GoBadass: A Guide to GoRuck, the Toughest Day of Your Life

Road to Epic GoRuck - Carrying a Telephone Pole around Cincinnati

What, never carried a telephone pole around?

If you’ve done obstacle course races you might have heard of GoRucks before, but if not then allow me to summarize it for you: it’s the most rewarding, tiring, mentally tough fitness-y “event” you’ll ever do.

It’s torture, but it’s so much fun. You may find yourself with your face nose-deep in a stranger’s rear-end, but by the end of the day you’ll be friends and comrades. You’ll be dirty, ache all over, and have sores on your feet, but a huge grin on your face. It’s hard but will teach you more about yourself in one day than you’ll learn in a year.

What’s a GoRuck?

GoRucks are tough to describe briefly as there are different levels of difficulty, secrecy, and not much else out there like them.

GoRuck was founded by a Green Beret Veteran who wanted to be a voice for good, employ Special Operations veterans, and build a bridge between the military and civilians. The result was a company that makes military-grade rucksacks and holds events geared to mimic special ops training.

I could compare a GoRuck to an obstacle course race (OCR) – except that a GoRuck is not a race, there are no obstacles and, unlike a normal race, there are physical challenges. Also you’ll have a rucksack with bricks in it. Lastly, you won’t be competing against anyone except perhaps yourself – you’ll be a part of a 20-30 person team that you’ll look after and who will look after you.

There are a few different levels of GoRuck as mentioned: Light, Challenge, Heavy, and Selection. There are also some specialized Expedition events, but I’ll cover these a bit more in depth soon. Each event is led by the team cadre, a Special Ops veteran flown into each city just for the event. Unlike with obstacle course races, every GoRuck event is unique and it’s entirely possible that the cadre will make it up as they go. The uncertainty about what you’ll be doing is part of the experience and appeal.

Differences Between GoRuck Events

As mentioned, the main types of GoRuck event are the Light, Challenge, Heavy, and Selection. It’s easiest to lay out the differences in a table, so have a table!

Event Length Distance Pack Weight Avg. Pass Rate
Light 4-5 hours 7-10 miles <150# = 2 bricks (~10lb);
>150# = 4 bricks (~20lb)
99%
Challenge 10-12 hours 15-20 miles <150# = 4 bricks (~20lb);
>150# = 6 bricks (~30lb)
94%
Heavy 24+ hours 40+ miles <150# = 25lb;
>150# = 25lb
50%
Selection 48+ hours 80+ miles 45# <5%

If you can complete a 5k OCR, you can do a GoRuck Light. You might not have a good time, but you’ll be able to do it. From there they go up in difficulty. Someone who does regular strength and cardiovascular training could likely do a Challenge as well.

While I have yet to do a Heavy or Selection (though I plan to somewhere between 2015-16), I think the pass rates speak for themselves: they are difficult and you cannot expect to succeed without dedicated training.

You must weigh your ruck down for each event, and you can use bricks (~4-6lb each on average) or sandbags. I highly recommend going for bricks over sandbags as sandbags get heavier when wet, and you will get wet. Make sure you wrap the bricks in duct tape beforehand and write your name and phone number on them. Labeling them is important if you decide to throw them away after the event – so they aren’t mistaken for bombs or anything.

If you are in the Light or Challenge, you’ll have your pack visually inspected by the Cadre, however for the Heavy and Selections they may bring a scale to check the weight of your ruck.

Not having the proper amount of weight in your pack is an immediate dismissal from the event.

Beyond the main events (called “Good Livin’”), they also have Expeditions, scavenger hunts, a 5k, and firearms training events. The Expeditions include GoRuck Ascent (mountaineering, climbing, navigation, survival training, and wilderness medicine), GoRuck Beached (learn amphibious skills and practice in missions), GoRuck Navigator (route planning, map reading, compass & gps skills, and survival skills), and finally GoRuck Trek (learn spycraft and mission planning skills, then practice in a mock mission.)

Road to Epic GoRuck - Crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky

You’ll get lots of stares, cheers, people stopping to ask questions then calling you crazy. You’ll feel crazy.

What to Expect

Each event is different, however there are some basic things that are common. Usually, they are laid out as a main objective (get from A to B), with military-inspired challenges to test your teamwork and physical and mental fortitude. You’ll get uncomfortably close to strangers, receive and/or give aid, hike a lot, carry a lot of things, challenged and exhausted in every possible way, and be smiling when it’s all over.

Without going into too much detail, some of the challenges in GoRucks I have done are: Lots of the famous log carrying along with challenges that tested our navigational, teamwork, strength, strength endurance, memory, focus, planning, mindfulness, foraging and observational skills.

You’ll do things you don’t want to do, but have to do for the mission. For instance, we had to army crawl (real army crawling where your head and ass are down, not this bullshit) while being mindful of precious objects we had to protect in a park field where lovely dog owners had carelessly left their dogs’ feces for us to avoid crawling through (spoiler alert: not everyone could avoid it.)

Likely you’ll find a log or telephone pole to carry, but each event also requires that the team carries a weight (weight of item varies upon event), an American Flag, and a GoRuck flag.

Expect to be gawked at by onlookers curious what you are doing and what on earth would possess you to do it.

You can train for the physical aspects, and should, however your mental game is going to make or break the event for you. If you are tired or off, you’re going to have a bad time. If you try to cheat or be lazy, you’re going to have a bad time (and likely get sent home – yes, if you are not a team player or are not completing challenges as instructed the Cadre can decide you’re out.) If you are mentally tough, you’ll succeed. If you are weak-willed a GoRuck will break you.

There will be times when you want to quit, when your body aches and your thoughts are fuzzy, but you’ll have to convince yourself to push forward, to keep going. Everyone starts out doe-eyed and eager, however a few hours in everyone will be tired and their true colors will be visible. Are you going to be the person who gives up? Who complains the whole time and drags everyone down?

You can sort of train mental toughness by pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone to the edge of your limits, physically and mentally. The more you do it, the more your limits increase and the harder you have to work to hit them.

Most of all, expect to be a part of the team. You’ll move as a team, complete challenges as a team, and finish as a team. A lot of the challenges will require teamwork to complete and if someone is injured or requires aid it is expected other team members help them. This could be carrying an injured teammate, offering to carry extra rucks if you are unable to help carry the log or if someone is near extreme exhaustion, sharing water, so on and so forth.

The prize for completion? Honor, a patch, and new friends.

What to Take

GoRuck has a list of required and suggested options for each event, however I have a personal packing list I’ll share to help give you ideas. A good thing to keep in mind is that you will be carrying this stuff for several hours – do not pack any more than necessary.

