When bulking up, most guys think of eating everything under the sun in order to gain some muscle mass.
But then fat gain normally comes at the expense of muscle growth.
What if you could gain muscle, without gaining the extra fat that typically comes with gaining weight and bulking up?
That’s what clean bulking is (supposed to be) for.
This article will show you what a clean bulking diet is, why you might want to do it, including the downsides, foods to eat and avoid, and how to do it effectively.
‘Clean’ vs. ‘Dirty’ Bulking
As the name suggests, both are a form of bulking. A diet designed to help you get bigger, stronger, and usually more muscular.
However, not all bulking diets are created equal and you can’t mention clean bulking, without mentioning its counterpart, dirty bulking.
But what are the major differences between the two?
What is clean bulking?
Clean bulking (often referred to as lean bulking) is where you eat a surplus of calories that allows your body to grow, but do it whilst avoiding processed foods, or other food groups that can be seen as unhealthy such as those with added sugars, cooked in processed vegetable oils, deep-fried foods and foods heavy with simple carbohydrates.
This means you’re eating a wholefood diet, and getting your protein, carbs and fats from more healthy foods. Opting for slower digesting carbs and tracking what you eat.
It’s a slow approach, but is referred to often as the leanest way to bulk up - meaning you’ll gain muscle at a slower rate, but your chances of it being muscle and not fat are high.
What is dirty bulking?
Unlike clean bulking, this is where things aren’t off limits. It’s also sometimes called “The See Food Diet”, meaning you see food, you eat it. No matter what it is.
This means all the things like added sugars, foods cooking in processed vegetable oils, deep-fried foods and foods heavy with simple carbohydrates aren’t off limits. They’re seen as fuel for your body to use towards hitting your calorie goal.
It can be helpful for adding weight fast, however, that weight doesn’t always come from muscle, and can come at the expense of your health and body fat getting worse.
That doesn't mean dirty bulking is all bad though. When done right, it can be a powerful way to gain mass fast.
The pros and cons of clean bulking
Before you clean bulk, it’s a good idea to work out if it’s something you want to do, and if it matches your goals outside of just wanting to stay lean, whilst building muscle.
To help that, I've put together some reasons you’d want to clean bulk, and some reasons you might want to avoid it.
Pros of clean bulking
You’ll be leaner - The obvious one is that your gains are more likely to be muscle, rather than fat, when you do things correctly.
And there are quite a few benefits to that, other than wanting to not gain belly fat.
You don’t have to spend as much, or possibly anytime, cutting after a bulk. This means you’ll have more time to spend on getting stronger and muscular.
Healthier for you - In simple terms, it’s generally healthier for you vs. a dirtier bulk. You’ll be having less processed goods, and likely tracking what you eat early on (which can lead to better judgement and overall healthier eating habits for the long term).
You’ll have more energy - because you won’t be consuming foods low in nutrients, you’ll likely have more vitamins and whole foods. This means you’ll have more stable energy levels throughout the day and are less likely to feel sluggish, even when consuming the high-amount of calories that you need to build some serious muscle.
You don't need to train as much - You won’t have to train as much as you do with a dirty bulk diet, as you’ll be able to offset the lack of movement by needing to burn body fat off less.
Better for the digestive system (for non-skinny guys) - Because you’re eating less junk food, your gut will be in a better position to digest food easier. This means you’ll have less irritation, less bloating and be able to absorb the nutrients to the best of your body's ability.
Now this is on the pro list for the non-skinny population. But for skinny guys, this isn’t a good thing. Which brings us to the first on the cons list.
Cons of clean bulking
You’ll be full all the time and it’s tough on the digestive system for skinny guys - If you’re a skinny or skinny-fat body type then this is the biggest drawback of clean bulking. You’ll be full all the time.
Like all the time.
It’s tough for most guys who are bulking to eat enough, even when they’re allowed processed foods and empty calories that don’t fill them up as much.
