The Harris-Benedict Equation

How does the Harris-Benedict equation relate to bulking up?

In 1918, two biochemists named J. Arthur Harris and Francis G. Benedict published a paper entitled, “A Biometric Study of Human Basal Metabolism“. It is archived on the web here.

Basal metabolic rate measures the number of calories burned daily as your body attends to its autonomic functions

In this paper, Harris and Benedict developed a formula that you can use to estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR is a measure of the number of calories your body burns each day as it attends to its autonomic functions including circulation and breathing. It does not include the energy used to digest food. Basically, your BMR is the number of calories you would burn each day if you were in a coma and not digesting food.

As you begin to design a bulking diet, the major question you need to answer is how much food you should consume. Each day, in addition to your basal metabolic rate, you burn calories to fuel the process of digestion and to complete your daily activities including weight lifting.

As a skinny guy, you can't gain muscle mass unless you gain body weight

The US government sponsors research that determines the calories used during various sports and activities. So we can estimate, with a fair degree of reliability, how many calories we burn as we lift weights and go about our daily lives. Here is a partial list of activities and their associated caloric costs.

As for digestion, scientists estimate that 10% of our total caloric maintenance level is used during digestion.

That leaves us with the basal metabolic rate. Unfortunately, it is difficult to estimate your BMR with any degree of reliability. Absent a whole-body calorimeter and a few days during which your BMR is measured, you can’t get an accurate number to use when you design your bulking diet.

This is where the Harris-Benedict equation comes in.

In their paper, Harris and Benedict show how to estimate the basal metabolic rate by plugging your height and weight into a simple equation. After calculating your estimated BMR, you multiply it by a factor that varies based on the amount of exercise or activity you engage in. This factor varies from a low of 1.2 to a high of 1.9 times your BMR, depending on how much exercise you get.

In this way, you can estimate how many daily calories you need to maintain your weight. When it comes time to bulk up, simply eat more calories than the Harris-Benedict formula calls for, and you should be good to go.

How do I apply the Harris-Benedict formula to my own personal circumstance?

By way of example, let’s assume you are a 155 pound man who stands 5 foot 10 inches in height at 25 years of age (70kg and 1.8m).

Here is the Harris-Benedict formula for calculating BMR:

(6.23 x weight in pounds) – (6.8 x age in years) + (12.7 x height in inches) = BMR

Plug in the numbers like this:

(6.23 x 155) – (6.8 x 25) + (12.7 x 70) = 965 – 170 + 889 = 1648 calories per day

Then, determine the amount of exercise you engage in. A typical skinny guy trying to bulk up on a 3-day per week bulking program would fall into the “moderate exercise” category.

Multiply your BMR by the factor of 1.55 from the chart below:

1648 x 1.55 = 2610 calories per day

Amount of exercise Daily Caloric Requirement
Sedentary BMR x 1.2
Very Light Exercise BMR x 1.375
Moderate Exercise BMR x 1.55
Heavy Exercise Daily BMR x 1.725
Extremely Heavy Exercise BMR x 1.9


So, according to the Harris-Benedict equation, our 25-year old, 5 foot 10 inch, 155-pounder needs 2610 calories every day simply to maintain his body weight while lifting weights three days a week.

To gain a pound per week, our lifter needs an extra 3500 calories per week (or 500 per day) above his maintenance level. Therefore, he needs:

2610 + 500 = 3110 calories per day

This is the estimated number of daily calories that our example subject should consume each day while on a lifting program; theoretically, he will gain a pound per week while consuming his 3110 calories per day and using a thrice-weekly weight lifting program consisting of heavy, compound lifts.

Once you estimate the number of calories you need while bulking up, try to shoot for that amount as you design your bulking diet. Coupled with accurate record keeping, this estimate will give you the information you need to adjust your diet up or down until you are consistently gaining a pound of body weight every week.

What does the Harris-Benedict formula mean for me?

How reliable is the Harris-Benedict formula? Obviously, no BMR equation can be one size fits all. Your maintenance level of calories will be different than that estimated by the Harris-Benedict formula if you are overweight, or if you are severely underweight. Additionally, if you are exceptionally short or tall for your weight, the formula will return incorrect results. Finally, if you are a woman, the constants in the formula are different (because of increased body fat).1

Lift weights while you are on a bulking diet

That is why it is so important to keep accurate records of your diet and exercise. Only with detailed data about your personal circumstance will you be able to achieve optimal results.

