How Many Calories Should A Woman Eat To Gain Muscle


How Many Calories Should A Woman Eat To Gain Muscle? The answer to that question varies by what type of exercise a woman is doing and whether she is seeking to lose weight. The three main forms of training for women who want to gain muscle are strength training, endurance training and HIIT (high intensity interval training). When deciding on the number of calories a woman should eat to gain muscle, the physical activity of each type counts.

How Many Calories Does It Take to Synthesize One Pound of Muscle Mass?

Although estimates vary, the amount of energy required to synthesize one pound of muscle is somewhere in the region of 2500-3000 calories.

However, this isn’t a subject that’s been studied in any depth, and that number is nothing more than an educated guess.

Maybe it’s a bit more and maybe it’s a bit less, but let’s assume it’s there or thereabouts. 

Let’s say you’re gaining muscle at the rate of one pound per month. That’s going to require around 3000 extra calories per month, which comes to just 100 calories per day.

In other words, gaining muscle is unlikely to require a calorie surplus in excess of 500 calories per day. In many cases, it’s going to be a lot less.

That might not sound like much, especially when you compare it with some of the 5000 calorie dirty bulking diets out there. But you can’t force your muscles to grow faster simply by stuffing yourself with food. All that’ll happen is that you get fat.

The size of the calorie surplus required to support muscle growth will decline in tandem with the number of years you’ve been training. That’s because the greater your training age (i.e. the number of years you’ve been training with weights), the slower the gains are going to come.

Someone in their first few months of hitting the gym might be able to gain muscle relatively quickly, and will need a higher calorie intake to support that rate of growth.

But if you’ve been training for several years, the rate at which you can gain muscle will have slowed down, and you’ll need to adjust your calorie intake to compensate.

There’s no point taking in a large calorie surplus designed to support a rapid rate of muscle growth if you’ve been training for two years and simply can’t build muscle that quickly.

To calculate what your daily caloric intake should be, the first thing you need to do is calculate your total daily energy expenditure, or TDEE for short. This calculator will crunch the numbers for you.

TDEE is a function of several things, such as your basal metabolic rate (which in turn is affected by your body composition, your activity levels, and so on.

FREE: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet. This is a quick guide to building muscle, which you can read online or keep as a PDF, that shows you exactly how to put on muscle. To get a FREE copy of the cheat sheet emailed to you, please click or tap here.

Once you have an estimate of your TDEE, you just add 250-500 calories to that number.

The number you’re left with is meant as a guide to what your daily caloric intake should be, rather than a rigid prescription that’s set in stone.

Treat it as a simple starting point. It’s not 100% accurate, but nor does it need to be. It’ll need to be adjusted over time, based on how your body responds to the diet.

Weight Gain vs Muscle Gain

When they say they want to gain weight, most people want the majority of that weight gain to come in the form of lean muscle rather than body fat.

That said, it’s perfectly natural to gain some body fat when you’re focused on adding muscle. Guys who try to stay lean during a period of weight gain are often the ones who struggle to make any appreciable gains in size.

However, you don’t want to get to the point where you’re putting on more than a pound of fat for every pound of muscle gained.

While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll gain 100% muscle mass and 0% body fat, your rate of fat gain shouldn’t exceed your rate of muscle growth.

Ideally, you want every pound of fat to be accompanied by at least 2-3 pounds of muscle.

It is possible to build muscle in a caloric deficit, meaning that you’ll actually lose fat at the same time as gaining lean muscle. But in most cases, muscle growth in a caloric deficit tends to happen a lot more slowly than muscle growth in a calorie surplus.

What Should Women Eat to Build Muscle?

If you’re looking for information to help you build muscle, you’ve come to the right place.

At Girls Gone Strong, we believe that what is “right” for you is entirely up to you, and that the ultimate way to empower you is to give you the space to make all of the decisions you want about your life and your body, from how you choose to exercise, to how you want to look and feel in your body.

