Clean Bulking v Dirty Bulking

If you’re looking to add muscle, bulking (alongside your training) is one of the most essential aspects of making consistent progress. For those unfamiliar with the term, bulking means eating more calories than you burn on a daily basis with the intention of gaining weight. With regular weight training and the right macronutrient ratios, the majority of this gained weight should be muscle rather than fat.

Bulking has historically been done in the winter, largely thanks to the almost inevitable fat gain that will occur due to the caloric excess. As the weather cools down we tend to cover ourselves up a little more, meaning it’s a bit easier to hide the fact your 6 pack is slowly being eroded as you look to add more lean muscle!

In the past, little regard was given to this additional fat. It was just the price to be paid for adding muscle, and when the sun started to peek through the clouds in springtime it was time to get rid of it. Cardio becomes compulsory, you start hitting the chest, shoulders and back a little harder, you cut the calories and by the time summer hits you’re back to looking your best.

In recent times it’s become more common for people to want to look their best year-round, and that involves limiting your fat gain over the bulking period while still gaining muscle mass. There are various benefits to this approach, including a shorter cutting period at the end of your bulk, which makes this an attractive proposition.

If you’re looking into a bulking plan there are two common approaches people take:

  • Clean bulk/Lean Bulk – eating foods with high nutritional value and generally avoiding junk food. Also eating slightly over your maintenance calories with the intention of putting on muscle with as little fat gain as possible
  • Dirty bulk – eating pretty much what you want, as long as you hit your calorie and macronutrient targets

Here we’ll look at both methods and hopefully help you decide which bulking plan will work for you.

Clean Bulking

Clean bulking is built around getting most of your calories from nutritionally dense food, and aiming to be slightly over your caloric maintenance – typically by 100-300 per day. The aim of a clean bulk is to gain weight slowly, around 0.5lb per week, with the intention of limiting the amount of fat gained during the bulking period.

The clean bulk has various benefits over the dirty bulk. Firstly, you’re taking better care of your overall health by eating nutritious food. You’re also keeping fairly lean most of the year, so when it comes to those ‘shirt off’ months you’ve far less work to do to get rid of the excess fat.

Many report better energy levels throughout their clean bulking period, which is a drastic change from the peaking and crashing often experienced through a dirty bulk.

The quality of the food you’re eating can also have a big impact on the quality of your training and recovery. While you can break any food down into protein, carbs and fat, the quality of these macronutrients isn’t always optimal for recovery and growth.

The quality of protein and fat in a fast-food burger won’t always aid recovery and performance as much as a similar serving of free-range eggs – the biological value of the protein in the eggs will be higher, reducing waste and improving workout recovery. The difference may be slight meal-to-meal, but over an extended period of time, these factors can make a big difference.

Some junk food consumption is inevitable, but it’s often planned in through cheat meals or cheat days. This helps some people with dietary adherence, and can be a welcome break from the monotony of eating clean all the time.

There are some downsides to clean bulking. By choosing more nutritious food there’s often less ‘empty’ calories – those which provide little nutritional value but are calorically dense. This can mean you end up eating a LOT of food every day, which some people really struggle with. As good as bulking sounds, when you’re trying to force down another huge serving of fish, rice and broccoli it can be just as difficult as avoiding your favourite treat when you’re cutting!

There’s also a lot of food preparation involved, as for the most part, you’ll need to make your own meals to help track your macros effectively. That’s not to say that eating out isn’t an option, but when you’re operating within fairly strict caloric boundaries it can be helpful to know exactly what you’re consuming.

Dirty Bulking

As the name suggests, dirty bulking does away with the focus on particular types of food and encourages the consumption of whatever is required to hit your calorie target. This approach was prevalent in the 70’s and 80’s, based on the logic that you needed excess calories to be in an anabolic state. While this is largely true, it doesn’t paint the full picture of what’s going on in your body.

Dirty bulking tends to have a higher caloric target than clean bulking, typically aiming for between 500-2000 calories over your daily limit. Outside of the focus on calories and protein intake, pretty much anything is up for grabs at mealtime.

On paper, this approach sounds like heaven. Eat as much crap as you like without worrying about it, put on mass and worry about losing the excess when the weather gets a little warmer. The truth is that without giving at least some consideration to the quality of food you’re eating, as well as the quantity, you could be placing your long term health at risk.

Going overboard with this method can cause some potentially serious health issues. With the increased levels of body fat comes higher blood pressure and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, while some of those with higher sugar diets introduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The other downside of the higher calorie dirty bulk is getting the fat back off. You’ll have more weight to lose, meaning a longer cutting period and ultimately less progress under the bar during that period. The drop in calories required means you’ll be spending more time in a catabolic state, which could put a decent proportion of the muscle you’ve gained at risk.

The Middle Ground – Sensible IIFYM

Of course, there’s always somewhere in between the two extremes. Flexible dieting is becoming increasingly popular in the fitness community, with the term ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM) the most common term used for this method.

This essentially means you have set calorie, protein, carb and fat targets each day, and you can eat what you like as long as you hit those numbers. The idea is to optimise the nutrient intake around training days, fuelling recovery and growth in the most efficient way possible.

This places the system somewhere in between the strictness of the clean bulk and the all-out chaos of the dirty bulk. Eat the foods you enjoy in moderation, try to stick to cleaner foods but don’t beat yourself up if you have a pizza every now and then.

It’s essentially the 80/20 rule applied to bulking – do the right thing most of the time and there’s a little room left over for some junk food.

Which Method is Right for You?

Ultimately this will be a personal preference – all have sound logic behind them, so it really depends on what you feel most comfortable with.

As a general rule, I’d stick to the IIFYM approach, with the majority of your diet coming from lean meat, vegetables and other foods with a high nutritional value. This should make it fairly easy to hit your macro targets while leaving a little room for the occasional slice of pizza or an entire cheesecake!


  • Updated May 26, 2020
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