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Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking — How Do You Want to Get Big?


So you’re a strength athlete who wants to put on weight. Going up in weight can be a very attractive option whether your end goal is to lift heavier or simply to pack on more muscle mass. But when it’s time to bulk, you need a plan. Or do you?

If you’ve been in any bodybuilding circles of late, you might have caught snippets of the debate: dirty bulking versus clean bulking. But the names can trip you up — there’s no filth involved in dirty bulking just as there’s nothing automatically superior about clean bulking. Instead, the names refer to how much attention you pay to calorie counting.

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With dirty bulking, you’ll have a more “anything goes” approach to your bulk. Clean bulking means you’ll be counting calories and tracking macros during your weight-gain phase — you’ll just be getting more of them. Here, you’ll learn everything you need to know about dirty and clean bulking — and when you may want to try them.

What Is Dirty Bulking?
What Is Clean Bulking?
Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Overall Nutrition
Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Gym Performance
Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Muscle Growth
Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Body Fat Levels
Your Takeaways

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What Is Dirty Bulking?

In general, bulking refers to a period when physique athletes deliberately overeat in the hopes of packing on more muscle mass. During a bulking phase, athletes will also train consistently — and hard — in the gym to support their hypertrophy goals.

So where does the “dirty” part come in?

First things first: there’s nothing dirty about dirty bulking. The designation simply means that during a dirty bulk, athletes do not set a daily caloric goal — instead, they’ll eat in an unrestricted fashion.

Credit: Joshua Resnick / Shutterstock

Certain athletes may be likely to overeat to an extreme during a dirty bulk. And since you’re not tracking your macros or calories, you may be more likely to eat a wider variety of foods — some of which may not always be optimized for your gym performance. In that case, you might wind up gaining both body fat and muscle mass.

What Is Clean Bulking?

Clean bulking is the method that many physique athletes use to bulk. Instead of the “anything goes, in any amount” approach that characterizes a dirty bulk, athletes doing a clean bulk keep track of their calories and eat to achieve a specific caloric surplus.

For many athletes, this surplus to gain muscle might be only a couple hundred extra calories per day. For others, the caloric surplus may be a lot higher. Research suggests that competitive bodybuilders may consume around 1,400 calories more per day during the offseason (bulking season) than during a dieting phase. (1)

To find out how many calories you might want to consume during a bulking phase, take advantage of BarBend’s calorie calculator.

Calorie Calculator





Activity Level

BMR estimation formula


Your daily calorie needs: Calories Per Day

Daily calorie needs based on goal

Calories Per Day


Fat Loss

Extreme Fat Loss

Exercise: 15-30 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Intense exercise: 45-120 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Very intense exercise: 2+ hours of elevated heart rate activity.

Once you have your target number, a clean bulk will have you sticking as closely as you can to this figure each day.

Additionally, athletes doing a clean bulk will generally monitor their macronutrient intake. Macronutrients, or macros, are protein, carbohydrates, and fats — these are the foods that make up your calorie count each day.

To figure out how best to meet your macronutrient requirements, check out BarBend’s macros calculator.

Macronutrient Calculator






Activity Level

Adjust Protein

Total Calories: Per Day

Your Daily Macronutrients:





Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that bodybuilders tend to eat a whole lot of protein — especially during bulking season. (2)(3)(4) This can be advantageous, as higher protein intake during a bulk may help fuel muscle growth over body fat increases. (2)(3)(4)

To get down and dirty with the specifics of your protein needs, dive into BarBend’s protein intake calculator.

Protein Intake Calculator






Activity Level

Do you know your body fat percentage?


Total Calories: 1699 Per Day

Daily protein intake recommendation:



Generally recommended


Exercise: 15-30 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Intense exercise: 45-120 minutes of elevated heart rate activity.
Very intense exercise: 2+ hours of elevated heart rate activity.

Notice that clean bulking involves a lot more nutritional math than dirty bulking, where you simply eat and train. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s dive in to see what’s what.

Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Overall Nutrition

Even during a bulk, not everything is about putting on weight. You’ve also got to consider your overall nutrition and health.

Micronutrient Intake

The body needs micronutrients — vitamins and minerals — to survive and function optimally.

If you’re bulking dirty, you might not be paying attention to your overall macros or your micronutrient levels. You might skimp on certain food groups (fruits and veggies, for example) that contain essential micronutrients.

Then again, athletes doing a clean bulk might not get enough micronutrients, either. If you’re meal prepping, you might be sticking to the same foods over and over again. In that case, you might not be getting a diverse array of vitamins and minerals.

