Should You Track Calories While Bulking?
If you ask a bulking guru if you should track calories while bulking, you’ll probably get one of two answers:
- If you’re serious about building muscle, you need to Police your calorie intake: You need to track every breath you take, every move you make, every vow you break, every single day, every word you say, every game you play, every night you stay. That’s the only way to figure out how many calories you’re burning and how many you should eat. And figuring that out is the only way to build muscle quickly and leanly.
- The second answer is a pushback against that mindset: don’t be so obsessive! You aren’t a bodybuilder. You don’t need to adopt a disordered eating routine to get great bulking results. Just eat intuitively, eat healthy foods, and get in touch with your appetite. You don’t need to track everything. And besides, tracking calories is always imprecise. There’s just no way around it. Nutrition labels are off by like 40%. You’ll never know exactly how many calories you’re eating or burning. Why even bother?
Both of those answers make some good points. Mind you, most gurus arguing against calorie-tracking apps aren’t victims of those apps, they’re beneficiaries. They benefitted from using calorie trackers while bulking. And now, with the very best of intentions, they’re kicking out the ladder that would allow you to catch up to them. In this article, we’ll teach you how to catch up to them.
But on the other hand, you don’t need to track your calories to get great bulking results. There are other ways to eat (roughly) the right number of calories every day. We’ll teach you how to do that, too. It’s not as impossible as it might seem.
- Video Version
- The Basics of Building Muscle
- The Case for Tracking Calories While Bulking
- How to Bulk WITHOUT Tracking Calories
- Should You Track Your MACROS While Bulking?
- What About Calorie Tracking Inaccuracies?
- Do You Need to Track Calories Forever?
- What’s the Best Macro Tracking App?
If you prefer video, we’ve got a YouTube version of this article. We’re brand new to making these videos. Any feedback is welcome. And if you want more video content, let me know in the comment section on the YouTube channel.
The Basics of Building Muscle
Calorie tracking has the potential to be quite powerful. But before we talk about tracking calories, we need to talk about how calories affect muscle growth. It’s a big effect. It’s one of the three main pillars of growth: hypertrophy training, eating enough, and living a healthy lifestyle. Knock down any one of those pillars and your bulking results will come tumbling down along with it.
The Ideal Rate of Weight Gain While Bulking
The trick to building muscle quickly and leanly is to figure out your potential rate of muscle growth, stimulate that growth by lifting weights, and then line up your calorie intake to match that predicted rate of growth. You can think of it as filling up a glass:
First, you need to understand how big your glass is. The main thing here is the type of training you’re doing. If you’re swimming and jogging, that’s super healthy, but it won’t stimulate much muscle growth. Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, calisthenics, and strength training are quite a bit better. But the best style of training for stimulating growth is hypertrophy training.
Our genetics and circumstances play into it, too, though. If you’re skinny, a beginner, or detrained, you can expect to (re)build muscle quite fast because you’re still quite far away from your genetic potential. On the other hand, if you’re short, have thin bones, or have a narrow bone structure, that might mean you won’t be able to build quite as much muscle as someone with a larger frame.
Once you’ve figured out how big your glass is, you need to figure out how many calories it will take to fill it. In this study, the authors recommend a daily calorie surplus of 418 calories to maximize your rate of muscle growth while minimizing your rate of fat gain. If you’re taller and skinnier than average, you’re new to lifting, and you don’t tend to gain fat very easily, you might want to eat a bit more—maybe 500 extra calories. On the other hand, if you’re smaller, plumper, and already fairly muscular, you might want to eat a bit less—maybe 300 extra calories. Maybe even less. It all depends. But for the sake of this article, let’s roll with 400 as a default.
Eating too little will reduce your rate of muscle growth. Eating too much will cause the extra calories to spill over into extra fat gain. Ideally, you’d fill the glass up without making it overflow.
Weighing Yourself & Adjusting
Whether you track calories or not, the only way to guarantee a successful bulk is to weigh yourself every week and adjust your calorie intake accordingly. It’s impossible to know exactly how many calories you’re eating and burning, and your calorie surplus is just an estimate. Plus, as you continue bulking, your metabolism will gradually increase. Part of that is from muscle growth—an extra pound of muscle burns around six extra calories per day—but most of it is from your metabolism revving up to offset your calorie surplus. This is especially true for people with a “hardgainer” phenotype, where eating extra calories tends to make us move more (study).
