How To Know If You Are In A Calorie Surplus (6 Steps)

Knowing whether you are in a calorie surplus is simple, especially with all the tools we have access to nowadays. 

A simple way is to monitor your weight over a minimum of 4 weeks. If your weight increases by 1-2 % after this period, it means that you are in a calorie surplus. You may also want to track your diet to know exactly what to eat in a caloric surplus, ensuring you hit your calorie target.

It’s important to know that being in a calorie surplus results in gaining muscle and fat. 

This is because it is easy to fall off track and slip into a larger-than-ideal surplus, particularly if the process is not monitored. 

Below I will explain the science behind achieving an adequate calorie surplus so that you’re minimizing fat gain and maximizing muscle gain.

Key Takeaways

  • A caloric surplus and reaching your physique target successfully depends on factors that impact metabolism, such as physical activity levels, diet, biological traits, and training history.
  • Knowing whether you are in a surplus is simplified with the following steps: adding extra calories to your maintenance levels, and then sticking to this new calorie target for at least a month as you track your weight and food intake.
  • Research suggests going ~10-20% above maintenance calories is an optimal caloric surplus to minimize fat mass gain. You will likely need to adjust your surplus over time based on your weight trend. 

What Is A Calorie Surplus?

A calorie surplus, also referred to as an energy surplus, is eating more calories than required to maintain your weight, thus exceeding your maintenance calories. 

For example, if you eat 300 calories above your maintenance, you will be in a 300 calorie surplus.

In sports nutrition, this is a controlled phase of overfeeding (often referred to as “bulking”) where manipulation of body composition is required to gain muscle mass. 

Factors That Go Into A Caloric Surplus

Going into a caloric surplus varies from person to person. 

This means that there is not one single energy surplus estimate that works for all (you may have heard of the expression “no one size fits all”). 

This is because of individual differences associated with going into a caloric surplus, which include but are not limited to age, gender, genetics, energy expenditure, and training history. 

The following section will explain this in a bit more detail, referring to some scientific studies. 

What Does Science Say?

Research investigated body weight and body composition gains of 12 pairs of identical twins going on an energy surplus over 100 days. 

Despite all the participants consuming the same amount of extra calories, the results showed differences in body weight and body composition gains between subjects.

This was because of:

  • Genetic differences related to hormone levels and surplus adaptation, as some subjects were more susceptible to storing fat than others.
  • Differences in energy expenditure, as some subjects burned more energy than others when ingesting food and absorbing nutrients.

Key Takeaway: Individual differences in weight gain and body composition during a caloric surplus are consistent scientific findings. This boils down to energy expenditure and biology, regardless of sharing similar genetics (such as identical twins).

6 Steps To Know If You Are In A Calorie Surplus

6 steps to know if you are in a calorie surplus

There are 6 simple steps that will help you get started. 

Assuming that you are currently eating maintenance calories, the following steps provide you with a basic guide to understand whether you are in a calorie surplus: 

1. Figure Out Your Maintenance Calories 

Use an online calculator which will estimate the number of calories required to maintain your weight.

2. Add 10-20% to Your Maintenance Calories 

Determine the caloric surplus which is a percentage (10-20%) of your maintenance calories. 

Then, add this value to your maintenance calories. 

3. Stick To Your Calorie Surplus For 1-2 Weeks 

After determining the calories needed to be in a surplus, you need to eat that amount daily in addition to your maintenance calories. 

You can trial this amount for 1-2 weeks, adjusting the surplus quantity after the trial period if needed. 

Adjusting the surplus will depend on the results achieved (more on this below).

4. Monitor Your Weight Gain & Assess The Trend

Monitoring your surplus will help understand your progress towards reaching your physique target. 

You should monitor your weight weekly or twice weekly at the same time of day, for a minimum of 4-weeks. You may also want to record this so you can analyse the trend.