  • Bricks – Obviously, however I have a couple additional suggestions. Duct-tape them, but then also duct tape them together and wrap them in some easy-to-quickly unwrap bubble wrap for comfort. Find some way to secure them and to keep them up high in the pack with something a foam yoga block underneath them. Having them wrapped in bubble wrap, secured and high up on your back distributes the weight more evenly and prevents them from jumbling around and having a corner poke you, or having them slap against your lower back and wears you out less quickly.
  • Sunscreen – If your event is during the daytime this should be a no-brainer.
  • Gloves – Optional, but highly recommended so you don’t get torn up hands (and before anyone with a “tough guy” attitude comes in here, it’s not cool to get broken glass shoved into your hand.)
  • LOTS OF WATER – Bring a huge water bladder, and additional sources of liquid refreshment. During one of my rucks, a team member’s water bladder cap broke and they lost all their water and another ran out from drinking it all up too quickly – lucky for both of them I brought four bottles and was more than happy to share.
  • Carabiner – This will come in handy if some part of your ruck breaks, which is a high possibility. If doing the Heavy or Selection, a carabiner rated for holding your weight is required.
  • A Properly Fitted Ruck – It’s tempting to get a huge Ruck or to get a very small one, however I highly suggest you try multiples to find the perfect one for you. Too big and it will be a burden (I used one too large and suffered by getting hit in the chin multiple times doing crab-walks with it on backwards), too small and it wont fit everything required. You’ll also need to experiment with the straps to make sure it won’t wear on your lower back and will cause minimal shoulder pain.
  • Reflective Tape – This is required to be on your ruck and/or on your person at all times. This was previously suggested, however is now absolutely required after a Rucker lost his life during a nighttime event. Safety is not a joke.
  • Headlamp & batteries – Required for nighttime events and just flat out handy.
  • Pre-packaged snacks – I specify pre-packaged for ease of access and storage, however a friend of mine took Ziplock bag filled with 2 lbs of bacon she cooked and was more than happy with it. In each event, you’ll have opportunities to sneak in a bite to eat if necessary and considering how active you will be you will want to. I am personally a big fan of Clif energy & protein bars, but bring whatever you enjoy and will be easy to eat. Candy bars are not uncommon.
  • Cash, ID (in a plastic bag and/or cards) – You’ll need cab fare in case you decide to bail or if you get booted, but also if your cadre is nice and allows you a break to buy extra water/snacks this will come in handy (also: you can buy a meal with your comrades afterward.)
  • Comfortable Shoes, Socks, and Extra Socks – For the Light and Challenge you can get away with wearing sports shoes, however it is highly suggested (and required for the Heavy and Selection) you purchase a comfortable pair of boots with ankle support. Thick socks to help prevent wear on your feet are also important – arguments have broken out over the best pair of socks for GoRucks, so I’ll leave that up to you.
  • A Friend – Everything’s better with a friend isn’t it? While you will get close to your team mates and encourage each other to push forward, having at least one person you know will be an added source of camaraderie and encouragement.
Road to Epic GoRuck - Kissing the Ohio River

You have to be prepared for whatever is thrown at you. Including doing push ups in a polluted river full of broken glass and metal.

Training

GoRucks will require a lot of low, steady-state endurance, strength, strength endurance, and possibly periods of sprinting or brief running. You’ll have to build a plan you find sustainable and enjoyable, however I have these few suggestions:

2x per week: Strength Training – I suggest picking or building a weightlifting routine that focuses on increasing overall strength.
2x per week: Cardio – Running is your best bet here, building up to a 5k is more than enough for a Light and Challenge. Because GoRuck’s are varied, vary your workouts too and do HIIT sprints and hill sprints, too. Alternatively, you can also do lightly-weighted exercises for intensity/time (example: front squats with dumbbells or a lightly weighted barbell for 20 reps for 5 sets, or for a set time.)
1x per week: Practice ruck with pack-weighted exercises – Set a pack weight, distance to walk and exercises to do during the walk and increase all variables as able to. For example, you could do a 5 mile walk with a backback weighted to 10lbs hitting up the park on your way. While at the park practice army crawls, bear crawls, crab walks, push-ups and squats, hill sprints, and planks. After you’re done, continue your walk until you get back to your starting point. Other good ideas: sandbag carrys, farmer’s walks, wood chops/sledge hammers, sled pulls, box jumps, and burpees.

How long you’ll need to train beforehand will depend on your current physical state and how badly you want to rock the ruck. If you just want to pass the Light and are average health-wise, a 6 week training plan should be more than enough. If you want to thrive, I’d suggest a bit longer.

Just remember to start small and build up as your body allows, and value your rest days.

There are no requirements for each event, save for the Selection, and no way to predict exactly what you’ll need to be able to do, so this plan is just to give you a general idea of things to think about when building your own training plan.

The pre-requisites for the Selection are (and you will be tested on them during the event, if you fail at any one of them you will be dismissed):
– 2 minutes to complete a minimum of 55 push-ups sans-ruck
– 2 minutes to complete a minimum of 65 sit-ups sans-ruck
– 5 mile run within 40 minutes sans-ruck
– 12 mile run with ruck within 3 hours and 30 minutes. Ruck must weigh 45lbs at all times, not including water and food.

Why you Should do a GoRuck

At the beginning of my first ruck I was all-smiles and eager to take on whatever challenges thrown my way. By the middle, I was repeating affirmations and encouraging “Don’t give up! You’ve got this!” statements in my head and trying to ignore the “Why did you sign up for this?! This is horrible!”, and by the end I was banged up and tired. However, I gained an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and perspective. Possibly AIDS too – the Ohio river is polluted and full of litter folks, and doing burpees in it is not exactly advisable.

I’m sure by this point many of you reading this are thinking “Why the hell would I put myself through that kind of misery? Why would you want to ache, carry telephone poles around town, torture yourself in a dirty river, and drag your face through dog poo?! And you PAID FOR IT!”

Well, because it’s fun. Because the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment from the experience cannot be described. As you do more rucks, even repeating levels, the mental devils still come back and you will still have to push yourself. No matter what you will get scraped, bruised and exhausted.

But it is worth it.

One could also argue why you’d do an OCR, marathon, or triathlon, and the reasons are really simple: they are fun, incredible experiences that push you to your mental and physical limits. They are excellent ways to stay healthy and fit doing a challenging activity you enjoy.

Road to Epic GoRuck - Group Picture

Being finished is a relief but you’ll also find yourself wanting more – the endorphin high and immense feelings of accomplishment are addicting.

Are you up for the challenge?

Get out there and do a GoRuck! If you’ve already done one, what did you think of it? Share your experience and training ideas in the comments below!

Thoughts on Fat Pride from a Formerly Fat Fit Guy

Fat Boy by James Marvin Phelps

Fat Squirrel cares little about your opinion of him.