Add to the fact that you might eat whole foods, fibre and a lot of stuff thrown in to make the meals nicer to eat, you’re likely to be full to the brim.
You’ll find yourself gassy and always having to force feed yourself, which will make things unsustainable (which is the opposite to what we want).
Easy to not hit your calories (and stop it from helping you stay lean or building muscle) - Because you’re eating whole foods, you can be less inclined to judge the amount of calories you’re having.
This works in 2 ways. You might believe you’re eating more than you are, because you’re full all the time and seem to pile up your plates (which will happen on a clean bulking diet)
Or the opposite, you’re overeating, because you aren’t tracking things and you’re just assuming because it’s healthy, it doesn’t add up. And although things get more advanced than just calories in, calories out, it’s a good thing to remember.
Can limit your growth potential - because you aren’t eating as many insulinogenic foods (foods that spike insulin more than others) that are easy to consume in large amounts, it can limit the amount of muscle growth you have. As mentioned before, it’s a much slower process. But the benefits come from it (mostly) all being muscle.
Can be rigid, depending on whose advice you listen to - Some people consider a clean diet to include removing any simple carbs, and anything that can “spike insulin”.
But carb, even the simple kind are very beneficial guys who want to bulk up. It can also create a rigid rule book, where all simple foods are “bad” and all complex foods are “good”. If you want to know more about that, we discuss the use of carbs in geeky detail in this article.
Not designed for skinny guys - and this goes beyond just being full. As a skinny guy you want to use all the tools at your disposal to build muscle. This means eating foods that are high in calories, consuming a lot of protein and allowing yourself to spike insulin levels and maximise growth hormones.
That’s tough to do when you’re eating clean. And let’s be real, it can feel difficult to build muscle without diet roadblocks, am I right?
So there you have it, there're many things to consider when doing a clean bulk.
But what about the ‘doing’ part of it all?
THE LAB SUMMARY
Clean bulking has a lot of pros, like it being nutritious, and helping you build muscle whilst staying lean. It’s negatives are how rigid it can be and it can be too filling for skinny guys to have success on.
How to clean bulk diet
Let’s take a look at how to do a clean bulking diet, and some things you might want to remember when following it.
Set realistic goals based on your body-type
If you're someone who's already got a base of muscle (such as an endomorph) then you'll be in a decent chance of getting success with this. Your gains will likely be clean and you’ll be able to gain muscle without gaining much, if any fat.
If you’re a skinny-fat then your muscle growth will likely be much slower, but you’ll be able to hold off gaining any extra fat and as you get more muscle, you’ll look leaner in the process (it’ll be similar to recomping - aka building muscle and losing fat at the same time).
Just know that the scales won’t move up as fast as they would if you were on a dirtier bulk, but you’ll likely get more aesthetically pleasing results. The only downside is that it might be difficult to follow through as even though you have fat around your midsection, you still have a skinny guy's small stomach.
If you’re a skinny guy in the early stages of newbie gains (haven’t gained 10 lbs yet) I’d likely avoid this style of dieting. You don’t need to be as strict and unlike a skinny-fat body type, you don’t need to worry about fat-gain being an issue or trying to heavily recomp.
If you’re someone who’s got a lot of fat around your midsection and isn’t skinny elsewhere, I wouldn’t recomp or bulk right now. I’d look at cutting and then come back to this when you’re at 10-12% body fat.
Avoid eating too much junk food (sugar and processed food) and have more whole, unprocessed foods
As mentioned, this is the main idea behind this diet:
To keep your calories in the right ballpark, whilst getting the macros and nutrients you need, you’ll want to avoid processed foods, junk food, added sugars and most insulinogenic 1 foods.
You’ll also be on a lower amount of calories than a dirty bulk (which we’ll get into in a second). This will allow your gains to be less likely to be stored as visceral fat (study, study, study) - the fat that we usually refer to as belly fat.
By not being in an extremely high calorie range for an extended period, you'll decrease the risk of developing chronic diseases such as poor blood sugar management and high cholesterol (study, study).
