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How Many Calories Do Bodybuilders Eat?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-09-26


How many calories do bodybuilders eat? Most people have an image of bodybuilders consuming massive quantities of food. Stories like this one, describing what Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson eats per day perpetuates this idea. 

Before your clients get an idea to mimic this kind of diet plan, make sure they understand how it works. Bodybuilders work out a lot. They burn many more calories than the average person. They also calculate calorie intake precisely and cycle between phases of eating more and eating less. 

Whether or not you or your clients are serious about getting into bodybuilding, it’s interesting to learn just how important diet is. Here’s how much they eat during every phase. 

Athletes Eat More

The topic of what athletes eat, and how much, usually comes up around the Olympics. It’s fun to see how much they have to—or get to, depending on your perspective—consume to fuel training and competition. Here are some fun stats collected ahead of the 2016 summer games

  • Endurance cyclers, runners, and swimmers – 3,000 to 8,000 calories per day with a focus on carb loading before events

  • Team sports – 3,000 to 4,500 calories per day with some extra carbs pre-event

  • Weightlifters – 2,800 to 6,000 calories per day, dropping calories a little before events

  • Gymnasts – 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day, with calorie restriction ahead of events

This gives you a general idea of the more calorie-demanding events and training. It also shows how different types of athletes shift their diets before competitions. In general, of course, all athletes eat more than the rest of us. They need to replace the calories lost during pretty intense training. 

Love sports nutrition and want to help all of your clients plan better diets? Check out the ISSA’s Certified Nutritionist course and join the program today!

So How Many Calories Do Bodybuilders Eat Every Day?

Bodybuilding isn’t an Olympic sport, but in terms of diet, it is similar to the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting. What makes bodybuilding different is that it is an aesthetic competition. Bodybuilders need to focus on muscle gain, like lifting athletes, but they also need to shed fat to get the right look. 

Calorie intake for bodybuilders varies depending on the phase of their training. Diet in each phase is different because each one has a different goal: 

  • Bulking. The goal of the bulking phase is to gain muscle mass. This is an off-season period in which the bodybuilder consumes a lot of calories to gain weight while also lifting heavily. 

  • Cutting. On-season eating occurs in the cutting phase. This is when a bodybuilder cuts back on calories and increases cardio workouts to shed fat. Losing the fat is crucial to getting that bulky, muscular look so important to a competition. 

  • Maintenance. This is a careful phase of eating enough to maintain weight and muscle mass without adding fat. 

For true competitors, there is also a fourth phase, which lasts a week or two. This is the pre-event phase with a very specific plan for eating and hydrating. It generally includes tapering calories, taking protein up and then down, manipulating carbs, cutting out salty, and managing water intake. The result is extreme muscle definition for competition. 

How Many Calories Do Bodybuilders Eat to Gain Muscle Mass? 

The reputation bodybuilders have for eating a lot comes from the bulking phase. You will need to calculate the right amount of calories for bulking based on your individual maintenance number. It should be 10% to 20% more than required to maintain your current weight. For example, if you need 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight, you might increase it to 2,300 per day to bulk. 

According to a study of bodybuilders during their bulking phase, women consumed an average of 3,200 calories per day. Men took in 3,800 calories per day on average. These numbers give you a good idea of what real bodybuilders eat because researchers based the numbers on nearly 400 competitors. 

What Does Calorie Intake Look Like in the Cutting Phase for Losing Body Fat?

The same study found that the bodybuilders consumed significantly fewer calories during the cutting phase. Women, on average, ate only 1,200 calories per day to lose fat, while men consumed 2,400 calories. 

Generally, in the cutting phase, calorie adjustment is opposite to the bulking phase. Calorie intake is approximately 10% to 20% below the number needed for weight maintenance. If your weight maintenance is 2,000 calories per day, you can reduce to 1,700 for cutting. 

Women are embracing bodybuilding more than ever, but they gain muscle, shed fat, and eat differently from men. Here’s a guide to building a solid bodybuilding plan for female clients

How Do Bodybuilders Eat for Maintenance? 

Gaining, losing, and maintaining weight are all careful calculations. As your weight changes, you will need to recalculate daily intake. Your maintenance calories will change as your weight goes up or down. For instance, you may start out on your bodybuilding journey with a maintenance calorie intake of 2,000, but by the time you reach the maintenance phase it could be 2,500. Reassess monthly for the best results. 

What Do Bodybuilders Eat? 

In addition to calorie counting, bodybuilders pay careful attention to what they eat and the ratio of macronutrients in their daily diets. 

Protein

Protein is essential for building muscle and a major target area in the diets of bodybuilders. Most people can get away with consuming about 15% to 20% of their daily calories as protein, but bodybuilders need more. 

This is especially true during the bulking phase. Bodybuilders eat between 1.8 and 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This amounts to up to 30% daily calories. During cutting, you actually need more protein, up to 2.5 grams per kilogram. This helps prevent muscle loss while in a calorie deficit. 

Eating too much protein at once can be counterproductive, so many bodybuilders spread it out, eating six or seven smaller meals per day. The best sources of protein for healthy muscle building are lean. Choose a variety of fish and seafood, chicken, tofu, legumes, and low-fat dairy. 

A protein powder is another option. A protein shake is convenient when you're on the go and need an extra calorie and protein boost. Plus, they're available in a variety of protein options such as whey protein or casein protein. 

Make sure your clients understand that there is such a thing as too much protein. Excessive protein intake can stress the kidneys in particular, which is dangerous. It’s not a bad idea to have a bodybuilding client get a meal plan from a registered dietician or nutritionist to be sure they’re doing it safely. 

This is a good general protein guide for any of your clients wondering how much protein they should be eating, whether they’re focused on fat loss, lean muscle building, or weight loss.

Carbohydrates

During a bulking phase, carbohydrates make up the largest proportion of calories, between 45% and 60%. To put on weight and recover from workouts, you need carbs. Most bodybuilders take this number down a little for the cutting phase. Increasing protein and decreasing carb calories are better for weight loss without muscle loss. 

In any phase, aim for mostly non-refined, whole grains and low-glycemic index foods for your carbohydrate intake. Some good choices include: 

  • Whole grain bread

  • Brown rice

  • Oatmeal

  • Quinoa

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Peas

  • Beans and lentils

Fats

The proportion of fats in a bodybuilder's diet is the remainder of calories after accounting for protein and carbs. If you precisely calculate those two, fats should fall into place. Limit saturated fat and focus on healthy fats, like nuts and seeds, olive oil, fatty fish, and some high-quality dairy. 

The Art of a Bodybuilding Diet and Training Plan

The bottom line is that bodybuilding diets are precise. If you or a client has an interest in serious bodybuilding, make a careful plan for both workouts and diet. A sloppy approach will not get you the best results. Without precision calculations, you can end up with too much fat or even lose hard-earned muscle mass. 

Love the strategy that goes into bodybuilding? It isn’t just a sport–it’s an art form. Learn how to expertly combine lifting, aerobic movements, diet, and smart supplementation, so you can guide any client through a complete transformation. Sign up for ISSA’s Bodybuilding Specialist program!


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