I grew up as a fat kid.

Through the majority of my childhood I ranged from what might be considered chubby all the way up to full-blown obese in my teen years. At one point I was even inching up on the 300 pound mark. While the argument could be made that as a male my experience was less severe than what a female would have been subjected to I can still say I know what it’s like physically, psychologically, and socially to be a fat person.

My experiences during that time, and the time since then in which I’ve become more fit and healthy than I’ve been my entire life, are why all the attention I’ve seen lately being given to fat pride bother me. As someone who’s been in both worlds, I thought it would be helpful to express my thoughts on the subject.

Fat Shaming, Female Body Image and a Disclaimer

Rustled Jimmies Everywhere

I am fully aware that this is going to rustle some jimmies.

I want to make it very clear from the outset that I’m not advocating fat shaming here. I don’t think that the portion of the ‘fat acceptance movement’, as some people in that camp like to be called, that is against fat shaming, negative body image, or self-loathing is a bad thing. I 100% support that part of it.

I also want to recognize for a second time that, in general, this usually gets painted as a feminist or at least feminine-centric issue. Being a male, that means that my commentary is going to be coming at least a little bit as an outsider looking in. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m speaking authoritatively on the female experience because I can’t. Unfortunately, because of how generally fucked up the U.S. sociocultural environment is when it comes to female body issues I can’t get away from addressing these things in relation to this topic.

Lastly, I want to note these are just my thoughts on the subject as someone who spent most of his life in the obese category – you can think whatever you want about it. If I severely rustle your jimmies you’re welcome to leave a comment to let me know what you think.

What’s the Fat Acceptance Movement?

Before I give my understanding of all this fat acceptance stuff I want to give you a few links in the interest of fairness / just in case I’m totally misunderstanding something. I have better things to do than beat up on a straw man. So here, here, here, and here are four quick examples I found.

To my understanding the general idea is to be proud of being fat, to embrace it in order to make it a positive thing overall. It’s no secret that in the U.S. the media deifies a particular body image for both men and women that is, for the average person, at best unrealistic. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of digital editing and overall Photoshoppery that these ads are subjected to after everything else.

They rail against the psychological and physical harm this causes and argue that as a society we shouldn’t consider there to be anything wrong with being fat. To subvert the cultural standard that being fat is negative they suggest embracing it and taking it as a personal point of pride.

Hanging on to this though, as can be seen in a couple of the links above, is a related idea that trying to lose weight is either harmful, misguided, entirely impossible, or all of three combined.

The Parts of Fat Pride That I Like

The foundational message is one I can both relate to strongly and agree with – cultural ideals when it comes to body type are unnecessarily unrealistic and seriously fucked up.

If someone is overweight they should never be made to feel lesser for it. Asking people to measure up to images that have been heavily doctored and then loading them with oppressive amounts of guilt and shame when they inevitably fall well short of that is blatantly wrong.

Additionally a lot of our cultural ideas about why people become fat (they lack willpower, they’re lazy, no self-control, etc.) are flat out wrong.

Weight change and fitness are not a willpower issue. Very few people are overweight because they choose to be, or because of some fault of their own. Now, I don’t hold them entirely inculpable either, I think things like food addiction are too often blown out of proportion and used as a scapegoat. The reality falls somewhere in the middle, they’re not 100% at fault for being fat but they’re not 0% responsible for their condition either. (Sorry, if you want things with clear cut answers the fields you’re looking for are mathematics or physics, not biology.)

For all those reasons I find fat shaming reprehensible. It’s clear cut abuse and bullying. From that standpoint, I wholeheartedly support anyone who wants to stand up and say, “Haters gonna hate. Fuck you all. I like myself the way I am.”

That being said…

The Parts of Fat Pride I Despise

Tagging along with all the things I can support are some things that I’m vehemently opposed to. The primary one being an insistence that no one can lose weight or become fit long term and therefore no one should try.

Within several of the links I shared above as examples and in others I found while digging around I found it asserted repeatedly that not only is there no way for people to lose weight long term, but that it’s overall more unhealthy to try to lose weight than it is to remain overweight or obese.

As someone who has lost weight and become fit and healthy and stayed that way long term, as someone whose job it is to help other people do the same, it bothers me to hear people claim it’s not possible and work to deter people from trying.

Many of the sites making these claims cite the abstracts of flawed studies and meta-analyses to support their claims making them appear more credible to people who won’t bother to pay to read the study or who aren’t knowledgeable enough to note the flaws in the methodology. This can lead people who might have been considering making a positive change in their lives and starting the process to lose weight and get fit to instead decide not to bother.

I find this kind of active discouraging of people to improve their lives just because you don’t think it’ll work reprehensible.

My Overall Thoughts

Personally, I equate being overweight or obese with smoking cigarettes.

Culturally, as of late anyway, smoking is probably more publicly discouraged than being overweight, but I still draw a lot of parallels between the two. Most people recognize that both smoking and being overweight are generally detrimental to your health. Regardless, people are still overweight and people still smoke.

This is primarily because neither is always a ‘choice’ in the purest sense. Environmental, familial, cultural, and economic factors can predispose individuals toward smoking and/or obesity. Once you’re on the path to either, it’s extremely hard to get off of it. You can’t tell someone who is addicted to cigarettes to just ‘quit smoking’ and expect them to do it. It’s not strictly a willpower issue. In the same way you can’t just tell someone who’s overweight to ‘eat less and move more’ and expect them to get in shape.

I have family members who smoke. I care about them, so I’m always there to help and encourage them to quit. That doesn’t mean I badger them, ridicule them, or generally behave like an ass toward them if they don’t want to quit. It is, ultimately, their choice (issues of addiction and agency come into play, but we won’t go into that right now) whether they want to quit or not.

I have family who are overweight and I treat them the same way. If they want to make a change and lose weight I’m there for them. If they don’t, I’m not going to push it or shame them as a result.

I fully support any efforts to empower people to stand up to societal norms that are often at best arbitrary and at worst directly harmful. Hell, the general ethos of this site is one of embracing non-conformity. But we should also encourage people to take their health into their own hands rather than telling them that any attempts to change themselves would be futile.

Where do you stand on this? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 2 – Macronutrient Ratios

Bountiful Feast by Virgil Chang

So by now you ought to know all about what macros are and how to count them and you should have gone through the first part of this two part article and figured up an estimate of how many calories you need and want to aim for per day. That means that we’re ready for the final part of the process – figuring out your specific macro ratios & amounts.

If you haven’t gone through at least the previous article to figure out your caloric needs, go do that really quick. You’ll have a much easier time following along and you’ll be able to have your macros ready by the end of the article. You’ve got to know your calories first though.

All set? Good.

