Just looking for the Legion macronutrient calculator and nothing else? Here you go: 

None (little to no physical activity) A little (one to three hours of exercise or sports per week) A moderate amount (four to six hours of exercise or sports per week) A lot (seven to nine hours of exercise or sports per week) A TON (ten or more hours of exercise or sports per week) Custom Activity Multiplier
Lose fat ("cut") Build lean muscle ("lean bulk") Maintain the same weight ("maintain")
 

Want to learn how to figure out your macronutrients (“macros”) to lose fat, build lean muscle, or maintain your weight? Keep reading!

Key Takeaways

  1. A macronutrient is a nutrient that your body needs in large amounts to survive, with the main ones being protein, carbs, and fat.
  2. If you want to gain muscle, lose fat, and get strong, you probably want to follow a high-protein, moderate- to high-carb, moderate- to low-fat diet.
  3. Keep reading to learn exactly how much protein, carbs, and fat you should eat to get the body you want.

You probably know that exercise alone isn’t enough to gain muscle and lose fat.

And that, ultimately, your success or failure is going to be decided by your diet.

Think of it like this:

If your body were a car, exercise is the gas pedal and diet is the fuel in the tank. You have to step on the gas (exercise) to get moving (improve your body composition), but how far will you get without enough of the right fuel?

My point is this:

  • If you know how to manage your diet properly, building muscle and burning fat will be easy and straightforward.
  • If you don’t, it’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to get fit, lean, and strong.

And if you’re like most people, you probably fall in the latter camp.

It’s a shame that so many people are getting it wrong, too, because it really is easy to get right.

The problem, though, is the sheer amount of conflicting information out there on how to get fit. Books, blogs, and magazines abound, but finding something that actually works as promised is like hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

At this point, you may even be wondering if anything really works.

Things are about to look up, though, because this article is going to put you on the fast track to success.

By the end, you’re going to understand the simplest, most effective way to eat to gain muscle and strength and get healthy:

Macronutrient-based dieting (which is also called flexible dieting). With it, you can transform your physique without . . . 

  • Starving yourself
  • Eliminating all the foods you like, including carbs and sugar
  • Eating at set meal times
  • Suffering from hunger and cravings

Ready to learn how?

Read on.

What Are Macronutrients?

dieting-macros (1)

A macronutrient, or “macro,” is any nutrient humans need in relatively large amounts to survive. 

Most people think of macros as just protein, carbs and fat, but technically the term also includes water and minerals like calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.

But for the purposes of diet and meal planning—the main subject of this article—we’re going to focus on protein, carbs and fat.

Want to save 20% on your first order of Legion supplements?

The Simple Science of Macronutrient Dieting

 

If you’ve browsed the Instagram fitness scene, you’ve undoubtedly seen it:

Shredded guys and gals sharing pictures of stacks of pancakes or giant bowls of Rocky Road ice cream or other “sinful” indulgences.

Or, perhaps you’ve witnessed one of Dwayne Johnson’s epic binges:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

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And you’ve probably wondered what the heck was going on.

They can’t possibly eat like that and have rippling six packs, can they? That was like the one cheat meal for the month (or year?) or something, right?

Lo and behold … these people really do eat that stuff. And a lot more frequently than you might think.

The reason they can “get away” with it is this:

When it comes to your body composition, what you eat doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much you eat.

That is, the number of calories we eat and how they break down into protein, carbs, and fat has more impact on our physiques than our choice of foods and when we eat them.

Summary: The reason people can eat “cheat meals” regularly is they control their total calorie intake, which is what determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight.

Yes, Calories Count, and Here’s Why

The relationship between the energy you eat and the energy you burn is referred to as energy balance.

When discussing energy balance, scientists use the term kilocalorie, or just calorie for short, which is the amount of energy required to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

Energy balance is a vital concept to understand because it alone determines how your body weight changes in response to the food you eat (and thus how many calories you should be eating depending on your goals).

If we look beyond the magazine shelves and pill and powder hucksters to the scientific literature, we quickly learn two things:

  • You have to burn more energy than you consume to achieve meaningful weight loss.
  • You have to consume more energy than you burn to achieve meaningful weight gain (both fat and muscle).
  • You have to consume more or less the amount of energy you burn to maintain your body weight.

In other words, bodyweight management mostly comes down to calories in versus calories out

Some people disagree with this point. They’ll often say that “calories don’t count” or “calorie counting doesn’t work,” and take the opposition position: that you don’t have to watch how much you eat so much as what you eat.