Because you’ll be having more nutritious foods, your gains are likely to be leaner (study). You’ll have more energy because of the increase of nutrients (study, study) and because of this might find anxiety and stress to also be lower (study)
Foods to include in your diet
Protein Sources - High protein sources like chicken, turkey, low-fat beef, tofu, tempeh, Greek yogurt, egg, whites, whey/casein/hemp protein powder are great sources that have a high concentration of protein (vs. other macros). Other high-quality sources include whole eggs, fish, cottage cheese, reduced-fat cheese and protein powders like pea protein.
Rich, high-quality carbs - white and sweet potatoes, white and brown rice, oats, quinoa, home made muesli cereal, oats, quinoa, whole grain pasta are the best choice of carbs.
After these, legumes are a great source to add into your meals. These can be any bean variety, such as chickpeas, kidney, navy and black beans.
High nutrient vegetables - broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach and collard greens are a great choice for getting in plenty of vitamins and minerals. Swiss chard, collard greens, kale, cauliflower are also good choices, but can be filling without a lot of benefits. Cabbage and sauerkraut are great for aiding digestion.
Fruits - bananas (my personal favourite), apples, oranges, pineapple, grapefruit, and any berries. I’d personally limit these and wouldn’t have your full carb source be from fruit (it’s quite filling).
Healthy Fats - nut butters (i’m a sucker for peanut butter), avocado, olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, grass fed butter, and seeds like chia, hemp, and flax seeds.
Foods to avoid in your diet
Junk food (aka highly processed goods) - Although these are tasty, they’re not ideal for clean bulking, or improving your health. This means things like tk.
Low Quality Proteins - Think salami, chorizo (I know, it’s delicious), fatty cuts of beef, 20% fat mince, sausages, and things with “protein” in them like snickers protein bars, beef pasties, and packet ham.
Fat substitutes - Margarine, and safflower and canola oils (I do however, recommend low-fat cooking sprays).
High-sugar beverages - Lemonade, coke, concentrate (and really any high-sugar) fruit juice, sugar in your coffee, and iced tea.
Cycle and taper your carbs around your training days
On the days you train, you’ll want to consume more carbs (and calories) than the days you don’t train.
This allows you to get the best of both worlds:
You can stimulate an insulin response that will contribute to muscle growth, and replenish glycogen stores to keep your muscles looking full. It’ll also allow you to hit your macros easier on the days you train, as you’ll likely have a bigger appetite after a hard training session (study, study).
Whilst also on your days off, keeping your body in a “fat-burning mode”, as it won’t be needing the fuel as much (study).
The main thing you want to focus on is your calories throughout the week. If you want to go higher in your calories (and carbs) on training days, then do so, but be sure to lower them on your days off.
THE LAB SUMMARY
Be sure to get realistic goals for what is possible with a clean bulk. Avoid junk food and processed food. Keep your protein high (more on this below). If things need to a step up, you might want to consider carb cycling.
What calories and macros should you do for a clean bulk diet?
So by now you know the foods you should have, foods you want to stay away from, and how a clean bulking diet works.
But all of that doesn’t really matter, if you’re not hitting the right amount of calories and macros needed to grow, whilst staying lean.
It’s the foundation, and without it, the bulking part of the diet isn’t complete.
Calculate your calories
The first step is to work out how many calories you need to maintain your body weight.
This is what we call “maintenance calories”. There you’re not building muscle, and you’re not losing weight. You’re a stand still.
Note: this calculation is generalised and does not take into account the full extent of things that happen with a guy on the skinny-fat or skinny spectrum.
Let’s work out what yours are:
Your Maintenance Calories
The quick and dirty way of calculating this is to take 14-16 x per pound of bodyweight.
For example, at 150 lbs your maintenance calories would be 2100-2400.
Why such a drastic difference?
It all depends on your activity level, how much heat you give off during the day, stress and a bunch of other factors.