Choosing Your Goal

The first step in figuring out your actual macronutrient ratios is going to be choosing what specific goal you’re pursuing; a cut, a slow bulk or recomposition.

Cutting and slow bulking you were introduced to in the previous article, but recomposition is going to be new here. Recomposition is going to be for all the people who read the last article and thought to themselves that they didn’t fit in either category well. It’s also for people, particularly athletes, who for whatever reason need to keep any muscle loss during their cut to an absolute minimum or potentially even build additional muscle while losing fat.

That being said, choosing recomposition as a goal will make things go much more slowly. The majority of people will probably want to go with a cut, particularly if you’re looking to burn off fat.

Assuming you didn’t already choose one when figuring up your calories in the previous article (you should have) here’s the quick rundown of who each is for in general:

  • Cut – For anyone whose primary goal is fat loss. The goal is to lose as much fat as possible while sparing as much muscle as possible.

  • Recomposition – For anyone whose goal is fat loss but who absolutely need to maintain or gain muscle at the same time. Athletes or people who are already near 10% body fat and are trying to shave off those last couple percentage points will be the majority of this category.

  • Slow Bulk – For anyone whose primary goal is muscle gain. The objective here is to gain as much muscle as possible while gaining as little fat as possible. For best results most people here should already be lean enough to have visible abs.

Once you’ve figured out where you want to be, we can get down to figuring your exact macros out. For example purposes I’m going to bring back our example gentleman from the previous article. I’m going to name him Stan this time around for ease of reference.

If you recall, Stan is 200 lbs. and 20% body fat. He did all the calculations from the previous article and found he has a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) of about 1,838 calories per day and an estimated Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) of about 2,325 calories per day. Let’s take him through all three goals.

The Cut

We’ll start with the cut both because it’s the one most people are likely to need and because at 20% body fat it’s definitely the one Stan needs.

You have two options here. The first is the more basic and it’s just to follow an even caloric deficit across the entire week cycle. This is what we did in the previous article, Stan wants to lose weight so he picks a caloric target less than his TDEE and greater than his BMR. For our purposes now, let’s say 2,000 calories per day average. Then he’d adjust from there after some time based on his progress. There’s some room for wiggle but as long as his average over the week is about 2,000 calories per day that’s the important thing.

The second option is getting a little more complicated, but will get a little better results.

It involves changing the number of calories and the macronutrient breakdown based on whether it’s a training day or a rest day. Training day here meaning primarily lifting or resistance training, not necessarily cardio or metabolic conditioning things.

This makes it a little more work, but there’s an advantage to getting more calories and having more of your calories coming from carbohydrates on training days and getting fewer calories with more of those calories coming from fat on rest days. How this works in detail deserves its own article so I won’t go into it in depth here, but the general idea is you’re providing your body with more of what it needs to get through tough workouts and get protein to your muscles on training days and putting your body into a better fat burning environment on rest days.

We’ll look at the flat calorie intake option first.

Let’s go back to Stan and his 2,000 calories. He’s decided to make things easy with a flat calorie intake. Now that he knows his calories he needs to figure out what the macro breakdown will be. Here’s what you want to shoot for on a cut:

  • Protein – Between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • Fat – Between 0.4 to 0.6g of fat per pound of lean body mass.

  • Carbohydrates – However many grams necessary to balance your calorie budget.

So Stan figures up his lean body mass (LBM) by multiplying his body fat percentage by his total weight and then subtracting that number from his total weight. (200 lbs. x .20 body fat = 40 lbs. of body fat, 200 lbs. bodyweight – 40 lbs. body fat = 160 lbs. lean body mass) He gets an LBM of 160 lbs.

Stan likes his meat and even though he’s cutting wants to spare as much muscle as possible and possibly add some, so he chooses the higher protein intake of 1.5g per pound of LBM. 160 lbs. LBM x 1.5g protein = 240g protein. Stan writes that down so he doesn’t forget it later.

Next we have fat. Stan picks an even 0.5g of fat per pound of LBM here which puts him at 80g of fat per day. (160 lbs. LBM x 0.5g fat = 80g fat)He notes that down too.

Lastly come the carbohydrates. Here Stan needs to figure out how many calories he’s got left in his budget and then how many grams of carbs that equates to. If you remember from the first macros article, protein is roughly equivalent to 4 calories per gram (technically less but for math’s sake we’ll call it 4), fat is equivalent to 9 calories per gram and carbs are equal to 4 calories per gram.

Stan multiplies these values by the protein and fat macros he wrote down and comes to 960 calories worth of protein (240g protein x 4 calories = 960 calories) and 720 calories worth of fat (80g fat x 9 calories = 720 calories) for a total of 1,680 calories accounted for.

Stan’s goal was 2,000 calories per day so we subtract that 1,680 from that to get a remaining balance of 320 calories. We apply the previous process in reverse and divide that by 4 and arrive at 80g of carbs. (320 calories / 4 calories/g of carbs = 80g of carbs)

That leaves Stan with daily macro targets of 240g of protein, 80g of fat and 80g of carbs. Since the caloric value of macros is constant if he eats exactly that much he’ll hit his target of 2,000 calories every time.

We’ll get to more specifics on what to do with this information a little later. For now, you should at least understand how to get to those values.

So what if Stan wanted to be a bit more complicated but reap the benefits of changing his macros on training vs. rest days?

First, rather than pick an even caloric deficit of 325 calories per day (2,325 TDEE – 2,000 calorie target) he would choose two different calorie targets, one for his training days and one for his rest days.

You want to aim for a small caloric surplus (above your TDEE) on training days, but enough of a caloric deficit on rest days that the total weekly calorie expenditure falls in a deficit. In other words, you want to eat more than you burn on training days, but overall burn more than you consume weekly. A good place to start for most people in my experience is with a 10% caloric surplus on training days and a 30% caloric deficit on rest days.

So in Stan’s case we take his TDEE of 2,325 calories and add 10% to get his training day calorie target of 2,560 calories per day (2,325 TDEE x .10 = 232 + 2,325 TDEE = 2,557 calorie target rounded to 2,560) and then take his TDEE again and subtract 30% from it to get 1,630 calories per day (2,325 TDEE x .30 = 698, 2,325 TDEE – 698 = 1,627 calorie target rounded to 1,630).

You could just do the same thing you did above to assign macros to these values, but since we’re already being a touch more complicated you might as well go the extra mile and cycle your macronutrient ratios as well. It’s not a make-or-break deal, but there’s a definite advantage on the hormonal side of things to consuming significantly more carbs and less fat on your training days and significantly more fat and less carbs on your rest days.

Just like there isn’t a golden calorie ratio that just works for everyone there isn’t a golden macro ratio split that’s guaranteed to fit everyone’s needs. You’ll need to adjust as you go based on how your body’s responding to things.