That’s where supplements come in. Many bodybuilders turn to supplements, including greens powders, that can help give you what you’re not getting in your diet.

Pay attention to not overdoing it with supplements. Research suggests that bodybuilders who take supplements may be getting micronutrients at over 1,000 percent of the U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance, far exceeding the tolerable levels for certain micronutrients. (1)

Yo-Yo Dieting

Clean bulking might be beneficial for helping avoid the yo-yo effect of rapid weight gain and loss. With clean bulking, you can ensure that you’re only eating slightly above your caloric maintenance levels — say, 10 to 20 percent. (5)

You may prefer this over a higher percentage which might make you gain weight more quickly than recommended. (5) Because clean bulking is more precise, it may help you gain weight more steadily — between 0.25 and 0.5 percent of total body weight per week. If you’re an advanced lifter, you’ll likely want to proceed with even more conservative caloric increases and rates of weight gain. (5

This approach may be more sustainable than more rapid weight gain. Rapid and/or cycling fluctuations in weight can be accompanied by significant health consequences, which include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and type-II diabetes. (6)

Psychology of Nutrition

There are also psychological impacts of bulking — “clean” or “dirty” — that may impact your long-term health and nutrition

For example, bodybuilders seem to be more likely to develop disordered eating habits and other body image-related disorders, partly due to intensive dieting practices like bulking. (7)(8)

It also matters how you think of bulking: if you associate “clean” bulking with good and “dirty” bulking with bad, you might be setting yourself up for failure. While clean or dirty bulking, you may develop a binarist view of food where some are “good” and some are “bad” that doesn’t have a basis in scientific fact. 

If one form of bulking feels more mentally healthy for you, it might be the better overall move for your nutrition in the long run.

This black-and-white thinking about food can lead to panic if you “mess up” and have some ice cream during a clean bulk. It can lead to shaming yourself as a whole for eating “bad” foods in unrestricted amounts during a dirty bulk.

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Either way, research suggests that thinking about food as good or bad can lead to dangerously rapid weight fluctuations and make you more likely to develop disordered eating habits like binging. (9)(10)(11)

If dirty bulking leads you to have an intuitive relationship with your food that doesn’t lead to binging, it’s likely the best bet for you. On the other hand, if clean bulking helps you avoid a binging mentality, your long-term health might benefit from this method instead.

Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Gym Performance

There aren’t a lot of studies specifically comparing different nutritional approaches to packing on muscle mass. But in one study, some athletes ate whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted during a bulk — akin to dirty bulking. Others worked with a nutritionist to achieve a specific bulking goal — akin to clean bulking. (12)

The athletes performed four strength-training sessions per week in addition to sports-specific training. The length of athletes’ cycles (eight or 12 weeks) depended on exactly how much weight they were looking to gain. During their bulk, athletes in both dirty and clean bulking groups increased their one-rep max (1RM). (12)

However, athletes who were bulking with nutritional counseling — more closely resembling clean bulking — experienced a significant decrease in their 40-meter sprint times. (12) This might be because, in this study, the clean bulking group consumed fewer calories. That suggests that whichever method will have you eating more overall may give you the energy you need to tackle more multi-faceted gym performances.

Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Muscle Growth

At first glance, it might seem that dirty bulking would produce more rapid mass gain. After all, more calories equal more growth, right?

Rate of Muscle Growth

However, in the study comparing athletes who worked with a nutritional counselor to athletes who ate as much as they wanted during bulking gained lean muscle mass at a similar rate. (12) Even though those who worked with a nutritional counselor gained more overall weight than the group who ate more intuitively, they did not gain more lean muscle mass. (12)

Experience level also matters. Research — and your memory of those sweet newbie gains — suggests that you can grow a lot more muscle, a lot more quickly as a beginner. (13) Since it becomes a lot harder to put on muscle mass as you gain training experience, bulking might put advanced lifters at greater risk of fat gain rather than muscle growth. (5)

Protein Intake

No matter how you’re bulking, try to be mindful of an increased protein intake. Research suggests that if athletes bulk with 1,000 extra calories per day, those who take in less overall protein will gain relatively less weight than those who ate more protein. (14)

Credit: mapo_japan / Shutterstock

If you get a lot of your excess calories from protein, it might help you put on muscle mass instead of body fat. (2)(3)(4) So grab that tofu, chicken, or whey protein shake. You’ll need it for max muscle gain.

