Bulking is a concept that has been around for several decades and is often used in the context of "cutting and bulking." Bulking refers to the strategy of intentionally consuming enough calories to be in a surplus to add muscle mass. Bulking usually coincides with a higher volume and higher intensity weightlifting program.Bulking is often divided into two major forms: clean bulking and dirty bulking. Both approaches utilize a calorie surplus, but they are different in two major fundamental ways. While they are both utilized there are key differences to them and some misunderstandings of what differentiates them. Today we are going to do a deep dive into clean bulking and provide some context as to why that may be the best approach.
If you are currently bulking, consider using a calorie calculator to figure out your macros and calorie count. Note: This topic is especially important for Sports Nutrition Coaches.
What is Clean Bulking?
Clean bulking is a type of bulking that tries to prioritize "eating clean" while being in a calorie surplus. This means that individuals should aim to consume whole foods that are nutrient-dense and do not have many added calories from sugars or fats.
While not always considered part of a clean bulk, tracking calories, and maintaining a steady, calculated surplus is often a strategy utilized in clean bulking.
How to Clean Bulk?
There are a few key principles to consider when you are trying to utilize a Clean Bulk approach. These principles boil down to three main ideas: foods to target, foods to avoid, and an ideal calorie surplus.
What Foods Should You Target?
When following a clean bulk, it is often best to try and stick with foods that are considered "whole foods" or minimally processed foods. For example, a clean bulk is likely to include the following foods:
Protein: chicken, fish, steak, pork, turkey, and eggs
Carbs: Rice, potatoes, quinoa, bananas, apples, and other unprocessed carbohydrates
Fats: Nuts, seeds, olives, olive oils, nut butter, avocados, some cheese.
The exact specifics of each food are not super important. For example, red potatoes versus sweet potatoes or chicken breast versus chicken thighs do not make a major difference here. However, baked potatoes versus French fries or chicken thighs versus chicken fingers do make a difference.
What Should You Avoid? (Junk food, empty calories, etc.)
When you are following a clean bulk there are a few key things to avoid. These fall under a few categories:
Added Sugars: added sugars include foods that have sugars that have been added to the food during processing. Some examples of this include sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., soda), salad dressings, processed carbohydrates.
Added fats: added oils include foods that have fats added to them during processing. Things like processed peanut butter, salad dressings, chips, cookies, etc. all have added fats in them.
Processed Foods: Processed foods include foods that have gone through substantial processing to reach their current state. Processed foods include things like chips, crackers, pasta, bread, cured meats, cereals, and other similar foods.
The Ideal Caloric Surplus
One of the tools that are often used in a Clean Bulk is to be targeted in the exact calorie surplus that you are going to target. There has been some research on this topic and the current consensus is that ~300-500 calories per day is the ideal calorie surplus. Theoretically, this range of a surplus maximizes the amount of lean muscle mass you can add while minimizing the amount of adipose (fat) tissue that your body adds while you grow your muscles.
It is incredibly important that you do have a sustainable surplus as periods of low-calorie intake substantially reduce the effectiveness of a bulk. There is nothing more frustrating than putting in hours of work in the gym and not seeing any meaningful muscle growth. Training without a surplus is almost guaranteed to prevent you from gaining any significant muscle mass.
Can You Have the Occasional "Cheat Meal"?
One of the benefits of being in a bulk, clean or dirty, is you have a lot more flexibility than when you are cutting. You do not have to be picture perfect when you are in a surplus. A few calories off occasionally, is not going to derail your progress. This means that you can have some planned days off your "plan." The pizza and beer on date night is something you can partake in as long as you are smart about it and plan it into the larger context of your overall bulking cycle.
People often call these days off plan "cheat meals", however, it may be better to avoid calling it that and view it as being flexible in your approach. You want to avoid creating negative psychology around your food habits, so avoiding the "cheat meal" nomenclature is often a good idea.
What's The Difference Between Clean Bulking and Dirty Bulking?
There are several key differences between Clean Bulking and Dirty Bulking, with the two major ones being the focus on food quality and tracking/targeting an estimated surplus.
In a Clean Bulk, the major focus is on consuming nutrient-dense, whole foods. This is often referred to as "clean eating." In a Clean Bulk, there is also often a focus on getting the right amount of a calorie surplus such that you maximize muscle gain while minimizing fat gain.
In a Dirty Bulk, the major focus is on just getting as many calories in as possible. Food quality does not matter and oftentimes the bulk of the calories come from highly processed, calorie-dense foods. There is also no real focus on a specific surplus, just to consume as many calories as possible.
How Long Should You Clean Bulk For?
One of the least understood things about bulking is that it takes a long time to build muscle. You can often cut for short cycles and see good progress but bulking takes a long time (unless you are using anabolic steroids). Most people can have highly effective cutting cycles in 8-12 weeks, but an effective bulking cycle should be 16-26 weeks on the low end and upwards of an entire year on the longer end.
You can see some progress after 6-8 weeks, but it will be marginal, and extending your bulk beyond that is highly recommended.
The Wrap Up
Clean bulking is a smart approach to building lean mass. It focuses on consuming nutrient-dense, whole foods and can also focus on consuming the proper calorie surplus to maximize muscle gain while minimizing adding body fat. A clean bulk should last a minimum of 16 weeks but can go up to 52 weeks in some cases. It is also possible to be flexible and have periods where the diet quality is not perfect, and some processed foods are introduced into the diet at planned times.