I like to start most people out at a 75/25 25/75 split since I usually get a good response from it and can dial in from there. That means 75% of your remaining calories after you take your protein out will come from carbs on your training days and the remaining 25% from fat and the reverse on rest days.

I like to keep protein consistent for simplicity’s sake, I would also recommend not going below between 50 to 60 grams of fat per day average over the week. Going below this tends to create problems with people’s hormone production (in short, less testosterone, low energy, diminished sex drive, etc.).

So here Stan would take his training day calories of 2,560 and subtract his protein calories first to get 1,600 calories (240g of protein = 960 calories, 2,560 training day calories – 1,600 calories). Then we figure out what 75% of that is which comes to 1,200 calories (1,600 x .75 = 1,200 calories) and then, since carbs are worth 4 calories each, divide that number by 4 to get 300 grams of carbs per day (1,200 / 4 = 300g carbs).

We do the same thing for fat but with the remaining 25% to get 45 grams of fat (1,600 x .25 = 400 calories / 9 calories per gram of fat = 45 grams of fat rounded up). This is less than the 50 to 60 I recommend but it’s close enough that the higher fat levels on rest days will usually even it out.

That leaves us with 240 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat on training days totaling to around 2,560 calories – due to the rounding there will be small discrepancies, don’t sweat it you should be adjusting as you go anyway to dial in on where you need to be.

We do the same thing for rest days but in reverse and we get 240 grams of protein, 56 grams of fat, and 42 grams of carbs.

Personally, while it does even out to just over 50 grams of fat per day average I would consider upping the fat just a bit here and lowering carbs further on rest days – especially if you feel those signs of reduced testosterone production. It would take a bit of playing with.

Recomposition

I’m not going to spend as much time going through examples here and on the slow bulk since you should understand the math having gone through the cut section. The math is all the same here, except instead of using the 10% over and 30% under calorie split we do a split of 10% over on training days and 10% under on rest days.

This should be the option primarily for people who need to cut down a little but have a strong need to conserve every ounce of muscle mass or for people who are new to training and currently very weak. The slow bulk option is there too but you can get excellent results with the recomposition set up if you currently look like Steve Rogers’ before picture.

When it comes to the macro split we can use the same 75/25 25/75 split here as well. Keep in mind though that we will be adjusting as we go. Give it a few weeks of consistent adherence, evaluate your progress and then make alterations as necessary.

In Stan’s case, for reference, he would be targeting 2,560 calories on training days broken into 240g of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 45 grams of fat and 2,095 calories broken into 240g of protein, 96 grams of fat, and 72 grams of carbs.

Slow Bulk

The slow bulk follows the same basic pattern, except like with the cut you have the option of following the flat calorie surplus laid out in the first article on macros or by doing the more complicated but slightly more favorable caloric and macro cycling.

If you choose the flat model you just use the previous article to determine how much of a surplus to shoot for based on your training level then divide up your macros like we did with the cut.

  • Protein – Between 1 to 1.5g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

  • Fat – Between 0.4 to 0.6g of fat per pound of lean body mass.

  • Carbohydrates – However many grams necessary to balance your calorie budget.

Let’s say Stan’s in the beginner category and has never really done any lifting before. He shoots for a daily surplus of 300 calories which brings him to 2,625 per day when added to his TDEE of 2,325. He then follows the chart above to divide it up – 240 grams of protein again takes 960 calories out of his budget leaving him with 1,665 left, 80 grams of fat takes 720 more calories out leaving 945 calories which leaves 235 grams of carbs per day to balance things out.

If you’re going for the split you want to have a calorie structure of 30% surplus on training days and a 10% deficit on rest days. Essentially the inverse of the cut.

In Stan’s case, following the same process we’ve used the last few times, we come up with a training day calorie target of 3,025 calories partitioned into 240 grams of protein, 390 grams of carbs, and 57 grams of fat and a rest day target of 2,093 calories partitioned into 240 grams of protein, 96 grams of fat, and 130 grams of carbs.

Choosing one of these you should be able to get your initial calorie and macro set up down to start. Make sure you track things as closely as you can and keep an eye on how you’re progressing. If things aren’t heading in the right direction the you need to adjust a little and go from there. Specifically how to adjust is something that needs its own article, but in general if you’re not losing fat you need to adjust your weekly calories down a touch and if you’re not getting stronger or building muscle you need to adjust your weekly calories up a touch.

If you need some more specific advice on how to set up your macros, or you just don’t want to be bothered with all the details, we do have some coaching spots available where we take care of all that for you.

Confused about how we got to certain values? Have any questions about how to set things up for certain goals? Leave them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Virgil Chang

The 80/20 Guide to Nutrition

Homework by Nathaniel Watson

Nutrition doesn’t have to be this complex – as long as you know what to focus on.

Nutrition is a complicated thing.

It doesn’t have to be, at least unless you really want to start getting into the energy pathways and biochemical stuff. If you’re just looking to lose weight, get a bit stronger, or just be overall healthier the nutrition knowledge required to get you there is actually pretty simple. The problem is the fitness industry in general (Yes I realize I am, de facto, a part of that industry but I’m trying to do better here) emphasizes all the complicated – and often expensive – aspects of nutrition first and ignores the things that matter most.

Nutrition and all the goals linked to it follow the 80/20 principle as much as anything else does. There are a minority of high return actions that will lead to a majority of your results and a majority of low return actions that will lead to a minority of your results – in other words about 20% of what you do will get you about 80% of your results, while the other 80% of what you do will only be worth about 20% of your results.

The best course of action then, with anything, is to focus on that 20% of actions first that will give you 80% of your results.

So What’s Really Important?

Going from most important at the top to least important at the bottom, I’d divide things up as follows:

  1. Calories

  2. Macronutrients

  3. Micronutrients

  4. Meal Timing

  5. Supplements

If you flip the list over it could be a ranking for things you’re most likely to see articles about in health & fitness magazines.

The problem is that complicated and detailed processes are sexy and make us feel like we’re doing something. They also offer people an out as for why what they’re doing now isn’t working. They follow a program for a week or two, possibly with poor adherence, don’t see the results they want and then see a magazine article telling them the secret to weight loss is five small meals a day while carb cycling and taking green tea extract.

‘Oh,’ they say to themselves, ‘no wonder I’m not losing weight. I’ll do that instead.’

Then inevitably they don’t get anywhere on that plan and come across something a few weeks or a month later and decide to try that. They wind up feeling like they’ve worked super hard and tried everything and nothing’s worked, when really they’ve just bounced from one complex thing to another. It’s like nutritional busywork.

I’ve had people in consults at the gym complain about how they have so much trouble losing weight. When I ask about their nutrition habits they rattle off twelve supplements they’re taking and explain how they eat six meals a day timed at very specific intervals and avoid gluten like the plague – but it’s still not working. They wonder if they have thyroid problems or are just genetically predisposed to be overweight.

