increase it by getting yourself a standing desk (standing burns more calories than sitting), dancing in place occasionally, and even fidgeting. Yes, fidgeting has been shown to burn hundreds of calories per day.
Bodybuilders, for example, eat extremely low-calorie diets. To burn more calories, they walk on the treadmill for an hour or so. Instead of lowering their food intake to near-nothing, they turn to NEAT (in the form of walking) to up their overall calorie burn.
Thermic Effect of Food
The thermic effect of food is the increase in your metabolism after a meal — or how many calories your body uses to process certain foods. As we said before, protein has the highest thermic effect of all the macronutrients.
There are other foods, though, that can achieve this, including:
- Spicy foods
- Apple Cider Vinegar
The thermic effect of feeding only accounts for 10% of your total daily energy expenditure.
How Sleep Affects Weight Gain and Weight Loss
Our body repairs itself during sleep — it’s the time when we recharge our body and prepare it for the day ahead. When you’re looking to lose or gain weight, the hundreds of processes going on in your body rely on a full night’s sleep so they can do their job to the best of their ability. Poor sleep equals poor recovery, which means it’ll take us longer to achieve the goal you’re after.
One study found that people were more likely to gain weight if they didn’t get at least seven hours of sleep a night, and another found people were 33 percent more likely to lose weight if they had a sound night’s sleep. (11)
Sleep deprivation is also linked to increased hormone ghrelin levels, also known as the “hunger hormone,” because it increases hunger levels in the body. (12)
It’s vital to understand energy expenditure — how your body takes in and burns energy — if you’re looking to gain, lose, or maintain weight. What you eat plays a huge role, as does increasing your activity level, even just a little bit.
- Gardner CD, Trepanowski JF, Del Gobbo LC, et al. Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern Insulin Secretion: The DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018;319(7):667–679. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0245
- Douglas Paddon-Jones, Eric Westman, Richard D Mattes, Robert R Wolfe, Arne Astrup, Margriet Westerterp-Plantenga, Protein, weight management, and satiety, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 87, Issue 5, May 2008, Pages 1558S–1561S, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S
- Ferretti F, Mariani M. Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrate Dietary Patterns and the Global Overweight and Obesity Pandemic. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(10):1174. Published 2017 Oct 4. doi:10.3390/ijerph14101174
- Fantus, R. J., Halpern, J. A., Chang, C., Keeter, M. K., Bennett, N. E., Helfand, B., & Brannigan, R. E. (2020). The Association between Popular Diets and Serum Testosterone among Men in the United States. The Journal of urology, 203(2), 398-404. https://doi.org/10.1097/JU.0000000000000482
- Shan Z, Guo Y, Hu FB, Liu L, Qi Q. Association of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets With Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(4):513–523. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.6980
- Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Med Clin North Am. 2018;102(1):183-197. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
- Manore MM. Exercise and the Institute of Medicine recommendations for nutrition. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2005 Aug;4(4):193-8. doi: 10.1097/01.csmr.0000306206.72186.00. PMID: 16004827.
- Arciero, P. J., Goran, M. I., & Poehlman, E. T. (1993). Resting metabolic rate is lower in women than in men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 75(6), 2514–2520. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.19220.127.116.114
- Gomez-Arbelaez, D., Crujeiras, A.B., Castro, A.I. et al. Resting metabolic rate of obese patients under very low calorie ketogenic diet. Nutr Metab (Lond) 15, 18 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-018-0249-z
- Chung N, Park MY, Kim J, Park HY, Hwang H, Lee CH, Han JS, So J, Park J, Lim K. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): a component of total daily energy expenditure. J Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2018 Jun 30;22(2):23-30. doi: 10.20463/jenb.2018.0013. PMID: 30149423; PMCID: PMC6058072.
- Poornima KN, Karthick N, Sitalakshmi R. Study of the effect of stress on skeletal muscle function in geriatrics. J Clin Diagn Res. 2014;8(1):8-9. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2014/7014.3966
- Honda Y, Takahashi K, Takahashi S, Azumi K, Irie M, Sakuma M, Tsushima T, Shizume K. Growth hormone secretion during nocturnal sleep in normal subjects. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1969 Jan;29(1):20-9. doi: 10.1210/jcem-29-1-20. PMID: 4302913.
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