TDEE stands for total daily energy expenditure, and it’s a mathematical estimate of how many total calories you burn throughout the day based on your weight, height, age, and activity level.
Accurately calculating your TDEE is important because once you know how many calories you burn each day, you can create a meal plan that allows you to systematically lose, gain, or maintain your weight, depending on your goals.
In other words, once you have your TDEE, you can use this information to manage your energy balance properly.
For instance . . .
- If you want to lose weight, you need to eat about 20-to-25% less than your TDEE.
- If you want to gain weight, you need to eat about 110% of your TDEE.
- If you want to maintain your current weight, you need to eat roughly your TDEE.
In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about calculating your TDEE, the best equations for estimating your TDEE, how to use your TDEE to lose fat or gain muscle, and more!
Total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is exactly what it sounds like:
The total amount of energy you expend every 24 hours.
It’s often expressed in calories, which is a measurement of energy. One calorie is the amount of energy it takes to heat one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (also called a kilocalorie).
For example, I’m 36 years old, 6’1 and 195 pounds, and I lift weights for about 5 hours and do steady-state cardio for about 3 hours per week (I switch to high-intensity interval training when cutting), and my TDEE is about 2,800 calories.
“Wouldn’t this number change throughout the week based on what you’re doing every day?” you might be wondering.
Yep. Our total daily energy expenditure is a moving target for various reasons, including exercise, non-exercise activities, calorie intake, and even sleep duration.
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about the daily fluctuations. For our purposes, we only need to know our average total daily energy expenditure, which is what us fitness folk are actually referring to when we talk about TDEE.
Once you know your TDEE, you can make effective decisions about how to eat based on three premises:
- If you consistently eat more than that number of calories every day, you’ll gain weight.
- If you consistently eat less every day, you’ll lose weight.
- If you consistently eat that much, you’ll maintain your weight.
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The thing that most dictates whether you gain or lose weight is energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between the energy you feed your body and the energy it expends.
You see, the scientifically validated, “boring” reality is this:
- Meaningful weight loss requires you to expend more energy than you consume.
- And meaningful weight gain (both fat and muscle) requires the opposite: more consumption than expenditure.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Just look at every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last 100 years—including countless meta-analyses and systematic reviews—which have all concluded that meaningful weight loss requires energy expenditure to exceed energy intake.
So, the bottom line is: a century of metabolic research has proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that energy balance is the basic mechanism that regulates weight gain and loss.
All that 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.
Luckily, this isn’t hard.
As you know, you must be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, but how large should that deficit be? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Larger?
In other words, should you eat 90% of the calories you burn every day? Eighty percent? Less?
Some fitness folk advocate a “slow-cutting” approach where you use a mild calorie deficit and lax workout schedule to whittle down fat stores over the course of many months.
Slow cutting is at least slightly easier and forgiving in some ways than a more aggressive approach, but the upsides aren’t all that significant in most people, and they come at a steep price: duration.
Namely, slow cutting is, well, slow, and for many dieters, this is more troubling than eating a bit less food every day.
For instance, all things being equal, by reducing your calorie deficit from 20 to 10%, you’re halving the amount of fat you’ll lose each week and doubling the amount of time it’ll take to finish your cut.
This is a problem for most people, because the longer they remain in a calorie deficit of any size, the more likely they are to fall off the wagon due to life commotion, dietary slipups, scheduling snafus, and so on.
This allows you to enjoy faster results without having to sacrifice anything but calories, and this in turn allows you to spend more time doing the more enjoyable stuff (maintaining and lean bulking).
Therefore, my recommendation is an aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit of about 25% when cutting.
In other words, when you’re cutting I recommend that you eat about 75% of your TDEE. For most people, this comes out to 10 to 12 calories per pound of body weight per day.
I didn’t pick this 25% 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%) into two groups:
- Group one maintained a 300-calorie deficit (about 12% below TDEE).