Then when I ask how many calories they actually get in a day, they say they have no idea.

Why people have a tendency to ditch the boring, unremarkable but effective things for the flashy, sexy but useless things deserves an article of its own. For now though, lets look at the order in which you should be focusing on things.

Calories

Calories are the most important variable in any kind of physique change.

I’m going to say it one more time because the ‘A calorie isn’t always a calorie’ rhetoric has been pretty loud lately.

Calories are the single most important variable in weight loss or gain.

Now I will concede that the primary thing calorie balance will affect is weight change. What types of tissue that weight consists of is largely determined by other factors like training and your macronutrient breakdown (which is why it comes next in the hierarchy).

It doesn’t matter what else you’re doing in your diet, if you want to lose weight but are in a positive energy balance because your’re getting too many calories on a daily basis you’re not going to get there. Trying to out exercise your diet is a bad plan as well – it just leads to running yourself into the ground trying to make up for all the junk you ate. You should train to meet a training goal, not to balance out your calorie budget.

If you have no idea where to start, you should head over to my article on calculating calories for different training goals and figure out where you need to be.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients – Macros from here out because I’m lazy – are the second most important thing after calories.

If you want a more in-depth explanation you can read my full beginner’s guide to macros, but the basic explanation is that macros are the basic units of nutrition – Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. Like with the letter ‘Y’ and its occasional vowel status we can also add Fiber and Alcohol as sometimes being considered macros depending on the circumstances and who you’re asking.

In the general sense your macro breakdown is one of the primary factors in determining if it’s muscle or fat tissue that you’re gaining or losing as a result of your calorie balance. While manipulation of them is not necessary to reach most physique goals it does make things much, much easier and more efficient.

Additionally, some of the more fine-tuning oriented physique goals like a body recomposition that don’t involve a lot of actual weight change are going to be more heavily influenced by what you’re doing with your macros than other goals.

I’ll have the second part to my macros article up soon which will go over in more detail how to arrange your macros for various goals and will update this article once it’s up.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are next on the list in order of descending importance.

Where macronutrients are the big units of nutrition like protein and fat, micronutrients are all the little things like vitamins and minerals. I also include water here which we’ll get into in a minute. In general the primary distinction is that while a macronutrient has caloric value, micronutrients provide no calories.

If you live in a developed country chances are pretty low that you’re going to be deficient enough in any micronutrients to cause any severe health problems. As a result, it’s not as important to be concerned with them if your calories and macros aren’t already taken care of.

That being said, there’s a decent difference between your micronutrients being at sufficient levels to get by without anything like scurvy or goiters showing up and being at optimal levels. Everyone is going to be a little different in their needs here, but you should aim for eating a lot of fibrous vegetables and getting at leat one or two servings of fruit per day. Ideally changing it up as often as possible, don’t just eat bananas everyday because they’re convenient.

A multivitamin isn’t a bad idea but it’s not a replacement for fruits and vegetables. There are just too many phytonutrients and zoonutrients that aren’t going to get into a multivitamin (things like lycopene, flavonoids, and indoles). Think of a multivitamin as an insurance policy just in case you don’t get enough fruit and vegetables in a day.

I also include water here because, while water is definitely important in terms of survival, most people reading this aren’t going to be in danger of getting so little water they have severe health problems. Like the micronutrients there’s a difference between enough and optimal, but worrying too much about whether you’re getting 6 cups of water or 8 in a day won’t matter much if the other stuff we’ve gone over isn’t where it needs to be.

When it comes to water recommendations there are just too many variables like climate and activity levels to give any kind of catch-all recommendation for an amount. Instead I like Lyle McDonald’s recommendation of trying to have at least five clear urinations per day.

That means five trips to the bathroom per day where your urine comes out clear, not yellow or dark. If you can manage that you know you’re getting enough water for your situation.

Meal Timing

Meal timing is next step down on the ladder of importance, and one step higher on the ladder of things you’re likely to see people needlessly obsessing over.

I cannot count how many people, clients and otherwise, I have come across who were concerned with getting their meals timed exactly perfectly. This can range everywhere from the bodybuilding (and lately weight loss) apothegm of having to have five small meals a day as evenly spaced as possible, or to being concerned with whether they should eat their post-workout meal within 30 minutes or an hour of finishing – Thor help you if there’s a protein shake or pre-workout supplement involved in there somewhere.

This is not to say that meal timing can’t play a role in the effectiveness of your nutrition program, but most people put way too much focus on it. It’s like worrying about whether you should put summer or winter tires on a car that’s missing its engine.

Most people probably won’t need to worry much about meal timing. My personal inclination is toward intermittent fasting, and its a protocol I use with a majority of my clients. That being said everyone’s different and it’s complicated stuff. I’ll be putting together an article (or a series of them more likely) on all the details, but for now I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Get your calories and macros down and sort out your vitamins and minerals first.

Supplements

At last we come to the end of our list – supplements.

Supplements are big business and they feed into people’s quick-fix inclinations. As a result they wind up being an area people spend way, way too much time worrying about. In our car without an engine analogy supplements are the sound system. Nice to have, makes the trip easier, but it isn’t going to help get you from point A to point B much in and of itself.

You can do just fine with zero supplements but they can be helpful at times, so here are the handful I would recommend if you really want to do some fine tuning and have a little extra money to throw around.

  • Whey Protein – Not necessary since you should be trying to get as much of your protein from whole food sources (i.e., meat) as possible on account of all those zoonutrients, but I’ll concede it’s a lot more convenient and potentially more economical if you need a higher protein intake to use shakes to fill in the gaps.

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – Only really necessary if you’re going to train fasted. So if you’re on an intermittent fasting schedule and prefer morning workouts or just prefer training fasted for any reason then getting some BCAAs before and after will make a substantial difference. If you don’t fall in this category these aren’t really necessary.

  • Fish Oil – Fish oil & omega-3 fatty acids have strong evidence to support that they’re beneficial in a mild way to a wide range of areas including mildly reducing inflammation & blood pressure, strongly reducing triglyceride levels and mildly enhancing brain function. That means while not vital, it at least helps a lot things a little bit.

  • Caffeine – Caffeine obviously gives you energy and has been shown to improve performance in training sessions. I would not personally bother with an expensive pre-workout supplement that’s got a bunch of extra filler and costs an arm and a leg when you can get an equivalent boost to performance by downing a cup of a coffee or an espresso 30 minutes or so before training. I would not recommend this if you train later in the evening though since quality sleep is more important than a slightly enhanced training session.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency can be a problem depending on your habits and where you live, particularly in the winter. Being in Ohio I will occasionally supplement some vitamin D during the colder months since I’m indoors a lot more and mostly covered up. If you can, you’re much better just going outside and getting a bit of sun. It doesn’t take much to get enough.