The sales pitch sounds sexy. Eat the right foods and you can “unclog and supercharge” your hormones and metabolism, and your body will take care of the rest. This is music to many people’s ears who want to believe they can get lean and fit without ever having to restrict or even pay attention to how much they eat, only what.

This is malarkey. In fact, it’s worse than that. It’s a blatant lie because, as far as your body weight is concerned, how much you eat is far more important than what you eat.

Don’t believe me? 

Just ask Kansas State University Professor Mark Haub, who lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks eating Hostess cupcakes, Doritos, Oreos, and whey protein shakes. Or a science teacher, John Cisna, who lost 56 pounds in six months eating nothing but McDonald’s. Or Kai Sedgwick, a fitness enthusiast who got into the best shape of his life following a rigorous workout routine and eating McDonald’s every day for a month.

I don’t recommend you follow in their footsteps (the nutritional value of your diet does matter), but they prove an indisputable point: you can lose fat and gain muscle while eating copious amounts of junk food.

This is also why bodybuilders dating back just as far, from the “father of modern bodybuilding” Eugen Sandow to the sword-and-sandal superstar Steve Reeves to the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been using this knowledge to systematically and routinely reduce and increase body fat levels as desired.

These aren’t cherry-picked anecdotes, hypotheses, or debunked theories, either. This is the first law of thermodynamics at work, which states that energy in a system can’t be created or destroyed but can only change form. 

This applies to all physical energy systems, including the human metabolism. When we eat food, its stored energy is transformed by our muscles into mechanical energy (movement), by our digestive systems into chemical energy (body fat), and by our organs into thermal energy (heat). 

This alone explains why every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last 100 years has concluded that meaningful weight loss requires energy expenditure to exceed energy intake.

All this evidence, however, doesn’t mean you have to count calories to lose weight, but it does mean you have to understand how calorie intake and expenditure influences your body weight and then regulate your intake according to your goals.

Once you understand the pivotal role of energy balance in determining body weight, you can also understand why no food directly helps us lose weight more than another.

Foods don’t have special properties that make them “good” or “bad” for weight loss. What they do have, however, is varying amounts of calories and protein, carbs, and fat, and that means some foods are better for losing or gaining weight than others.

Read: The Best “Weight Loss Foods” (Thankfully) Aren’t What You Think

Notice I said better, not best, mandatory, forbidden, or anything else that smacks of dogma because if you know how to regulate and balance your food intake properly, you can eat just about anything and lose weight.

That said, if you want to not just lose weight, but lose fat and not muscle (and maybe even gain muscle), you need to balance your “macros” as well as your calories.

Summary: The relationship between how many calories you eat and burn determines whether you gain, lose, or maintain your weight. At bottom, weight loss, gain, and maintenance is a function of calories in versus calories out.

How to Figure Out Your Macros

best macro calculator

 

 

I think I’ve made my point that where weight is concerned, a calorie is a calorie. No matter how healthy or clean food may be, if you eat too much of it, you’ll fail to lose weight.

And so, if you eat a nutritionally bankrupt diet of junk food but keep your calorie intake lower than your expenditure, you’ll lose weight.

BUT!

If your goal is to build muscle and lose fat—to optimize body composition—as well as preserve or enhance your health, a calorie is not a calorie. 

A carefully controlled diet of junk food will no longer cut it.

In this case, the macronutrient profile of the individual foods you eat is of great importance.

You see, people may say they want to “lose weight” or “gain weight,” but what we really mean is they want to lose fat and not muscle and gain muscle and not fat. And that makes some calories much more important than others.

For example, carbs and protein have more or less the same amount of calories per gram, but for building muscle and losing fat, protein is much more important.

Let’s talk about why … 

Why You Should Eat A Lot of Protein

While the scientific search for the “One True Diet” continues, there’s one thing we know for certain: it’s going to be high in protein.

Study after study has already confirmed that high-protein dieting is superior to low-protein dieting in just about every meaningful way. Specifically, research shows that people who eat more protein:

Protein intake is even more important when you exercise regularly because this increases your body’s demand for protein.

It’s also important when you restrict your calories to lose fat, because eating adequate protein plays a major role in preserving lean mass while dieting.

Protein intake is important among sedentary folk as well. Studies show that such people lose muscle faster as they age if they don’t eat enough protein, and the faster they lose muscle, the more likely they are to die from all causes.

So, if you want to be lean, strong, muscular, and healthy, you want to eat a lot of protein. How much, though?

Read this article if you want the detailed answer …

How Much Protein Do I Need? The Definitive (and Science-Based) Answer 

… but the long story short is that if you’re cutting (dieting for fat loss), you want to eat at least 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.

