Bulking is a technique borrowed from the world of professional bodybuilding. An aspiring contestant will spend his off-season eating at a caloric surplus and focusing on gains in size and strength.
After the bulk is completed the contestant will then cut weight, a process involving eating below a caloric surplus, while still maintaining exercise, in an effort to shed fat without losing the gains made while bulking.
The result of these two cycles (bulking and cutting) is a compromise between peak strength and aesthetics.
Bulking and cutting have become common words in the vocabulary of the average fitness enthusiast. If you are overweight, you are told you should cut. Eat at a caloric deficit and exercise. If you are underweight, you are told to bulk up by following the bulking method of your choice.
The two different forms of bulking are clean bulking and dirty bulking. There is a lot of controversy and differences of opinion on this topic so we are going to take our time and lay out everything you need to know about each strategy and let you decide which method will most accurately help you reach your goals.
The Truth About Bulking: Keeping Realistic Expectations
Before we dive into this heavyweight battle between bulking methods it’s important we discuss realistic gaining expectations, and why it’s crucial you know the difference between gaining weight and gaining muscle.
As ectomorphs we are often caught claiming that we desperately want to gain weight. While this does have some degree of truth, as we probably can afford to increase our body fat percentage a few ticks, what most of us are really looking for is to gain muscle and increase our lean body mass.
Gaining body fat is astoundingly easy to master once you’ve made a conscious effort to eat everything within 5 feet of your face. You can eat anything you want (as long as you eat a lot of it) and you will see an increase in total body weight.
On the other hand, gaining lean muscle mass is a slow process. The absolute best case scenario you can hope for is approximately 2.5lbs of muscle gain per month. This scenario would happen under only perfect conditions ripe for muscle growth – novice lifter, great diet, sufficient rest.
As you become a more experienced lifter there is less potential muscle available to gain. A lifter in his second year of training can aim for about 1lb/month of muscle gain, while someone lifting for 4+ years is limited to 2-3lbs of muscle gain per year.
That means if you gain 8lbs in your first month of lifting at best only 2.5lbs of that increase in weight is muscle. The rest will likely be made up of a mix of water and fat.
The fact that you are limited to about 2.5lbs of muscle gain per month as a beginner may be underwhelming to anyone who had intentions of putting on 50lbs in a single year, but adding 25lbs of muscle to your frame in a single year is still an incredibly impressive feat.
These approximate numbers come from research done by fitness expert Lyle McDonald. Similar calculations can be made with the Alan Aragon model, Casey Butt model, and the Martin Berkhan’s model, all of which are available on this source page.
Clean Bulking And Dirty Bulking Defined
Let’s define what exactly we mean by “clean bulking” and “dirty bulking”:
Clean bulking will be referred to as consuming a caloric surplus of up to 500 calories above your maintenance caloric intake.
Dirty bulking will be referred to as consuming a caloric surplus of greater than 500 calories above your maintenance caloric intake.
This means that you can still “clean bulk” with the occasional pizza for dinner or ice cream for dessert as long as you are getting a healthy distribution of macro nutrients (IIFYM).
Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking
Now that we’re all clear on all the relevant terminology let’s jump right in and find out which bulking method will help you build the body you want most efficiently.
Dirty bulking is how you gain weight fast. Consuming upwards of 500 calories above your maintenance intake each day will force your body to pack on the pounds.
This may be a perfect scenario for underweight ectomorphs who can afford to increase their body fat without having an undesirable effect on their appearance. The fat gain could actually improve the appearance of their bodies.
Dirty bulking is a fast way to increase size and help you lift heavier weights at the gym. Mark Rippetoe, creator of the popular Starting Strength program, is a major advocate of the dirty bulk. Mark had this to say on his bulking ideals:[pull_quote_center]The fact is, getting bigger and stronger naturally entails more sleep and more food than the vast majority of you people seem to understand. When you, as a novice lifter, put more emphasis on “staying lean” than on getting big and strong, you demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the process that barbell men clearly grasped 50 years ago, that growth is much more important than bodyfat loss. – Mark Rippetoe [/pull_quote_center]
In order to maximize strength, energy, and recovery times, you should still look to hit a reasonable macro nutrient distribution while dirty bulking. Following the GOMAD diet could help with this.
Unfortunately you don’t get all these fast gains without any negative consequences. Let’s talk about the side effects of dirty bulking.
