What is the best way to bulk up? Eating the most delicious/devilish foods in all of existence…or eating as boringly clean as possible.
This is one of the most controversial topics in bodybuilding. During a bulk phase, a bodybuilder will look to gain maximum muscle mass whilst limiting the amount of fat gained. So is it best to bulk by eating “clean” and healthy foods, or can you build equal amounts of muscle by incorporating “dirty” foods, such as pizza and Oreos?
We will discuss the science behind each strategy, mixed with real-life results to help you make the best decision.
The Case for a Clean Bulk
When we eat carbohydrates, they are converted to glucose. Insulin is crucial in maintaining safe levels of glucose in the body. Too little glucose in the blood can lead to hypoglycemia, potentially causing brain damage and even death.
On the flip side, having too much glucose in the blood, known as hyperglycemia, can also be extremely dangerous. It causes the viscosity (thickness) of the blood to increase, making it more difficult to flow at an optimal speed throughout the body. Hyperglycemia can lead to muscle fatigue and heart problems, which can also be life-threatening.
The science supporting a clean bulk is – by consuming junk foods, you will see more fluctuation in blood glucose levels and thus will release more insulin to maintain a safe range.
The drawback with insulin, is that when it rises, it causes testosterone levels to decline and human growth hormone levels to be blunted. With testosterone and HGH being 2 advantageous muscle-building and fat-burning hormones, this would obviously be a significant disadvantage. In theory, following a “dirty bulk” in this way would result in less muscle gain and more fat storage during a bulking cycle.
The Case for a Dirty Bulk
Many bodybuilder’s that favour a clean bulk have the opinion that trying to support a dirty bulk is just an excuse to eat all your favourite junk foods, and is only for bodybuilder’s who aren’t disciplined enough to eat right. Sweets, pizza, cake and french fries are all seen as “empty calories” that will not play any role in helping you build muscle.
Despite science supporting a clean bulk, there are several real-life examples that clearly suggest that a dirty bulk will not hold you back from piling on pounds of muscle at the same rate.
Sumo Wrestler’s Fat-Free Mass
In my post “Can you turn fat into muscle“, I referred to a study that concluded sumo wrestler’s have significantly more muscle mass in comparison to bodybuilders (despite it being covered with copious amounts of fat). Thus with sumo wrestler’s carrying incredible amounts of muscle, their diet would surely be optimal for this and would not hold back any muscle gain for anyone else. Well, lets take a look at it.
50% of a typical sumo wrestler’s diet is made up of empty calories. In their second and last meal of the day, they can be seen eating as much as 10 bowls of white rice and downing 6 pints of beer. Both of these foods are high GI foods, meaning they will convert to a high level of glucose. And higher glucose correlates to a higher insulin spike. This real-life example leads us to question whether insulin being spiked is at all destructive to muscle growth.
Lee Priest is one of the best bodybuilder’s of all time. It wouldn’t be uncommon for Lee to be eating a KFC or Mcdonald’s during his legendary bulk cycles. Everyone would question the amount of fat Lee would put on during his offseason. But come competition when he cut his body fat % down into the low single digits and maintaned his muscularity; no one would question that his bulk was in fact a success.
So, from real life examples it is clear that eating large volumes of crap will not prevent you from building herculean muscles. However, is there any evidence that you won’t put on more fat as a result of eating junk food?
The famous Twinkie diet that was devised by professor Mark Haub, similar to the IIFYM protocol. He went about eating empty calorie, high glycemic foods such as doritos, twinkies, high sugar cereals etc.
The foods Professor Haub ate would fit perfectly into a dirty bulk. Despite this, Haub lost 27lbs in just 60 days, proving that it is in fact calories in vs calories out that will determine your body composition, and not the type of foods you eat.
Wait, Insulin Actually Builds Muscle?
Professional bodybuilder’s often take insulin, as well as testosterone and growth hormone, in a bid to build muscle. So, why do they take insulin?
Despite insulin causing a temporary decline in Testosterone and HGH. Insulin actually increases the effectiveness of nutrient delivery to the muscles. This means that when you consume a high protein meal along with spiked insulin levels, the protein will be transported to the muscle cell more effectively than usual. This means less protein will go to waste and protein synthesis will be increased. This is exactly why trainers often recommend adding sugars to your post-workout protein shake, to maximize this anabolic window.
You can supplement with an insulin mimicker if you’d like to get this insulin effect, giving yourself more potential to pack on muscle like the pros. This will act in the same way as insulin, but is a natural way of doing so and comes without side effects.
There is no debate that eating clean will be the healthiest type of bulk. However, in terms of building muscle and limiting fat gain, there is no real life proof to suggest that a dirty bulk will result in less muscle built and more fat stored in comparison. In fact, it could well be the opposite.