And if you’re lean bulking (dieting to maximize muscle gain) or maintaining (dieting to maintain body composition), you should eat at least 0.8 to 1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. 

If you’re over 20 percent body fat as a man or 30 percent body fat as a woman, however, this formula will overestimate your protein needs (for example, a man who’s 5’10 and 250 pounds doesn’t need 250 grams of protein per day).

In this case, it’s better to set protein intake at 40 percent of daily calories.

For most people, this 1 to 1.2 gram per pound per day rule works out to roughly:

  • 40 percent of calories when cutting 
  • 25 percent of calories when lean bulking
  • 30 percent of calories when maintaining

Summary: To optimize your body composition, you should eat around 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day when cutting (or 40 percent of daily calories if you’re over 20 percent body fat as a man or 30 percent as a woman), and 0.8 to 1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day when lean bulking or maintaining.

Why You Should Probably Eat A Lot of Carbs

how-many-carbs-podcast

Google “How many carbs should I eat?” and you’ll find all kinds of answers from all kinds of trainers and “gurus.”

Many believe that low-carb is the way to go. Others say it’s just a fad. And then there are those who are somewhere in the middle.

Here’s where I stand:

If you’re healthy and physically active, and particularly if you lift weights regularly, chances are that you’ll do better with more carbs in your diet, not less.

And yes, that applies equally to gaining muscle and losing fat. The reality is a relatively high-carb diet can help you do both faster and easier. 

You can read this article to learn why, but the biggest factor is eating more carbs helps you perform better in your workouts, which produces more muscle gain and fat loss over time. 

So, how many carbs should you eat, then?

You can learn the detailed answer in this article … 

How to Know Exactly How Many Carbs You Should Eat

… but the gist is that you want to eat around 1 to 3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day, which for most people works out to approximately:

  • 40 percent of calories when cutting
  • 55 percent of calories when lean bulking
  • 45 percent of calories when maintaining

Again, however, if you’re over 20 percent body fat as a man or 30 percent body fat as a woman, this formula will overestimate your carbohydrate needs (for example, a woman who’s 5’4 and 200 pounds doesn’t need 200 to 600 grams of carbs per day).

Thus, I recommend overweight people set carb intake at 30 percent of daily calories.

Summary: To optimize your body composition, you should eat around 1 to 3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day, which works out to around 40 to 55 percent of calories for most people. If you’re over 20 percent body fat as a man or 30 percent as a woman, set your carb intake at 30 percent of daily calories.

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Why You Probably Don’t Need to Eat As Much Fat As You Think

Dietary fat is the macronutrient du jour.

No matter what you want to fix with your body or do in the gym, eating more fat can purportedly help. Fat loss, vitality, libido, muscle and strength gain—it can all be yours if you follow this “one weird diet trick.”

This makes for a powerful marketing message because it’s simple, counterintuitive, and provides logical cover for what many people want to do anyway (eat deliciously fatty foods). 

There’s just one problem: 

As you learned a moment ago, the biggest hook used to sell people on high-fat dieting—faster fat loss—is scientifically bankrupt. And when it does work, it’s only due to a significant reduction in calorie intake resulting in a larger calorie deficit, not metabolic voodoo.

Another hook is hormones. Specifically, some people claim that a high-fat diet optimizes your hormone profile, which in turn enhances every aspect of your health and well-being.

For men, the focus is usually on testosterone and its effects on body composition, and for women, reproductive hormones and their effects on fertility and menstruation.

While it’s true that eating too little fat impairs hormone production and increasing intake can improve it, the effects are far less dramatic than you might think. 

Furthermore, the physiological differences between a moderate-fat diet, such as one that provides 20 percent of daily calories from fat, and a high-fat diet, such as one that provides twice that, are downright negligible.

For example, a study conducted by scientists at the National Cancer Institute involved the analysis of the hormone levels of 43 men who followed two diets that provided different amounts of dietary fat.

The researchers split the men into two groups: 

  1. Group one got 19 percent of their calories from fat.
  2. Group two got 41 percent of their calories from fat. 

After five and a half months, the scientists found that the men in the high-fat group had just 13 percent higher testosterone levels than those in the low-fat group—far too little of a difference to impact strength and muscle gain. 

Now, this isn’t to say that high-fat dieting is inherently bad, just that it guarantees little in the way of fat loss, muscle gain, or improved health. 

Furthermore, the two biggest downsides of high-fat dieting are:

  1. It makes it very easy to overeat, because high-fat foods generally contain more calories and are less filling than high-carb and high-protein foods. 
  2. It often leaves scanty calories for eating protein and carbs which, as you now know, are extremely helpful for improving your body composition.