  • Creatine – If your goal is to build muscle creatine can definitely help. It’s probably the single most researched supplement out there and is safe and generally pretty inexpensive. It’s not magic though, and some people have unpleasant side effects like digestive problems, so your mileage may vary. The one possible exception is if, against all better judgement, you’re a vegan or vegetarian then it’s much harder to get enough creatine from dietary sources and you’ll probably benefit more from it than others.

That’s it. That’s really all I’d recommend and conditionally at that. Please don’t run out and buy everything on that list because you probably don’t need it – but understand which ones might be helpful for you once you’ve got the rest of the stuff in this article nailed down.

If you prioritize things along these lines and focus on the high return variables like calories first, you’ll make a lot more progress toward your goal a lot more quickly. Just remember not to lose track of what’s most important and to stay consistent and you’ll get there.

Have any questions or anything to add? Leave a comment and let us know!

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Watson

How to Calculate Your Macros Part 1 – Calculating Calories

Portion by Bradley P Johnson

Now that you know what macros are you might be asking how to figure out exactly how many of them you need every day in order to attain your fitness goals. The beginner’s guide gave some general guidelines, but here we’ll get a little deeper into it.

The first thing we need to figure out in order to determine where your macros should be is exactly how many calories you need to be getting on average to meet your goals. (I’m assuming you know your goal, e.g. lose fat, gain muscle etc., so if you don’t make that step one and figure it out first.)

Why calories first? When it comes to losing weight (i.e., fat) or gaining weight (i.e., muscle) the single most important factor is your calorie intake.

Calories Are King

There are easily a thousand different diet models all claiming to have the one magic secret to helping you lose weight. Most of them focus on eliminating this or that or playing with meal timing or fasting for so long or some other thing – but the fact remains that when it comes to the foundation of gaining or losing weight calories are really all that matters.

Whether you’re eating 100% ‘clean’ or nothing but Twinkies and junk food if you’re genuinely taking in more energy than you use you will gain weight and if you’re using more than you take in you’ll lose it.

Now before the ‘A calorie is not a calorie’ crowd get their torches lit and pitchforks distributed I should note, what that weight is – muscle, fat, etc. – can be determined by where those calories are coming from. That’s a question of what color to paint the house though and we’re still talking foundations here. We’ll get to where the calories should come from and when you should get them later, first we need to know how many you need.

Calculating Your Current Calories

There are a handful of ways to go about this ranging from more to less complicated and more to less accurate. All of these are trying to determine your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) which are your ‘coma calories’, the amount of energy your body would burn if you did nothing but lay there in bed all day and not move. It’s essentially the bare minimum amount of energy your body needs to keep running without any added activity.

The most complicated, though arguably most accurate, is RQ testing through a system like what eNewLeaf offers. Technically speaking their resting metabolic testing should be extremely accurate compared to the other calculation options I’ll give. I’ve used them in the past and was happy with the results.

That being said, I think it’s a lot easier to have a less accurate initial estimate and then adjust up or down from their based on your rate of progress. Testing like what eNewLeaf provides can be expensive and considering your values will change over time would require repeat visits.

The one potential benefit this type of testing offers other than providing more accurate initial values is that it can also tell you which energy systems your body prefers using. In basic terms how efficient your body is at actually burning fat.

It can be an interesting thing to know, but I don’t find it terribly useful and it won’t change our macro calculations so I wouldn’t bother unless you really want to know this stuff.

My preferred method personally is the Katch-McArdle formula. This is still a best guess situation but it tends to get pretty close and then you can adjust from there after a few weeks once you see how things are going. There are just too many individual variables for this to get an accurate value for everyone but I’ve found it’s the best combination of accuracy and convenience.

The Katch-McArdle Formula: BMR = 370 + (9.8 x lean mass in pounds)

If you’re more metric minded change that 9.8 to 21.6 and pounds to kilograms.

Your lean mass is the weight of your body minus the weight of all of your fat. To figure this out you’re going to need to determine your body fat percentage – there are a lot of ways to do this ranging from pinch tests to bio-electric impedance to complicated things like hydrostatic weighing. Most of the nicer bathroom scales will do it for you (I particularly like the Aria) and if you belong to a gym any one of the trainers should be able to give you a pretty good estimate.

Once you have your body fat percentage subtract that amount from your total weight to get your lean mass. So a 200 lb. person at 20% body fat would mean they have 40 lbs. of fat on them (200 x .20) and 160 lbs. of lean mass (200 – 40).

If you have no idea whatsoever about what your body fat percentage might be and no good way to find out you can use the revised Harris-Benedict equation instead. This one differs between men and women.

Men’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 88.362 + (6.251 x weight in lbs.) + (12.189 x height in inches) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 447.593 + (4.203 x weight in lbs.) + (7.869 x height in inches) – (4.330 x age in years)

And in metric:

Men’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397 x weight in kg.) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

Women’s Harris-Benedict Formula: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 x weight in kg.) + (3.098 x height in cm.) – (4.330 x age in years)

These are going to potentially be a little less accurate, but they’ll do well enough for the moment.

Once you have your BMR you’re going to want to adjust it a touch to account for your daily activities to get your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). In my experience most people vastly overestimate their daily activity levels. For that reason I usually recommend a x1.2 multiplier for most people. This usually winds up being a bit of an underestimation but works if you’ve got a desk job. If you’re on your feet most of the day (waiting tables, working on machinery, etc.) then you may be better off with a x1.4 multiplier. If you’re in a genuinely strenuous line of work (roofing, construction, etc.) then you can bump it up to a x1.6 multiplier.

Don’t try to factor exercise in here, just your day to day activities. In other words if you have a desk job but workout 5x per week you should still start with x1.2 as your multiplier.

So our 200 lb. 20% bodyfat example from before would use Katch-McArdle to get a BMR of 1,938 kcal. (370 + (9.8 x 140 lbs.) = 1938) and then, since he’s got a desk job, would add in the multiplier to get to a TDEE of 2,325 kcal. (1938 x 1.2 = 2325.6). Always round down to the nearest 5 or 0 for simplicity’s sake. These are estimates remember and will need adjusting over time anyway.

Now that we’ve got our TDEE – the estimated number of calories we need to take in to remain exactly the same weight – we need to figure out how to manipulate those numbers to reach our goal.

Calculating Your Target Calories

We don’t want to just stay the same, so you’re going to need to either take in fewer calories if you’re trying to lose weight or more calories if you’re tying to gain weight. I’m going to use the general Leangains terminology and call them a Cut and a Slow Bulk respectively.

Since most of the people I coach are looking to lose weight, we’ll start with the cut.

