Note: These guidelines are my own summary of Martin Berkhan’s Leangains system. I’d recommend you check out his site.
This guide has been viewed over 1 million times since the first publication in 2011. I’ve made revisions over 100 times since, the last major update being September 29th, 2015.
There is a school of thought that it can be beneficial for nutrient partitioning (and therefore body composition) to have more calories on the days you work out, and less on the days you don’t. Martin Berkhan in particular took this a step further by experimenting with higher carb/lower fat intake training days, and higher fat/lower carb intake rest days in forming his Leangains system.
This is my guide to calculating macros based on Martin’s Leangains system. You can see the results that this system produces here. This is exactly how I set things up for the vast majority of clients (for the most part) for years.
As with any serious nutrition strategy, these initial calculations are just the start point. Key to your success will be fine tuning your macros so that you keep progressing. These will come in later guides on the site. For now, you need a start point, and I’ve worked to make this guide as simple as possible, without compromising on the efficacy. I’ve given the bare-minumim theory because most people don’t want it when they are first starting out.
If you’d like to make this even easier, my macro calculation spreadsheet and detailed nutrition set-up guide is available for free download. Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the end of this article if you think you’d find that useful after reading. – Andy.
Calculate Calorie Intake
It’s necessary to calculate calorie intake first, before then dividing it up into macros. Here are the steps.
Step 1. Calculate your BMR
I like to call BMR your ‘coma calories’ – the energy intake you need, should you fall into a coma, to maintain your body weight. There are a variety of formulas, all of which produce a guess at best, so don’t worry about trying to calculate things perfectly because we’ll adjust our intake based on how we progress.
The Harris-Benedict formula is commonly used, but doesn’t work very well if you are particularly fat (it’ll overestimate your calorie needs) or particularly jacked (it’ll underestimate your calorie needs). Therefore I recommend the Katch-McArdle BMR formula as it’s based on body-fat percentage and is a little more accurate.
Metric: BMR = 370 + 21.6 * Lean Body Mass (in kg)
1 kg = 2.2 lbs, so if you’re used to using pounds, just divide your weight by 2.2 to find your weight in kg.
Lean Body Mass (LBM) = weight – (weight * (body-fat %/100))
You can estimate your body-fat percentage with a few quick body measurements here.
Step 2. Adjust for Activity
You need to add an ‘activity multiplier’ (x1.2~x1.9) to your BMR depending on your lifestyle/training.
- Sedentary (little or no exercise): BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active (training/sports 2-3 days/week): BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active (training/sports 4-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
- Very active (training/sports 6-7 days a week): BMR x 1.725
- Extremely active (twice per day, extra heavy workouts): BMR x 1.9
From these two calculations we now have our approximate daily energy expenditure (TDEE). We need to adjust this number based on our goal, which we’ll do next.
ESTIMATE TOTAL DAILY ENERGY EXPENDITURE
Step 3. Adjust Calorie Intake Based On Your Goal
It’s important to choose a goal – fat loss or muscle gain. Yes, I know you want both, and you might be able to achieve that to a degree, but for now I need you to look at yourself in the mirror and choose what you think is most important right now. If you need help with this, have a read of my Goal Setting Guide.
Goal: Fat Loss
A calorie deficit is required for fat loss, so we need to have a calorie intake under our TDEE (the calorie figure calculated in the previous section). The fatter we are the quicker we can lose body fat; the leaner we are, the more slowly we must take things so that we preserve muscle mass. Therefore, it’s best to make reductions to TDEE based on our body-fat percentage:
|Current estimated body-fat %||Reduce calorie intake by|
Goal: Muscle Gain
Increase TDEE by 20%.
Goal: ‘Body-recomposition’ (Both)
No changes will be made to calorie intake.
I rarely recommend this.
There is the idea that if calorie intake is kept at weight-maintenance levels, but the training is right and the meal timing is right, then muscle will replace fat in a perfect 1:1 ratio. Now while this is true it is rarely the quickest way for someone to go about achieving their goals. For most people this will simply compromise both, slow up the progress of everything, which will in turn threaten adherence to the plan significantly. The exception are certain ‘skinny-fat’ trainees.