Thus, my usual recommendation is to eat enough fat to maintain your health, enjoy your meals, and stay satisfied, but not so much that you often overeat or struggle to eat enough protein and carbs.

And how much fat is that per day?

You can read this article for the detailed answer … 

How to Know Exactly How Many Carbs You Should Eat

… but the TL;DR is that you want to get around 20 to 30 percent of your calories from fat whether you’re cutting, lean bulking, or maintaining.

Specifically, I recommend most people set their fat intake at:

  • 20 percent of calories when cutting and lean bulking
  • 25 to 30 percent of calories when maintaining

And if you’re over 20 percent body fat as a man or 30 percent as a woman, I recommend you get 30 percent of your calories from fat. (If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll note this means your macros will be 40 percent protein, 30 percent carbs, and 30 percent fat). 

Summary: To optimize your body composition, get around 20 percent of your calories from fat when cutting and lean bulking and 25 to 30 percent when maintaining.

How to Figure Out Your Calories and Macros

None (little to no physical activity) A little (one to three hours of exercise or sports per week) A moderate amount (four to six hours of exercise or sports per week) A lot (seven to nine hours of exercise or sports per week) A TON (ten or more hours of exercise or sports per week) Custom Activity Multiplier
Lose fat ("cut") Build lean muscle ("lean bulk") Maintain the same weight ("maintain")
 

Let’s learn how this calculator works.

First, you input:

  • Your weight
  • Your height
  • Your age
  • Your activity level
  • Your body composition goal

And then, it calculates:

  • Your basal metabolic rate (BMR)
  • Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)
  • Your target calorie and macronutrient intake

Let’s take a minute to discuss each of these functions.

Step 1: Calculate Your Basal Metabolic Rate

best macro calculator app

Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy your body would burn if you were to lie motionless for a day, without food. In other words, it’s the minimum amount of energy it costs to stay alive for 24 hours.

It’s called this because basal means “forming a base, fundamental.”

Unless you’re extremely active, your BMR constitutes the majority of your energy expenditure. Your brain alone burns about 10 calories per hour, for instance. This is why keeping your metabolism functioning optimally is a big part of successful weight loss and maintenance.

For example, I’m 34 years old and weigh 195 pounds, and my BMR is about 1,900 calories. I say “about” because you can never truly know how many calories you’re burning every day without doing fancy lab tests (and even then, it’ll vary slightly from day to day). 

Fortunately, you don’t need to do that to achieve your goals. You just need to do some simple arithmetic to get a good enough guesstimate.

There are a number of mathematical formulas you can use to calculate your BMR. 

The one I like most for our purposes here is known as the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, which was introduced in 1990 by scientists from the University of Nevada to address some of the shortcomings of an older formula, the Harris-Benedict equation.

Here’s the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation for men:

BMR = 10 x weight (in kilograms) + 6.25 x height (in centimeters) – 5 x age (in years) + 5

If that looks like Greek to you, don’t worry—all you have to do is solve from left to right, like this:

  1. Multiply your weight in kilograms by 10.
  2. Multiply your height in centimeters by 6.25.
  3. Add these two numbers together.
  4. Multiply your age in years by 5.
  5. Subtract the result from the sum of steps 1 and 2.
  6. Add 5 to the result.

Let’s see how this plays out for a 200-pound man who’s 5 feet and 11 inches tall and 41 years old.

First, he needs to convert his weight into kilograms, which is accomplished by dividing the number of pounds by 2.2. So, 200 / 2.2 = 90.9, which we’ll round up to 91 kilograms. 

Then, he needs to multiply this by 10: 91 x 10 = 910.

Next, he needs to convert his height into centimeters, which is accomplished by multiplying the number of inches by 2.54. So, 71 x 2.54 = 180 centimeters. 

Then, he needs to multiply this by 6.25: 180 x 6.25 = 1,125.

Next, he needs to add these two numbers together: 910 + 1,125 = 2,035.

After that is multiplying his age in years by 5 (41 x 5 = 205) and subtracting the result from the sum above: 2,035 – 205 = 1,830. 

And last is adding 5 to that number: 1,830 + 5 = 1,835. 

Thus, this man’s BMR is approximately 1,800 calories.

Want to know yours? Take a break and calculate it now! 

You’ll need to know it soon anyway. And if you’d prefer to skip the math, just scroll up and use the Legion macronutrient calculator. 

Step 2: Calculate Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure

what should my macronutrients be

 

Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is exactly what it sounds like: the total number of calories you burn every 24 hours.