To figure out how quickly you’re gaining weight, you could weigh yourself every day and use a weekly average or you could weigh yourself every Sunday morning right after waking up. The important thing is, if you aren’t gaining weight, you need to eat more calories. And, of course, if you’re gaining too much weight, you need to eat fewer calories.
We usually recommend eating another 200 calories if you’re gaining weight too slowly, removing 100 calories if you’re gaining weight too quickly. That way even as your metabolism adapts and changes, and even as your appetite tries to guide you back towards maintenance, you keep yourself steadily gaining weight.
Thing is, your weekly weight gain is determined by your weekly calorie surplus. But we don’t build muscle on a weekly basis. We build muscle steadily all week long. If you’re undereating some days, you won’t build muscle on those days. If you’re overeating other days, you’ll store extra fat. So even if you’re gaining weight at the right pace overall, you might still be gaining too little muscle and/or too little fat.
You could break this down even further. Ideally, you’d be eating balanced meals steadily throughout the day. That way you aren’t just building muscle steadily from day to day, you’re also building muscle steadily all day long.
Consistency Yields Faster, Leaner Muscle Growth
The best way to build muscle quickly and leanly is with consistency. You’d train all of your muscles 2–3 times per week, you’d eat in a consistent calorie surplus every day, and you get enough sleep every night. That way you aren’t just bulking properly on a weekly basis, you’re bulking properly on a daily basis.
You could take this even further, making sure that each of your meals are balanced, and that you’re spreading those meals out over the course of the day. (That’s why intermittent fasting isn’t quite ideal for building muscle.)
To improve your consistency, it helps to eat similar meals at similar times every day. Getting into a regular meal schedule helps everyone—your digestive system appreciates a steady rhythm—but it’s especially important if you aren’t tracking calories. That way you have a steadier diet to add and remove calories from. That way if you stop gaining weight, all you have to do is add in another banana, handful of trail mix, or glass of (soy) milk.
Still, consistency can get a bit tricky if you aren’t tracking calories. When you eat intuitively, your appetite will tend to guide you back towards energy balance. So if you eat a bigger breakfast than normal, you might be inclined to eat a smaller dinner or skip dessert. And if you aren’t super knowledgeable about the calorie contents of foods, you might not know how one meal compares to another similar meal. If your appetite pulls you towards a lower-calorie meal, you might accidentally eat too little. Or perhaps in your efforts to eat too much, you accidentally eat to much. A tablespoon of oil is easy to miss, and yet it contains 120 calories. Make a few little mistakes like that and you might double or halve your surplus.
The Case for Tracking Calories While Bulking
If you want to be more precise with your calorie intake, you should track your calories. Otherwise, you might have some days where you eat in a 200-calorie surplus (failing to maximize your rate of muscle growth) and other days where you eat in a 700-calorie surplus (gaining a bit of extra fat). That imprecision adds up from month to month, causing less muscle growth and more fat gain.
When you track your calorie intake, you get a better idea of how much you’re eating. It’s not perfectly precise, but it’s more precise than just winging it. That’s why people who are super serious about building muscle—bodybuilders, fitness influencers, actors, professional athletes, and so on—tend to track their calories. And I totally get that. It makes sense.
Plus, tracking calories will teach you about what you’re eating. You’ll learn what it feels like to be in a small or large surplus. And if you track your macros, too, then you’ll gain an intuitive understanding of how different proportions of protein, carbs, fat, and fibre affect your calorie intake and appetite. It’s a great learning tool, even just for general health. You’ll gain wisdom you can keep forever.
If you have the time and energy to track your calories and macros, it will improve your bulking results while also teaching you lifelong lessons about food. If you can do it, it’s probably a good idea. But you don’t have to.
How to Bulk WITHOUT Tracking Calories
Now, does that mean you need to track calories to maximize your rate of muscle growth? Nope. Not at all. Most people who bulk up don’t track their calories. That includes most amateur bodybuilders, fitness influencers, and athletes. Most of them bulked up before calorie tracking was popular. Most of them only started tracking calories once they were already famous—once they were already relying on their bodies to fuel their livelihoods. And many of them still don’t track calories.
Ask most people who are interested in getting bigger and stronger, and they’ll tell you they aren’t too fussed about minimizing fat gain. They just eat lots of food, ensuring maximal muscle growth. If they gain some extra fat, no worries—they cut it off later. You could call those bulking and cutting cycles a sort of yo-yo diet, but if that yo-yo diet is adding dozens of pounds of muscle and the person has never had an unhealthy body-fat percentage (over 20%), is that really a bad thing?
