When it comes to building muscle mass and gaining size, the key process you’ll usually go through is known as a bulking phase. A bulking phase essentially involves consuming a calorie surplus which is a set number of calories above what’s needed to maintain weight.
If you’re reading this though, chances are you are familiar with what a general bulk is and instead, you’re looking into some of the different types of a bulk. There are a few that will vary the calorie surplus and types of food you can eat and two of the most popular are the clean bulk and also a dirty bulk.
Therefore, in this article, we’re going to compare the two in a head-to-head showdown to see which is best for building muscle – clean bulking vs dirty bulking, let’s see which is best!
What Is the Difference Between a Clean and Dirty Bulk?
Clean and dirty bulking similarly combine increased calorie consumption with intensive training to increase muscle mass. However, clean bulking involves a gradual and monitored increase of calories over time whereas calorie consumption on dirty bulking is unlimited and unmeasured.
To expand on this, bulking is probably something you’re already familiar with, it’s a term used to describe the process of consuming more calories than you use in order to increase body mass.
This period of increased calorie consumption is done alongside intensive workouts like resistance and weight training in order to increase muscle mass.
What Is a Clean Bulk
There are two main types of bulking. The first is ‘clean’ bulking, although you might also see it called regular or ‘lean’ bulking. Clean bulking essentially involves consuming a set target of calories above your daily use. When you start out most people will usually consume about 100-150 above the amount they use, with this figure steadily increasing over a period of months.
During clean bulking the foods you eat to achieve this calorie surplus are monitored. For the most part, you’d want to consume foods that promote muscle gain like protein, including lean meats and eggs, fruit and vegetables, as well as good fats like nuts.
Carbohydrates are the items that fuel workouts during a bulk and this is the food group that differs most between a clean and dirty bulk. On a clean bulk, carb intake is moderate and makes use of some of the following food sources:
- Whole wheat bread
The carb sources on a dirty bulk are noticeably different and we’ll get on to that shortly.
As well as controlling your diet, you’d also be doing intensive workouts to ensure this calorie surplus is going towards muscle growth.
What Is a Dirty Bulk
Fundamentally, dirty bulking is similar to clean bulking in that it also involves consuming a calorie surplus and intense training. However, instead of having a set calorie target, the goal with dirty bulking is to just consume as much as possible by eating whatever foods you want.
Essentially, there aren’t any limits on the calories you consume, with more calories encouraged. There also aren’t any restrictions on the types of foods you eat. High-calorie foods that are typically eliminated when clean bulking like pizza, burgers, and sodas are actually encouraged.
It’s not to say that these are the healthier or most optimal option when it comes to a bulk (in fact, most coaches and nutritionists disagree with this method) but it’s what makes dirty bulking so popular – you can seemingly eat what you want!
Both clean and dirty bulking can be used to gain muscle, but which approach is best? Here I’m going to explain which technique is best to use.
Clean Bulking vs Dirty Bulking
When considering whether clean bulking or dirty bulking is better to build muscle there are some things to consider, including speed of muscle growth, the risk of unwanted fat gain, and the kind of food you’re consuming:
Check out this video which explains the difference between clean and dirty bulking:
Speed of Muscle Growth
In order to gain more muscle, your body needs more calories. For most people to experience muscle gains you’d need an additional 15% of calories above what you’re using each day. Although it varies, for most people this will translate into 200-500 additional calories per day.
As well as increasing calories, you’ll also need to train intensively to ensure that this excess of calories goes towards building muscle, not increasing fat.
When clean bulking, increasing the number of calories you consume is a gradual process. You might start out just increasing it by 50-100 calories per day then upping this to 200 calories when progress stalls and so on. For most people, this increase in calories when combined with training is enough to see muscle gains, but it is a gradual process.
While clean bulking can increase muscle mass, the gains you make aren’t made overnight and it can take weeks to months to see noticeable results.
In comparison, with dirty bulking, you’re likely to meet or exceed this 15% surplus of calories immediately. When this calorie surplus is combined with intensive workouts there is the potential for much faster muscle gain, as you’re giving your body more fuel to make gains.
