Every day, millions of people ask Google some of life’s most pressing questions, big and small. And I’ve taken it upon myself to provide you with the answers.
Today, I tackle six of the most popular questions on the subject of bulking diets, and the relative merits of a dirty bulk versus a clean bulk.
- What Is a Bulking Diet?
- What’s a Clean Bulk vs a Dirty Bulk?
- Can You Eat Too Much When Bulking?
- Can You Lose Fat on a Lean Bulk?
- Does a Dirty Bulk Work?
1. What Is a Bulking Diet?
The term “bulking” typically refers to a period of time where you’re focused on building muscle and gaining weight.
On a bulking diet, the idea is to increase your calorie intake so you’re in a caloric surplus. This means that you’re taking in more calories than you’re burning off. The end result is that weight – usually a mix of fat and muscle – is gained.
2. What’s a Clean Bulk vs a Dirty Bulk?
What’s the difference between a clean bulk and a dirty bulk? Is it the size of the calorie surplus or the type of food you’re eating?
Usually, it’s a bit of both. A typical dirty bulk involves a large calorie surplus, and eating more “junk” food such as hamburgers, pizzas, chips and so on. The aim is to gain a lot of weight, both fat and muscle, in a short period of time.
A clean bulk (sometimes referred to as a lean bulk) involves a smaller surplus, and more of a focus on food quality. The idea is to build muscle while minimizing the amount of fat that’s gained.
With dirty bulking, the “quality” of the food you eat is a lot less important than simply eating as much of it as you can. You’re just trying to shovel in as many calories as possible.
I don’t like referring to foods as “clean” or “dirty,” mainly because it reinforces the idea that some foods are “good” while others are “bad,” a distinction that’s rarely accurate.
A pizza, for example, is often considered a “dirty” food. But that depends on the type of pizza you’re talking about.
I’ve had pizzas that provide a decent amount (25-30 grams) of protein, are topped with vegetables like tomatoes and spinach, and come in at under 800 calories.
On the flip side, you can eat nothing but healthy, natural foods. But if those foods are high in calories, there is still the potential to overeat. A calorie surplus is a calorie surplus, even if it’s generated on a clean bulk.
And it’s not like you have to choose between a dirty bulk and a lean bulk. You can set up your diet so that most of your calories come from wholesome, nutrient-dense foods, but still allow room for some “dirty” foods here and there.
3. Can You Eat Too Much When Bulking?
It is possible to eat too much when you’re bulking, irrespective of whether you’re on a clean bulk or a dirty bulk. So-called “clean foods” aren’t usually as calorie dense as the “dirty” ones, making it harder to overeat on a lean bulk. But it can still happen.
Maximizing your rate of muscle growth requires a calorie surplus of between 100-500 calories per day. The exact number will vary from person to person, but it’s going to be within that range for most people.
So if you’re on a bulking diet providing a surplus of 1000 calories per day, you’re going to end up gaining more fat than is strictly necessary. A large calorie surplus, irrespective of whether those calories are provided as part of a clean bulk, will still lead to fat being gained.
The last thing you want is to have a large proportion of your weight gain come from fat, and then have to waste time and energy getting rid of it all.
You also need to consider the fact that, with few exceptions, it’s rare to build a decent amount of muscle while simultaneously losing a large amount of fat (AKA body recomposition).
Which means that during a long cutting phase, you won’t gain much in the way of new muscle. It’s time that could have been much better spent getting bigger and stronger, rather than losing fat that had no business being there in the first place.
4. Can You Lose Fat on a Lean Bulk?
A bulking diet will put you in a calorie surplus, which means you’re taking in more calories than you’re burning off. But losing fat requires a calorie deficit. Without that deficit in place, no fat will be lost.
It doesn’t matter if you’re on a lean bulk or a dirty bulk. You’re not going to lose fat unless your diet puts you in a calorie deficit.
5. How Do I Bulk and Stay Lean?
To bulk and stay lean, you want to keep the size of your calorie surplus relatively small. Maximizing your rate of muscle growth is unlikely to require a surplus larger than 500 calories per day.
In many cases, particularly for those who have moved past the beginner stages of training, it’s going to come in at under 250 calories a day.
6. Does a Dirty Bulk Work?
The idea behind dirty bulking is that you spend several months training like a demon and eating everything in sight. And sure enough, your weight on the scales, some of which is muscle and some of which is fat, goes up.
