When we think of bulking up, we typically think of 1 type of diet:
“The Bulking Diet”.
However, there’s much more to gaining mass than one approach.
Bulking can be split into several different styles and today we’re going to be looking at one in particular – the dirty bulk.
This article will show you what a dirty bulking diet is, why you might want to do it, including the downsides, foods to eat and avoid, and how to do it with the greatest chance of success.
Dirty bulking vs. clean bulking
You can’t mention dirty bulking, without mentioning its opponent, the clean bulk.
And although there are several types of bulking styles (more on that later), these 2 are the ones that are most commonly compared to each other.
What is dirty bulking?
Dirty bulking is where foods, and food groups aren’t off limits. You can consume anything you like, and generally the higher the calories, the better.
In some circles, this is called “The See Food Diet”. Aka you see food, and you eat it (if it’s got enough calories).
This means you can have things like fast food, sugary sweets, sugar based drinks, foods processed in vegetable oils, deep-fried foods, alcohol and foods heavy with simple carbohydrates and it’s A-OK with the diet’s “rules”.
It’s usually used by bodybuilders and powerlifters to gain weight fast, before going into a period of drastic cutting (a controlled phase where you lower your calories, to drop body fat and weight).
What is clean bulking?
Clean bulking is the opposite.
This is where you still eat a surplus (aka a lot) of calories still, but they come from “cleaner”healthier food sources.
To do this you avoid added sugars, foods cooked in processed vegetable oils, deep-fried foods and foods heavy in refined carbohydrates.
It’s a healthier approach, but comes a few downsides like how long it can take to get results, and how rigid it can be.
Is one better than the other?
But which one should you choose between dirty bulking and clean bulking?
Depending on your goals, one of these 2 might be a good choice.
Skinny guys - If you’re a skinny guy, then you’ll want to follow a tweaked version of the traditional dirty bulk (more on this at the end). This way you’ll be able to consume enough calories, without becoming too full and bloated, but still have energy and improved health.
Skinny-fats - I’d recommend following a clean bulk diet and as you get leaner, introduce some of the elements that we discuss in this article to maximise muscle growth. By doing a clean bulk, you’ll gain muscle, whilst losing fat, if you’re a newbie.
Genetically blessed - If you’re someone who doesn’t gain fat easily, then a dirty bulk might be perfect for you to gain some mass fast. You’ll likely want to follow this up with a cut.
20%+ body-fat - If you’re got body fat that’s above 20% then I’d recommend not bulking at all right now, and instead focus on a phase of cutting. I wouldn’t recommend the dirty bulk, unless it’s needed to increase weight class or part of a sport and you’re in a time crunch.
THE LAB SUMMARY
If you're a skinny guy or genetically blessed, then a dirty bulk might be a good idea. If you're skinny fat or have 20% of body fat then you'll want to clean bulk or cut before bulking up.
The pros and cons of dirty bulking
If dirty bulking sounds like something you want to do (or want to just know more about), it’s probably best to know what you’re getting yourself into and know the advantages, and drawbacks.
Here’s what you’ll want to know:
Pros of dirty bulking
Easier for many to stick to - A lot of people struggle with any kind of diet style, because of the rules and rigid nature of them.
This means they start one diet, and stop shortly after when it’s no longer manageable.
And although being autonomous with food and having healthy habits on autopilot is possible (we help people with it all the time), it’s often much easier to do a dirty bulk as it doesn’t have you cutting out foods you love and find enjoyable (study). You don’t have to worry about things you can eat or not eat, which means for some, when it comes to muscle growth, it can lead to more success.
The downside to this is even after a few weeks, junk food can make you feel awful and it can become an unenjoyable process (you might be thinking “not for me” but you’d be surprised).
Isn’t as filling as whole food - Dirty bulks usually don’t have a tonne of fibre, making them easier to consume without getting full (study).
They’re also less filling per calorie, making it easier to hit your calorie goals without becoming bloated (study).
This can be a good thing, if you’re someone who struggles with hitting a high enough calorie amount to gain weight, but it can be a problem if this causes you to overeat.
