TL;DR: if you realized that this article is incredibly long, you’re right. This is a complex topic. Calculators do a great job cutting through all of these calculations, and I like this one the best.
No lifting blog is complete without at least talking about the topic of macros. Let’s be honest, nutrition is incredibly important when it comes to lifting. If you want to build muscle, you have to eat enough protein and calories. If you want to recover well, you have to give your body what it needs to repair the damage you’ve put it through. If you want to have the energy to lift as heavy as you can, you have to eat quality calories.
HOWEVER, you don’t want to get fat strong and adopt the dreamer bulk strategy. Toaster strudels and ice cream will help you get to your calorie intake goals, but they won’t help you build muscle, recover, or give you optimal energy.
Before we dive in, I want place help you set your priorities when it comes to your nutrition. Dr. Eric Helms (if you don’t know who he is, leave this page now and google him) has a great graphic to help you understand how important macros are to your training. There are a few vital important pieces to your training that will net the majority of the results. Once you have those nailed down, you can focus on the little things that will help you squeeze the rest of the orange juice out of the orange I call fitness. So for beginners, don’t worry about those supplements just yet.
As you can see, the most important part of your nutrition is plain old calories. Keep reading this article and I’ll help you calculate how many calories you should be eating, as that number is vital to calculating your macronutrients.
What are Macros?
I’m really glad you asked.
If you google “what are macros” you’ll find the answer pretty quickly, and maybe that’s what brought you to this article! If that’s the case, thanks for choosing this site.
Macros are simply the molecules that our body uses to complete different functions. The three macro molecules are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Each macronutrient plays a special role in our body, and our body (ideally) uses all of them to function optimally. (Looking at you ketogensis)
Now that we know what macros are, let’s take a look at how we will determine how much of each of them we should consume.
Step 1: Calculate BMR
First things first, we can’t determine how much protein, fat, and carbs you need to eat until we calculate how many calories you should be eating.
As most things in fitness, there is no black and white answer and this depends on your goals. If you’re looking to lose weight, you need to be burning more calories than you are consuming. If you’re looking to gain weight (hopefully more muscle than fat) you need to be eating more calories than you are burning. Either way you look at it, you need to understand how many calories you’re burning during a typical day. This is where online calculators can help.
We need to know what our Basil Metabolic Rate (BMR) (Calculator Link) is. BMR is the amount of calories that our body burns at rest without any consideration of training, the thermic effect of food, or your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).
Follow the calculator link to check this out, but this is simply a formula based on your age, weight, height, and gender. Keep in mind that even though this is the basis for your macro calculation, we’re already starting off with an estimate.
Step 2: Calculate Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
Skip the the end of this section to use the calculator if you don’t want to read all of this.
There are multiple ways of doing this, but none are perfect. When I do this for myself, I basically just guess. It’s not the most scientific way of doing it but it seems to be just as accurate as doing all the math. BUT, if you like math, I’ll lay out what you’d need to do.
The first thing to do is to calculate how many calories you burn during your exercise. Again, no perfect way to do this. Fitness trackers or equipment built into machines like treadmills attempt to do this, but tend to overestimate. I won’t go into detail here but they don’t factor in your fitness level which can change how efficiently your body performs a movement.
The most accurate way to calculate this is to use MET values. MET stands for Metabolic Equivalent of Task, and a MET equal to 1 is equivalent to the amount of energy burned at rest. So, if the MET value is 4, the activity in question burns 4 times the amount of energy than your body at rest. To calculate the calories burned, use the formula below.
Calories = MET * (weight (lbs)/2.2)
Here is a list of 800+ MET values from a golf website… don’t ask.
The second piece of the puzzle is to calculate your NEAT values. You can do this the same way as your exercise calories, using the specific MET values of every activity you do during the day. If that sounds tedious to you, skip to the end of this section.
The final piece of the puzzle is to calculate your specific thermic effect of food (TEF). Unfortunately, there’s no great way to do this. The only guidance I can give is to take your calories that you’ve calculated so far and multiply by 10%, assuming that you’re eating at maintenance. This would result in the formula below.
(training calories + NEAT + BMR)*1.1 = TDEE
From here, add up all those values and you will have an estimate of your TDEE. If you’re still with me and willing do to all of this math, congratulations, you’re a nerd.
If you don’t want to do all of that or just skipped through all of that mess, you can use a TDEE calculator. They give you a decent estimate, and the manual way of going through this just gives you an estimate anyway. I like this calculator from muscle for life (aka Legion Athletics) as it gives you a few different ways of playing with the values. If you’d like something a little simpler, this one also works.
Step 3: Determine Cut, Bulk, or Maintenance
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to explain how to find your maintenance macros. I will explain more in future articles, but if you’re cutting you need fewer calories, and you need more if you want to bulk. Most people just add or remove carbs for those manipulations. There are a few specific things you’ll want to do with protein in different scenarios, but again I’ll cover that in future articles.
Step 4: Find your Protein Calories
Just like the rest of fitness, this is a contested topic.
For me, I like the numbers that Jeff Nippard talks about in his interview with Jorn Trommelon. If you dont’ want to watch the full hour and a half interview (although I suggest that you do), they land at about 1g per lb of body weight.
In my opinion is not going to hurt you to have more, especially as protein tends to have better satiety and will help you feel full when you’re on a cut. It also helps to retain muscle mass in a calorie deficit.
Step 4: Find your Fat Calories
This part of the equation is probably the most agreed upon.
Your body needs fat in order to regulate hormones and absorb vitamins and minerals, among other things. In my opinion, you should eat enough fat to accomplish these bodily tasks, and not a lot more.
Fat is the most calorically dense of the 3 macros, meaning they have more calories per volume of food. Generally, the more volume of food you can eat, the more full you’ll feel. If you have a lot of fat in your diet, you just won’t be able to eat as much food.
As a general rule, you should have somewhere between .25 – .55 grams of fat per lb of bodyweight.
Step 5: Find your Carb Calories
To find your carbs, you need to find your protein calories and fat calories, and subtract from your total calories. I’ve laid out a fairly simple formula below.
Total Calories – (protein (g) *4) + (fat (g) * 9) = carb calories
Then, divide carb calories by 4 to find your carb grams.
Step 6: Track and Adjust
So by now, you should have your total calories, and your macros in grams. Just a warning, they’re probably wrong.
You’ll need to track how many of each macro you eat, and track your weight change over the course of a couple weeks. If you’re gaining weight (and you don’t want to), reduce your carb intake by 100-200 calories and try again. If you’re losing weight (and don’t want to), do the opposite.
I like to use myfitnesspal to track my calories, which seems to be the most popular app. It makes it pretty straightforward to add your food and automatically deduct the macros from your totals.
For your weight tracking, make sure to not freak out if one day you’re a lot heavier or lighter than the next. You should be taking averages over the course of a few days and track the trends. A lot can impact your weight day to day. At the very least, try to weigh yourself at the same time every day.