You may have heard that bulking is a bodybuilding necessity, and that it doesn’t have to be “clean”. In some cases, this might be true. But for most of us, this is not a great idea. Here is my dirty bulk story.
I’ve just completed a 3-month dirty bulk. Nothing was off limits, so long as I hit my “500 calorie per day surplus”. Why 500 calories? Well, that’s the number. You know, if you want to bulk. It says it everywhere, so it must be true. It’s in the bodybuilding commandments: “Thou shalt eat a 500 calorie surplus if thou seeks serious gains”. It’s in stone, quite clearly that you should aim for a 500 calorie per day surplus. I won’t go into the countless reasons why this is nonsense. However, out of morbid curiosity, I decided to give it a go to see what would happen. That’s just the kinda guy I am.
Having just completed a successful body recomp, (which is totally possible, check out the article) I decided I’d put my body through this ordeal so that you don’t have to! During my recomp, I packed on 8.4lb of muscle and lost 6.2lb of fat over a 3 month (13-week) period. I theorised I’d add far less muscle while in a caloric surplus.
And I was right. I started off at 21% body fat, 160lb and moved up to 25% body fat. I added a total of 11lb over 13 weeks (about the level one would expect to add), finishing at 171lb. But I can tell you now – it was not all muscle. In fact, it wasn’t even mostly muscle. Or even half and half.
In short, I put more than twice as much fat as muscle. Not the standard 50/50 you might read about as being the norm. I increased lean muscle mass by 3.5lb, and fat by 7.5lb. I know this because I treated myself to yet another DEXA body scan. These scans use radiation, so I am literally putting my life (and potential future children’s lives) on the line with these experiments, so I hope you appreciate them!
Before we continue, I should probably confess that there are factors which may have contributed towards the poor results. I shall be open and discuss them all here, in the hopes that this opens up some lively discussion in the comments.
I rarely had a decent night’s sleep
We’ve already written about the importance of sleep. Between looking after my dying mother and my 1-year-old son, I managed only a handful of proper night’s sleep in 3 months. There is every possibility that, had I slept well every night, my muscle gains would have been higher. However, given that I improved my lifts week after week, and hit many personal bests, I assume recovery wasn’t a massive issue. Nevertheless, impaired hormone regulation very likely contributed to the extra fat gain.
I moved from 4 days training to 6 days training per week
I added 2 extra training sessions per week. Therefore, I might have been overtraining. Then again, I only added a few isolation arm exercises, and transferred my current exercises from an upper/body split to a push/pull/leg split. My workouts were shorter, so in total, I only added about 40 minutes of training per week. My lifts improved week after week. Had I been overtraining, this is unlikely to have been the case.
Cardio was off the menu
I’m not a massive fan of cardio, so this is not a massive surprise. I did none. Nothing at all. Not even much walking. During my recomp, I at least walked a few times per week. Had I walked the same amount during the bulk, I would have put on less fat. Being slightly leaner may have allowed more muscle gains, but a negligible amount – and certainly nowhere near the 5lb shortfall I experienced compared with the recomp.
I did not intermittently fast
Although I didn’t fast all of the time during the recomp, I did for the most part. This might have played a role, if intermittent fasting is the holy grail some would have us believe.
My macros and consumption of high GI foods changed
During my recomp, I ditched the white bread, pasta, potatoes, chocolate, and all that jazz. However, this was a dirty bulk.It was my duty to eat all of these things, and I took my duty seriously. So long as I hit my protein and calorie target, I was happy. I scoffed chocolate, ice-cream, takeaways, white bread, pasta – everything I could lay my paws on.
While recomping, fats made up around 40-50% of my calories. I restricted carbs and consumed them primarily after working out. In contrast, during the bulk, I greatly increased carbs, and consumed them throughout the day.
So, what happened?
I’m not a scientist, but I think this free-for-all diet was a bad idea. While many of the items discussed could have accumulated to form a sub-standard set of results, I still feel that a dirty bulk is detrimental for a few reasons, which I will share:
I believe muscle glucose uptake was lower, due to being in a caloric surplus. Research shows that a moderate caloric deficit encourages glucose uptake by the muscle. This means the energy is readily available in the muscle, which is great when next hitting the gym. While in a caloric surplus, less glucose was stored in the muscle, and more excess energy was stored as fat.
After my workout my sweat smelled strongly of ammonia. This was not the case while recomping. This smell is caused by nitrogen exiting the body. Bodybuilders – or athletes in general – seek a positive nitrogen balance. The only macronutrients to contain nitrogen are amino acids. This ammonia smell means that my body was breaking down amino acids for energy, rather than using carbohydrates and fat.
This is interesting, because I had eaten carbs before many of the workouts – unlike I did while intermittently fasting. I had excess fat stores, too, yet these appear not to have been used. Given the evidence I discovered while researching, my body should only resort to amino acids after using readily available carbs followed by fat stores. Again – comments welcome on this one.
What does this mean?
My conclusion, is this: When glycogen stores are lower, the muscle prefers to use amino acids for energy before using fat stores, especially if the body is used to finding adequate glycogen stores in the muscle cells.
I consumed simple carbs several hours prior to working out. These would have spiked my insulin, and would have likely already been used up or stored as fat before the workout. Maybe my body – now used to adequate glycogen stores during the recomp – sought that as a form of energy, and finding none, resorted to amino acids in the muscle before oxidising fat. Maybe the order in which energy is used changes based on what the body is used to – it would make sense, given how other metabolic processes work.
How can we test these theories?
Now that the dirty bulk is out of the way (RIP) I am on to my next experiment.
This next experiment aims primarily to prove that body recomposition is possible – even after 6 months of proper training, and already adding 12lb of muscle. My body fat percentage is back up to 25% or so, roughly in line with the first recomp, so it is a fair test.
It aims to prove that eating a caloric deficit is better than dirty bulking to add muscle mass. This is, of course, providing all aspects of the routine and diet are followed to the letter.
My theory, is that I will put on more muscle than I did during the bulk, while simultaneously losing fat – even though I am not new to training.
Once complete, I should have enough information to begin proving and disproving various theories. Moving forwards, I will alter just one aspect at a time to see what happens.
The dirty bulk verdict
There is a time and a place for a dirty bulk. If you’re a hardgainer, can already see your six pack and are way below your muscular potential, you will have no choice but to cram calories. A dirty bulk is preferable to spending an arm and a leg on weight gain supplements – that much is for sure. Alternatively, if you’re performing an experiment, like me, the dirty bulk is acceptable. Lastly, if you’re not a natural lifter, you can easily get away with it, too. In any other situation, limit your fat gains with a clean lean bulk – or better still, recomp for as long as you can, and then do it clean and lean.
Unless you want to get fat. If you want to get fat, and that is your goal – knock yourself out, and dirty bulk your way to VICTORY!