Should I eat back my exercise calories to gain weight?

When trying to gain weight, a common question is whether you should eat back the calories you burn from exercise. The quick answer is that it depends on your goals and the type and intensity of your workouts. Eating back at least some exercise calories can help maximize muscle growth when strength training. However, you may need to reduce calorie intake from exercise as your body composition goals change over time.

What does “eating back exercise calories” mean?

When you exercise, your body uses energy in the form of calories. The amount of calories burned depends on the duration and intensity of the workout. For example, a moderately intense 60-minute gym session can burn 300-500 calories. Eating back exercise calories means consuming additional calories to replace what was burned during your workout.

People trying to lose weight are often advised not to eat back all their exercise calories. This creates a calorie deficit needed for fat loss. However, the recommendations may differ if you are underweight and trying to gain weight and muscle.

Should you eat back calories when bulking up?

When your primary goal is muscle gain rather than fat loss, eating back most of your exercise calories can help fuel your workouts and optimize muscle growth.

Here are some reasons why eating back calories can be beneficial when bulking up:

  • It supports energy levels for intense training. Weightlifting with inadequate calorie intake can impair your performance.
  • It helps ensure you are in a calorie surplus needed to gain weight. If you don’t eat back enough calories, you may unintentionally create too large of a deficit.
  • Consuming protein and carbs after training can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
  • Adequate calorie intake reduces the risk of losing muscle while dieting. Low calorie intake coupled with intense training can promote muscle breakdown.

That said, you may not need to eat back every single calorie burned. A good starting point is to eat back around 70-90% of the calories you burn during exercise. You can then adjust this intake up or down based on your rate of weight gain and how you feel during workouts.

Factors that influence calorie needs

Several factors affect how many additional calories you may need to eat when bulking up:

Your base calorie needs

Your non-exercise daily calorie needs, also known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR), impacts your total calorie requirements. Men generally have higher calorie needs than women due to greater muscle mass and body size. If your BMR is already high, you may need more exercise calories on top of your baseline intake.

Type and length of training

The more intense and longer duration your workout, the more calories you will burn. For example, a heavy 60-minute weightlifting session can burn over 500 calories. In contrast, lighter 30-minute circuit training may only burn around 200 calories. High intensity interval training also burns significantly more calories than steady-state moderate cardio. The more calories you burn, the more you may need to eat back.

Your current body fat percentage

Those starting with a higher body fat tend to need lower calorie surpluses to gain muscle compared to very lean individuals. If you have a lot of fat to lose, aim for a smaller calorie surplus of around 10-15% above maintenance needs. If very lean, you may require 20-25% more calories to achieve a reasonable muscle building rate.

Amount and pace of weight gain

Aim to gain weight at a slow, steady pace for maximum muscle growth with minimal fat gain. The commonly recommended rate is around 0.25-0.5% of total body weight per week. For a 180 pound male, that equates to gaining around 0.5-1 pound per week. If you are not gaining weight or gaining too quickly, adjust your calorie intake accordingly.

Other nutrition considerations when bulking

In addition to total calories, other diet factors are important for optimal muscle growth:

Protein intake

Consuming adequate protein is crucial when building muscle. Current recommendations suggest eating 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.1-1.8 g/kg) when bulking. Spread protein intake evenly across 4-5 smaller meals rather than a few large servings.

Carbohydrate timing

Carbs provide energy for working muscles and stimulate the muscle growth process. Time your carbohydrate intake around exercise by consuming carbs and protein both before and after training.

Food quality

Focus your diet on whole, minimally processed foods like lean proteins, dairy, eggs, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes. Limit intake of added sugars, refined grains and heavily processed junk foods.


In addition to protein, consume sufficient vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. These micronutrients support muscle repair, energy metabolism and overall health.

Sample meal plan to eat back exercise calories

Here is an example high-calorie meal plan for a 180 pound male weightlifter to eat back exercise calories:

Meal Foods Calories
Breakfast 3 eggs, 1 cup oatmeal with berries, 2 slices whole grain toast with peanut butter 800
Mid-morning snack Protein shake with milk, banana, 2 tbsp peanut butter 500
Lunch 8 oz chicken breast, 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup mixed vegetables 700
Afternoon snack Greek yogurt with granola and berries 350
Dinner 8 oz salmon, 1 cup quinoa, 1 cup broccoli 700
Evening snack Cottage cheese with apple slices 300
Total calories 3350

This provides around 3300-3400 calories, which includes eating back calories burned from 60-90 minutes of intense weight training. The total calorie intake could be adjusted up or down by 200-300 calories depending on the individual’s rate of weight gain.

At what point should you stop eating back calories?

While eating back calories can maximize muscle gains initially, this strategy may become counterproductive as you become more muscular and approach your ideal physique.

