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When it comes to packing on muscle mass — aka bulking up — a calorie surplus is absolutely crucial. It happens when you take in more calories in a day than your body burns off, and without it, it would be very difficult to build any muscle at all.
Combine a continuous calorie surplus with a challenging weightlifting routine, and you have the basic ingredients for muscle growth. However, the way in which you go about achieving your calorie surplus also matters — that’s where the divergent approaches of dirty and clean bulking come into the picture.
Dirty vs. Clean Bulk
With a dirty bulk, the idea is that as long you’re pushing yourself in the gym and consuming a calorie surplus, you can pretty much eat as much as you want of whatever you want.
While it’s certainly possible to pack on some serious muscle mass using this approach, there are some downsides. The issue is that most people tend to take in far too many extra calories if they haven’t established a clear calorie target in their daily diet, which can ultimately lead to significant increases in body fat.
That means that even if you’re able to pack on some substantial amounts of muscle mass, you likely won’t see any improvement in your overall body composition until you shed the excess fat that you gained during your bulk.
On top of gaining unwanted body fat, if you’re not watching what you eat, you’re also probably not going to have an even distribution of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) in your daily diet, which in addition to impinging on the muscle-building process, can also be detrimental to your overall health.
Finally, another problem with dirty bulking is that most people tend to include far too many unhealthy foods in their daily diets, which over time, can ultimately increase the risk of things like chronic inflammation, along with several other metabolic syndrome risk factors.
Clean bulking, on the other hand, is an attempt to right many of the wrongs associated with dirty bulking. With a clean bulk, you’ll still be consuming a calorie surplus and pushing yourself hard in the gym, but you’ll only be maintaining a modest surplus rather than gorging on tons of extra calories, which should help to minimize fat gains.
On top of that, you’ll also be paying attention to your macronutrient intake, making sure to include a healthy distribution of protein, carbohydrates, and fat in your daily diet. Finally, you’ll also be drastically reducing your intake of empty calories and other unhealthy food options that can impinge on your progress and overall health.
How to Clean Bulk: Rules, Tips, and General Advice
1. Set Your Calorie Goals
The first thing that you have to do on a clean bulk is to determine your calorie goals. To do that, you need to calculate your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), which is an estimate of how many calories your body actually burns off in a day based on your height, weight, age, sex, and activity level. Before you get too flustered, there’s no need to fear, you can easily calculate your TDEE using a free online calculator.
Once you have a good idea of what your TDEE is, you can begin to tack on some extra calories to create a surplus. However, with clean bulking, the goal is only to create a modest surplus — you want to provide your body with a big enough surplus for muscle growth to occur but not so big that some of those extra calories ultimately get stored as fat.
In order to minimize fat gains during your bulk, you only want to add on between 250 – 500 extra calories to your TDEE. You may want to start at the lower end of that recommendation and work your way up until you see gradual but regular weight gain — we’re talking as little as a pound or 2 every few weeks; any more than that and it may be a sign that you’re taking in too many calories.
2. Establish Your Macro Split
After you’ve established a modest calorie surplus in your diet, it’s time to divide up your calories amongst the different macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Each of which plays an important role in the body and you ultimately need an adequate distribution of all three in your daily diet in order to see any kind of significant muscle growth in the long run.
When it comes to bulking up, no macronutrient is more important than protein. All of the muscles throughout your entire body are made up of proteins, which are going through a constant state of flux. Exercise (and other physical activity) breaks down some of these muscle proteins, causing damage within the muscle tissues.
In turn, the body relies on a relatively complex process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to repair the damage. It’s actually through the process of MPS that your muscles grow, however, in order for that to happen, you need to be taking in more protein than your body breaks down each day.
So, how much protein is that exactly?
Well, the NIH recommends that somewhere between 10% – 35% of your total daily calories should come from protein, which has 4 calories per gram.
When it comes to bulking up, a tried and true practice is to consume 1 – 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day, which for most people should fit neatly within the NIH’s recommended range.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source and should make up the majority (or close to it) of your total daily calorie intake. Like protein, carbs also contain 4 calories per gram. According to the NIH, somewhere between 45% – 65% of your total daily calories should come from healthy carb sources.
The majority of your carbohydrates should come in the form of complex carbs, which as opposed to simple sugars, have a slow digestion rate, which is perfect for fueling your performance in the gym — in order for your muscles to grow, you need to be pushing yourself in the weight room and for that to happen, you need to have a steady supply of energy.
Although dietary fat tends to get a bad rap, your body actually needs a healthy supply of it in order to properly function. On top of aiding in the transportation of fat-soluble vitamins, fats also play an important role in a number of biological functions related to cellular growth.
20% – 35% of your total daily calories should come from dietary fat, which contains 9 calories per gram. The majority of your fats should come in the form of unsaturated fats; trans and saturated fats should be kept to a minimum on a clean bulk.
3. Avoid Processed Foods
In addition to staying on top of your calorie and macronutrient intakes, you’ll also be watching what kinds of foods you eat while you’re clean bulking. Your calories should predominantly come from nutritious, whole foods like lean meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy dairy-based products.
Processed foods like those with trans fats and refined sugars and grains should be kept at a minimum in your daily diet. On top of being less satiating calorie for calorie, foods with these types of ingredients have also been shown to have pro-inflammatory effects, which in addition to impinging on the muscle-building process, can also be detrimental to your health. Ultimately, that means limiting things like junk food, microwave meals, and fast food in your day to day eating routine.