The idea usually comes from a misguided sense of importance that tricks with meal timing can play and is especially prevalent in the Leangains community. (This isn’t a fault of Leangains, it’s just human nature to want to believe in shortcuts.)
We now have our target average daily calorie intake. The next step is to adjust that to give us more calories for our training days and less for the rest days.
CALCULATE AVERAGE DAILY CALORIE INTAKE
Step 4. Calculate Training & Rest Day Calorie Intake Targets
We want to split the calorie intake so that we are consuming more on our training days than our rest days. The idea is to optimize recovery.
An approximate 40% difference between your training and rest day calorie intake figures will do, and if you are training 3 or 4 days a week, here is the simplest way to do this:
Take your average daily calorie intake and multiply by 1.2 – this is your training day calorie intake figure.
Take your average daily calorie intake and multiply by 0.8 – this is your rest day calorie intake figure.
If you’re not training 3-4 days a week then see my more detailed diet set up guide.
CALCULATE TRAINING & REST DAY CALORIE TARGETS
Calculate Your Macros
It’s now time to divide our calorie budgets for the training and rest days between the three macros. Protein will be kept high always. Training days will have a high carbohydrate, low fat intake; rest days will be higher fat, lower carbohydrate intake.
There are fairly strict guidelines for protein setting, there are looser guidelines for fat intake setting, and the carbohydrates balance the calorie budget.
Step 5. Set Your Protein Intake
Protein is good. You’ve heard this even if you can’t remember why. Here’s why: It forms the building blocks for muscle, it has a protective effect on muscle tissue when dieting, and it’s the most satiating of the macro nutrients (i.e. it keeps away hunger).
Ignore what your mum says she read in the daily mirror – high protein diets do not cause kidney damage, nor do they raise your risk of cancer – unless you’re eating processed red meat, all the time, and in very large quantities. (For a full summary of the research and practical recommendations regarding high protein diets see this excellent article over on examine.com.)
Protein Intake When Cutting
The research data suggests an intake somewhere in the 2.3-3.1 g/kg (~1.1-1.4 g/lb) of lean body mass (LBM) range when dieting is where we want to be. Lower than this and we risk muscle loss; higher than this serves no real purpose – it will just make your supermarket visits more expensive, as well as limit the carbs and fats you could otherwise be eating in your diet. The higher end of this range comes from research data on bodybuilders going through contest prep – you won’t need to go this high, unless you are already shredded, and wanting to get to stage shredded levels of leanness from there.
→ I recommend 2.5 g of protein per kilogram of lean body mass each day when cutting. (~1.2 g/lb)
You can choose to go to up to 3.1 g if you have issues with hunger, as protein will keep you feeling fuller for longer. Check out the site’s main FAQ also if hunger is causing you issues as you can go fairly far just from altering food choices without adjusting your macros.
Protein Intake When Bulking
When bulking the optimal range of intake it slightly lower: 1.6-2.2 g/kg (~0.8-1.0 g/lb) LBM. If you go lower than this and you may not grow as much a you otherwise could have from your training; higher than this your body simply isn’t capable of using directly for muscle growth and repair. (Unless you’re pumping yourself full of drugs, which will raise the cap on how much muscle can be synthesized from protein each day, which is why you see drug-using bodybuilders go much higher than this range.)
I suggest we set it slightly higher than this range for a couple of reasons:
- There are inter-individual differences on how much protein is needed. You don’t know which end of the range your needs will lie, so as long as you have the budget, I’d argue that it’s better to go with the higher end of the range to be conservative.
- As you’re bulking, you’ll be growing so you’ll eventually need to eat more protein as you grow anyway.
→ I recommend 2.5 g of protein per kilogram of lean mass on both training and rest days. (~1.2 g/lb)
CALCULATE TARGET DAILY PROTEIN INTAKE
Step 6. Set Your Fat Intake
Consumption of dietary fat is important for hormonal regulation, especially testosterone production. It should never be eliminated from a diet. Make sure your average daily fat intake goes no lower than 0.9 g/kg (~0.4 g/lb) of LBM.