Then you go on a cut to reveal all the new muscle you’ve built.
On a bulking diet, you might put on 20-30 pounds in weight, with 60-70% of that weight coming from muscle. Then, you spend a few months cutting down, stripping away any extra fat that was gained to reveal the ripped, muscular physique you’ve been working on for so long.
Or at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
The reality goes something like this…
On a dirty bulk, you will gain some muscle. But you’ll also end up adding a lot of fat as well. In fact, those with less favorable genetics may end up putting on a lot more fat than they do muscle.
You’ll then hate the way you look and want to go on a cut.
But when it comes to stripping off the fat (which will take a lot longer than it did to gain it) you somehow end up losing much of the muscle you’ve built. Either that, or you realize that most of it was never really muscle in the first place.
You end up right back where you started at the exact same size, having wasted several months of your life (not to mention all the money you’ve blown on food and supplements).
One of the mistaken assumptions behind dirty bulking is that building muscle as fast as your genetics will allow involves eating a massive amount of food.
If a small calorie surplus leads to a certain amount of muscle being gained, then a larger calorie surplus will lead to even faster gains.
But it just doesn’t work that way.
You can only build muscle at a certain rate. Once you’ve hit that upper limit, simply eating more food won’t speed up the process.
In other words, there is a muscle-building sweet spot to be found between “not enough” and “too many” calories. Find that sweet spot, and you’ll be able to maximize your rate of muscular growth while minimizing the amount of fat that’s gained (which is what you’re aiming for on a lean bulk).
You’ll still end up building the same amount of muscle as you would have done on a dirty bulk. But because you haven’t gained so much fat, the cut that follows is going to be over with a lot more quickly.
That’s not the only problem with a dirty bulk.
Eating vast quantities of food every day will leave you feeling bloated. Sluggish. You will have the energy levels of a snail on valium.
All that junk food will wreak havoc with your digestive system, and most of your day will be spent constantly wanting to fart, or getting painful stomach cramps because you’re trying to hold it in.
The gases released when you fail to do so may well turn out to be an official violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting the production and use of chemical weapons.
Here’s something else to think about.
Put yourself in the shoes of the typical skinny guy. He’s been teased and mocked about his weight for as long as he can remember.
Puny. Skinny. Mr Skeleton. After putting up with it for years, the taunts have started to burrow their way under his skin, and he’s decided to do something about it.
So he starts hitting the gym on a regular basis. And because he wants to see results as fast as humanly possible, he goes on a dirty bulk, eating everything that isn’t nailed down.
Several months later, he steps on the scales to see that he’s added a big chunk of mass to his frame.
Mission accomplished. Or is it?
Problem is, all that food has left him with a pot belly. He’s put a bit of muscle on, but he’s still not happy with the way he looks. So he decides that the time is right to drop some fat.
But he’s become psychologically attached to being a certain weight. Much of his self worth and esteem is tied in to being that weight.
He panics when he sees the number on the scale going down, scared that he’ll soon return to his former skinny self. Even though losing fat will mean that he looks better, he just doesn’t want to see his weight drop below a certain level.
Dirty bulking does have its benefits. It’s a lot easier to eat a large number of calories when you’re eating pizzas, hamburgers and ice cream. Those foods are hyper-palatable, a term that refers to food you want to eat more of, even when you’re not really hungry.
There’s no getting around the fact that maintaining a calorie surplus is a lot easier on a dirty bulk.
However, the main benefit of the dirty bulk is also its biggest downside. The ease of maintaining a large calorie surplus will invariably lead to large amounts of fat being gained.
And that’s the real problem with dirty bulking: you’re going to put on fat. A lot of fat. If you’re skinny, you just want to gain some weight, and you don’t care too much where that extra weight comes from, a dirty bulk will do the job.
But if you want to put on muscle while keeping fat gain down to a minimum, a dirty bulk is not the way to go.
While a large calorie surplus coming from junk food will get the scales moving quickly in the right direction, that’s no guarantee your body will end up changing for the better.
SEE ALSO: THE MUSCLE BUILDING CHEAT SHEET
If you're fed up spending hours in the gym with nothing to show for it, then check out The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet.
It's a "cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to go about building muscle. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.
ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.