It’s also easier to do because we all crave junk food, and each time we give in, we want more the next time (study).
Obviously, this can cause the issue of struggling to give up junk food too, so it’s a catch 22.
Junk food also increases your insulin levels, which can result in blood sugar levels dropping rapidly, increasing your hunger response (study).
Can be easier to digest - This kind of goes with the last point. Processed foods are easier to digest (which makes them easier to consume).
It requires less energy to digest, absorb and metabolise the food you eat when it’s in junk food form. This means it puts less stress on your digestive system if done for a short period of time.
Because it takes up less energy to digest, it means you don’t use as much energy burning it as do eating whole foods (protein for example burns calories higher than carbs, due to the thermic effect of food - otherwise known as, TEF).
Too much however can cause gut issues, bloating and uncomfortable cramps (study). I know from personal experience, that’s something you want to avoid!
Can be cheaper - For some people, junk food can be cheaper and easier to consume than whole foods. This isn’t always the case but some fast food restaurants are much cheaper to get calories from (even poor quality calories) than fresh food.
Cons of dirty bulking
Although some of the advantages to dirty bulking are great. It does come with quite a few disadvantages.
Rather than separate each issue into their own bullets, I’ve gone ahead and categorised them for you.
Health issues - This is the major issue when it comes to dirty bulking.
It affects your health in quite a few negative ways...
The traditional dirty bulking diet is usually high in dietary fat, which can make us gain more body fat due to consuming easier to eat, more calorie dense foods vs. other food types (study, study, study).
There’s also the problem of frequently spiking your insulin levels - this is an issue when it’s over too long of a time period. At this point, it takes you beyond just gaining fat (study) and can cause issues with developing type-2 diabetes and causing pancreatic problems.
It can also make you sluggish and increase your risk of depression, due to the loss of energy (study). There’s also the risk of weakening your immune system, due to the lack of vitamins and minerals (study) and as mentioned earlier, developing digestive issues.
Can decrease athletic body composition - With all of the last points, you can likely see why this happens.
Fat gain. It’s inevitable when following a dirty bulk.
Although you will increase muscle mass, and get bigger, you’ll find your body looking softer and less muscular the longer you stay on a dirty bulking diet.
As mentioned, even though junk food is easier to digest in the short-term, you’ll also likely find yourself bloated from eating large amounts of food in a small time frame (you’ll feel confident that you can eat more than you really can).
This creates the bulky look, not functional or athletic, but this can serve its purpose...
THE LAB SUMMARY
It has some benefits like being able to eat whatever you want and can be cheaper to buy processed foods vs whole foods. But the disadvantages can be big on your health and fat-gain. You'll want to weigh up the pros and cons before diving in deep.
Who should dirty bulk?
There’s a few people that benefit from a dirty bulk more than others.
Here’s the main reasons you’d want to do it:
- 1You’re a powerlifter who is struggling to increase your lifts. It can be useful to do a dirty bulk to gain weight, which will in term increase your strength. Note: You don’t need to get weight/fat to be strong. If you’ve got patience.
- 2You need to go up a weight class for sports (example, for a weigh-in day).
- 3When rapid muscle growth is needed and you have time afterwards, lose the body fat you might have gained This can be a trap though and can create a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting. Doing a dirty bulk to gain size, struggling to lose the fat and not getting lean enough, before doing a dirty bulk again.
- 4Coaches usually recommend this to skinny guys. I don’t. It's not needed and oftentimes can create bad habits and way too much bloating (and feeling uncomfortable in your skin).
In one of my many attempts trying to gain weight (I was 112 lbs). I followed a dirty bulk
I’d gorge on fast food, protein powder and sit on the floor feeling sick all the time. I felt exhausted, couldn’t breath well and looked like a bloated skinny mess all the time - I don’t recommend it for any skinny guy's small stomach.
Make sure to take the pros and cons taken into consideration before you start a dirty bulk.
Is dirty bulking unhealthy for you?
So we listed a bunch of cons earlier. Mostly to do with health.
