Gaining muscle requires you to be very intentional about the number of calories you eat and where these calories come from, but calorie counting isn’t the right approach for everyone who’s trying to bulk.
Can you gain muscle without counting calories or macros? Yes, you can gain muscle without counting calories or tracking macros, but it may take longer to achieve the same results as you would while tracking consistently because of the lack of precision.
Although it’s possible to gain muscle without counting calories, it’s important to know how to do it efficiently and where others sometimes go wrong so that you can avoid those mistakes.
After reading this article, you’ll learn:
- If you can gain muscle without counting calories or macros
- What results you can expect without tracking
- How to tell if you’re on the right track when you’re not counting calories
- 7 tips for success when you’re not tracking
Can You Gain Muscle Without Counting Calories or Macros?
It’s possible to gain muscle without counting calories or tracking macros. As long as you’re eating enough calories to provide your body with the additional energy it needs to build muscle, it doesn’t matter if you’re tracking them or not.
The way that you build muscle is by eating in a calorie surplus (more calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight) so that it has energy to puts towards muscle-building, which costs your body a lot of energy.
Additionally, for muscle gain to occur, you need to strength train to provide your body with a reason to adapt. Your body won’t build muscle unless it feels like it needs to keep up with demands.
Therefore, as long as you’re eating enough calories, being strategic about where these calories are coming from (getting enough protein as opposed to just eating more carbs and fats), and challenging yourself through resistance training, you will gain muscle.
However, it could be more difficult to ensure you’re eating enough when you’re not counting calories or tracking macros because you’ll have less frame of reference for how much you’re consuming day-to-day.
If you’re not tracking, you need to be more patient with the process. It could take longer to gain muscle when you’re not meticulously tracking, but it will happen once you’re more in tune with how many calories you need.
Many people prefer not to track calories or macros because it takes away the stress and anxiety of having to track every calorie. By not tracking, you may find that you’re more relaxed and able to enjoy the muscle-building process.
Ultimately, you have to decide which method is best for you and then try to be as consistent as you can with the process. As long as you’re being intentional, you can build muscle.
- Related Article: Do Macros Matter for Bulking? (Yes, Here’s Why)
What Results to Expect From Bulking Without Tracking
You can expect similar bulking results from not tracking as you could with tracking. However, the timeline for achieving these results could be drastically different based on your approach.
The reason for this is that if you’re tracking every calorie and being consistent with this day in and day out, you will gain muscle more easily.
If you’re on point with your calories and macronutrients (getting enough protein, carbs, and fats to fuel muscle growth) then at most you could expect to gain:
- Beginner (<2 years): up to 1.5lbs to 2.5lbs (men) or 0.65lb to 1lb (women) of muscle per month
- Intermediate (2-5 years): up to 0.75lb to 1.25lbs (men) or 0.33lb to 0.5lb (women) of muscle per month
- Advanced (5+ years): up to 0.3lb to 0.6lb (men) or 0.1lb to 0.25lb (women) of muscle per month
If you’re not tracking and just being intentional about increasing your intake, this is a step in the right direction, but you can’t actually ensure that you’re eating enough calories to fuel the muscle-building process.
For this reason, you probably won’t be able to put on muscle at the same rate that I mentioned above. In fact, if you’re not tracking, it’s probably more likely that you’ll either undereat and make muscle growth more difficult or overeat and put on more fat than muscle.
Bulking without counting calories or tracking macros is a process of trial and error, but if you’re monitoring your intake and adjusting accordingly based on changes in your body weight/measurements, then you will build muscle over time.
- Related Article: Should You Weigh Food Raw or Cooked When Tracking Macros?
Pros of Not Tracking for Muscle Gain
The pros of not tracking when trying to build muscle are that it’s:
- Less meticulous. You won’t need to play food Tetris to hit certain calorie intakes and macronutrient targets.
- Less calorie focused. You don’t have to count and obsess over every calorie you’re eating.
- Less time spent logging your food. You’ll have more time and energy to focus elsewhere.
Cons of Not Tracking for Muscle Gain
The cons of not tracking when trying to build muscle are that it:
- Is not as accurate. Without tracking, you’re always going to be estimating how much you’re consuming.
- Is a longer process. If you’re less accurate with your intake, it could take longer to figure out how much you need to eat to gain muscle.