If you want to err on the side of gaining more muscle, you might want to build in a bit of a buffer. Instead of eating precisely 400 extra calories every day, maybe that means eating 500–600 extra calories. You’re making your glass overflow on purpose. That way even when you undershoot your calorie goals, you’re still filling up your glass.
This is how I approached most of my bulks. I felt too skinny. I was desperate to get bigger and stronger. So I always focused more on building muscle, less on avoiding fat gain. I kept my meal schedule the same every day, I relied on a few staple meals with small variations, and I went to bed every night feeling full. Whenever the scale stopped moving up, I added more calories.
I gained some extra fat, yes, but I didn’t mind. At the end of every bulk, I tend to lose a bit of weight, settling 5–10 pounds lighter than my peak weight. This is common for naturally skinny guys. We see it all the time in our member community. People drop 5–10 pounds after they finish their bulks. And as our weight drops back down, the extra fat burns off. And at least in my case, I wasn’t so attached to my lower abs that I minded losing sight of them for a couple of months.
I still bulk this way, too. I’ve gained a total of 60 pounds at around 11% body fat. And as I’m working my way towards a 500-pound deadlift, I’m way more focused on gradually gaining strength than I am on staying lean. If my body-fat percentage drifts from 11% up to 18%, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still well within the healthy range. No worries. I used this same approach to bench 315 pounds. My deadlift is up to 445 for four repetitions. It’s working this time, too.
On the other hand, it’s common to see fitness influences maintaining 10% body fat year round. That’s a marketable body-fat percentage. It’s not necessarily ideal for general health, attractiveness, or performance. It often kills progress dead in its tracks. But if you want to sell fitness products in world full of overweight people dreaming of abs, it helps to look impressively lean. Even if that means never setting a new PR in the gym ever again.
On that note, some people do mind gaining fat. They don’t want a single extra gram of fat gain. Not if they can avoid it, anyway. And so they err on the side of gaining muscle more slowly. They aim to eat 100–200 extra calories per day. That way even if they overeat, their glass still isn’t overflowing.
To be clear, a smaller calorie surplus doesn’t mean your gains will be perfectly lean. Muscle growth usually comes along with a small amount of fat gain, even in a modest surplus, and especially if you’re more advanced. But the gains are much leaner. Maybe you gain muscle twice as slowly, but you only gain a quarter of the fat. For some people, that’s worth it.
The catch with eating in a smaller calorie surplus is that you’ll never maximize your rate of muscle growth. And on days when you undereat, you might not gain anything at all. But even so, as long as you gain at least a little bit of weight each week, you’ll eventually reach your muscle-building goal.
And, of course, you could try to aim for the middle. You could try to aim for exactly 400 extra calories. Some days you might undereat, gaining less muscle. Other days you might overeat, gaining more fat. But most days you’ll probably do fairly well, especially if you try to eat a steady, consistent diet. This makes for a great default. It’s what we usually recommend.
Should You Track Your MACROS While Bulking?
“Macros” are macronutrients. These are the nutrients that contain energy: protein, carbs, and fat (and maybe alcohol). Being in a calorie surplus causes weight gain. Being in a calorie deficit causes fat loss. That’s why people track calories. But every good calorie tracking app is also a macro tracking app. It will also calculate your protein, carb, fat, and alcohol intake, letting you know how much of each macronutrient you’re eating.
The main factors while bulking are to stimulate muscle growth with hypertrophy training, eat enough calories to gain weight, and leading a generally healthy lifestyle. But if you’re doing all of that already, you can get slightly better results by optimizing your macronutrient intake.
Tracking Your Protein Intake
To maximize your rate of muscle growth, you need to eat at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. If you weigh 130 pounds, that means eating at least 91 grams of protein.
Protein isn’t a gargantuan factor, though. Total energy trumps total protein. Plus, it’s pretty easy to guesstimate how much protein you’re eating. If you spend a few minutes every day looking at nutrition labels, keeping a loose tally of how many grams of protein you’re eating, you’ll do great.
Still, one of the benefits of tracking calories is that you’ll get an even better idea of how much protein you’re eating. If you eat a highly processed or plant-based diet, you might be surprised at how little you eat. You might need to buy a protein powder or a tub of Greek yoghurt. On the other hand, if you eat a good diet, you may be surprised at how many grams of protein are hidden in beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Tracking Your Carb & Fat intake
Moving further down the list of priorities, we’ve got your carb and fat macros. You’ll build muscle faster and more leanly—and probably feel better while bulking—if you eat a reasonable balance of protein, carbs, and fat. The idea is to eat enough protein to maximize your rate of muscle growth, enough fat to keep your hormones running great, and then stuff the rest of your diet full of carbs, improving your energy, packing your muscles full of glycogen, and slightly increasing your rate of muscle growth.
