How many calories does it take to build a pound of muscle?
How many calories does it take to build one pound of muscle?
By Rebecca Haight and Lucas Serwinski
Muscle vs. Fat
Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means it burns more calories when you’re at rest.
Muscle is also denser than fat, meaning it takes up less space. And yes, that’s literal space. Of two people that are the same height and weight, the person with the higher body fat percentage will wear a bigger clothing size.
On average, the density of fat is 0.9 g/mL and the density of muscle is 1.1 g/mL. That means one liter of fat weighs about 1.98 pounds, whereas one liter of muscle weighs about 2.3 pounds.
Note from Luke: People often think that fat is just excess calories stored on their body with no impact on hormones. Fat is actually quite hormonally active and impacts your leptin activity in particular. Leptin tells your brain you are full so it shuts down the desire to eat. The more fat you have the more leptin you produce as a way of your body trying to limit further calorie intake. The leaner you are, the less leptin you have which drives hunger. This is why being in a long-term calorie deficit causes leptin to drop and hunger and cravings to spike. So yes, fat takes up more space, burns fewer calories and doesn't look great when you're naked, but it DOES have an impact on your hormones and hunger.
Muscle tissue will burn seven to 10 calories daily per pound. And since fat burns two to three calories daily per pound, replacing a pound of fat with muscle helps you burn an additional four to six more calories each day.
Therefore, people with a greater muscle mass have a greater demand for calories. Leaner people may even be able to consume more calories a day and still maintain their body weight, while people with a higher body fat percentage will gain weight if they consume more calories.
One often over-blown assumption is that having more muscle means you can eat WAY more food. However when we look at the calorie expenditure increase from having an extra few pounds of muscle, the total amount is quite small. So the answer for why having more muscle mass helps keep you leaner goes beyond just how much you burn at rest.
The greater answer lies in the fact that muscle makes you more sensitive to insulin, which means you are hormonally healthier and the food you eat is more likely to be burned off as energy or stored in the muscles rather than the fat tissue. So even two people eating the SAME amount of food, the leaner person is more likely to store it in muscle or burn it as energy whereas the less-lean person has a greater chance of it going to fat stores.
As you'll see below, an even greater amount of energy is needed to create a pound of muscle. Once you have the muscle, it is likely to stay on your body with a small amount of calories. But getting the muscle built is where the extra calories are put to use.
The 3,500 Calorie Rule
Most people have heard the notion that 3,500 calories is equivalent to one pound of fat. That being said, the caloric deficit or surplus of 3,500 doesn’t necessarily equate to a one pound weight loss or gain.
The 3,500-calorie rule only pertains to the gain or loss of one pound of body fat, which unfortunately does not apply to other aspects of body weight. In other words, losing one pound of body fat does not mean you are going to lose one pound of all-around weight. This is largely because other systems are affected by changes in calories consumed. If you drop calories mostly from carbohydrates, you may be losing more total "weight" than one pound of fat, simply because the drop in carbohydrates also creates some water loss.
People often experience the "woosh" phenomenon of weight loss. This is the scenario where you are in a calorie deficit but see no changes in weight for days or weeks at a time. Then suddenly, one morning you wake up a few pounds lighter. This can be attributed to the fact that with a calorie deficit you ARE losing fat. However, as the fat cells release triglycerides for energy use, they can take up water in it's place. So even though fat is being burned, weight stays the same becuse temporarily the fat cells hold onto water.
This is why expecting one pound loss for every 3.500 calories burned can create issues. Even if a pound of fat is lost we see wild fluctuations from fat cells holding water, changes in carb and sodium intake, how much food is in your stomach or bowels and so forth. "Weight" takes more forms than just fat!
So.......in order to change actual body composition you need to see changes in actual tissue, body fat levels and skeletal muscle/lean body mass (LBM).
These aspects vary, however, from person to person depending on gender, diet, and starting body fat percentage.
For instance, women use more fat for fuel than men and lose less LBM. Diets with sufficient protein and exercise regimens with adequate resistance training spare LBM and therefore shed more fat. And finally, people with higher levels of body fat use more fat for fuel, and less LBM.
Fat Loss: A Scenario
If a person creates a 3,500 caloric deficit, that deficit does not come solely from fat. That person may get 90% of the energy deficit from stored fat, for instance, while the other 10% comes from LBM/protein.
In that scenario 10%, or 350 calories, comes from LBM, which has 600 calories per pound (remember that factoid!). That’s equates to about a half a pound of weight loss. The remaining 90%, or 3150 calories, come from fat, which equates to just under one pound of fat loss. Therefore, the total weight loss for that person would be about 1.4lbs (0.5lbs from LBM and 0.9lbs from fat).
