The terms building muscle and bulking are inextricably linked in the minds of lifters across the globe.
One simply doesn’t exist without the other.
That being said, one question many lifters have is whether or not they should clean bulk or go full ham at the buffet and dirty bulk.
By the end of this article, you’ll know exactly which one to do based on your circumstances, so let’s get started.
CLEAN BULKING VS. DIRTY BULKING -- THE TRUTH
A lot of hoopla is made about the most “optimal” way to build muscle, but the truth is that muscle building is pretty friggin simple, provided you do these three things:
- Eat more calories than you burn
- Eat sufficient protein
- Force your muscles to perform more work than they have previously in training
Do those three things, and you will build muscle, regardless of which training split you follow or which exercises you use in your workouts.
Where the muscle-building waters get muddy is how many more calories an individual needs to eat above maintenance to build muscle.
For instance, if you need to eat 2000 calories to maintain your bodyweight, should you eat 2250, 2500, or 3000+ calories per day to gain muscle as fast as possible?
If you eat way more calories than you need each day, do you build way more muscle?
This is the same dilemma virtually any gym rat who has had the goal of building muscle has dealt with.
This is the big question at the heart of the clean bulking vs dirty bulking debate.
For those of you unaware what the hell we’re talking about, a clean bulking has lifters use a modest calorie surplus with the goal being to provide just enough extra calories for muscle growth, but not so much that you gain a ton of unwanted body fat.
Generally speaking, the amounts to consuming enough calories such that you gain weight at a slow rate (.25-.55-lbs per week).
Clean bulks usually also limit how many “dirty” foods (high-fat, high-sugar, hyper-processed foods) you get to eat. The majority of clean bulking diet meal plans consist of whole, minimally processed foods -- lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats.
Dirty bulking is the opposite of the clean bulk, where you say to hell with tracking calories and macros and eat anything and everything you can to put mass on as fast as possible, because more is “always” better.
So, which is better for building lean muscle?
In the vast majority of cases, the clean bulking is the way to go.
The reason for this is simple -- more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to building muscle.
The body is capable of synthesizing a finite amount of new muscle tissue in a given timeframe. Any calories consumed above and beyond those needed to support the construction of new muscle will be stored as fat.
Research has even shown that gross calorie surpluses don’t result in greater muscle gains...they only result in more fat gain.
The lone instance when the dirty bulk may be the way to go is if you are gym newb.
As a novice, your body has a larger capacity to build muscle than someone who has been training day in, day out for years.
In fact, it’s not unheard of to put on as much as 15-20 pounds of muscle during your first year of training.
However, as you become more experienced, the rate at which you can build muscle (as well as the total amount of muscle you can accrue) decreases each year.
Based on this, if you’re new to the iron, go ahead and try a dirty bulk, many a top-tier natural and enhanced bodybuilders have and they turned out just fine. But, if you’ve already got several years of training under your belt, stick to the straight and narrow and follow clean bulking.
- Garthe, I., Raastad, T., Refsnes, P. E., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2013). Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. European Journal of Sport Science, 13(3), 295–303. https://doi.org/10.1080/17461391.2011.643923