Your TDEE consists of your BMR plus all additional energy burned during physical activity and digesting and processing the food you eat.

“Eating food burns energy?” you might be wondering. 

Yes sir, food costs energy to digest, process, and absorb, and different types of foods cost more energy than others.

Technically speaking, this is known as the thermic effect of food, or TEF, as well as thermogenesis, and research shows that it accounts for approximately 10 percent of TDEE.

In this way, your metabolism does “speed up” when you eat, and the size of the boost depends on several factors:

  • The types of foods eaten

For example, protein costs the most energy to use and store, followed by carbohydrate and then dietary fat.

Studies also show that the thermic effect of highly processed foods is substantially less than their whole-food counterparts. 

This is one of the contributing factors to the obesity epidemic because a diet of mostly processed foods results in less energy expenditure than one rich in whole foods, which makes it easier to accidentally overeat.

  • How much food you eat in one sitting

Smaller meals result in smaller increases in energy expenditure and larger meals result in larger increases.

  • Genetics

Some people just have naturally faster metabolisms than others (bastards). Don’t worry, though, the differences tend to be very small.

This helps explain why a number of studies have shown that high-protein, high-carb diets are best for maximizing fat loss. There are other factors, of course, but the significant increase in TEF is certainly one of them.

So, how do you calculate your TDEE? 

First you need to know your BMR, which you just learned how to calculate, and then you need to account for the additional energy you’re burning, which requires a little more work.

There are a number of ways to calculate how many calories you’re burning through exercise and physical activity, including activity trackers, exercise machines, and mathematical methods.

Unfortunately, activity trackers aren’t very accurate. They often grossly overestimate how many calories you burn, making them more or less useless. 

Exercise machines can be just as bad. For instance, an analysis conducted by scientists at the University of California-San Francisco found that, on average:

  • Stationary bicycles overestimated calories burned by 7 percent.
  • Stair-climbers overestimated by 12 percent.
  • Treadmills overestimated by 13 percent.
  • Elliptical machines overestimated by 42 percent (ouch).

The most accurate way to estimate your TDEE is to use several mathematical models to estimate your basal metabolic rate, and how many calories you burn through physical activity and TEF, but this is time-consuming, complicated, and overkill. 

Instead, you can use a back-of-the-napkin shortcut that gives you a reasonably accurate estimate of your average TDEE.

This method relies on what are called activity multipliers, which are numbers (that vary based on your activity level) you multiply your BMR by to calculate your approximate TDEE.

Most TDEE calculators on the internet use activity multipliers from a formula known as the Katch-McArdle formula. Unfortunately, I’ve found these multipliers often overshoot people’s actual TDEEs.

Therefore, I recommend the following slightly modified activity multipliers when calculating your TDEE, which are also the ones I used to create Legion’s macronutrient calculator: 

BMR x 1.15 = Sedentary (little or no exercise)

BMR x 1.2 to 1.35 = Light activity (1 to 3 hours of exercise or sports per week)

BMR x 1.4 to 1.55 = Moderate activity (4 to 6 hours of exercise or sports per week)

BMR x 1.6 to 1.75 = Very active (7 to 9 hours of exercise or sports per week)

BMR x 1.8 to 1.95 = Extra active (10+ hours of exercise or sports per week)

These calculations won’t tell you how much energy you’re burning on any given day, of course, but they give you a reasonable estimate of the average amount of energy you burn every day based on how active you are.

Fortunately, this snapshot of your average daily energy expenditure is all you need for reliable fat loss and muscle gain. It also makes creating meal plans a breeze, which works wonders for long-term compliance.

Let’s see how this math works for me. 

We already know that my BMR is about 1,900 calories, and I do four to six hours of moderate exercise per week. 

Per the calculations above, my TDEE should be around 2,700 calories (1,900 x 1.4), give or take a hundred calories or so. 

And that’s empirically correct as my meal plan currently provides around 2,700 calories per day, which perfectly maintains my current body composition. What’s more, when I intentionally eat less than this, I lose fat, and when I intentionally eat more, I gain fat.

Step 3: Calculate Your Target Daily Calorie and Macronutrient Intake

Once you’ve calculated your average TDEE, you’re ready to figure out how many calories you should eat every day.

The first step in working this out is determining what you want to do with your body composition.

  • If you want to lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories than you’re burning.

This is known as cutting.

  • If you want to gain muscle while minimizing fat gain, you need to eat slightly more calories than you’re burning.

This is known as lean bulking.

  • If you want to maintain your current weight and body composition, you need to eat more or less how many calories you’re burning. 

This is known as maintaining.

Let’s go over how to do all of this.

