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Dirty bulk or lean gaining? What's best for you?

To gain muscle, you must supply your body with enough Calories to support growth while imposing progressive resistance. However, how many more Calories over maintenance do we need to go?


This question generally causes a bit of a stir amongst the bodybuilding community. Without a doubt, the most significant struggle for anyone is adherence while accounting for optimal health. Accounting for physical and emotional health can be quantified by the tempo of weight gain, and the approach one chooses to take. When gaining muscle, do you “Dirty bulk” or “lean gain”? Ever wonder the benefits of one over the other?


Dirty bulking is a common approach for people to take to gain muscle. This approach is generally an ab-lib approach to nutrition. In other words, eating to ensure you’re gaining weight. Most bodybuilders will still have some form of a regiment, but it may be with unconventional nutritional choices justified with “I’m bulking.” The emphasis is on weight gain, filling out the 2XL shirt and lifting weight.


Lean gaining has become a relatively popular approach for physique athletes who are looking to keep a more aesthetic physique while they’re gaining muscle. Aside from the aesthetic parts of a leaning gaining approach, this does allow for individuals to maintain lower body fat while still gaining lean body mass. Garthe et al. Compared two groups of elite athletes over 12 weeks. Councilors managed one group, and the other was an ad-lib group. Within 12 weeks, the ad-lib group gained more muscle, although the p-value was less than 5% making this less than statistically significant. While 12 weeks is not a long time to spend gaining, the ad-lib group did gain a statistically significant amount of body fat over the group under nutritional guidance — nearly 10% more body fat than the participants following a controlled weight gain approach.


Concurrently, the reason for gaining muscle is for aesthetic or performance purposes. There is still little research done on bodybuilders who are taking a bit more extreme approach. What we can draw from the available research is that time, properly distributed nutrients and appropriate mechanical tension with volume offers the most return when decreasing body fat and maintaining muscle mass. It's clear, most people are unwilling to modify their lifestyles for the necessary amount of time to take the most optimal approach despite the available evidence of a rigid approach favoring a greater outcome. We do have a few case studies available to us which found that a longer less aggressive approach (26 weeks and 0.7% BW loss per week) (Kistler et al. 2014) resulted in more fat-free mass loss than a shorter more aggressive loss (14 weeks and 0.98% BW loss per week) which resulted in only 45% of the total weight loss as body fat (Robinson et al. 2015) which is less than ideal.


Like any choice we make, we have research and personal preference to guide our decisions. While, even with an optimal approach to fat loss, some lean body mass is expected to be lost in the pursuit of body fat. How much muscle loss appears to be in direct correlation of the time needed and tempo of weight loss.


The pros of dirty bulking appear more psychological in nature. One's own opinion of their body image seems to be a driving factor of what approach is best. One important consideration to remember with an uncontrolled approach to weight gain is the impact it will have on health markers. While activity is high, the duration of this method may have lasting effects on your health. Especially if this approach is one that is being taken due to a lack of self-control from the dieter. There is a strong difference in being unable and unwilling when it comes to improving your mind or body. It is recommended to get routine labs drawn as well as develop some routine within your diet that includes appropriate micronutrient intake. If you would rather have more lean mass retention and a shorter fat loss phase, a lean gaining phase may be in your best interest. I would especially recommend this if you’re displaying your physique at a competitive level.


There are many ways to approach gaining muscle in a healthy manner. Neither of these approaches may be optimal for you. Perhaps, the best approach is one that allows you to eat sensibly while ensuring an improvement in performance is present. While maintaining a comfortable body composition. Optimal is only as good as the individual's adherence.


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