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Clean Bulk VS Dirty Bulk: The Fastest Way to Build Muscle

The formula for weight gain is simple: eat more calories than you burn. If you can manage to achieve a positive energy balance, you’ll put meat on those bones – it’s basic physics.

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This is why you’ve been told to eat everything in sight if you want to gain weight. Truth is, that advice is not all that bad…if your goal is just to add weight to the scale. But if you’re like most guys, your goal physique is not Mr. Potato Head, it’s G.I. Joe.

So before we jump into the topic of discussion, let’s talk about a few non-negotiables of muscle-building nutrition.

Non-Negotiables of Muscle Building Nutrition

First, as stated before, we must be in a positive energy balance if we want to ensure we’re providing our body the necessary nutrients for growth.

Second, we must ensure we’re consuming enough protein in order to achieve a positive nitrogen balance. This ensures that we are synthesizing more protein than we’re breaking down. If the opposite occurs, we can forget about building new muscle tissue.

Third, we’ve got to make sure we’re getting in enough of the right fats. Failing to consume enough dietary fat can result in lower testosterone - making building muscle and losing fat more challenging.

Lastly, we’ve got to eat enough carbs to fuel intense training. If your performance sucks, so will your results.

Thankfully, most people who adhere to the first rule (positive energy balance) find that the following four (adequate protein, fats, and carbs) come quite naturally.

Clean Bulking VS Dirty Bulking

Now that you understand the non-negotiables, let’s give both Clean Bulking and Dirty Bulking a definition.

Clean Bulking: a calculated approach to overfeeding that allows for no more than a 500kcal surplus.

Dirty Bulking: a casual approach to overfeeding that has no caloric limits or restrictions.

Despite what you may think, the difference between these two diet approaches has very little to do with food choices. Eating cheeseburgers and pizza doesn’t necessarily turn a bulk from clean to dirty - the same way fruits and vegetables don’t clean up a dirty bulk.

In a world where a bigger surplus means bigger muscles, the dirty bulk would be, hands down, the way to go.

Unfortunately, there are finite limits to the amount of muscle we can build – eating more than necessary to support those gains will just result in more body fat.

How Much Muscle Can We Gain per Month?

Over your lifting lifetime, you can expect to gain 40-50 pounds of total muscle mass. And according to author of The Protein Book, Lyle Mcdonald, we can expect to achieve half of that (20-25 lbs) growth in the first 12 months.

Alan Aragon, another expert in the field, suggested more or less the same thing - 18-27 lbs in your first year.

This is due to our bodies being hyper-responsive to the newly introduced stimulus during the beginning stages of our training.

Unfortunately, the closer we get to our genetic ceiling, the slower the progress becomes.

While a trainee who’s been lifting for 2-3 years can expect to gain 0.5-1 pound of muscle per month, a more experienced lifter may experience just a fraction of that.

So what does this have to do with Clean VS Dirty Bulking? Everything!

It’s not hard to see that the skinny beginner would benefit more from the casual approach to bulking than the 4 year veteran who can’t build muscle as quickly.

But don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions. There are still some important factors to consider before making your decision.

Who Should Dirty Bulk?

If you want to gain weight fast, the dirty bulk is the way to go. This approach is especially effective for hardgainers who are new to training, struggle with appetite, and can afford to put on a bit of fat.

For someone who finds it hard to muster up the appetite to finish the fries that came with their cheeseburger, gaining 1 pound per week is no small task. But let’s assume they achieve this impressive feat and manage to gain 4 pounds per month – with 2 of that being muscle tissue, that is a 1:1 ratio of muscle to fat – a result that most advanced lifters would die for.

Another person I might recommend a “dirty bulk” to would be the advanced lifter who’s built a solid foundation, has a pretty good feel for his body, and seems to be resilient to gaining body fat. If that’s you and you’d rather spend less time calculating calories and more time eating them, then perhaps a casual diet approach may work well for you.

I will say, though, this type of guy is a small minority. In fact, in all of my years, the only person I know who can “eat big, get big” without getting fat in the process is my brother – and he’s a freak.

Fast gains without tracking calories? Eating whatever and whenever your heart desires? Sounds perfect!

Unfortunately, where there are pros, there are cons. “Dirty bulking”, although can have great benefits, is accompanied by even more disadvantages.

The Disadvantages of Dirty Bulking

Decreased Testosterone: Dirty bulking is a recipe for excessive fat gain. The more body fat you have, the longer you’ll have to spend in a caloric deficit burning it off. Problem is, eating in a negative energy balance for a prolonged period of time can have negative effects on your anabolic hormone levels while increasing the production of catabolic hormones – creating the perfect recipe for muscle loss.

