5000 Calories a Day To Gain Muscle???

By Tom Venuto On February 26, 2011 Under Holy Grail Body Transformation Content

Question: I just read a new article on T nation by Mark Rippetoe and I have actually seen other articles like this one that recommend a gallon of milk and huge amounts of food. It suggests for optimal muscle growth, many more calories than most people recommend are necessary for optimal bulking. He says it takes 5000 to 6000 calories a day! That seems a little crazy to me and goes against everything you said in your Holy Grail program, but apparently this high calorie bulking is common amongst body builders. Tom, could you give me your opinion on this?


Answer: Actually “bulking” used to be common among bodybuilders, but most have abandoned it for newer methods that create leaner, fat-free muscle gains. Strength athletes on the other hand, who just want to be big and strong, and don’t care about seeing any abs or muscle definition, still sometimes use the old high-calorie bulking approach.

Rippetoe has a very good reputation as a strength coach and his strength training books are very popular, so it’s understandable why a lot of people took a serious look at this article about the virtues (or necessity) of high calorie bulking programs. Mark makes some valid points and in fact, a high calorie bulking approach might be appropriate for some lifters at a certain stage in their early development.

However, as my entire Holy Grail philosophy suggests, I believe this is not a good approach for everyone – in fact, it’s not the ideal approach for most people. Let me explain:

Anytime a weight gain program recommends one amount of calories, whether that’s 3000 or 5000 or even 8000 (don’t laugh – I’ve seen that in the bodybuilding world), instantly we know this recommendation incorrect. Why? because it’s not customized. Making a single prescription of calories and assuming it applies to everyone gets you into trouble right out of the gates.

That would be like saying that the jacked-up dude who is 5 10″ and 225 pounds and the skinny guy who weighs 165 pounds both need 5000 calories a day to gain weight. Perish the thought. The 225 pounder is going to need a LOT more calories than the little guy.

Suggesting up to 6000 calories a day for a 165 pounder is crazy on at least two levels.

First is the impracticality issue: I’d like to see how many skinny guys can actually choke down 5,000 calories on their first weight gain diet, consistently, every day for weeks on end, let alone 6,000. I’ve never been able to do it without using a lot of drinks, increasing fat intake and even eating junk food (NOT optimal, especially in a hypercaloric diet). Even then, I couldn’t keep it up.

Second is the lack of personalization: how many calories you need to gain weight is relative and depends totally on the individual. The two big factors influencing calorie needs are body size and activity level.

Using a common calorie formula like the Harris Benedict equation, it’s easy to see how this 5000 calories plus recommendation is not even in the right ballpark for a skinny 165 pounder and how the needs between a 165 pounder and someone 60 pounds heavier are not in the same ballpark either.


male lifter
165 pounds
5 feet 10 inches tall
20 years old
very active
goal: weight gain

basal metabolic rate = 1695 calories per day.
total daily energy expenditure = 2924 calories per day

The most common recommendation for calorie surplus for weight gain ranges from 10% to 20% above TDEE. Let’s take the upper end of that range for this example:

15-20% surplus = 438 – 584 calorie surplus per day

optimal calories to gain weight = TDEE + surplus: 3509 calories per day

Wow, 3509 calories a day is a far cry from 5000-6000 calories per day isn’t it?

Not all calorie formulas agree with each other, but they are all close with regard to the BMR and TDEE. The number that comes up in these controversies more often than not is the ideal surplus – that’s been debated for decades.

Incidentally, some bodybuilders have argued in the opposite direction. Mike Mentzer, Mr. Universe, for example was known at one time for claiming that you only need 16 extra calories per day to gain weight, which is equally as crazy as suggesting a 2000 calorie surplus (Note: in later writings Mentzer said to aim for a 300-500 calorie surplus)

Where Rippetoe and others come up with a 1500-2500 calorie per day surplus as required to gain weight, I don’t know. My guess is that his source is personal experience working with young athletes. That kind of real world experience is definitely worth something, but I still think you need to be careful with huge surpluses and bulking programs unless you’re getting ready for the sumo wrestling world championships.

Now let’s compare the 165 pound skinny young athlete to a professional athlete 60 pounds heavier, who is the same in all other characteristics:


male lifter
225 pounds
5 feet 10 inches tall
20 years old
very active
goal: weight gain

basal metabolic rate = 2068 calories per day
total daily energy expenditure = 3568 calories per day

15-20% surplus = 535 – 713 calories

Optimal calories to gain weight = 4103 to 4281 calories per day.