4. Focus on Compound Movement in your Workout Routine
When it comes to bulking up, nutrition is a large part of the battle, but you also have to be doing the right things in the gym in order for muscle growth to occur.
On top of simply challenging yourself in your regular workout routine, which many of us are already aware is important, focusing more on compound exercises — i.e. movements that engage multiple muscles across multiple joints — is an easy way to improve your muscle-building potential. That doesn’t mean you have to ditch the isolation movements completely, but rather, that compound exercises should be your first priority.
If your goal is to pack on as much muscle mass as possible over the course of your bulk, then nothing is better than compound movements. In addition to allowing you to target multiple muscle groups simultaneously, compound movements like the bench press, squat and bent over row also help to increase your body’s production of testosterone — an important muscle-building hormone — to a greater degree than isolation exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and calf raises.
5. Don’t Neglect Cardio Too Much
When it comes to building muscle, nothing beats resistance training, however, that doesn’t mean that you should totally skip out on cardio on a clean bulk.
In addition to helping to maintain your overall health in several different ways, doing regular cardio can also be an effective way to counteract days in which you overshoot your calorie goal.
The fact of the matter is, no matter how dedicated you are, there are going to be days in which you simply eat too much, however, adding in some cardio on days in which you overshoot your calorie target can be an easy way to increasing your daily energy expenditure — the higher your TDEE, the more calories you can eat.
6. Keep Track of Your Progress So You Can Make Adjustments if Need Be
One of the easiest ways to assure that your clean bulk is going well is to keep track of your progress — and you can do that in multiple ways.
Probably the most obvious thing you can do to monitor your progress is regularly check and record your weight. Again, you want to see gradual but regular weight gain over the course of your clean bulk — we’re talking as little as a pound or 2 every few weeks.
This is one of the easiest ways to determine whether or not you need to adjust your calorie intake. If you’re not seeing any weight gain, you need to increase it; if you’re gaining weight too quickly, on the other hand, you need to lower it.
On top of regularly monitoring your weight, keeping a training journal to track your progress in the weight room can also be an effective way to make sure you’re predominantly gaining muscle and not fat. If you’re continuing to make improvements on the exercises in your routine (more reps, more weight, etc.), it’s a good sign that you’re on the right track.
Conversely, if you’re not seeing gradual improvements in things like your training volume over the course of your workout program, it may be a sign that you need to adjust your routine (and possibly your diet).
7. Take The Right Supplements
In addition to getting your diet and workout routine dialed in, another way to improve your muscle-building potential during your clean bulk is to take dietary supplements. While they’re not necessarily essential, taking the right kinds of supplements can help to boost your performance in the gym, promote muscle protein synthesis, and expedite your recovery.
The high demands of a bulking diet can make meeting your daily protein requirements challenging at times, however, whey protein can make hitting your daily protein target incredibly easy. Most high-quality whey products contain 25+ grams of rapid digesting protein and mix easily with water or milk, making it an especially convenient and effective muscle-building tool.
HICA and HMB
They’ve also been shown to reduce the amount of protein breakdown that occurs as a result of physical activity, helping to create a more positive protein balance — the greater your protein balance, the greater your muscle-building potential.
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Phosphatidic acid is a signaling lipid that’s naturally produced within the human body. Like HICA and HMB, phosphatidic acid also helps to promote muscle protein synthesis. More specifically, it helps to activate the mTOR signaling pathway, which, in turn, helps to coordinate the delivery of proteins, oxygen, and other important biochemical to muscle cells in need of repair.
In combination with a regular workout routine and adequate nutrition, supplementing with a product like Mediator® Phosphatidic Acid (PA) has been shown to lead to greater increases in lean muscle mass in comparison to diet and exercise alone.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are essential amino acids that play an important role in the muscle recovery process. BCAAs have been shown to lessen the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which refers to the pain and soreness that can often follow in the hours and even days after an intense workout.
At the end of the day, if your muscles are able to recover more quickly, you’re going to be able to push yourself harder in subsequent workouts, which as we’ve already discussed, is one of the keys to maximizing muscle growth.
8. Don’t Clean Bulk For Too Long
While it can certainly be effective for packing on significant amounts of muscle mass, you don’t want to clean bulk forever.
The issue is that even when consuming only a modest calorie surplus, you’re still likely to gain some body fat. So while these gains may not be very noticeable over the course of a few months, for instance, they can really start to add up if you stretch your bulk further than that.
Long story short, for the best results, you’ll ultimately want to cycle between a bulking phase and a maintenance or cutting phase in order to best improve your body composition and manage your insulin sensitivity.
Clean bulking is an approach to gaining muscle mass that emphasizes the importance of staying on top of your nutrition, rather than simply loading up on tons of extra calories.
As opposed to a dirty bulk, you’ll be closely monitoring your calorie and macronutrient intakes on a clean bulk. You’ll also be focused on eating whole foods like lean meats, vegetables, fruits, and grains and minimizing your intake of processed foods.
While clean bulking will help to minimize fat gains and support your overall health, you don’t want to stay on a clean bulk forever. Although you’ll only be eating a modest calorie surplus, it’s still a surplus at the end of the day, so you’ll need to monitor your progress and make sure that you’re predominantly gaining muscle, not fat.