Before we move ahead, I want to quickly answer, is a dirty bulk unhealthy for you, in the short-term?
Blood Marker Values
Cholesterol issues can be a problem, especially if you’ve got a pre-diagnosed issue with cholesterol.
It can also increase your risk of health conditions and affect your blood pressure, risk of a stroke, and diabetes (study, study). These short-term effects can be corrected by switching to an unprocessed healthy diet.
So as long as you don’t follow diets like bodybuilding coaches CT Fletcher, you won’t risk too many issues and end up needing heart surgery like he did.
Which brings me to my next point.
You’ll be sluggish and want to nap a lot
In the first few days, this might only cause sluggishness later in the day, but as the days add up will likely make you sluggish often, and you’ll be sneaking to your car to take a nap at every possibility, or wishing you had coffee drip-fed into your system.
As mentioned earlier, the sluggishness that can come with heavy processed foods can increase anxiety and depression (study) and impact the way you think (study).
When I was on dirty bulks, I often took lunch time naps and drank a lot of coffee. I wasn’t aware of the reasons until I got smarter and more educated on bulking-up that I realised.
Will you gain weight faster on a dirty bulk?
A big reason why a lot of people want to do a dirty bulk is to gain weight faster.
So, is it true that you will do this on a dirty bulk?
The simple answer is yes, you’d gain weight faster than clean bulking or any other lean style of eating.
But a few things need to be clear:
- Not all of that weight will be muscle growth. It will also be water, food and fat.
- Muscle gain isn’t linear like it is with fat loss. It comes in spurts. If you are gaining 1-2lb a week consistently and you aren’t a skinny guy or a newbie, then it’s going to be a high fat to muscle ratio.
- You need to be hitting your calories in order to gain weight and the more you have, the faster that will be. That isn’t always a good thing, but is the reality of a dirty bulk.
THE LAB SUMMARY
Just like skinny guys generally eat whatever they want before they try to build muscle, and still don’t gain weight, it isn’t the foods that make us gain weight entirely. Calories still need to be hit in order for the scale to move up.
How to do a dirty bulk
Let’s take a look at how to do a dirty bulking diet, and some of the stuff you might want to remember when following one.
Ask yourself if it meets your goals
Is this something you want to do, or can afford to do with your current health and appearance.
Are you currently in a healthy state and can you risk the potential short-term health issues?
Are you able to deal with the sluggishness?
Are you okay with getting softer and gaining some fat in order to get stronger and build some muscle?
Set a timeframe for this phase
In order to stop many of the negative aspects of bulking up (on your health, fat gain and potential eating addiction) you’ll want to make this a short-term plan.
I’d recommend assessing things monthly (with photos at the start and end of each month) to measure body fat and muscle mass, beyond what the scales tell you.
A maximum deadline of 3 months is recommended, before returning to a more nutritious, whole-food approach. This will give you enough time to assess whether it’s working for you and get past any non-linear weight changes that occur with building muscle.
By giving yourself a fixed deadline, it’ll help curb junk food addiction vs. not having one. You can slowly introduce more nutritious foods and remove junk food in the weeks leading up to your deadline.
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.
Refined and high-carb foods - white rice, pasta, pizza, baked goods, breakfast cereals, cereal bars, maltodextrin carb powder, bagels, fries, milkshakes.
High-fat foods - Olive oil, nut butter, coconut oil, eggs, beef, avocados, cheeses.
Fast Food - I’d recommend making a lot of fakeaways instead, but if you’re going all in on a traditional bulk, then fast food is usually one of the things you’d have.
Foods to avoid in your diet
Low-sugar alternatives - diet drinks, sugar-free water, protein sweetened ice cream, sweetener in coffee.
Carbs - You’ll want to avoid having bread, potatoes and anything dense (other than pizza) as this will likely fill you up too much.
Large-quantity hazardous foods - Liver, Brazil nuts, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi tuna, and bigeye tuna.
Keep your protein high
Even though you might be eating processed foods and a lot of calories, to build muscle you’ll need to hit your protein goals (more on this below).