Ask yourself: are you gaining more or less than 0.25-0.5% of bodyweight per week

  • If your weight increases every week, continue with the same surplus amount until you reach your weight target. 
  • If your weight is steady or decreases, you should increase your caloric surplus and trial this over 1-2 weeks.

5. Ensure You’re Tracking Your Diet Using An App or Food Diary 

Use a mobile app (for example Macrofactor) or a food diary to log everything you eat and drink, over 1-2 weeks. 

During this stage, you will get accustomed to the foods and portions needed to be in a calorie surplus. 

Eventually, you won’t need to track your diet as you will be able to quantify the portions of food and types of drinks needed to meet your surplus.

6. Change Your Caloric Surplus As Your Bodyweight Changes

Often a caloric surplus is not a fixed number, and it will need adjustments over time depending on your weight trend. 

If you have been in a surplus for a while, you may notice a significant weight change (for example, ~5% weight gain). 

In this case, you should reassess your maintenance and surplus calories based on your new weight. 

For example, let’s imagine your pre-surplus weight was 154.3 lbs and your current weight is 163.1 lbs. 

You gained 8.8 lbs. Let’s calculate this as a percentage: [ (8.8 lbs : 154.3 lbs ) * 100 ] = 5.7 

This is ~ 5.7% weight gain which means it’s significant and time to reassess your maintenance and surplus calories.

At this point, you could return to step #1.  

Can You Tell If You Are In A Calorie Surplus Without Tracking?

Yes, you can. 

You may notice differences in your body composition, your clothes may feel a little tighter, and you may feel stronger while resistance training. 

If the surplus is large, you may visibly see that you are in surplus. If the surplus is small, it may be more difficult to visibly see the difference in your physique.

Without tracking your diet intake, you may not know precisely whether you are hitting your calorie intake and you won’t have the detail of your macronutrient breakdown. 

In this case, it may be difficult to track the quality of your surplus, in terms of maximizing muscle gain while minimizing fat gain. 

If you don’t care about the muscle/fat gain ratio, and your target is solely to gain weight, you will still be able to tell if you are in a surplus without tracking.

How Many Calories Do You Need For A Surplus? 

Research suggests that you should aim for a surplus of ~10-20% above maintenance calories, aiming to increase your body weight by 0.25-0.5% per week

This target is ideal if your aim is to increase muscle mass while minimizing fat gain. 

Let’s look at an example. 

Imagine your maintenance calories are 2000 kcal/day. Here are your surplus options: 

Surplus 1

If you want to gain weight steadily (for example 1.1-2.2 lbs per month), opt for a smaller calorie surplus of 10%, or 200 kcal/day. 

Surplus 2

If you want to gain weight quicker, in a shorter time frame (for example 2.2-4.4 lbs per month), opt for a larger calorie surplus of 20%, or 400 kcal/day. 

Just know that the more aggressive your caloric surplus, the greater the likelihood that some of your weight gains will come from fat.   

Surplus 3

Other research suggests that the number of calories to create an energy surplus should be 370-480 kcal/day, not a fixed percentage.  

As a percentage of 2000 calories, this would be an 18-24% caloric surplus. 

This would be considered an ‘aggressive caloric surplus’, which is often referred to as a “dirty bulk”. 

Learn More About Bulking 


Bouchard C, Tchernof A, Tremblay A. Predictors of body composition and body energy changes in response to chronic overfeeding. Int J Obes (Lond). 2014 Feb;38(2):236-42. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2013.77. Epub 2013 May 20. PMID: 23736367; PMCID: PMC3773296.

Bouchard C, Tremblay A, Després JP, Nadeau A, Lupien PJ, Thériault G, Dussault J, Moorjani S, Pinault S, Fournier G. The response to long-term overfeeding in identical twins. N Engl J Med. 1990 May 24;322(21):1477-82. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199005243222101. PMID: 2336074.

Iraki, J., Fitschen, P., Espinar, S., & Helms, E. (2019). Nutrition Recommendations for Bodybuilders in the Off-Season: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(7), 154.

Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, 131.

About The Author

Giulia Rossetto

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).

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