Hugh Jackman recently posted a photo of over 8,000 calories’ worth of boxed meals with the caption “Bulking. A day in the life.” Gossip headlines ran with the number, reporting Jackman, “is eating a bonkers 8,300 calories” to prepare for his role as Wolverine. But is he really? Does anybody do that?
While it certainly takes a lot of food to train hard and build muscle, the specific number offered up here is likely an exaggeration—much like when Michael Phelps was reportedly eating 12,000 calories to prepare for the Olympics. (He later said he definitely was not.)
But, man, it sure is dramatic to talk about such a big number. Most of us only talk about calories in the context of restriction: We want to stay under 2,000 calories, or we’ll contemplate a 1,200 calorie diet—even though most people need more than 2,000 calories, and 1,200 is basically a starvation diet. When we see such a large number, we’re horrified that it is so high, but we also have no frame of reference to make us disbelieve it.
What is the purpose of such a high calorie diet?
If you spend most of your time dieting (or thinking about dieting), you may need to get out of your comfort zone to read this, but often, staying healthy or pursuing an athletic goal requires a person to eat more food than they otherwise would. Sometimes they must eat even when they’re not really hungry.
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For example, a high-level marathon runner who covers 100 miles in training every week needs to fuel every step of that mileage, which may mean snacks on the run and big meals when they finish training. If they don’t keep up with their body’s nutrient demands, they could find themselves losing weight, and even muscle and bone mass in the process. Undereating is a serious health and performance issue for athletes. And, yes, sometimes the number of calories an athlete requires can be absolutely massive.
Another reason to eat more food is to gain weight. Jackman is trying to put on muscle for his role as Wolverine in Deadpool 3, and it takes a lot of food both to fuel the workouts he’s doing, and to provide the raw materials—like protein—to build the muscle tissue itself.
It’s not just actors who bulk: Bodybuilders commonly spend much of their off-season bulking to build more muscle, and strength athletes of all kinds (like weightlifters) will bulk from time to time in service of putting on more muscle and getting stronger. However much energy you spend in your daily life and your workouts, you need to eat more than that to give your body enough of a surplus to be able to gain weight.
How many calories do people actually eat when bulking?
To get a ballpark number for how many calories a person might eat while bulking, head over to a calculator like tdeecalculator.net and plug in your height and weight. If you know your body fat percentage, that will help too, since it tells the calculator how much of your weight is muscle. (The more muscle mass you have, the more energy your body needs.)
For example, as a smallish woman, the calculator estimates that I have a basal metabolic rate of 1,421, and that with moderate exercise I’m probably burning a total of 2,200 calories per day. At an “athlete” level of exercise, which is probably closer to the truth, it puts my total calorie burn at 2,700. As it happens, I am currently bulking (probably the only thing I have in common with Hugh Jackman) and I know from experience that I need to eat around 3,000 calories if I want to keep gaining weight.
I plugged in Hugh Jackman’s height and weight as I found them on a celebrity gossip site (6’2″ and 185 pounds, but please take these as completely unverified estimates) and we get a BMR of 1,800 and an “athlete” calorie burn of about 3,500. So to bulk, he’d most likely need something like 4,000 calories a day if he’s training hard. This isn’t a ceiling; it’s possible that he’s training harder than the calculator suggests. And maybe his trainer wants him to aim a bit higher for good measure, so that even if he misses a meal sometimes he’s still in a surplus.
I can’t tell you for sure how many calories Hugh Jackman actually eats, but the rivalry he’s got going with his co-star Ryan Reynolds might have something to do with the fact that his “day in the life” post contains about double the number of calories someone of his size would be expected to eat for a bulk. I find it interesting that there are two of each box in the picture. What if his meals are prepped to provide about 4,000 calories per day, with some allowance for extra snacks and desserts on top?
Jackman earlier said his trainer had him eating 4,500 calories a day when he was performing in The Music Man. He also said that sticking to that number was “not pretty” and said that, as of January, he was “just eating and training.” That makes it sound like he’s having an easier time now—not like he’s eating nearly double that amount.
For another data point, let’s compare him to Michael Phelps. The Olympic swimmer reportedly ate 12,000 calories a day, but as far as I can tell he never actually said he ate that—it was a number calculated by reporters. He has since said that he ate more like 8,000 to 10,000, which is still a lot. Research on athletes has suggested that no matter how much they eat, the human digestive system can’t keep up with eating more than about 2.5 times our BMR in the long term. For Phelps, that would be about 5,500 calories, although it’s probably safe to assume that Olympic athletes are not like the rest of us—and that he may well have managed to use more calories than that for short periods at the peak of his training. (It’s also possible that he targeted 8,000 or more, but didn’t manage to actually eat that much on a daily basis.)
A review of studies on bodybuilders’ eating habits found that the average calorie intake when bulking was around 3,800 per day for the men, and 3,300 for women. So if you’d like to know what people usually eat when trying to gain muscle, there you go.