- Can lead to you gaining more fat than muscle. Without tracking, you could easily overeat your calories or eat too many carbs and fat with not enough protein.
If you do want to give calorie tracking a try, I recommend the MacroFactor app. It takes an adherence-neutral approach to tracking, which helps remove some of the stress associated with trying to hit your macros perfectly every day. Using this link gets you an extra week on your free trial (2 weeks total). Cancel any time before your trial ends without being charged.
How Can You Tell You’re Eating Enough Without Counting Calories?
To build muscle efficiently, you need to be in a calorie surplus. You can determine that you’re in a calorie surplus based on how your measurements and/or bodyweight are changing over time.
If you’re noticing that your body weight is increasing or your measurements are going up, then it’s fair to say that you’re eating in a surplus and gaining mass.
If you’re not seeing changes in your measurements or your body weight over time, you will know that you aren’t eating enough calories to gain muscle. If this is the case, you need to be more intentional about increasing your calories.
Additionally, it’s important to evaluate your strength training routine to see if you’re challenging yourself enough or if you’re pushing too hard and not allowing your body to recover.
If you’re not recovering properly, you won’t be able to train at the same intensity that is required to gain muscle, you could become injured and unable to train, and you could break down muscle mass rather than build it.
How To Gain Muscle Without Counting Calories or Macros (7 Tips)
Seven tips for gaining muscle without tracking calories or macros are:
- Food journal your intake
- Aim for protein, carbs, and fats at each meal
- Monitor & adjust your serving sizes
- Add healthy fats for added calories
- Add high-protein snacks
- Be consistent with strength training
- Avoid excessive amounts of cardio
1. Food Journal Your Intake
The first tip that I would recommend for gaining muscle without counting calories or macros is food journaling. It’s a tool that can help you identify whether your eating patterns are supporting your efforts or working against you.
Food journaling is a fantastic tool for bringing more awareness to what and how much you’re eating without getting into the nitty-gritty details. It will be important initially because you’ll need to be more aware of your current intake so that you can be more intentional going forward.
I would recommend keeping up with a food journal for at least the first 4 weeks of your bulk. This is when it’s most important to understand how much you’re eating compared to how much you’re going to need.
Using your food journal along with tracking changes in your body weight and/or measurements will also enable you to asses how much progress is being made and where you could make changes.
2. Aim for Protein, Carbs, and Fats At Each Meal
The third tip for gaining muscle without tracking is to be consistent with including a source of protein, carbs, and fat at each meal because this will help ensure you’re getting enough calories from the right nutrients.
All of these nutrients will work together to help you gain muscle efficiently, so it’s important to include them all within your meals as your building blocks.
Protein is the most important for muscle building because it helps encourage muscle protein synthesis, which is a precursor for muscle growth.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source. Consuming an adequate amount of carbs is important for you to have the energy to train hard in the gym.
Fats are important for hormonal health and nutrient absorption, but they’re especially helpful for muscle building. They offer the most bang for your buck when trying to increase your calories because there are 9 calories per gram of fat (as opposed to protein and carbs, which only have 4 calories per gram).
If you have at least 1 serving of each of these nutrients in your three main meals, you’ve got a framework to build upon if you need to increase your calories and serving sizes from here.
3. Monitor & Adjust Your Serving Sizes
The second tip that I have for you to gain muscle without counting calories or macros is to monitor and adjust your serving sizes for each nutrient.
Even though you’re not tracking your intake, it can still be useful to have a frame of reference for how big to make your portions, which is why I recommend the Hand Portion Method.
The hand portion method uses the size of your hand as a reference for how big your portion sizes should be for each nutrient.
● 1 serving of protein = the palm of your hand
● 1 serving of carbs = a cupped handful
● 1 serving of fats = the size of your thumb
● 1 serving of fruit/veg = the size of your fist
Using these guidelines as a reference can help to make sure you’re getting enough of each nutrient and serve as a reference point for when you need to increase your serving sizes to add in more calories.
If you’re not gaining weight and your measurements aren’t changing, you can assume that you need to consume more calories. For example, instead of doing 1 serving of carbs (1 cupped handful) per meal, you might increase it to 2 servings (2 cupped handfuls).
- Related Article: Lean Bulk Macros: How To Calculate (The Proper Way)
4. Add Healthy Fats for Added Calories
Another important tip is to use healthy fat sources to your advantage when you need to increase your calories but you’re struggling with the amount of food you need to eat to do so.