This however is a common assumption but is not scientifically correct. The amount of muscle you can get over a period of time is limited when training naturally. This means that regardless of whether you are dirty bulking or clean bulking, the rate of muscle growth is the same with all other factors being equal.
Dirty bulking is seen to provide quicker results, however, this is due to more water retention and excess fat gain. The scale weight will go up, you’ll notice you look bigger but in terms of actual muscle gain… There will be minimal to zero difference compared with clean bulking!
Is Dirty Bulking Faster?
Overall then dirty bulking can lead to faster muscle gains in the very short term by immediately exceeding the necessary calories needed to cause muscle gain. Although, like with clean bulking you need to combine this with intensive training. The results are not sustainable and over time, you’ll gain more body fat with a dirty bulk and a similar amount of lean muscle mass.
Risk of Unwanted Fat Gain
Although there is the potential for faster muscle gain with a dirty bulk, this excess consumption of calories can translate into fat gain. When it comes to bulking, the overall goal is to increase lean muscle mass, so the potential to gain fat instead of muscle is something to seriously consider.
Like I mentioned, to gain muscle mass you need a combination of a calorie surplus and intensive workouts. For most people though, you only need to consume around 15% more calories than they use in order to see gains in muscle mass. Above this surplus and you’re likely to gain unwanted fat.
The likelihood of gaining fat is much greater on a dirty bulk than a clean bulk. This is because you don’t know how many calories you’re actually consuming each day because nothing you eat is monitored. You could be going hundreds or even thousands of calories over the amount necessary to build muscle.
Ultimately, this is going to translate into increased body fat, not lean muscle.
In comparison, on a clean bulk, you’re gradually increasing the number of calories you’re consuming and combining it with intensive training to promote a steady gain of muscle. As a result, the risk of fat gain is much lower.
You will gain body fat when clean bulking as it’s an inevitable and necessary part of the muscle growth phase, the only difference is that on a clean the rate of fat gain is minimized and more controlled.
Type of Food
The type of food you consume also plays a huge role in muscle growth. When clean bulking the foods you’re eating include those high in protein like meat and eggs, as well as vegetables and healthy fats. These foods have a positive impact on promoting muscle growth. As a result, you’re more likely to see muscle gains on this diet.
Eating a healthier diet also has a positive impact on energy levels, which will make it easier to do the intensive workouts which are a crucial part of bulking.
Unlike on a clean bulk when you’re advised to eat lean foods and foods that promote muscle growth on a dirty bulk you’re encouraged to eat high-calorie foods that are often heavily processed with high levels of sugar, fats, and carbohydrates. Heavily processed, high-calorie foods have been consistently shown to promote fat, not muscle gain.
Eating high quantities of these heavily processed high-calorie foods has also been linked with feeling tired and sluggish, which is going to make it much harder to motivate yourself for working out.
Is Clean Bulking Better?
Overall, clean bulking is a better technique to build muscle. Although it’s a more gradual process, you’re likely to see better results as you’re eating foods that promote muscle gain. In comparison to dirty bulking, clean bulking is also unlikely to cause fat gain.
From a hormonal aspect, you’ll have better control over insulin levels when clean bulking and this will make for a more optimal diet.
A bulking phase is commonplace for anyone looking to build muscle mass and gain size over a specific period of time. While the general concept of a bulk is to consume a calorie surplus in order to promote muscle growth, there are some different strategies you can adopt.
At two complete ends of the spectrum, you have the clean bulk vs dirty bulk comparison. Both are strategies that are commonly used and people have a very strong opinion about each. Clean bulking is seen as an approach that is too slow by many whereas dirty bulking results in too much (and unnecessary) fat gain.
Therefore, there isn’t a single best approach as it would depend on the individual. If we are considering the efficiency of both dieting strategies though, clean bulking is better than a dirty bulk as you will build an equal amount of muscle mass, gain less body fat, and have a better body competition overall at the end of the bulking phase.
An extent of this is opinion based and everyone is free to make their own decisions or test the strategies for themselves but from a purely logical viewpoint, a dirty bulk is only going to be beneficial if you also track calories and monitor intake, even if you have more flexibility over food choices.
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