Without protein you’re going to struggle to build muscle and recover from your workouts, no matter how many carbs you shuttle into your system.
Use insulin to grow (only for the short-term)
Now this one is tough, but in order for things to be a true dirty bulk, you'll likely find that you need to keep insulin high.
This means consuming refined carbs and having a high-carb diet to hit your calories.
The pros to this is that it spikes insulin.
Insulin causes everything to grow which means it’s incredibly effective at causing muscle tissue to grow. The downside to that, is that it causes everything to grow - aka fat tissue.
Too much of it and you can wreak havoc on your pancreas and screw with your insulin sensitivity. However, if you're a skinny guy that might not be something you need to worry about.
When we think of bulking up, we typically think of 1 type of diet:
A few rules that can help:
- Don’t spike your insulin dramatically with every meal (for example, don’t do it with breakfast)
- Have some days with less-refined carbs
- As mentioned before, have a set timeframe.
A better way to do a dirty bulk
If you’re going to do a dirty bulk, follow a sensible version of it.3
Instead of having every meal as junk food, we change and pivot a few. meals. We add some healthier, yet calorie dense shakes in. We have green smoothies in between our meals, to give us the nutrients we need.
Day of the week
3 bigger meals
Use this approach and you might be able to avoid some of the negative aspects of a dirty bulk.
What calories and macros should you do during a dirty bulking diet?
So by now you know all the details that go into following a dirty bulk, things to have and avoid, and a better way of doing it.
But all of that doesn’t really matter, if you’re not hitting the right amount of calories and protein needed to grow.
Here’s the calorie numbers you want to hit:
30-40% increase of calories on top of your maintenance calories (need help working that out, go here).
For example if your maintenance calories are 2400 your dirty bulk calories would be 3120-3360 calories.
Calculate your macronutrients
Although, most people don’t track their macros when on a dirty bulk, science has shown that to bulk up we want to hit these numbers:
30–35% of your calories from protein
45–60% of your calories from carbs
15–30% of your calories from fat
The main focus for you will want to be hitting your calories and protein goal.
A healthier, more effective wayto build muscle on a bulk
Although dirty bulking is effective at gaining mass, it has a lot of downsides.
If you’re after muscle mass, then there’s more effective ways to bulk up without the body fat you’d gain through this style of eating.
Not only is there the clean bulk and dirty bulk, but there is the 80/20 bulk.4
This is a hybrid of the 2:
It takes the nutritious, muscle building aspects of clean bulks, and the perks of dirty bulking like insulin spikes and being less rigid, and creates an approach that allows you to build muscle rapidly, without feeling sluggish all the time or affecting your health in the long term.
Many of the habits that make up this bulking diet are simple to follow, big habits that do 80% of the work. We also have a 80/20 ratio of clean to dirty bulk in:
- You’ll want to have 80% whole food
- 20% can be dirty
If you decide you want to follow a clean bulk or dirty bulk instead, remember to keep your carbs high, protein high and hit your goals.
Also your workout program should be geared towards building muscle, as without that you won't’ be building muscle no matter the bulk you choose, and instead will just end up looking soft.
A dirty bulk is a phase of aggressive weight gain used to help move up weight classes or put on weight fast.
It’s a high-calorie, highly processed diet and although it can help guys gain muscle, it comes at the expense of fat gain and potential health issues affecting your blood values, and energy crashes.
If you are going to do a dirty bulk, make sure it matches your goals, follow the guidelines given in this article and only do it for a certain amount of time. You’ll likely need to cut afterwards to look lean, and no matter who you are it’s best to keep it to a short timeframe.
How sensitive the body's cells are in response to insulin↵
Where the body doesn’t respond normally to insulin↵
The traditional dirty bulk diets found in gym rat magazines talk about dirty bulks including junk food in every meal and having a gallon of milk (also called the GOMAD diet). I’d recommend against that for everyday. ↵
So why is it called the 80/20 bulk?
It comes from a concept called The Pareto Principle, which states that for many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes.
We use this philosophy in 2 ways.↵