Fat Intake When Cutting
→ Average daily fat intake when cutting should be somewhere in this range: 0.9-1.3 g/kg (~0.4-0.6 g/lb) of LBM.
Go with the higher end of the range if you prefer a higher fat diet, the lower end of the range if you prefer more carbs in your diet. Those carrying more body fat will do better with a higher fat intake on training days than leaner individuals. This is to do with insulin sensitivity, which increases when you get leaner.
Now, we want to set your fat intake so that you have it higher on your rest days, and a lower on your training days. This is an attempt to improve calorie partitioning (less fat storage, better recovery and muscle gain).
The average male client will typically have a fat intake somewhere in the ~40-65 g range on training days, 60-100 g on the rest days. For the purposes of the calculation box below, I’ve taken the average fat intake figure, and then set it 30% higher and lower than that for the rest and training days respectively.
CUTTING? CALCULATE FAT INTAKE HERE
Fat Intake When Bulking
- When bulking have your average daily fat intake around 20-30% of calorie intake.
- Choose a percentage in that range based on whether you prefer a higher fat or higher carbohydrate intake. Then divide that by 9 to find how many grams of fat you should consume on average each day. (There are 9 kcal in each gram of fat remember.)
- We want to have a fairly large split between the fat intake on the training days and rest days. So, multiply by 0.7 to find your training day fat intake figure, multiply by 1.3 to find your rest day intake figure.
BULKING? CALCULATE FAT INTAKE HERE
Step 7. Calculate Carb Intake
Just think of carbs as being here to balance the equation so that you hit your training and rest day calorie targets. Carbs have 4 calories in each gram.
→ Training day carb intake = Training day calorie intake – training day fat intake – training day protein intake
→ Rest day carb intake = Rest day calorie intake – Rest day fat intake – Rest day protein intake
CALCULATE CARB INTAKE
What about macro ratios? I read somewhere that I should have 40/40/20.
Ignore the idea of macro ratios, these are just a function of the stage of dieting rather than something to target.
As you have just seen, protein intake is best set based on lean body mass, there are minimum recommendations for fat intake, and carbohydrate just makes up the calorie balance. What this means is that the ratio of the macronutrients that make up your diet will change as you progress – there will be more carbohydrate when we are bulking, and less when we are cutting. If you target specific macro ratios you’ll end up with a diet that is suboptimal for you.
Do these macros look right?
It’s not possible for me to look at a set of calculated macros and say whether they are correct or not. It’s going to vary greatly from person to person.
Now, one important thing to note it that the initial calculations we make are an estimation – a starting point and nothing more. Everyone’s actual energy expenditure will vary somewhere between plus or minus ~20% of that due genetic differences, the current state of metabolic adaptations, and NEAT variance. (More on this here).
We can’t calculate for these things, so a better question is, “How are these macros working for you?”
If you’re not tracking, you don’t know, so get started and make sure you don’t miss any points. From there you can fine tune things based on how you progress. Make sure you read my guide to tracking your progress.
I get a negative number for my carb intake on the rest days. What did I do wrong?
Check that you didn’t set your fat loss rate too high for your current level of body fat. If you have that right, then reduce the calorie split between the training and rest days (from 30% to 20% for example). If you’ve already done that, then reduce it further manually by just taking some of your carb intake from the training days and adding it to the rest days.
What should I read next?
If you’re looking for meal timing suggestions specifically for Leangains then I’d suggest my Leangains Overview and Meal Timing Guide. However, if you’d like something with fuller explanations which will allow for further customization, then check out my Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet, or get it in your inbox by filling out the form below. This isn’t Leangains specific but all the elements are covered.
Make sure you check out my progress tracking guide. A lot of people miss that at their own peril.
The guides covering how to adjust and fine tune and your diet are all here.
Good luck. Thanks for reading. Questions are welcomed in the comments. – Andy