Dirty Bulking Vs. Clean Bulking for Body Fat Levels

The main goal of a bulk is generally to pack on muscle mass. But which method is better for regulating body fat levels?

Caloric Intake

Dirty bulking might not always lead to a higher caloric intake than clean bulking. Especially if your training is very intense, you might need a lot more calories than you think to bulk. As such, you might wind up eating fewer calories during a dirty bulk than a clean bulk. (12

This might be because dirty bulking’s “anything goes” approach may not lead to force-feeding — a practice of eating when you’re not hungry to make sure you hit your daily calorie goals. Force-feeding is common during a clean bulk. 

On the other hand, dirty bulking may lead you to eat more calorically-dense foods, more often, in higher quantities. In that case, you may pack on a lot more calories in a dirty bulk than during a clean bulk.

But in at least this one study, researchers compared the caloric intake and weight gain between those engaged in a nutritional counselor-sponsored bulk (akin to clean) and those who ate more intuitively (akin to dirty). It found that the group that bulked more cleanly consumed more overall calories than the dirty bulking group. (12)

Body Fat Cycling

All things being equal, the more calories you consume during a bulk may lead to gaining more body fat and overall weight. (12)

That growth might be desirable for physique athletes intending to bulk and then enter a strategic weight cut. The idea here is that you get as big as possible during the offseason — even if that weight gain includes body fat. Then, during your weight loss cycle, you’ll try to drop that added body fat to reveal the muscles you gained.

But say you have a lot of training experience. And say you’re prone to eating many calories during a dirty bulk. In that case, dirty bulking might set you up for a higher proportion of fat gain. (5

A more measured approach — where you’re more diligent about regulating your intake — might help your body avoid the ups and downs of rapid cycling between gaining and losing body fat. (9))(10)(11)

This yo-yo experience is common for bodybuilders after a competition and might be something you want to avoid to promote long-term health and dietary sustainability. (9)(10)(11)(15)(16)

Your Takeaways

There are pros and cons to both types of bulking. Ultimately, your choice will likely come down to your tendencies as an eater and your approach to food.

Will the “all bets are off” approach to dirty bulking feel more sustainable for you in the long run, potentially causing you to eat in a more regulated way in the short term? Or will dirty bulking — especially in contrast to any potential restrictive dieting — set you up to binge? Different athletes will respond in a variety of ways.

In contrast, many athletes genuinely enjoy the rules and regulations of knowing what they’re putting into their bodies. They might feel better equipped to take on their overall health and workouts by keeping track of their macros to ensure a solid energy balance.

When to Dirty Bulk

You might want to consider dirty bulking if:

You can’t count calories due to a history of disordered eating habits.
You want to avoid force-feeding — eating when you’re not hungry to meet your daily caloric bulking goals.
You want to take an intuitive approach to eating.
You’re looking to gain both muscle mass and body fat.*

*For some athletes, dirty bulking might lead to less fat gain than clean bulking. A key difference there might lie in a potential lack of force-feeding in dirty bulking that may ironically lead to less caloric intake.

When to Clean Bulk

Consider doing a clean bulk if:

You want to be specific about your calorie counting and macros intake.
You’re preparing for a physique competition.
You prefer to avoid a method of bulking that may lend itself to binge eating or overeating.
You want to put on as much muscle mass as possible while limiting your potential body fat gain.*
You’re an experienced athlete who will benefit from being more measured and precise to promote steady muscle growth.

*Keeping track of your macros — particularly maintaining a higher protein intake — may help limit an athlete’s fat gain, as opposed to potentially getting less protein in a dirty bulk.

How Should You Bulk?

If you’re looking to put on muscle mass, there’s more than one way to get the job done. When you’re choosing your method of weight gain in the battle of dirty bulking versus clean bulking, don’t be fooled by the names — clean bulking isn’t the well-behaved older sibling of dirty bulking.

Opting for clean bulking simply means that you’ll be eating a lot, but monitoring your input carefully nonetheless. Dirty bulking also means you’ll be eating a lot, but you won’t be paying attention to your calorie count. 

Both methods have advantages and disadvantages for different lifters. Consider your specific goals and relationship with food to choose your fighter. Then go get bulky.


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Lowe MR. Dieting: proxy or cause of future weight gain? Obes Rev. 2015 Feb;16 Suppl 1:19-24.
Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of nutritional intervention on body composition and performance in elite athletes. Eur J Sport Sci. 2013;13(3):295-303.
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