If you’ve heard the term “bulking,” chances are that you’ve already spent some time around the gym or around people who often frequent it. And since you’re looking for the difference between the clean and dirty bulk, chances are that you’re ready to jump into this part of your bodybuilding journey.
When looking at the cyclical nature of bodybuilding, bulking means hedonism in the kitchen and in the gym. You’re setting new PRs and stuffing as much as you can into your mouth—and then some. However, as attractive as this sounds, it only really scratches the surface when it comes to the different ways you can approach your bulk.
The biggest breakdown of the bulk is between the clean bulk and the dirty bulk. Both of them have their benefits and disadvantages, which we’ll take a closer look at below. But first, let’s outline just exactly what a bulk is and why you should implement one.
At a certain point in your bodybuilding journey, the work you’re putting in is going to have diminishing returns on your gains. It’s easy to gain strength and muscle mass at the beginning when you’re just changing your body composition, but at a certain point, that’s not going to be enough anymore.
This is where the bulking cycle comes in, and it’s called a cycle because it’s best understood with the other part of the cycle—the cutting phase. Going into a significant calorie surplus during a bulk will allow you to pack on a lot more muscle and fat. This is then followed by a cutting phase, where a calorie restriction allows you to lose body fat while retaining most of the muscle you’ve built up during the bulk.
Putting these together, you have a great way to achieve consistent gains over the long term. In this article, we’ll be focusing on the bulking phase and its iterations, but it’s important to keep in mind the cutting as well since whichever version of bulk you choose will affect how you cut.
It essentially comes down to the clean bulk and the dirty bulk, which, as you’ve probably guessed, relates to the “cleanness” of the food you put into your body.
The key part with bulking is eating a lot and training heavily. You cover these bases and you’re guaranteed some sort of gains. But, as we all know by now, all gains are not created equal. There are two ways to get gains during the bulking phase, but keep in mind that these are just conceptual diets and not many people follow either one to a T.
The first is the clean bulk. As the name suggests, it’s all about sticking to whole, healthy foods. Lots of vegetables, lots of lean protein, entirely complex carbs, and only healthy fats such as avocado and fish. It’s basically a healthy diet where you’re hitting all of your macros (more on this later), but you’re just eating a lot more of it.
Protein, as in all bulking, takes a special place in the clean bulk as well as the dirty bulk. Without enough protein, your gains will be disappointing, to say the least. Considering what makes up the clean, it’s fair to call it the “boring” version. It gets you what you need to gain muscle consistently, and does it in a way where you’re not fighting a battle to get ready for beach season.
It’s not hard to imagine why this is the bulk that’s recommended, especially for those who might just be starting out in bodybuilding. And then there’s the dirty bulk. The name probably tells you all you really need to know. Also called the “see-food diet,” where you “see” food and then eat it.
If we boil the bulk down to its barest components—eating a lot and lifting heavy—the dirty bulk is a perfect match. If you’re going to dive into hedonism, might as well commit—right? And for that reason, the dirty bulk has strong benefits over the clean bulk, as we’ll see below.
But it’s important to remember that there’s also the “if it fits your macros” approach, where you can eat anything you want as long as you’re hitting your daily macro goals. This is a good middle-of-the-road path, and something we’ll look at further below when we examine macros and how to tackle the bulking diet.
For now, let’s take a look at why the dirty bulk remains so popular while not necessarily being recommended for most.
The biggest benefit is that the dirty bulk is delicious, and although that may sound like a superfluous benefit, it does have its merits. Especially for those who are hard gainers (people who find it difficult to build muscle), a dirty bulk can ensure that they’re getting a good amount of calories.
Especially at higher levels of bodybuilding, eating becomes a chore. If you’re not getting sick of eating, you’re probably doing something wrong. That is, unless, you’ve got a good appetite and don’t really care what you’re putting into your body.
One of the biggest problems people have with gaining weight is not eating enough, and the dirty bulk is a perfect solution to that. If the food tastes good and is readily accessible, the diet is much easier to stick to. And, to a certain degree, consistency should be sought before perfection.
Why try sticking to a perfect diet that’s not going to work out for more than a week? If you can get the calorie intake while enjoying yourself, that’s a much easier option for some people that’ll get better results.
But there’s more to it than just the psychological aspect of eating junk food. Junk and fast foods are also less filling than cleaner foods since they tend to contain less fiber and are less nutrient-dense foods. While fiber is good for your digestive tract, it’s also good for filling you up.
And, if your issue is that you’re not eating enough calories, fiber can get in the way of stuffing more food into your stomach. There’s also the fact that junk food makes you crave more junk food, which in turn, gets you to eat more.
The flip side of this is then you need to kick a junk food addiction—but that’s future you’s problem to worry about.
Another part of this is that fast foods are easier to digest since they’re processed. This is partly related to the fiber aspect but goes even further. Processed foods (since they’re processed) require less energy to digest and absorb for energy. This means that more of your energy (i.e., calories) can go towards working out. And the more working out you do, the more muscle mass gains you can expect.
Lastly, is the practical point around price. Fast food and processed foods are often cheaper, easier to get, and faster to prepare than whole foods. At most you, have to stick them in the oven for a few minutes, and voila, you have yourself some food for building muscle. But as you can imagine, there’s also a lot of drawbacks to this lifestyle.
No doctor is ever going to tell their patient that they should be eating more junk food, and there are good reasons for that. But it’s also important to remember that if you’re planning on bulking, you’re not exactly a regular patient at a clinic. Health is important, but a jacked physique is also part of the equation.
When it comes down to it, it’s going to be your decision how dirty or clean of a bulk you do. However, there are some things to consider before going one way or the other.