Equations like the one detailed in this article can give you a starting point for your bulking strategy, but ultimately it comes down to diligent record keeping and timely adjustments to your plan. Success or failure rests on your willingness to take the steps necessary to reach your goal.

1) For women, the Harris-Benedict forumla is: 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years)

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Bootcamps Calgary March 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Thanks for this article! Prior to learning about the Harris Benedict principle I would always just take a person’s basal metabolic rate and simply add 100 to 700 calories to account for general daily physical activity. The Harris Benedict principle is much more accurate and is more scientifically based.


Pamela January 22, 2012 at 12:40 am

I am still so confused on The calorie intake i need to lose weight. Not understanding this bmr stuff. I am 30yrs. I weigh 174lbs. And im 5’4 i came up with bmr of 1571. Not sure what that means or what to do next.


Andreas February 14, 2012 at 2:42 pm

it means taht if you eat 1571 kcal /day you will keep your current weight, if u eat less you will lose weight, and eat more to gain.
dont think its to healthy to cut down very much when its that low tho, maybe cut down 100 and take an extra walk a day if you wanna loose


Krishna February 17, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Actually, Andreas, that’s not quite right. Pamela’s BMR is 1571 kcal/day, which means that she burns that much by existing. To account for her activity level, she would need to multiply by the coefficients listed above.

Pamela, if you’re sedentary (don’t do much exercise on a daily basis, and walk less than ~3 miles in total), you’d multiply your BMR (1571.7) by 1.2, to get 1886.04 kcal/day. This means that if you were to eat around 1886 calories/day, and not exercise at all, you’d maintain the same weight. If you wanted to lose about 1/2 lb per week (a reasonably safe amount to lose at a time), you could try reducing your intake of Calories by 250/day.

A better solution is to increase your activity level, albeit slowly at first. A great strategy is to find a friend/partner to take walks together, go hiking, or even go to the gym — it makes it easier to stick to a routine if you’ve got someone else depending on you and motivating you at the same time. Just an hour long WALK each day, for example, would burn around an equivalent amount of calories as cutting that much out of your diet. Attempting both at once would result in faster weight losss, but this may not be healthy. I’d talk to your doctor about this, and s/he can advise you as to what’s an appropriate amount of weight loss for your frame, body type, etc.

Obviously, we’re mostly a bunch of skinny guys looking to build strength (and usually gain some amount of weight in the process) over here, so our needs are not quite the same!

Best of luck!


Adam R. March 2, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Quick question, in example above. the 3110kcal is his daily intake for both working out sessions (the 3 days a week) & non-working out session (the remainder 4 days)? or just during the working out days? :/


Alex L. March 11, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Yes, in the following example he should intake 3110kcal daily in order for him to gain 1 lb of body weight per week without gaining too much fat.

On the other hand, after applying this method for quite some time and you noticed that you’re gaining unwanted fat together with the lean muscles, you can do the “Zig-zag method” that you are thinking.

You’ll just eat 500 calories in excess only on the working out sessions and your maintenance on the non-working out days. By this manner, you will gain body weight in a much slower pace but you are assured that you’ll gain lean muscles and not that gooey unwanted fat.

I also suggest that you do cardio 20-30 minutes on your non-working out days so that you’ll be assured that you’ll not gain the unwanted fat together with the hard earned lean muscles.

I hope I have answered your question. :)

– Alex L.


Darius August 1, 2013 at 9:38 am

Is this formula correct? I’m 35, 73″, and 176lbs. I do exercise 5 days a week (40-60 min lifting sessions + 30 min cardio). According to the formula, I need to eat around 3500 calories just to maintain. My goal is to put some more weight on (muscles preferably :); therefore, I eat now as much as I want and still I am in 3000-3500 calories range. Man, the formula wants me to eat 4000 calories… I ani’t that hungry :) and all other BMR calculators prompt me to eat less by 500 calories. Don’t these “factors” in the formula must be altered according to ones age?


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