As you can see, it’s a misconception that the lighter, skinnier guy needs more calories to gain weight – the opposite is true. The bigger you are, the more calories you require to maintain your weight and the more you require to gain additional body weight.

If we continued with further examples, you’d see that only the biggest guys – such as the professional bodybuilders who weigh 250, 275 even 300 pounds – would require 5000-6000 calories per day. Many of them are also on steroids and other growth-stimulating drugs, which may increase the amount of food and nutrients they can utilize.

In addition, don’t forget how body size changes over time will change your calorie needs. Just like someone who loses weight needs fewer calories as he gets lighter, someone who gains weight needs more calories as he gets heavier.

This is why many people plateau in their weight loss OR weight gain efforts: they fail to adjust their calories as their energy needs change. You have to keep eating more as you get bigger if you want to keep getting bigger. But getting bigger is a gradual process, therefore, eating more should also be a gradual process.

If you are going to choose the traditional bulking (straight line surplus) method of weight gain, I recommend avoiding a HUGE jump up in calories from day one. I recommend using the traditional calorie formulas as indicated above. For a 165 pound guy, 3500 calories is a reasonable starting point – maybe a little bit higher in some cases. Why not start there and see what happens before you try to gorge yourself into a role in the next Austin Powers Movie

If a week goes by that you don’t gain weight, bump up your calories further and further. This approach allows you to slowly gauge how your body responds and you can gauge your comfort level with the amount of body fat you gain – and you will gain some fat with the muscle if you choose the traditional bulking approach.

But to take a small-framed guy and tell him to eat 5000 – 6000 calories a day right from day one just because that the “magic number?” That’s a ticket to fat city for anyone but a genetic anomaly. (And did I mention, it’s damn hard to eat that much?!)

Trust me. Did that. Done that. Been down that road. Played that game. Did the gallon of milk a day phase. Did the 3 dozen whole eggs a day. Did the weight gainer shakes – going all the back to the heyday of Weider. Did the 400 grams of protein. Did it all. Got fat. If you eat too much you get fat. You just can’t force muscle gains by eating more and more and more; you’d be erroneously assuming that every surplus calorie will get partitioned into muscle tissue and not fat.

Before I log off, I want to mention that my intention was not to rip on Rippetoe. He’s a strength coach for sports and weightlifting and I’m a bodybuilding and body composition coach, so it’s no surprise that we’d have differences in opinion. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend his books to strength athletes who want to boost their bench, squat and deadlift and his new weight gain article did make some accurate and important points:

First, it’s true that you DO have to eat a lot of food to gain a lot of body weight and keep the gains coming. Most so-called “hardgainers” just don’t eat enough. Most people have to start with around 3500 and eventually may get up to requiring 4000 or more calories per day for maximum growth.

Second, I agree 100% with Mark that many people are so hell bent on not losing their abs, that they toil away with painstakingly slow muscle gains for the sake of staying lean, or they never gain any weight at all because because they are perpetually in caloric maintenance or just dieting to stay cut.

This is as much a psychological issue as a physical one. You’ve GOT TO mentally shift gears into “mass mode” if you really want to get huge. If your mindset and behavior aren’t congruent with your goals, you’ll sabotage yourself every time.

Third, it’s also true that in the early days a lifter’s or athlete’s career, (especially in testosterone-filled teens), it might make sense to use an old school bulk in order to get that initial beginner’s growth spurt as quickly as humanly possible. A high school or young college athlete (with which I believe Rippetoe is intimately familiar) might not care if he gets a bit smooth or even gains 5% body fat in exchange for the absolute maximum amount of muscle mass possible.

Each individual’s tolerance for fat gain is a personal matter. Some people want to stay really lean. Some people just want to get big and they don’t care about abs. I can understand the logic behind a young athlete using the old-school bulking method.

On the other hand, using the mega-high-calorie, high-surplus bulking method as a long-term strategy for every time you want to gain muscle is an exercise in futility. Ironically, the repeated bulk and cut cycles often end up canceling each other out.

This is the entire reason I published the Holy Grail body transformation system – to show an alternate way for the body fat-prone endomorph to gain muscle without getting fat… it’s for people who want lean muscle gains, not more bodyweight at all costs.