As attractive as the dirty bulk diet may sound, even junk food is going to start tasting not great after some time. It might be easier to stomach over the short term than healthy foods, but it’s not a very sustainable way to lead a lifestyle. There’s also the question of how it’s going to make you feel after a while.
In the first few days of your dirty bulk, the high-carb, high-calorie, and high-sodium foods are going to start making you sluggish in the latter part of the day. But after a few weeks of eating like this, the sluggishness might follow you throughout the entire day.
Your insulin levels are going to start fluctuating, and naps and coffee are going to become your new best friends (if they’re not already). This is something to consider if you’re also planning to go hard in the gym.
Another issue, this time in terms of health, is your cholesterol levels. You should be particularly mindful of this issue if you’ve been pre-diagnosed with cholesterol. This is due to the increased consumption of saturated fats and processed carbs when dirty bulking.
Along with higher cholesterol, these types of foods are also associated with higher blood sugar levels. All of this combines to give you an increased risk of health conditions, including but not limited to: stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. These things sound pretty serious (as they should), but if you’re keeping your wits about you then it shouldn’t become a long-term problem.
For one, most of the studies that have been done on this topic usually examine people who don’t exercise. While the physiological effects of bad food choices won’t change that much from person to person, the fact that you’re working out will at least mitigate some of the concerns surrounding this diet.
It’s also important to remember that a dirty bulk isn’t meant to last forever. Your blood markers for health conditions will increase in the short term, but if you continue on with a healthy lifestyle, this isn’t something that’s going to follow you for the rest of your life. The key, of course, is to actually get out of the bulk and begin a healthy cut at some point. This brings us to our next point….
The dirty bulk is fantastic in how it’s able to put a lot of mass on our bodies very efficiently, helping to grow our muscles and our strength. What’s less fantastic is the amount of fat that you’ll also be gaining on a dirty bulk. Some fat gain will always be a part of the bulk—it doesn’t really matter how “clean” you try to make it.
But the amount of fat gain differs a lot, and as we already know, the dirty bulk is going to be a lot worse for unwanted fat gain. There are a lot of health benefits to staying within a healthy body fat percentage, but we’ve already discussed a lot of those. The other aspect is the aesthetics that come when you gain weight. If you’re working up to bodybuilding, then competitors are judged on their muscles.
The excess fat gain will make it more difficult to get into shape for competition time. Similarly, with strength sports, there are sometimes weight classes for people. If a big percentage of your weight is fat, then you’re going to be at a disadvantage to someone who’s focused on pure muscle growth.
There’s also the problem of then having to go on a cut afterward—fall too much into the dirty bulk hole and you might have a difficult time getting out during the cut dieting. This is why it’s important to plan.
The most important part is setting the amount of time you’ll be dirty bulking for. This is a cyclical phase after all, and you’re not meant to stay in the bulking phase for an extended period of time. In fact, a max of 3 months is recommended for most people, but this will also depend on how you’re bulking and your goals.
The importance of a fixed deadline is key. It’ll help you see the “end of the tunnel,” which can be helpful to curb junk food addiction and getting too fat. It will also give you enough time to tweak your diet if any chances are needed. Foods to include in your bulk are high protein sources, such as chicken, beef, yogurt, eggs, fish, and cheeses.
High-carb and refined foods are also on the table, including pizza, rice, pasta, bagels, fries, and breakfast cereals. Normally in a clean bulk, you’d stay away from the extra sugars and refined carbs, but for the dirty bulk, that’s not something to worry about. High-fat foods are also important but try to stick to healthy fats such as olive oil, fish, avocado, and coconut oil.
Fast food is going to be one of those things that are a big part of a dirty bulk, but not so much with the clean bulk. There’s also the option of trying to stick to macros, regardless of what you’re eating.
The key to bulking is the number of calories, so you’ll want to be eating anywhere from 30% to 40% extra calories above whatever your maintenance calories are. But these calories can be further broken down into the macronutrients you need to consume, which is a better way of going about the bulk.
The ratio of your macros will speak to the amount of muscle you gain, and also how much of it is lean muscle.
These are the macros recommended for a bulk:
Whether you’re clean or dirty bulking, it’s best to at least try to stick to this breakdown. It is more difficult with the dirty bulk, however, because of the looser nature of the meal plan and eating large amounts of any sort of food.
Supplements should never replace the nutrients from your diet, but when it comes to the bulk, you’re going to need more nutrients than maybe even your diet can provide you. This is where supplements can really shine. One of the biggest issues with people bulking is when they don’t get enough calories and protein into them.
A high-quality whey protein powder can go a long way.
Make a couple of protein shakes throughout the day, and you’re adding a ton of calories and protein without having to sit down for a meal. Mass gainers can also turbocharge your gains, whether you’re dirty or lean bulking.
When it comes down to it, a routine is going to be what either makes or breaks your bulk. A clean bulk is easier to plan a routine around, but a dirty bulk shouldn’t be completely tossed to the side. It does have its benefits—especially for those who struggle to consume enough calories.
As with all training, it’s important to keep your eye on the prize.
The bulk is, after all, part of a cycle. The next iteration will be the cut, and then the bulk, and so on. Keeping your eye on the next part of your training will keep things in perspective for you. No, you don’t have to skip out on wing night with the boys because you’re committed to a clean bulk—in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter.
At the same time, you shouldn’t throw all caution to the wind and eat yourself into a hole (or a gut). Unless you’re performing at the top, the answer will come somewhere in the middle and it’ll look different for everyone. What matters is that you have a long-term idea of where you want to be, and follow a lifestyle that slowly (yet surely), gets you there.