Knowing how big your surplus should be and whether this is too much depends on your body composition and the way it reacts to consuming more calories than normal.
From my experience, I can tell you that many people unknowingly tend to follow pseudoscience guidance when it comes to estimating their energy needs.
So, how big should a calorie surplus be? And, what is too much? A starting point should be within the range of 10-20% above your maintenance calories. Research also suggests a set range of 360-480 kcal/day to be ideal. Either of these recommendations would work. A calorie surplus that is “too much” would go above both ranges.
There is a fine line between estimating an adequate surplus and a larger than ideal surplus, particularly with the broad guidelines available for calculating such energy needs.
As such, below I’ll explain all the factors that go into how big your calorie surplus should be.
- Knowing how big your surplus should be depends on factors such as age, genetics, gender, muscle mass, and exercise routine.
- Too much of a surplus is when your estimation falls above the optimal ranges of either 10-20% or 360-480 kcal/day, both of these estimates have been investigated in research settings.
- Some extreme surplus ranges, for example, 1200 calories over maintenance, may result in gaining weight quickly in the form of fat.
What Is Considered A Calorie Surplus
A surplus is when you eat additional calories that go above your maintenance calories.
You can be in a caloric surplus if, for example, you eat 100 kcal/day more than your usual daily caloric intake.
Often this will result in gaining weight in the form of muscle and fat.
The fat/muscle ratio gain will of course depend on the amount of your caloric surplus, along with other factors, which will be explained below.
Factors That Affect How Big A Calorie Surplus Should Be
There are multiple factors that will determine the amount of your calorie surplus.
This also means that such factors will affect your energy expenditure.
These primarily include biological traits and physical activity levels.
1. Physical Activity Levels
Training experience and training volume/frequency
Exercise energy expenditure varies depending on the quantity of training sessions done each week, training intensity, and whether an athlete is experienced or not.
This means that estimating a surplus for an athlete can differ widely.
Daily energy expenditure will differ depending on the activities you carry out during the day.
For example, a sedentary employee (such as an office clerk) will consume fewer daily calories than a more active employee (such as a nurse).
2. Biological Traits
Men and women have different body composition, thus energy needs for a caloric surplus differ.
The presence and lack of certain hormones and genes influence weight and consequently how big a surplus should be.
Aging is linked with a decrease in energy expenditure.
This means that we burn less calories with age. This will also impact the size of your surplus.
Energy expenditure is impacted by the amount of muscle tissue you have.
Muscle uses more energy than fat, so the more muscle tissue you have the more calories you will burn as your body needs more energy to function.
Takeaway: Given all the factors that go into a calorie surplus, it is clear that there is not a single calorie surplus estimate that works for everyone. This is why recommendations are based on ranges (10-20% or 360-480 calories above maintenance) and it’s up to individuals to test how their body responds over time.
How Much Of A Calorie Surplus Is Too Much?
Too much is when the surplus goes above 10-20% of maintenance calories, or above the set range of 360-480 kcal/day if you are an athlete who usually has a stable weight.
For example, if you eat 2600 kcal/day including a 600 kcal/day surplus, this is too much as it is 30% of maintenance calories. It also goes 120 kcal above the 360-480 kcal/day range.
A study looked at resistance-trained athletes going on a 1250 kcal/day surplus for 8 weeks. This showed that, although subjects kept on lifting weights frequently, weight and fat mass increased significantly.
This study confirms that the risks of having too big of a surplus are quick weight gain, especially fat gain. This would mean that your surplus would shift from a ‘lean bulk’ to a ‘dirty bulk’.
If you are an advanced bodybuilder or elite athlete, you would be more conservative with the surplus, opting for a “lean bulk” to minimize fat gain.
“Advanced bodybuilders are advised to be more conservative with the caloric surplus and the rate of weekly weight gain”Iraki Juma (et al.) – Sports Journal, MDPI
On the other hand, if you are a beginner athlete, you may not want to be as strict with your surplus as the muscle/fat gain ratio might not matter as much.
When you are on a caloric surplus and new to training, the rate of muscle gain is in your favor.
Is There A Minimum Calorie Surplus To Gain Muscle?
The minimum calorie surplus required to facilitate optimal rates of muscle gain is not known.
However, there is clear evidence of building muscle tissue from an energy surplus, with or without training.
As the ideal surplus range is 10-20% above maintenance calories, a suggestion would be to choose 10% as a “minimum surplus” for gaining muscle.
Then, stick to this minimum surplus for a set period of time to see how your body responds (more on the exact steps below).
How To Get Started: Finding Your Optimal Calorie Surplus
Determining the optimal surplus is easy.
- Determine maintenance calories (you can use this calculator).
- Eat at your maintenance calories for 1-week to ensure that the calorie calculation is accurate and your weight is unchanged. It’s important that your maintenance calories are accurate prior to adding a surplus.
- Add a 10-20% surplus, or 360-480 kcal/day
- Eat this amount for 1-2 weeks while tracking your weight and diet intake. If your weight goes up, you are in a surplus.
- Check by how much your weight changes along with progress photos to know if your surplus is big enough
- Adjust your caloric surplus up or down as your weight changes.
Recommendations to Know if the Surplus is Big Enough or Not
Here you will find some recommendations to help you in the process.
Ask yourself the following questions:
You can also refer to my other article for more information on how to know if you are in a calorie surplus.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is A 300 Calorie Surplus Too Much?
300 kcal would be considered too much of a surplus if you maintain your weight by eating anything less than 1500 calories per day.
Is a 500 Calorie Surplus Too Much?
500 kcal would be considered too much of a surplus if you maintain your weight by eating anything less than 2500 calories per day.
Is A 700 Calorie Surplus Too Much?
700 kcal would be considered too much of a surplus if you maintain your weight by eating anything less than 3500 calories per day.
Is A 1000 Calorie Surplus Too Much?
1000 kcal would be considered too much of a surplus if you maintain your weight by eating anything less than 5000 calories per day.
About The Author
Giulia Rossetto is a qualified Dietitian and Nutritionist.
She holds a Masters in Human Nutrition (University of Sheffield, UK) and more recently graduated as a Dietitian (University of Malta).
Giulia aims to translate evidence-based science to the public through teaching and writing content. She has worked 4+ years in clinical settings and has also published articles in academic journals.
She is into running, swimming and weight lifting, and enjoys spending time in the mountains (she has a soft spot for hiking and skiing in the Italian Dolomites).