Here are some signs it may be time to reduce calorie intake from exercise when bulking:

  • Weight is increasing at a faster than ideal rate (over 0.5% of total body weight per week)
  • Abdominal fat is increasing substantially
  • You can no longer see your abs
  • Muscle definition is becoming blurred
  • You feel overly full and lethargic from eating so much

At this point, you may need to cut back on total calorie intake to lean out again before resuming a slow bulk. Create a smaller calorie surplus of only around 10% above maintenance needs. Or, maintain your current calorie intake while increasing exercise. Monitor your physique and make calorie adjustments as needed.

Should you eat back calories from cardio?

Steady-state moderate cardio like walking, running, cycling and rowing burns a significant amount of calories. While you need these calories from weight training, the same may not be true for traditional cardio when bulking.

Some downsides of eating back all your cardio calories include:

  • Higher calorie surplus promotes greater fat gain
  • Excessive calorie intake from cardio can lead to quicker weight gain
  • Higher risk of going above your calorie needs for muscle growth

A good compromise is to eat back around half the calories burned from moderate cardio exercise when bulking up. This provides enough additional calories to fuel your cardio workouts but prevents an extreme calorie surplus.

However, feel free to eat back most of your calories after high intensity interval training. HIIT provides strength and muscle benefits similar to weights, so you need proper refueling afterwards.

Supplements to support muscle gain

Certain supplements can enhance the muscle building process when combined with proper strength training and nutrition:


Creatine directly increases lean muscle mass by providing muscles with more energy to perform reps. It also signals muscle growth through various molecular pathways. Try consuming 5 grams per day.

Protein powder

Whey and casein protein powders provide a convenient way to increase daily protein intake. Have a shake with 20-40 grams protein shortly after workouts.


This amino acid boosts muscle endurance, leading to more total reps performed per workout. The recommended daily dose is around 4-5 grams.


Carnitine plays a key role in energy production in muscle cells. It may help increase muscle mass and strength when consuming 2-3 grams per day.

Zinc and magnesium

These minerals are involved in protein synthesis and energy production. Supplement with zinc (25-30 mg) and magnesium (200-400 mg) to ensure optimal levels.

Sample workout routine to maximize muscle growth

To gain muscle effectively, focus on these principles in your training:

  • Train each muscle group 2-3 times per week
  • Include compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and bench presses
  • Lift in the 6-12 rep range for optimal muscle hypertrophy
  • Progressively increase weight lifted over time
  • Perform 3-4 sets per exercise
  • Limit rest periods to 1-2 minutes between sets

Here is a sample 5-day workout split focusing on different major muscle groups each session:

Day 1: Chest

  • Bench Press – 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Incline Bench Press – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Dumbbell Flyes – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Dips – 3 sets x 10-12 reps

Day 2: Back

  • Deadlifts – 4 sets x 6-8 reps
  • Lat Pulldowns – 3 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Seated Cable Rows – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Dumbbell Rows – 3 sets x 10-12 reps

Day 3: Shoulders

  • Overhead Press – 4 sets x 6-8 reps
  • Lateral Raises – 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • Front Raises – 3 sets x 12-15 reps
  • Face Pulls – 3 sets x 15-20 reps

Day 4: Legs

  • Squats – 4 sets x 6-10 reps
  • Leg Press – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Leg Curls – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Calf Raises – 3 sets x 10-12 reps

Day 5: Arms

  • Barbell Curls – 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Skullcrushers – 4 sets x 8-10 reps
  • Hammer Curls – 3 sets x 10-12 reps
  • Triceps Pushdowns – 3 sets x 10-12 reps

Perform cardio or conditioning work like sprints, cycling or rowing on 1-3 non-weightlifting days for 20-30 minutes. This provides a sufficient muscle building stimulus while eating back enough calories to fuel your workouts and growth.

Putting it all together

Should you eat back exercise calories when bulking?

Eating back most of your calories from intense weight training workouts will maximize muscle growth in a calorie surplus. However, limit calorie intake from moderate cardio to prevent excessive calorie surpluses.

How many calories should you eat back?

Aim to eat back 70-90% of calories burned from weight training and about 50% of calories burned from steady-state cardio. Adjust as needed based on your rate of weight gain.

When should you stop eating back calories?

Reduce calorie intake when weight gain exceeds 0.5% per week, abdominal fat increases substantially or muscle definition decreases. Refeed at maintenance or in a small surplus.

How can you optimize muscle growth?

Combine proper strength training, adequate protein, sufficient calorie surplus, and supplements like creatine and protein powder. Gain weight slowly and monitor your body composition.

The bottom line

Eating back most of your lifting calories can promote muscle gains when bulking up. But don’t go overboard on total calorie intake. Gain weight slowly and adjust your calorie intake and exercise expenditure to meet your goals. Aim to maximize muscle growth while minimizing unnecessary fat gain.

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