- Group two maintained a 750-calorie deficit (about 25% below TDEE).
After four weeks, the first group lost very little fat and muscle, and the second group lost, on average, about four pounds of fat and very little muscle. Neither group experienced any negative side effects to speak of.
These findings are also in line with what I’ve experienced working with thousands of people.
You can calculate this number by multiplying your TDEE from the calculator by 0.75, or you can use a back-of-the-envelope formula for arriving at this number:
10 to 12 calories per pound of body weight per day.
This may seem unsophisticated, but it’s what most people “in the know” use to set their cutting calories.
This simple formula will give you a number that’s around 75% of your TDEE without the hassle of using a TDEE calculator for weight loss.
A few notes on how to use this formula:
- If you’re a woman, new to lifting weights, and/or you work out less than 3 hours per week, then I recommend you multiply your body weight in pounds by 10.
- If you’re a man or woman, you’ve got two to three years of lifting under your belt, and/or you workout 3 to 6 hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 11.
- If you’re a man, you’ve got 4+ years of lifting under your belt, and/or you work out 6+ hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 12.
For example, using the TDEE calculator we established that my TDEE is 2,800 calories, so when I cut, I should drop my calories to about 2,100 (2,800 x 0.75).
Here’s what the math looks like using the simpler method:
I’ve been lifting over 15 years and I work out about 5.5 hours per week, so I’ll want to multiply my body weight by 11 to estimate my daily cutting calories.
195 x 11 = 2,145—almost exactly what I get when I multiply my TDEE by 0.75.
Remember, though, that all formulas, including this one, are just estimates. No matter what any TDEE formula tells you, if you’re running into difficulties losing weight, you’ll need to adjust your diet or activity levels.
Check out this article to learn how:
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
In order to build a meaningful amount of muscle, you need to maintain a calorie surplus over time.
This has been confirmed in a number of studies that show 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.
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% of body weight per week.
This entailed increasing the participants’ calorie intake from about 2,800 to 3,600 calories per day, a 28% calorie surplus on average. I’ll refer to this group as the “30% 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% calorie surplus on average. I’ll refer to this group as the “10% 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.
Both groups gained almost the exact same amount of muscle, but the 30% surplus group increased their body fat by about 20%, whereas the 10% surplus group lost a small amount of body fat.
Here’s a chart showing both group’s body fat levels during the study:
(The dotted line represents the 30% surplus group, and the solid line represents the 10%-surplus group).
And here’s a chart showing both group’s muscle gain during the study:
As you can see, the 10% surplus group gained just as much muscle as the 30% 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% of your average TDEE.
That is, you’ll likely gain just as much muscle eating about 110% of your average TDEE as you would eating 120 or 130% but a lot less fat.
And so that’s my recommendation for lean bulking: eat about 110% 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 3,100 calories per day (2,800 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.
Once again, instead of using the TDEE calculator you can also use a back-of-the-envelope formula of . . .
16-to-18 calories per pound of body weight per day.
A few notes on how to use this formula:
- If you’re a woman, new to lifting weights, and/or you work out less than 3 hours per week, then I recommend you multiply your body weight in pounds by 16.
- If you’re a man or woman with two to three years of lifting under your belt and/or you workout 3 to 6 hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 17.
- If you’re a man, you’ve got 4+ years of lifting under your belt, and/or you work out 6+ hours per week, then multiply your body weight in pounds by 18.
I’m in the middle, so here’s how the math works out for me:
195 x 17 = 3,315
From experience I know this number is a little high for me, so I typically go with the more conservative multiplier of 16 calories per pound of body weight at the start of my bulks.
Here’s what that looks like:
195 x 16 = 3,120—again, almost exactly what I get when I multiply my TDEE by 1.1.
And that’s all there is to it!
After figuring out your daily calorie intake for cutting or lean bulking, the next step is to set your macros for cutting or bulking.
Check out this article to learn how:
And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.
+ Scientific References
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