If you want to bulk casually, you don’t need to track your macros. If you want to optimize your bulking diet, though, it can definitely help. If you want more details on balancing your macros, we have a full article about eating a good bulking diet. A good macro tracking app will take care of that for you, though. (More on that in a second.)
Tracking Fibre & Micronutrients
If you want to improve your health while bulking up, it helps to eat a balanced diet. It’s not just about eating enough protein, carbs, and fat, it’s also about eating enough fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and making sure that you aren’t overdoing it with saturated fat or sodium. (To be clear, it’s not that saturated fat and sodium are bad, just that they shouldn’t be eaten in excess. Animal products can be rich in saturated fat; processed foods can be rich in sodium. Depending on your preferences, you might tend to overdo things.)
Not all calorie-tracking apps track all of these things, but some will. You can track your diet for a few days, see how much fibre you’re eating (aiming for at least 10 grams per 1,000 calories). You can also see how much saturated fat you’re eating (aiming for less than 10% of total calories and less than ⅓ of total fat intake). And it will even tell you about the vitamin and micronutrient content of the foods you eat.
Will this help you build muscle faster or more leanly? I think it might, but the main reason you’d want to eat a more balanced diet is for your health. We may as well improve our overall eating habits as we bulk up, right?
What About Calorie Tracking Inaccuracies?
The big criticism levelled against calorie tracking is that it’s not accurate enough. Even if you track what you’re eating, the calorie and micronutrients found in food vary by region. The labels on processed foods are up to 40% off. Here’s another example: as a banana ripens, more of the carbs become digestible, increasing the sugar content of the banana. That’s why ripe bananas taste sweeter.
So what’s the point of tracking calories if we can’t be accurate, right? Well, most of us tend to eat the same foods over and over again. We buy the same brands, the same sorts of ingredients, and we prepare the same meals. We live in the same region as we did last week. We buy the same conventional or organic bananas. We wait until they’re yellow before eating them. We throw them out when they turn black.
The same is true with our lifestyles. We move a different amount every day. We do slightly different amounts of exercise. And depending on your genetics, your metabolism may adapt differently to a calorie surplus than the average person (via NEAT—more movement and fidgeting).
Calorie tracking apps aren’t perfectly accurate, but their errors tend to be pretty steady from week to week. Different calorie trackers handle this issue differently, but the idea is to see how many calories you eat, how much weight you gain, and then adjust accordingly. If the calorie tracker overestimates your intake by 30%, killing your surplus, then you can simply eat more calories next week. A good calorie tracker is self-correcting.
The other thing that helps is using a verified food database (where dietitians review the information to ensure that it’s accurate). It’s still not perfect, but you might cut the margin of error in half. Maybe even better than that. The same is true when calculating your energy needs. Some formulas are slightly more accurate than others. And if you’re accurate enough, your calorie tracker might work decently well right out of the box, before it even starts adapting to your results.
Do You Need to Track Calories Forever?
Tracking calories takes a fair bit of time and effort. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially at first. When you first boot up the app, you need to input your height, weight, body-fat percentage, activity levels, goals, and so on. And then you need to input each ingredient of each meal from scratch. After a few days, it gets easier. Most people eat similar meals every day. Calorie tracking apps will remember your meals. You won’t need to enter it from scratch ever again. Still, though, calorie tracking never gets easy. It’s not exactly a lifestyle you want to live forever (unless you happen to like tracking things).
The good news is, you don’t have to track your calories forever. You’ll get like 90% of the information you need from just a few weeks of tracking. Even if you want to track your calories for an entire bulk or cut, allowing you to keep beautifully tight calorie surpluses and deficits, it’s still not forever. It’s just for a few months.
Our Bony to Beastly Program is six months long. After you finish your bulk, maybe you track for a few more days just to see what your maintenance diet looks like. And then you can throw your phone out and go back to eating more intuitively. Remember—your appetite is very good at guiding you towards energy balance. “Worst” case, you’ll be like me, accidentally losing a bit of fat when you finish bulking.
What’s the Best Macro Tracking App?
Back in the day, I used My Fitness Pal to track my calories. It wasn’t designed for bulking, so I never used it while bulking. But I did use it while cutting, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot about the food I was eating. When I finished my cut, I started plugging my favourite recipes into it to see how many calories they contained, and what their breakdown of protein, carbs, fat, and fibre looked like. That’s why the recipe book for our Bony to Beastly Program has all of the calories and macros calculated out. That kind of information is super handy.