What Sucks About Dirty Bulking
- You are probably going to want to get rid of that excess fat gain eventually. Dirty bulking is a guaranteed way to increase your body fat percentage. Most see this as a short term compromise (trading aesthetics for strength) but it is possible that you are unable to retain the majority of strength gains made while bulking once it’s time to get lean again. If you commit to a dirty bulk, you must to commit to the inevitable weight cut that follows it.
- If you plan to gain a significant amount of weight by means of dirty bulking you may damage your metabolism on the ensuing cut. Trying to restrict yourself to 2,000 calories per day (while cutting) after eating at 3,500 calories per day (while dirty bulking) is a drastic change to your body. This shift can cause metabolic damage; a drastic slowing of the metabolism that is caused by excessive caloric restriction. The body does this for the purpose of survival; once it senses a loss of body fat it tries to stop the weight loss.
Here’s a great example from the source:[pull_quote_center]So why does the body sabotage effort like this? It’s simple: survival. If our bodybuilder ate 3,000 calories per day, cut his calories to 2,500, and his body did not have these adaptive abilities, he would lose weight continually without stopping until he eventually died. Luckily, nobody starves to death on 2,500 calories per day—even though it may feel like it sometimes. These normal adaptations are necessary for survival. – Cliff Wilson [/pull_quote_center]
- It is unlikely that fat gain will be spread throughout your body. In a perfect world, an increase in body fat would be distributed throughout your body. A 5% total body fat increase will result in a 1% fat gain on your left leg, right leg, left arm, right arm, and chest… it doesn’t work like that. Instead, most people have “trouble areas” (usually the belly). Pair this side effect with potential metabolic damage, limiting your ability to burn fat, and you could have a long cut ahead of you.
Going Slow & Steady by Clean Bulking
As defined earlier, clean bulkers aim to consume a reasonable caloric surplus of 400-500 calories above their maintenance intake in order to prevent as much fat gain as possible throughout the bulking cycle. Even still, fat gain is inevitable, but this way it is more effectively moderated.
The hardest part about clean bulking is staying patient. It is possible to go from skinny ectomorph to a lean 185lbs in 1 single bulk cycle; but it is a difficult process consisting of making changes to your diet based on weight gain. If you find yourself gaining more than 4lbs a month, and you know that the maximum muscle you can gain per month (in perfect conditions) is 2.5lbs, then you need to cut back on your calories.
I recommend eating no less than 400-500 calories above your maintenance unless you notice you are gaining too much, too quickly. Consuming less calories in an effort to avoid gaining any fat at all is an unrealistic goal.
Theoretically you could argue that you could exceed your maintenance caloric intake by 100 calories and gain as little fat as possible while reaping pure muscle gains. This is highly unlikely due to expected error in rough calculations and formulas used to calculate the calories you consume and burn.
Here’s a quote from Lyle McDonald on the topic of ultra lean gains:[pull_quote_center]Lean gaining is usually based around insanely meticulous calorie and nutrient counting and timing, an obsession with clean eating, etc. without ever actually providing sufficient nutrients to grow at any meaningful rate. When you hear someone say that you can’t put on more than three pounds of muscle in a year, this is who you’re usually talking to: the guys who won’t allow even an ounce of fat gain. Or you’re talking to a natural bodybuilder who’s been at it for 10 years and is near his genetic limit. But it’s usually the lean-obsessed guys who aren’t gaining jack squat for muscle in a year.[/pull_quote_center]
And then he follows up with this a paragraph later:[pull_quote_center]The simple fact is that a bodybuilder who refuses to gain any fat and doesn’t put on any muscle between shows won’t be improving year to year. Unless they have perfect symmetry, size, shape, etc. their fear of body fat is preventing them from ever getting any better.[/pull_quote_center]
It is more realistic to expect an increase of body fat by 3-5% while responsibly clean bulking. At the end of your bulk you will want to cut in order to trim your body fat percentage down a few points, but it will be conveniently easier relative to a more hardcore cut that follows a dirty bulk.
The Best Bulk for You
In summary, dirty bulking will put on mass fast allowing you to consistently lift heavier in the gym at an accelerated pace, thus increasing strength. You will pay for this by increasing your total body fat percentage, which you will have to cut after you complete your bulk. Cutting puts your strength gains at risk, and could damage your metabolism if you need to drop a considerable amount of weight.
Clean bulking is to be done around the limits of maximum muscle growth, but will still undoubtedly result in some fat gain. Because total weight gain is more controlled there is less of a cut required, freeing your from worrying about various consequences caused by dramatic weight loss. You also won’t have to deal with the insecurities of noticing yourself getting (considerably) fatter.
What are you waiting for?