Gaining muscle mass is no easy feat. While the principles of building muscle seem relatively simple (lift weights regularly and eat plenty of calories and protein), there is a lot more to it than that!

There are various strategies people implement to help maximize their gains, including refeeds, cheat days, supplement stacks, training plans, and nutritional strategies such as “bulking”.

When it comes to bulking, this essentially means being in a calorie surplus to assist the body in building muscle mass.

You may have heard of dirty or clean bulking before, and there are definitely pros and cons to both, however whichever approach you choose to take is highly individual and largely down to genetics.

This article discusses the pros and cons of dirty and clean bulking, what the difference is, and which is best for optimal gains!

Firstly, a quick lesson on muscle building!

Muscle Building 101

We can’t talk about bulking without addressing the principles of muscle building. It’s important to understand these principles to better understand the process of bulking.

The three key principles of building muscle:

  • Protein intake

Protein is an essential nutrient for building muscle and is not one to be overlooked!

The timing, quality, and quantity of protein is key.

Getting enough daily protein to support muscle building, consuming high-quality sources, and taking in protein in regular feedings are all recommended strategies for optimizing muscle growth and muscle protein synthesis (the process of repairing and rebuilding muscle).

  • Calorie intake

The next most important point is calorie intake. This is what “bulking” essentially focuses on—being in a calorie surplus.

It takes a significant amount of energy to build muscle, so our body needs adequate energy in the form of food to carry out this Herculean task.

A small to moderate positive energy balance is normally recommended for muscle growth, though this largely depends on the individual.

Achieving a calorie surplus, or “bulking” looks different for everyone. More on this soon!

  • Training

It goes without saying that an effective training program would be key to building muscle, as without that much needed stimulus needed by your muscles to grow, they simply won’t grow!

Progressive overload is a key factor in muscle growth, so following a program that focuses solely on this would be massively beneficial.

What is Bulking?

Bulking is a term used widely in the fitness industry. Bulking is described as the practice of increasing body weight by eating more calories than you burn (calorie surplus) for a prolonged period of time.

This is typically the approach bodybuilders take to building muscle, alongside increasing their protein intake and following a weight training program.

It goes without saying that bulking should form just one part of a three-part system to muscle building. To put it simply, if any of the above three principles are missing, muscle gains will be very difficult to achieve.

It’s recommended to consume around 250-500 calories more than your maintenance calories. For example, if you maintain your weight consistently on a calorie intake of 2000kcal, increasing it by 250-500 would put you in a calorie surplus, thus enabling you to gain weight.

So, what are the two types of bulking, and what’s the difference?

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: What’s the Difference?

Clean bulking refers to a strategy of bulking that focuses on healthy, balanced food choices which minimizing fat gain.

The main points of clean bulking include:

  • Consuming organic, locally sourced whole foods when possible
  • Closely tracking macronutrient intake (protein, carbohydrates, and fats)
  • Adjusting calorie intake based on body composition progress

Though, this is a very broad description and may not be the hallmarks everyone follows. However, the main concept is to largely reduce intake of highly processed “junk” foods, and instead achieving a calorie surplus through the consumption of “clean”, healthy, nutrient-dense foods.

On the other hand, dirty bulking is quite the opposite to clean:

  • Convenient, calorie-dense foods, no matter if they are unhealthy and highly processed
  • Less focus on minimizing fat gain
  • Typically high protein, but much less worry over exact macronutrient intake
  • A larger-than-recommended calorie surplus to ensure weight gain

This is an approach used by many bodybuilders who typically find it harder to gain weight due to their body type or genetics, for example. Though, dirty bulking can vary a lot too.

Both approaches seem appealing, right? Dirty bulking allows you to essentially eat any food you like for the benefit of your fitness goals. The rules around food are minimal, simply ensuring enough protein and calories are consumed.

However, clean bulking offers a more polished nutritional strategy that requires more restriction, but much less risk of gaining fat. You’d think this one would provide better results, right?

So, which is the better approach for muscle building?

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: Which is Better for Muscle Building?

Let's dissect this argument into categories and discuss the pros and cons!

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: Difficulty

Dirty bulking would definitely take the trophy for ease of use. If you really think about it, the reason dirty bulking even exists is because clean bulking is not an easy task!

Dirty bulking doesn’t have much in the way of structure, tracking, or rules around food intake. Nothing is off-limits, so this is obviously a very easy strategy to implement!

Clean bulking requires extra effort when it comes to food prep, planning, discipline, and even cost. Dirty bulking is the definite easier approach.

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: Muscle Growth

When done correctly and consistently, both approaches work for muscle growth, otherwise they simply wouldn’t exist.

As we have learnt in “Muscle Building 101”, muscle growth requires a calorie surplus, adequate protein intake, and an effective training program. Thus, provided these three principles are checked off, you will achieve muscle growth.

So, they BOTH work, however, the difference between dirty and clean bulking for muscle growth is choosing which is the OPTIMAL approach. You can take two similar things, but one will always be the better choice depending on individual preference.

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: Fat Gain

The above point brings us on nicely to fat gain. This is something you ideally want to avoid when trying to gain muscle, especially if you have specific goals to be lean or stage ready.

If minimizing fat gain is something that’s important to you, clean bulking would be the optimal approach for you. Clean bulking focuses primarily on healthy, clean foods and minimizing fat gain.

Dirty bulking isn’t all that concerned about fat gain, and the chances of fat gain are fairly high when dirty bulking due to the typical volume and calorie density of the diet.

You could see this as a downside to dirty bulking, however, this depends on the individual, their mindset, and most importantly, their relationship with food.

Additionally, fat gain on any scale is inevitable when gaining muscle, however, gaining excess amounts of fat would only slow down your progress.

Though, you can still dirty bulk and manage it in a way in which you take precautionary steps to minimize fat gain. For example, tracking calorie intake and body composition, thus making adjustments where necessary.

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: Health

I don’t think anyone would believe dirty bulking is the healthier approach over clean bulking!

The obvious winner here is clean bulking. This approach ensures you’re consuming an adequate intake of nutrients to support your overall health, which would further assist your gains.

Diets high in processed foods are typically low in vitamins and minerals and increases the likelihood of obesity, heart disease, and some cancers.

If you value your health, clean bulking should be your approach, or at least avoiding dirty bulking for too long!

Clean Bulk Vs Dirty Bulk: Training Performance and Recovery

This is in a similar league to health, however there are some upsides to dirty bulking in certain sporting contexts.

For example, powerlifters and other athletes who compete in non-weight category sports may wish to dirty bulk as fat gain would not be such a bad approach for them, under caution and supervision of course.

Having said that, a cyclist or other kind of endurance athlete would simply not benefit from a dirty bulk, as they would have to carefully control their food intake to maintain a lean frame.

The Bottom Line

As you know by now, dirty or clean bulking can work for muscle gain. Whichever approach you choose would mostly align with your values around health, sports performance, cost, discipline, and personal goals.

While there are benefits to both, it’s key to remember that regardless of which bulking strategy you adopt, attempt to start the phase when you’re already lean.

This means that you are more likely to stay lean, as opposed to starting a bulking phase when you already have excess fat to lose.

Additionally, dirty bulking should not be an approach you take forever, as you would run the risk of developing health problems associated with poor nutritional intake.

The bottom line is to ensure you are consuming enough calories and protein, as well as following an effective training program for the best muscle gain results.

Where you get the majority of your calories from is largely down to your preferences and goals, but proceed either one with an open mind and knowledge on how to make adjustments if needed!