Lately, we’re noticing a growing interest among women who want to increase their muscle mass, and we couldn’t be happier! It’s exciting to see women shedding concerns about “getting bulky” and deliberately working toward muscle gain. It’s even more exciting to see women embrace the strength and confidence gained through resistance training—along with the physical changes that reflect those gains and their hard work.

Before we talk about how to build muscle, it’s important to understand a bit about the physiology behind muscle growth.

You may have heard that skeletal muscle (the type of muscle to which we’re referring when we talk about building more muscle) is made up of special types of protein, primarily actin and myosin, and their subtypes and supporting proteins. These muscle proteins, and other bodily proteins (such as enzymes, and hormones), are created and repaired from the available free amino acids floating around in the bloodstream. These free amino acids are known as the free amino acid pool and are derived from dietary protein—foods like chicken, meat, fish, eggs, whey, and dairy—but your body can also supply them by breaking down its own proteins when dietary protein intake is inadequate.

Skeletal muscle protein is in a state of constant metabolic turnover. This means that throughout the day, the body is constantly breaking down muscle (known as muscle protein breakdown – MPB) and rebuilding it (known as muscle protein synthesis – MPS). This process is a normal part of daily energy expenditure (commonly known as resting energy expenditure – REE) and is necessary for maintaining and building strong, healthy muscle.

Muscle breakdown happens while you are in a fasted state (such as overnight, while sleeping), or when amino acids (from protein) are not readily available between meals. Muscle is also broken down during exercise. Though that might sound like a bad thing, it actually isn’t. Muscle protein synthesis is enhanced in the post-exercise period.

Food intake slows muscle protein breakdown and initiates muscle protein synthesis; exercise augments this effect. As such, eating food (especially protein foods) and exercising, (especially strength training) are important aspects of building more muscle.

If your goal is to develop more muscle mass and get stronger, pay attention to the following:

  1. An optimal muscle-building diet must contain adequate protein. Strength-training women should aim for 1.7 to 1.8 grams protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day.3 For a 140-pound woman (63.6 kg), this equals approximately 115 grams of protein. More specifically, this protein should come from complete protein foods like those from animal sources (meat, dairy) and/or complete vegetarian sources like pea or hemp. The reason complete protein sources are so important is because only Essential Amino Acids which are found abundantly in complete protein, stimulate muscle protein synthesis and halt breakdown.
  2. The only way to build muscle is with serious strength-training. However, considering that you’re reading a site called Girls Gone Strong, chances are you’re probably already doing some of that. Even though the post-exercise period stimulates muscle protein synthesis, it is not enough to overcome the muscle breakdown that also occurs. This is where proper nutrition comes in. Strength training works synergistically with optimal caloric and protein intake to repair and build muscle protein, resulting in muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth).

The emphasis of this article is on nutritional considerations for muscle hypertrophy, so I will limit the discussion of resistance training here, and instead focus on the importance of dietary protein, as well as the impact of adequate calories, carbohydrates and creatine/Ipamorelin supplementation, since those are major factors that support muscle growth.

It is normal to gain some body fat along with muscle during this process

Adequate caloric intake has a profound effect on the ability to build muscle.

Caloric Deficit

During periods of excessive caloric deficit, the body favors protein breakdown over synthesis. You may be in excessive caloric deficit if you’re experiencing some or all of the following:

  1. Your body doesn’t recover well after exercise and is excessively sore after a workout, especially if you are usually accustomed to hard training.
  2. You are unusually fatigued.
  3. Your desire to exercise is low.
  4. Your mood and/or sleep are negatively affected.

You may be wondering how it’s possible for women who compete in figure or fitness competitions to look incredibly muscular though they are definitely in a caloric deficit. What you’re seeing in many cases is the result of a massive loss of body fat and preservation of some of the muscle that they previously built. During this phase, they are not focused on building new muscle. In fact, they will lose some muscle mass (and strength) in this process, but they formed a great foundation of muscle before dieting for competition.