So to lose an actual pound of fat in this scenario requires about 10% of a larger deficit than the 3,500 (a 3,850 calorie deficit) since 10% of the energy came from the breakdown of protein.
If that math just broke your brain, relax. This is exactly why focusing on 3500 calories = one pound can be an exercise in futility.
Calories in a Pound of Muscle
In general, there are 700 calories worth of energy in a pound of muscle tissue.
And because there a fewer calories in a pound of muscle, body weight will go down quicker if more muscle is lost, as opposed to body fat.
For instance, in a theoretical (and completely impossible) example in which a person loses 100% muscle as a result of a 3,500-calorie deficit, they would lose 5lbs (3,500 calories/700 calories per pound).
Unfortunately this does not work the opposite way. And before you get your hopes up, I must clarify that it does take more than 700 calories to build a pound of muscle. Some people have assumed that if a pound of muscle only contains 700 calories then to create a pound of muscle, you only need to eat 700 calories above maintenance. If this thinking was correct, then you could gain a pound of muscle every month by eating 23 calories per day over maintenance. If that sounds too good to be true.....it is.
It takes more energy to store calories in the body when weight is being gained.
So even though one pound of muscle may only contain about 700 calories, it may take 2000 or more calories to build that muscle in the first place.
And therefore, even if you create a 3,500 surplus and 100% muscle was being gained, you wouldn’t gain 5lbs of muscle. In reality, you’d gain closer to 1.75lbs.
Real talk: This is why a small calorie surplus is needed, consistently, to create a new pound of muscle. You need about 2800 or so excess calories to build a pound of muscle. When we consisder that most people can only gain a few pounds of actual muscle maximally per month, that comes down to 200-300 calories over maintenance daily. Not much at all. And you can't force muscle growth which means eating more will only lead to fat gain.
In Layman's Terms
Lets think of losing fat and building muscle as a construction site.
Fat loss is more akin to demolishing an old building. Without going to extremes, in general as long as protein is high the greater calorie deficit we create, the more fat we lose. So it's like the more you swing the wrecking ball, the faster the building comes down.
However, building a pound of muscle is like creating a new structure. It might not take much to keep the building up and running (like utilites, maintenance etc). But creating a new addition or new building entirely takes a TON of effort.
Building muscle is rate limited. Unlike fat loss, you cannot just ADD more calories and expect the more you eat, the faster you'll gain muscle. This is like bring construction materials and a crew to build a new addition. There is an optimal amount of materials and crew to lay a foundation, build the framing and so on. But if you double or tripled the crew(more calories), things would not be built faster. You simply cannot go from 10 guys hammering 100 nails an hour to 1000 guys hammering 100 nails an hour. You reach a point where things are being built as fast as possible. Bringing more crew and more materials just means more piles of stuff and more crew standing around. (in this scenario the crew and materials not being utilized are exces calories store as fat).
And unlike just swinging a wrecking ball around to lose fat, the construction crew needs resource too. If maintaining a building is the 700 calories stored in a pound of muscle, the extra 2000 calories over that to build a new pound of muscle are the materials, crew, lunch breaks, refueling equipment and so on.
So what did we learn?
There are about 3,500 calories in a pound of fat. But creating a 3.500 calorie deficit rarely leads to exactly one pound of weight lost. Sometimes it's more and sometimes it's less. This is largely due to fluctuations in water and sodium which means we can't assume the scale is telling us everything we need to know.
There are only 700 calories in a pound of muscle. But it takes about 2700-2800 calories to BUILD a pound of muscle. We can't force extra muscle gain by eating more and we are very limited in the actual amount of muscle gained per month.
So....what do we do?
If you are leaning out, you need to create a steady deficit and use other means to measure progress like girth measurements, clothes fitting and the mirror. And you can't expect a math formula to create the exact weight loss you want to see.
If you are gaining muscle you don't need quite as many calories as you think. Instead you need a small consistent surplus that you raise every few weeks based on your results. It takes a lot of energy to build muscle but unfortunately you cannot force it to grow faster. This is a frustrating scenario for many people, but the absolute truth.
“All About Muscle Growth.” Precision Nutrition, 11 Feb. 2013, www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-muscle-growth.
Brooke, et al. “One Pound Of Fat Versus One Pound Of Muscle: Clearing Up The Misconceptions -.” BambooCore Fitness, 7 Nov. 2017, bamboocorefitness.com/one-pound-of-fat-versus-one-pound-of-muscle-clearing-up-the-misconception/.
Kent, Linda Tarr. “A Pound of Fat Vs. a Pound of Muscle.” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, 11 Sept. 2017, www.livestrong.com/article/438693-a-pound-of-fat-vs-a-pound-of-muscle/.
“The 3500 Calorie Rule.” Bodyrecomposition, www.bodyrecomposition.com/fat-loss/3500-calorie-rule.html/.