Calories for a Cut

Since we’re looking to lose weight while cutting that means that you’re going to need to adjust your calories down from your TDEE. How much you’re going to adjust down is going to be based on how much weight you want to / can safely lose per week.

People who have more to lose, i.e. people with a higher initial body fay percentage, can generally safely lose more weight per week while people who are closer to their goal and have a lower body fat percentage will be on the lower end of the spectrum. Here are some general guidelines for what you should be able to expect safely.

  • 30% Body Fat or Higher – 2.5 to 3 lbs. per week

  • 20 – 29% Body Fat – 2 to 2.5 lbs. per week

  • 15 – 19% Body Fat – 1.5 to 2 lbs. per week

  • 12 – 14% Body Fat – 1 to 1.5 lbs. per week

  • 10 – 11% Body Fat – .5 to 1 lb. per week

Find yourself on the chart and then figure out from there how many pounds of loss per week you want to aim for. These are basic guidelines based on a combination of outside data and my own experience with clients. Note that you can always aim for a slower cut than what’s listed under your body fat percentage but don’t try to do more. If you’re 30% body fat there’s nothing wrong with aiming for a nice slow 1 pound per week, just don’t shoot for losing 3 pounds per week if you’re only 12% body fat or you’re likely to run into problems.

Once you’ve determined how many pounds of loss to shoot for we need to translate that into calories. The general rule is that it takes 3,500 calories to create a 1 pound change in weight. I say general because it’s not technically an exact science but it gets the job done.

So our previous 200 lb. 20% body fat example would look at the chart and decide he wants to shoot for 2 pounds of weight loss per week. That means he needs to put himself in a caloric deficit of 7,000 calories (3500 kcal x 2 lbs. = 7,000 kcal) per week.

If you’re a little on the short side, I would recommend aiming a little on the lower side. It doesn’t always make a big difference but it does help sometimes.

Always aim to make your weekly caloric deficit a product of diet alone and not training. There are a handful of reasons for this. First of all, there’s a high variance in calorie burn for the same activity from person to person. While the bomb calorimetry isn’t perfect either it’s more accurate than estimates of what you’re burning during an activity. Second adding in a ton of extraneous training just to burn more calories is going to add substantially more stress to your body than just reducing intake and we don’t want too much stress. Lastly, your training should be focused on its own goal not on burning up extra energy because you ate too much.

The most basic way to achieve that weekly deficit is to divide your total weekly deficit need by 7 and then subtract that amount from each day’s intake. So for our example person he would want to cut 1,000 calories each day from his TDEE to eat 1,325 kcal daily (2,325 kcal TDEE – (7,000 kcal / 7 days) = 1,325 kcal).

Personally, this sounds a bit aggressive and our example gentleman may find 1,325 is a bit low for comfort. In that case he could bump up to a slower but more comfortable 1 pound loss per week at 1,825 kcal per day. Usually if your target dips too far below your BMR you might find it’s kind of miserable and unsustainable. It’s all about finding what works best.

I’m also a fan of Leangains-style calorie/macro fluctuations which would involve higher calories on training days and lower or rest days rather than a flat deficit each day. Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is that your weekly calories add up to the specified deficit.

Calories for a Slow Bulk

So what if you want to gain weight rather than lose weight? You essentially follow the same process in reverse.

Here the calories are going to be determined more by your training level than by your body fat percentage or body composition. I like to break it down along Alan Aragon’s lines of Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced trainee.

Here’s how to figure out where you are based on three main lifts.

  • Beginner – Anything below Intermediate, usually less than 2 years of training.

  • Intermediate – Bench Press: 1.2 x body weight, Squat: 1.6 x body weight, Deadlift: 2 x body weight, usually between 2 to 5 years of training.

  • Advanced – Bench Press: 1.5 x body weight, Squat: 2 x body weight, Deadlift: 2.5 x body weight, usually 5 years or more of training.

If you’re in the Beginner level you can expect between 2 to 3 lbs. of muscle gain per month and should shoot for a surplus of around 200 to 300 kcal per day to start.

If you’re in the Intermediate level you can expect between 1 to 2 lbs. of muscle gain per month and should shoot for a slightly lower surplus of 100 to 200 kcal per day to start.

Lastly if you’re in the Advanced category you should expect only about .5 lbs of muscle growth per month and should aim for a small surplus, somewhere at or below 100 kcal per day to get started. Advanced trainees will find it’s much easier to track strength gains and other metrics than it is scale weight since at this level increases in pounds will be smaller and harder to notice.

So our example person at 200 lbs. and 20% body fat wants to go on a slow bulk and add some muscle. He’s an absolute beginner at weight training, so he can expect to put on at least a few pounds per month and needs to shoot for a surplus of 200 to 300 kcal per day. If he goes right in the middle that puts him at a target of 2,575 kcal per day (2325 kcal TDEE + 250 kcal = 2575 kcal per day).

Adjusting your Calories

Your daily calorie needs are going to change.

Even outside of training and the weight change involved with adjustment of caloric intake there are so many other factors involving your metabolism and Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) that there’s no way you’ll keep them consistent for long.

As such, you’re going to have to adjust your calorie intake up and down as you go based on what your goals are and how much progress (or lack thereof) you’re seeing in either direction.

You don’t want to make too drastic of changes too soon, so I would always stick with what you’re doing for at least two solid weeks before making adjustments – preferably three or four. Solid weeks here means hitting your calorie targets every single day.

If, after three or four weeks consistently hitting your targets on a cut you find that you’re not losing as quickly as you’d like or not at all then adjust your calories down by between 5 and 10% and see how that affects things. If you’re losing too quickly adjust up by 5 to 10% – losing too quickly or more than is indicated on that chart above likely means you’re also losing muscle which is a bad thing.

If you’re on a slow bulk and find yourself not making any progress after hitting your targets for three to four weeks then increase your daily calorie intake by between 3 and 6%. If weight is gained too quickly for where you are on the training levels above you’re likely putting on fat in addition to muscle and should decrease your daily calories by 3 to 6% instead.

Keep in mind that, particularly if you’re new to training or making large changes to your macro percentages (particularly carbohydrates) you may have some drastic fluctuations in water weight in that first week. Stick it out and give it time before you make any substantial adjustments.

This is the first step in figuring out your macros. We’ll get into how to actually structure your macro percentages in the next article, but this will be the foundation those are built upon.

If you’re feeling uncomplicated, you can just use these values to lose or gain weight. While there are potential benefits to getting more involved and complicated with things it’s not necessary, so if you just want things to be easy set your calorie targets based on everything above and stick to them without worrying about specifically what it is you’re eating.

Have any questions about setting your calorie goals up or any suggestions or personal experiences you’d like to add? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Bradley P. Johnson