This week, we investigate the calorie need of building muscle in elite athletes.

The fundamentals of building muscle can be broken down into three key areas:

1) Training (progressive overload).
2) Energy intake (calories).
3) Protein intake.

If one criterion is not met, then your muscle building potential will be limited.

Of which, energy intake is an area many athletes fail to execute correctly. So, how many calories is enough for elite athletes?

Answering this question is somewhat difficult as research in this area, especially with elite athletes is incredibly sparse. However, a 2003 study by Garthe et al can provide some insight.

In this study, 39 elite athletes from a variety of Olympic based sports enrolled onto a training programme designed to elicit muscle growth.

The athletes were split into two groups and continued their sport specific training (16.7 hours/week) for a total of 8-12 weeks. Although their training loads similar, their dietary intake was not.

Group A were given nutritional counselling to achieve a 500kcal surplus (3041kcal to 3585kcal) where group B were told to eat at calorie maintenance (3032kcal).

Upon completion, group A gained more body mass (2.7kg vs 1.2kg), however the differences in muscle growth were not significant (1.7kg vs 1.2kg). Therefore, the differences in body mass were due to gains in fat mass (1.1kg vs 0.2kg).

Moreover, both groups equally improved 1RM strength, however group A decreased their 40m sprint time and CMJ, potentially due to the increase in non-functional fat mass.

A few thoughts:

1) Once you meet the calorie demand for building muscle, extra calories increases fat mass.
2) The extra fat mass worsens an athlete’s power-weight ratio and their ability to perform.
3) Elite athletes have reduced rates of muscle growth, and therefore the calorie demand is typically less.
4) Although the study stated that 1.7kg vs 1.2kg (0.5kg) difference is non-significant, I would disagree. However, perhaps not at the expense of 0.9kg gain fat mass (every 8-12 weeks).

In terms of muscle growth efficiency, it’s far better to eat towards maintenance during muscle building phases to offset the accrual of body fat, yet still achieve similar rates of muscle growth.

That being said, I advise a very small surplus to primarily ensure that you’re not in an energy deficit and will therefore not limit gains. 

Whilst you’re here…If you’re an elite athlete and find this content interesting, but don’t quite know how to apply it to maximise your performance and take your athletic development to the next level, I can 100% help you through my Athlete Coaching Programme. Click the shiny orange button below to find out more.

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