Impaired Nutrient Partitioning: There are a few factors that determine how effectively you partition nutrients. There are genetics, hormones (i.e. testosterone, cortisol, etc.), metabolic rate, and insulin sensitivity – all things you have little control over. But one primary factor that you can control is body fat percentage. The fatter you are, the more difficult it becomes to gain lean mass.

naturally lean (but NOT folks who have dieted to lean) individuals tend to gain more muscle and less fat when they overfeed and fatter individuals tend to gain more fat and less muscle when they overfeed.” – Lyle McDonald

More Destroying, Less Building: It’s a vicious cycle: you “dirty bulk” and end up at 18% body fat within a few months, you become more efficient at storing body fat and less so at building lean tissue - Now It’s time to cut – and because you’ve accumulated so much fat gain, it takes longer than you’d wished to get back into the “prime” body fat level (10-12%).

For example: During your second year of training, you spend (and these numbers are arbitrary) 3 months bulking up, increase scale weight by 12 pounds, and 9 of that is body fat. You spend another 2 months dieting down to your starting body fat and, assuming you’ve maintained every ounce of muscle, end up 3 pounds heavier after 5 months of grueling work - And repeat! After 12 months, you’ve gained about 7 lbs of muscle – just about 60% of your potential muscle growth for the year.

Mr. Potato Head Syndrome: Only someone with grade A genetics will store body fat evenly throughout their body. Unfortunately for us men, we are more prone to storing body fat around our midsection and less likely to distribute it evenly in our arms and legs. This is especially problematic for those who are building fat at a faster rate than they’re gaining muscle. Take an experienced weight lifter who’s been training for 2 years and is gaining 1 pound per week: at this rate, he’s gaining 3 pounds of fat for every 1 pound of muscle. In the short span of 3 months, he would have gained 12 pounds – 9 of that being fat. With almost 10 new pounds of fat and only 3 small pounds of muscle, it’s unlikely that you’ll look ripped or jacked and more likely that you’ll end up in physique purgatory a.k.a skinny-fat.

Who Should Clean Bulk?

If you want to bulk up without getting too fat, clean bulking is the way to go.

A calculated approach where you’re staying within a 500kcal surplus (preferably less as you get more advanced) is going to be the best way for most guys to prolong their bulking phase. Not only will you spend more time building but - depending on how well you’ve kept fat gain at bay - you’ll have to spend less time destroying (cutting).

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Going back to my previous example: the guy who ended up gaining 7 pounds of muscle during his second year of training would have gained 40% more (give or take) if he’d taken a more calculated approach.

In my opinion, anyone who can adhere to the “restrictions” of a calculated diet should “clean bulk”.

The Disadvantages of Clean Bulking

Although these disadvantages are circumstantial, I do believe they’re worth mentioning.

It’s restrictive: For guys with a huge appetite, eating slightly above maintenance isn’t going to be enough and can tend to feel a bit restrictive. Having to turn down dessert after dinner at a nice restaurant because it doesn’t “fit your macros” can be a tough pill to swallow – especially during a bulk.

It Tests Your Patience: Let’s face it, results yield motivation. Doing “all the right things” for a month, only to move the scale 1-2 pounds can get a bit discouraging. Especially since those 2 pounds make almost no visible difference. We are human and it’s natural for us to want to see, clearly, the results we’ve worked so hard to attain.

It Can Become Obsessive: If you know that you can gain 0.25lbs of muscle in a week, but you end up 1 pound heavier, this could mind-fuck you into feeling fat or reverting back to a cut. If you’re afraid of a bit of fat gain, this could hold you back from gaining muscle all together.

Fact is, not everyone is going to feel restricted in a clean bulk, and although it is a slow process, most guys who go in knowing their true potential will be happy to see any progression. And yes, it can become a bit obsessive. Perhaps this isn’t something the majority of people should worry about – but certainly something to look out for.

How to Bulk Up the Right Way

It’s no surprise why, for the overwhelming majority, I recommend a more calculated bulking approach. But regardless of which path you take – the clean or the dirty – there are a few rules you should adhere to.

1. Try to start your “bulk” at 10-12% body fat (Read This: Should You Bulk or Cut?)
2. End your bulk once you’ve reached 15% (give or take) body fat
3. Spend 2 weeks in between your bulk and cut, eating at maintenance, to normalize your metabolism and hormones.
4. Repeat

The goal of a bulking phase is simple: end up with more lean muscle mass than you started with. The degree to which you maximize your growth is going to be based on many factors - most of which we’ve discussed here today.

Conclusion

Optimal for one is only optimal for all when adherence isn’t an issue. In this case, the best diet approach to follow is the one you can adhere to best. At end of the day, fitness should increase the quality of our life, not the opposite.

If you’d prefer the faster weight and strength gain with longer time spent restricting calories as the caveat, then a dirty bulk can work just fine.

If you’d prefer to spend more time bulking and less time cutting, then you’ve got to be calculated.

Either way, if you want to grow you’re going to have to accept some fat gain. Staying shredded year round is the recipe for slow growth, if any.

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