Since then, I haven’t thought too much about tracking calories. We provide bulking information, programs, and coaching. We don’t make apps. And none of the apps were all that great anyway. But then Greg Nuckols (from Stronger by Science) reached out to me, asking what I thought of his new macro tracking app, MacroFactor. He was wondering whether it might help our community of naturally skinny dudes.
So… we started at the beginning. Sunny and I spent a few months testing all the best calorie-tracking apps, including My Fitness Pal, Carbon Diet Coach (by Layne Norton), RP Diet Coach (by Mike Israetel and Renaissance Periodization), and, of course, MacroFactor. We bought all of the app subscriptions with our own money. I happen to like Stronger by Science quite a lot. And both Eric And Greg have helped us out quite a bit over the years. But we tried to be as objective as we could. Plus, Sunny did most of the testing. He doesn’t have the same bias as I do.
Here’s what we thought of the different macro tracking apps:
- My Fitness Pal is okay (🌶🌶🌶). The food database isn’t super accurate, the UI is a bit clunky, and it’s not built for bulking. You’ll learn more about what you’re eating, but it won’t give you evidence-based bulking recommendations. On the bright side, it’s the only free option.
- Carbon and RP Diet coach are both good (🌶🌶🌶🌶). They use verified food databases and the recommendations are evidence-based. The UI isn’t all that streamlined, but the apps are still really good. They’re solid. The prices are reasonable for what you get, too.
- MacroFactor is great (🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶). It has by far the most powerful (and forgiving) algorithm, the best UI, and the best bulking recommendations. It’s made by Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler. These are the guys behind Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS)—the most highly respected research review in the fitness industry. They review strength and hypertrophy research for a living. Plus, it isn’t even more expensive. It’s competitively priced.
…But these apps use your weight to determine your ideal rate of weight gain. That works for most people. It’s a logical choice. Thing is, many skinny guys are able to gain muscle faster than that formula predicts. We have a low weight AND a high potential for muscle growth. I mentioned this to Greg, and he agreed. He patched MacroFactor to allow for a faster rate of weight gain.
That means we’ve FINALLY got a calorie-tracking app that’s perfect for us and our muscle-building goals. And it’s made by the top hypertrophy research reviewers. Super cool. This is great for our community. We agreed to be affiliates. Not because of the money—we have our own products to sell already—but because we think it’s a solid brand to partner with.
If you download the MacroFactor app, you can use the code “b2b” for a 2-week free trial. Two weeks is enough time to learn quite a bit about your diet, too. Even just a few days of tracking your macros will teach you a lot, especially if you tend to eat similar meals from day to day (which is ideal for bulking anyway).
Tracking calories while bulking will help you make fast, lean gains. You can bulk without tracking calories, too, it’s just a bit harder to be precise. The less precise you are, the harder it is to maximize your rate of muscle growth while minimising your rate of fat gain.
- It’s totally cool to bulk more casually. You don’t have to track. No worries. But chances are that you’ll gain muscle a bit slower and less reliably or you’ll gain a maximal amount of muscle with some extra fat gain. That’s okay, though. I gained all of my muscle that way. You can do it, too.
- Tracking calories will improve your bulking results. You’ll be able to gain muscle more quickly or leanly by keeping a tighter daily surplus. It really does work.
- Tracking calories will allow you to optimize your macros. Macros aren’t a huge deal, but if you’re tracking your calories anyway, may as well optimize your bulk even more.
- Tracking calories can teach you how to bulk, cut, maintain, and eat healthier. It’s an amazing way to learn about your diet.
- It’s not forever. Do it for a few weeks or months and then go back to normal. It’s a learning tool. It’s not a lifestyle (unless you really want it to be). I haven’t tracked my calories in many years, and I don’t think I ever will again.
- Think of tracking calories as an investment. The knowledge you gain while tracking is yours to keep for the rest of your life. I’m so thankful I spent a few months doing it, even though I don’t plan on doing it ever again. (I do plug some of my new meals into a calorie tracker though just to see what they contain. That way as my diet evolves, I update my understanding of it.)
Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a free bulking newsletter for skinny guys. If you want a full foundational bulking program, including a 5-month full-body workout routine, a diet guide, online coaching, and a recipe book (including calorie and macro breakdowns of all the meals), check out our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. Or, if you want a customizable intermediate bulking program, check out our Outlift Program.