One last thing: Take the testimonials and advertised claims for huge weight gains from popular bulking programs with a grain of salt. Remember that weight gain is not the same thing as muscle gain. Yes, some young athletes and bodybuilders do make huge gains in bodyweight, (usually only once in their lives – aka the “newbie gains”), but don’t under-estimate how much of that weight can be glycogen, water and fat.

- Tom Venuto

PS. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d like to strongly urge you to download my free report, THE END OF BULKING, to learn more about how to gain lean muscle without gaining the fat, or even to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time:

the end of bulking



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11 Comments Add yours

  1. Marc David
    February 27, 2011
    12:45 am

    Ripptoe himself isn’t all that interested in nutrition in terms of the bodybuilder. When asked by Alan Aragon on some very specific nutrition questions Mark said “This is not a nutrition board, I am not a nutritionist, I am not particularly interested in this, and any opinion I have on the matter is irrelevant.”

    He’s a strength coach and he does get people strong! And if you get a tiny bit of fat along with that massive strength, so what? He’s done his job.

    I kinda agree.

    But if you are a bodybuilder or a person looking for optimal health, then it does matter. In which case, I wouldn’t take advice from Ripptoe on how to bulk but I would take his advice on how to squat properly.

    All the perspective.

  2. Marc David
    February 27, 2011
    12:49 am

    For the record, I’d consider Mark Rippetoe as a Strength Coach before a body builder in the classic terms. He does what he does extremely well. In fact, I got some great video advice on how to Deadlift and Squat. Fixed my form a bit. But he’s not a body builder in the classic sense so he’s not all that interested in getting ripped abs and such. Not a critical comment about the man, just an observation.

  3. Shawn
    February 27, 2011
    12:51 am

    I can speak from experience that bulking with a massive caloric surplus is not the way to go. By the time you strip away all the accumulated fat you will likely lose most if not all of the lean gains as well. moderation is far better!

  4. Clement
    February 27, 2011
    2:26 am

    I think Rippletoe intended to get across the point that skinny guys need to eat a LOT more food than they currently are. However, the way it came across has taken some deserved flak.

    Obviously, excess calories are not needed to build muscle. When you weight train, your maintenance intake increases. Eating anything above maintenance only leads to fat gain.

    Thanks for this article, Tom. Clearly, you both are two different coaches with two different approaches. I certainly wouldn’t want to put on excess fat, despite myself being an athlete.

    But I would never bulk to gain weight. Never. After losing all that fat, you’d never want to get too fat again. I just cycle between bursts of dieting and normal eating, so that I can maintain the leanness I want. And who says you can’t build muscle without eating in a surplus?

  5. Michael Reese
    February 27, 2011
    2:28 am

    I’m glad you pointed that comment about Mentzer, and then showed that he’d reexamined his premises. Mentzer is a common target in the lifting world, but he would at least admit he was wrong when it was clear to him. In addition, there are a lot of things some people say he said, when in fact, he did not say them, or only part of his comments are cited.

  6. Dana
    February 27, 2011
    2:40 am

    Wow! This makes a lot of sense! If I ate 5,000 calories a day I’d be sick as a dog!

  7. Mike
    February 27, 2011
    7:24 am

    I’ve been pondering this topic for the last week and I have the following thoughts:

    It would seem that through evolution that the human body would feel the need to put on muscle only if there were consistent calorie surpluses and continual load increases put on the body… This only makes sense. Building muscle would seem the last on the list of priorities for the human body in terms of survival. Much more important to keep breathing and blood pumping than to build hugely awesome biceps!

    Consequently, at what point does the human body determine that it’s now okay to spend crucial life sustaining calories on pursuit of building muscle?

    Is there some hormone that is released that says, “OK, now it’s safe to start building muscle”?

    Or does the human body react just on a day to day caloric intake basis?

    This wouldn’t make much sense in a long term survival scenario. In the early days of human history, I imagine there was much feast or famine. The logical conclusion would be that the human body would most likely initially store excess calories as fat rather than build muscle.

    If I were the creating a smart organic system for determining when to start building muscle, I would create some threshold of fairly long term life sustaining fat stores that determines when it’s safe to begin “secondary” body functions like building excess muscle tissue. Hence a need for long term large excesses in calories – first fat, then muscle only when the “coast is clear” if you will.

    Huge muscles and low body fat in a time of famine would seem to be of some detriment. In times of feast, I would want a system that would quickly store energy and then release that energy in slowest life sustaining way in times of famine.