Set Your Calories and Macros for Cutting

When your goal is to lose fat as quickly as possible while minimizing muscle and strength loss, fatigue, and the other negative side effects of dieting, you want to maintain an aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit of about 25 percent. 

In other words, when you’re cutting I recommend that you eat about 75 percent of your average TDEE. For most people, this comes out to 10 to 12 calories per pound of body weight per day.

For example, we established that my average TDEE is 2,700 calories, so when I cut, I should drop my calories to about 2,000 (2,700 x 0.75). And this is exactly what I do whenever I need to lose fat, and it has allowed me to get very lean without any muscle loss to speak of.

I didn’t pick this 25 percent number out of thin air, either. 

Studies show that it works tremendously well for both fat loss and muscle preservation when combined with resistance training and high protein intake.

For instance, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland) split national- and international-level track and field jumpers and sprinters with low levels of body fat (at or below 10 percent) into two groups:

  1. A small calorie deficit group, which maintained a 300-calorie deficit (about 12 percent below TDEE).
  2. A large calorie deficit group, which maintained a 750-calorie deficit (about 25 percent below TDEE).

After four weeks, the small calorie deficit group lost very little fat and muscle, and the large calorie deficit group lost, on average, about four pounds of fat and very little muscle. Neither group experienced any negative side effects to speak of.

So, if you want to lose fat quickly without losing muscle, you want to maintain about a 25 percent calorie deficit per day.

Once you have your cutting calories worked out, you just need to turn them into daily macronutrient targets using the percentages you learned earlier in this article: 

  • 40 percent of your calories should come from protein.
  • 40 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate.
  • 20 percent of your calories should come from dietary fat.

Protein and carbohydrate contain about four calories per gram, and dietary fat contains about nine calories per gram. Therefore, all you have do to figure out your macros is the following:

  1. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.4 and divide the result by 4 to figure out your target daily protein intake (in grams).
  2. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.4 and divide the result by 4 to figure out your target daily carbohydrate intake.
  3. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.2 and divide the result by 9 to figure out your target daily fat intake.

Using myself as an example, here’s how my daily calorie target (2,000) would break down into protein, carbs, and fat: 

2,000 x 0.4 = 800 calories from protein

2,000 x 0.4 = 800 calories from carbs

2,000 x 0.2 = 400 calories from fat

Then, divide the protein and carb calories by four and the fat calories by nine.

800 / 4 = 200 grams of protein

800 / 4 = 200 grams of carbs

400 / 9 = ~45 grams of fat

When it’s all said and done, my daily calorie and macronutrient targets for cutting are as follows: 

  • 2,000 calories
  • 200 grams of protein
  • 200 grams of carbs
  • 45 grams of fat

With these numbers in hand, I can then create a cutting meal plan that allows me to lose fat like clockwork by hitting these targets every day with foods I like to eat.

Read this article to learn how: 

The Definitive Guide to Effective Meal Planning

Set Your Calories and Macros for Lean Bulking

Unless you’re new to proper weightlifting, you need to maintain a slight calorie surplus over time to gain an appreciable amount of muscle.

This is because a calorie surplus boosts muscle protein synthesis, increases anabolic and decreases catabolic hormone levels, and improves workout performance. All of that adds up to significantly better muscle and strength gains over time.

In other words, when calories are abundant, your body’s “muscle-building machinery” fires on all cylinders, and when calories are restricted, it can’t get out of first gear.

You don’t want to eat too many more calories than you’re burning, however, because after a point, increasing food intake no longer boosts muscle growth but just fat gain instead.

So, how large should your calorie surplus be to maximize muscle growth while minimizing fat gain?

A lot less than you might imagine. 

A study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences provides an illustrative example of why. The researchers divided 39 elite athletes from a variety of different sports (rowing, soccer, ice hockey, etc.) into two groups: 

1. Group one followed a meal plan created by a nutritionist to produce an increase of 0.7 percent of body weight per week. 

This entailed increasing the participants’ calorie intake from about 2,800 to 3,600 calories per day, a 28 percent calorie surplus on average. I’ll refer to this group as the “30-percent-surplus group.”

2. Group two was encouraged to eat more calories than they burned every day, but didn’t follow a precise meal plan. This group essentially used intuitive eating to maintain a slight calorie surplus.

They ended up increasing their calorie intake from about 2,900 to 3,200 calories per day, a 10 percent calorie surplus on average. I’ll refer to this group as the “10-percent-surplus group.”

Both groups also lifted weights four times per week in addition to continuing their sport-specific training, training each major muscle group twice per week. Everyone followed their diet and exercise plans for 8 to 12 weeks (depending on how much weight they wanted to gain).