Your Lean Bulk Diet Calories
Next we want to take your maintenance calories and add 10–20% calories on top of that.
Let’s take the 150 lbs above, whose calories were 2100-2400 calories.
Take that number (2100) and calculate 10-20% of it. In this case, it would be 210-420 calories.
Making things 2310 - 2510 calories to start lean bulking.
Use this as a starting point and then increase your calories by 100 calories per week if you’re not seeing growth. Once you notice fat-gain, lower it by 100 again and stay with that for a couple of weeks
Calculate your macronutrients
Now that we’ve got your calories sorted, we need to fill it with macros (protein, carbs and fats).
This will make sure you aren’t just getting in any type of calories, but the right food groups of calories to help you build lean muscle.
With the example of 150 lbs at 2510 calories this would be:
Protein (30%) - 190g
Carbs (50%) - 314g
Fats (20%) - 55g
Although, the ratios might change, you’ll want to keep the protein in the 30-35% range, in order to recover and promote protein synthesis.
THE LAB SUMMARY
Regardless of the type of bulking method you use. You still need to consume enough calories to grow, and keep your protein high enough for muscle growth to take place.
Other factors that affect clean bulking success
There are a few things that can bottleneck the success of staying lean whilst building muscle.
Although, if you’re following everything laid out in this article your chances of success are greatly increased, some lifestyle tk might want to be addressed.
Too much stress
And this can go unnoticed. Snacks here and there. Habits breaking.
And an increase in the hormone cortisol (a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands which is increased in response to a threat) leads to us wanting to eat more.
Stress is a needed mechanism to survive (for example, we stress our bodies through exercise) but large amounts of overtime can cause chronic health issues (study).
Not enough rest between workouts
If you’ve got a great diet (following what’s outlined above) and you’re weight training, then it might be your workout program has some flaws:
- It might not be built for your body type (if you’re a skinny guy, this is pretty likely)
- You’re not recovering enough, and because of this overtaxing yourself, and your muscles.
Although your diet should give you the macros and nutrients you need to recover from your workout, sometimes this isn’t enough.
Depending on how much time you have between your workout sessions, how much you’re sleeping, and any other lifestyle factors, you might not be able to recover well enough before you’re training your muscles again.
You’ll want to get adequate rest, and train in a minimal fashion if you’re someone who has a lot going on, outside of the gym.
My recommendations for training frequency:
Train 3x a week if you’re below the advanced level of training or if you’re someone who doesn’t sleep a lot (8 hours of quality sleep).
Train 4x week if you’re someone who can recover and who has their nutrition dialed in.
You might be moving less than you think.
When setting your calories, you need to bear in mind the amount of activity you do outside of the gym.
If you’ve got a desk job, you’ll be burning less calories than someone who is on their feet and walking a lot.
It’s common for people to think they move more than they do. If you’re not getting enough movement in (stuck at a desk for 8 hours straight) then find ways to remind yourself to move.
Set a timer for every 30 minutes, and do a lap.
Park the car further away or get off the bus a stop earlier.
This could also work in the reverse - where you’re not gaining enough weight.
If that’s the case, rather than cutting down on your movement, you want to increase your calories.
THE LAB SUMMARY
If you're struggling to stay lean whilst doing a clean bulk (and your macros and calories are strict) then it might be other factors such as activity and rest that you need to address.
Clean bulking is an effective way to bulk up whilst building muscle.
It has its pros for the average guy looking to build muscle, whilst staying lean. For skinny guys it isn’t a good idea as it creates too many barriers that they need to overcome outside of clean eating.
Although it can be healthier and produce solid muscle growth, it is more strict to follow and because of this might be harder to stick to for the long-term (vs. a dirtier style of bulking).
If your weight gain stops, then you should look at switching your diet up (possibly with a 2-4 week short dirty bulk) before repeating a clean bulking diet again.
And lastly, remember to set the right expectations, as clean bulking is generally slower at increasing weight on the scales, but visually might be a better outcome.
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