    I’m not a human biologist in any sense of the imagination (I actually avoided biology like the plague in college).

    Are there any studies that show how the body determines when it is “safe” to start allocating vital resources to essentially unnecessary body functions like creating excess muscle tissue – the kind we’re talking about in body building and strength training – the kind we’re talking about in “noob” gains?

    Perhaps the human body isn’t that smart?

    Just thinking out loud – Great Topic!

    • Patrick
      March 2, 2011
      9:15 am

      I’m currently enrolled in Cell Biology for Health Occupations at my college, and the answer to you question lies within the body’s chemical processes and evolution.

      Remember to consider that the body’s need for muscle vs. fat would be relative to the situatuions that body was exposed to on a regular basis. If high intensity physical activities were needed for survival (aka, running and climbing from predators, pulling yourself over rugged terrain, fighting your prey to the ground so you could kill it and use it for food), the body would then need to adapt accordingly to meet such a demand or risk extinction. However, the same could also be said for fat gain; such biological changes might be advantageous if the body belongs to an organism trying to survive in a cold environment like the arctic (eskimos).

      This is why you get buff when you do workouts. Keep in mind, your body doesn’t know the difference between a physical demand for survival and a physical demand at the gym. As long as you demand that such actions are necessary, it will adapt to meet them. Think about how hard it would be to survive if you actually had to think about getting bigger muscles in order to scale a cliff your tribe lives on. See what I’m getting at?

      Creating muscle tissue may or may not be necessary to your survival, but your body will assume it is if you demand activity that requires such tissue on a regular basis. You might actually say that it’s as smart as they come, because it only adds that muscle tissue if you express a need for it on a regular basis. This utilizes calories in the most effective way possible. if you don’t need it, there’s no demand for it, so the body uses calories for something you do need. That’s why you need to have a workout routine you follow on a regular basis, not a workout you do once and never do again. If you stop demanding that your body perform, it will stop performing and use that muscle tissue for energy, and you’ll shrink in muscle size because it will no longer consider that muscle necessary for survival, and then devote the energy contained within that muscle to other bodily functions.

      So if you were in a time of famine, whther the calories were in muscle tissue or fat, it could still use then as energy. Fat just has more calories per unit of measurement. It really depends upon what you demand of your body and what your body has available to it to meet the demand. Also, if the need for muscle was no longer present and the activity level decreased due to lack of food, then metabolism at rest would decrease as well because the demand for fast calorie burning would no longer be there. Your body is smart enought to tell when it has and doesn’t have a food source, so if there is no food source, it slows the metabolism to conserve energy. Again, that’s not dumb, that’s pure genius. All you need to do is provide a stimulus, and your body’s evolutionary processes do the rest!

      As for specific studies, I can’t name them offhand, but Tom’s Burn the fat, feed the muscle explains this in great detail!

  8. James
    February 28, 2011
    1:05 am

    I wouldn’t say high calorie diets are never the way to go. Extraordinary transformations sometimes require extraordinary strategies, such as an aggressive bulk, especially for people who have been training for a long time.

    I went through a coaching program where I ate 5000+ calories for 3 months every day and while I did cover up my 6 pack, I was able to get those babies back in 2 months (using some of toms strategies) while keeping 13lbs of the muscle gained during the mass phase.

  9. LukeQKMB
    February 28, 2011
    8:44 am

    Great post, Tom and rings so true for people on both ends of the spectrum. The hard-gainer is usually the one who just does not eat enough calories to build new muscle. TSome people will eat a whole heap and will get good gains, but probably doesn’t notice the new muscle because it is getting covered in the excess fat that they are consuming. I haven’t checked out your Holy Grail yet, but no doubt it will be an insightful read.

    Keep the posts coming

  10. Dan - Personal Trainer
    February 28, 2011
    6:11 am


    Just came across your blog and it looks fantastic!

    Totally agree with your method of adding a 15-20% increase in calories in order to gain muscle mass weight – there is very little point in trying to pile on fat as when losing fat, some of the muscle will be lost also. Same applies for those looking to lose weight. Very sensible advice. I also like the idea of monitoring and changing things accordingly as a follow up.

    I also think it is important to consider the quality of the calories being consumed – 3000 calories of high quality organic meats, vegetables, fruits and pristine fats is going to be FAR more beneficial than 3000 calories of ‘junk’ food, processed sugar products, processed fats and the like.

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