The researchers measured the participants’ weight and body composition using dual x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) before and after the study. 

The result? 

Both groups gained almost the exact same amount of muscle, but the 30 percent surplus group increased their body fat by about 20 percent, whereas the 10 percent surplus group lost a small amount of body fat.

Here’s a chart showing both group’s body fat levels during the study: 

calorie calculator

(The dotted line represents the 30-percent-surplus group, and the solid line represents the 10-percent-surplus group).

And here’s a chart showing both group’s muscle gain during the study: 

tdee calculator

As you can see, the 10-percent surplus-group gained just as much muscle as the 30-percent-surplus group, despite gaining almost no body fat.

The results of this study also nicely conform to what I’ve experienced with my own body and working with thousands of others: 

The point of diminishing returns when lean bulking is somewhere around 110 percent of your average TDEE.

That is, you’ll likely gain just as much muscle eating about 110 percent of your average TDEE as you would eating 120 or 130 percent but a lot less fat. 

And so that’s my recommendation for lean bulking: eat about 110 percent of your average TDEE. For most people, this comes out to 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day.

For me, this would mean eating about 3,000 calories per day (2,700 x 1.1). And again, this is exactly what I do when I want to start a lean bulking phase, and it results in slow and steady muscle gain with minimal fat gain.

In the beginning of this section, I said you need to maintain a slight calorie surplus over time to gain an appreciable amount of muscle . . . unless you’re new to proper weightlifting.

The reason for this is that in your first three to six months of weightlifting, you can build muscle at a much faster rate than usual, because your body is hyper-responsive to your training.

During this “newbie gains” phase, as it’s called, you can probably benefit from closer to a 15 to 20 percent calorie surplus. You’ll gain more fat than if you ate fewer calories, of course, but you’ll also gain substantially more muscle.

That said, I still typically tell newbies to aim for a calorie surplus of around 10 percent above TDEE. 

Why? 

Because most people tend to eat a bit more than they intend to while lean bulking anyway, and this is especially true of people who are new to proper dieting and weightlifting. 

That is, instead of telling a novice to eat 120 percent of their TDEE every day, I tell them to aim for 110 percent and allow themselves a few larger meals per week during these first several months. 

So, once you have your lean bulking calories worked out, you just need to turn them into daily macronutrient targets using the percentages you learned earlier in this article: 

  • 25 percent of your calories should come from protein.
  • 55 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate.
  • 20 percent of your calories should come from dietary fat.

To figure this out, do the following:

  1. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.25 and divide the result by 4 to figure out your target daily protein intake.
  2. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.55 and divide the result by 4 to figure out your target daily carbohydrate intake.
  3. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.2 and divide the result by 9 to figure out your target daily fat intake.

Using myself as an example again, here’s how my daily calorie target (3,000) would break down into protein, carbs, and fat: 

3,000 x 0.25 = 750 calories from protein

3,000 x 0.55 = 1,650 calories from carbs

3,000 x 0.2 = 600 calories from fat

Then, divide the protein and carb calories by four and the fat calories by nine.

750 / 4 = ~190 grams of protein

1,650 / 4 = ~410 grams of carbs

600 / 9 = ~65 grams of fat

When it’s all said and done, my daily calorie and macronutrient targets for lean bulking are as follows: 

  • 3,000 calories
  • 190 grams of protein
  • 410 grams of carbs
  • 65 grams of fat

With these numbers in hand, I can then create a lean bulking meal plan that allows me to gain muscle like clockwork by hitting these targets every day with foods I like to eat.

Read this article to learn more about how to lean bulk as effectively as possible: 

The Ultimate Guide to Bulking Up (Without Just Getting Fat)

Set Your Calories and Macros for Maintaining

This shouldn’t really come into play until you’ve completed several cycles of cutting and lean bulking and more or less have the body you want

You use your lean bulking phases to add muscle and your cutting phases to strip away fat, and along the way, assess your physique to see how far you still have to go to look the way you want to look. 

Eventually, you’ll cut down to a lean body fat percentage and absolutely love what you see in the mirror. This will be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have in your fitness journey.

Calculating your maintenance calories is straightforward. There are two ways to do it:

1. Eat the same amount every day.

This would be your average TDEE, and for most people, it comes out to around 14 to 16 calories per pound of body weight per day.

Practical speaking, this will mean that some days you’ll be in a slight calorie deficit and other days a slight surplus. That’s fine. They will balance out to neither weight loss nor gain over the course of weeks, months, and even years if you so desire.