As I mentioned earlier, fats have the most calories per gram compared to all of the other nutrients, which makes them a secret weapon for creating a calorie surplus.
Because they have more calories per gram, you can have less food volume for more calories, which is extremely helpful when you’re struggling to eat as much as you need to without feeling disgustingly full.
If you’re struggling to add more food, increase your serving sizes of fats or add a fat source in with one of the snacks that don’t already have one!
5. Add High-Protein Snacks
Tip number five is to find ways to add more protein because it’s really important to get enough protein in so you’re building more muscle than fat.
Protein should be a staple in all of your main meals, but even then you might not be getting enough. I recommend that you include protein in your snacks as well.
If you’re having around 20 grams of protein in one or two snacks per day along with the protein that you’re getting in your main meals, you’re probably consuming enough to ensure that muscle building is possible.
- For some high-protein meal ideas, check out these 15 meals that have 50g of protein.
6. Be Consistent With Strength Training
Another crucial factor in muscle building is strength training. Without it, you won’t be giving your body a reason to build muscle or even retain what muscle you currently have.
Muscle costs your body a lot of energy. If your body decides it doesn’t need it anymore, you could break down your muscle and use it for energy. This is unlikely to happen as long as enough food is coming in to be used for energy.
However, muscle growth will not occur if you’re not challenging your muscles often enough to signal to your body that it needs this additional tissue to keep up with the demands being placed upon it.
It’s also important to understand that what was once enough stimulus to result in muscle growth will not continue to be a stimulus once your body has adapted.
For this reason, you need to continue increasing the amount of weight that you’re using or the number of reps that you’re able to do at a certain weight.
7. Avoid Excessive Amounts of Cardio
Lastly, when building muscle without counting calories, it’s important to avoid excessive amounts of cardio because you don’t want the calories you’re burning off to be working against you.
If you’re burning off too many calories doing cardio, it will be even harder for you to eat enough calories to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle. As such, you should avoid an excessive amount of cardio anytime you’re trying to build muscle.
When you’re not counting calories, it becomes even more challenging to work out how much you need to eat if you’re doing too much cardio.
- Related Article: How To Reverse Diet Without Counting Calories (6 Steps)
Common Bulking Mistakes When You’re Not Tracking
The most common mistakes I see when trying to bulk without counting calories are:
- Not eating enough protein
- Being inconsistent with your daily intake
- Filling up on low-calorie foods
Not Eating Enough Protein
The most common mistake that people make when trying to bulk without counting calories or tracking macros is not eating enough protein to encourage muscle growth.
When you’re not tracking, it’s easy to think that you’re eating enough protein when you’re actually not. For this reason, I like to have a framework of what a standard serving size for protein looks like and how often I’m including it throughout the day.
Being Inconsistent With Your Daily Intake
Another common mistake that occurs when bulking without tracking is being inconsistent with your daily intake.
If you’re eating in a calorie surplus one day and then eating in a calorie deficit (fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight) the next day, it becomes much more challenging to gain muscle.
This is why I recommend food journaling to bring awareness to how much you’re consuming. If you can notice patterns of undereating, you can be more intentional about adding in the calories that you’re likely missing.
Filling Up On Low-Calorie Foods
The last common mistake I see with those who don’t count calories or track macros when bulking is filling up on low-calorie foods and not achieving a calorie surplus.
Some people assume that if they’re full throughout the day, they must be consuming enough calories to build muscle. However, this isn’t necessarily true.
For example, if you’re filling up on vegetables that are very low in calories, you won’t be eating enough calories during the day to build muscle, but you will feel full.
Be mindful of where your calories are coming from by balancing out your low-calorie foods with carbs, fats, and protein, and you’ll be much more likely to consume enough calories to reach a surplus and increase your muscle-building potential.
Gaining muscle without counting calories or macros is entirely possible, but it does require more of an understanding of where changes need to be made and how to adjust based on the data you’re collecting from your weight and measurements.
Additional Calorie Counting Resources
- How To Count Calories Without Food Labels (4 Ways)
- Building Muscle Without Supplements: Is It Possible?
About The Author
Amanda Parker is an author, nutrition coach, and Certified Naturopath. She works with bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters to increase performance through nutrition and lifestyle coaching.