It’s common for male and female physique and bodybuilding competitors to go through various training seasons within a year, determined by their competitions. In their off-season, they may focus on “bulking” (adding muscle as well as some body fat). It’s not sustainable for most competitors to remain that lean throughout the year, so they eat and train in a way that allows them to maximize muscle gain, and then lose a lot of body fat for competition.

Caloric Balance

Being in caloric balance—eating just enough energy to sustain exercise and daily metabolic processes—is also not optimal for muscle growth. During periods of energy balance, the constant breakdown of proteins in the body (not just muscle proteins) is replenished by skeletal muscle because the caloric input is still not enough to support both metabolic needs and muscle growth. Although resistance training counteracts some of these losses, the anabolic response of muscle is still blunted, which compromises muscle growth.

Caloric Surplus

Alternatively, a positive energy balance is a potent stimulator of muscle hypertrophy, even in the absence of resistance training, provided that the intake of dietary protein is adequate. While actively pursuing muscle gains, some body fat may accumulate. This is to be expected, but it should not be excessive. This is common among bodybuilders, both male and female. They will “bulk up” between competitions—to gain the maximum amount of muscle, despite a little bit of fat gain. They then diet down for 12 to 16 weeks to lose fat and reveal all that newly developed muscle.

Combining resistance training with a surplus of calories is the best way to build the most muscle and strength. If you want to minimize fat gain during this process, and are an experienced trainee, you don’t need to increase your calories excessively to elicit a hypertrophic response. It seems that people who have been training for a while need less of a caloric surplus to gain muscle than untrained people. If gaining muscle is your goal, it’s important to remember that you may not be lean and “shredded” during this time, however, fluctuations in body fat are normal and healthy for all women. Many women cannot sustain extreme leanness year-round.

How Do You Know If You’re Eating the Right Amount of Calories?

You may be wondering, “Well, how many calories do I need to eat to build muscle? What’s the magic number?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Everyone’s metabolism is a different, and individual energy needs will vary from person to person. My recent article about calorie counting as well as Laura Schoenfeld’s article about under-eating both offer some guidance in determining your calorie needs.

How to Set & Adjust Your Calorie Intake

You don’t need to track calories to gain weight. We’ll teach you a few different methods. You can pick the method you prefer. But even if you aren’t tracking calories, it still helps to know what’s going on under the hood. So let’s talk about the calorie requirements of gaining weight and building muscle.

It takes around 3,500 to gain a pound of fat, and a bit less than that to gain a pound of muscle. So to gain around 0.5 pounds per week, you should eat around 250 extra calories every day. But you’ll also be burning calories while working out, and your metabolism will speed up as you start eating more food, so you may need to eat even more than that. The trick is to weigh yourself every week, see how much you gain, and then adjust accordingly.

  • If you’re gaining less than 0.25 pounds per week, eat 200 extra calories each day.
  • If you’re gaining more than 0.5–0.75 pounds per week, eat 100 fewer calories each day.

The first week can be a bit of a toss-up. You’re adding in the workout routine but you’re also adding more food into your digestive system. Sometimes your weight will jump up or flatten out. Don’t read too much into it. And besides, lifting weights will be such a novel stimulus that you’ll probably lose a bit of fat and gain a bit of muscle even if you aren’t gaining weight.

Even after the first week, this can be a finicky process. You don’t need to be perfect at it. Even if you aren’t gaining the same amount of weight each week, as long as there’s an overall trend upwards, you’ll do great. (You should also notice that you’re getting stronger each week.)

Okay, now, let’s talk about how to determine your calorie needs. There are two ways to calculate how many calories you need:

  1. Eating intuitively: taking your diet as it is now, adding in extra food, and eating a bit more or less depending on how much weight you gain each week.
  2. Calorie tracking: starting from scratch, calculating your body’s calorie needs, and tracking the food you eat. You can then adjust your intake in 200-calorie increments each week, depending on whether you’re gaining weight or not.

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