2. Eat more on the days that you’re more active and less on the days that you’re less active.

This requires that you estimate your energy expenditure each day and eat accordingly.

I prefer the first option because it’s the simplest, but the second can be better for people who are very active on certain days and very inactive on others. If you’re one of those people (or just want to give the second method a try), read this article to learn how to make this work: 

How to Use Calorie Cycling to Build Muscle and Lose Fat

If you want to go with the first option, half your work is already done.

You’ve already figured out your TDEE, so now all you have to do is convert it into macronutrient targets. 

Using myself as an example again, my TDEE is 2,700 calories per day, so that’s how much I’ll want to eat per day to maintain my weight. 

Here’s how to turn your maintenance calories into macros:

  • 30 percent of your calories should come from protein.
  • 40 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate.
  • 25 percent of your calories should come from dietary fat.

Which means all you have to do to figure out your macros is the following:

  1. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.3 and divide the result by 4 to figure out your target daily protein intake.
  2. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.45 and divide the result by 4 to figure out your target daily carbohydrate intake.
  3. Multiply your target daily calorie intake by 0.25 and divide the result by 9 to figure out your target daily fat intake.

Using myself as an example, here’s how my daily calorie target (2,700) would break down into protein, carbs, and fat: 

2,700 x 0.3 = 810 calories from protein

2,700 x 0.4 = 1,080 calories from carbs

2,700 x 0.25 = 675 calories from fat

Then, divide the protein and carb calories by four and the fat calories by nine.

810 / 4 = ~200 grams of protein

1,080 / 4 = 270 grams of carbs

675 / 9 = 75 grams of fat

When it’s all said and done, my daily calorie and macronutrient targets for lean bulking are as follows: 

  • 2,700 calories
  • 200 grams of protein
  • 270 grams of carbs
  • 75 grams of fat

With these numbers in hand, I can then create a maintenance plan that allows me to maintain my body composition with ease by hitting these targets every day with foods I like to eat.

At this point, you can also start experimenting with intuitive eating principles—eating by “feel”—instead of rigidly following a meal plan every day. 

Check out this article to learn how: 

Can Intuitive Eating Help You Get the Body You Really Want?  

The Bottom Line on How to Figure Out Your Macros

macronutrient calculator bodybuilding

The number of calories you eat and how they break down into protein, carbs, and fat has more impact on your physique than what foods you eat and when you eat them.

In short, your body weight depends on calories in versus calories out, and:

  • If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn every day.
  • If you want to gain weight, you need to eat more calories than you burn every day.
  • If you want to maintain your weight, you need to eat more or less the same number of calories you burn every day.

And your body composition is heavily influenced by both your calorie and macronutrient intake. 

Thus, if you want to lose fat and not muscle, or gain as much muscle and as little fat as possible, you want to pay special attention to how much protein, carbs, and fat you’re eating.

There are many ways to set up your calories and macros, but here’s what I recommend:

If you want to lose fat and not muscle, you want to eat … 

  • 75 percent of your TDEE every day
  • 40 percent of your calories should come from protein
  • 40 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate
  • 20 percent of your calories should come from dietary fat

If you want to gain muscle with minimal fat gain, you want to eat … 

  • 110 percent of your TDEE every day
  • 25 percent of your calories should come from protein
  • 55 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate
  • 20 percent of your calories should come from dietary fat

And if you want to maintain your body composition, you want to eat …

  • 100 percent of your TDEE every day
  • 30 percent of your calories should come from protein
  • 40 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrate
  • 25 percent of your calories should come from dietary fat

Or, you can just plug your numbers into the Legion macronutrient calculator, and it’ll do the heavy lifting for you!

Once you’ve figured out your calories and macros, you want to take your targets and turn them into a sustainable, enjoyable meal plan. These articles will teach you how: 

The Definitive Guide to Effective Meal Planning

How to Make Meal Plans That Work For Any Diet

7 Tips for Making Perfect Meal Plans for Weight Loss

If you follow the instructions in these articles and consistently stick to your meal plan, you can lose fat and gain muscle like clockwork.

That said, if you’re unsure of what to do or you’d rather have someone else do all of the work, I can help. 

If you just want a paint-by-the-numbers simple pre-made meal plan for losing fat or building muscle, check out our Legion cutting and lean bulking meal plans for men and women.

And if you don’t like the food choices on those meal plans or want a plan custom-tailored to your unique needs, check out our Legion custom meal plan service. In this case, a member of my team will work with you to create a meal plan from scratch that’s perfectly suited to your goals, preferences, and dietary needs.

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What do you think about this macronutrient calculator? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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