Eat big to get big is an old trope, used to encourage guys to eat more to get big. It’s the idea that if you want to build muscle mass you need to do a dirty bulk.
Some call it the see-food diet. If you see the food you eat it.
The idea being the more food you eat, the more muscle you will build.
There are however a few issues with this approach:
- You’ll get fat
- You’ll feel awful
- There’s little extra benefit
- Why do people dirty bulk
- Your performance will decline
There’s little benefit
A lot of people believe muscle building to be as simple as fat loss. Eat more calories and it turns into muscle. I really wish it was that simple. I’d be a lot bigger than I am now.
When it comes to fat loss, you eat enough protein, resistance train and eat in a caloric deficit. If you do the first 2 points well enough, the larger your deficit, the more fat you lose. Therefore you’d think the larger your surplus the more muscle you’d build. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
A 10-20% calorie surplus is more than adequate for a proper bulk. If you’ve already built a decent amount of muscle, it’s recommended to veer more on the lower side. (1)
When it comes to building muscle, the extra calories don’t go straight into your muscle. The extra calories are needed so you can fuel your workouts adequately. Muscle building is a signalling process, where you need to consistently challenge them to increase your life volume over a long time.
Your muscle tissue can only increase so much over a period of time. Once you’ve got that threshold, any extra calories will only go to your fat stores.
The same paper said to aim for a weight increase of 0.25 to 0.5 increase in body weight per week. Which on average you’re looking at ½ pound per week.
One study had 2 groups of young guys. Both groups were guys who done some sort of sports. But in this study, they had to strength train 4 times per week. (2)
The 2 groups were separated as such:
- Nutrition counselling group – They had to eat in a calorie surplus
- Ad linitum group – They ate as normal (presumably at maintenance)
On average the counselling group ate 3585 calories, give or take 601 calories. The ad libitum group at 2964 calories, give or take 884 calories.
There was no significant difference between the amounts of lean body mass gained when the study was done.
The only difference was the group had to eat a surplus-gained lot more fat.
Yes, there is a small argument, that you may gain a few grams more muscle, but is it worth it, when you have to diet all that fat off afterwards.
You’ll get fat
As the study above shows, most of the weight you gain is going to be fat.
Your muscle can only use so many calories at one time. Therefore any excess calories will be stored as fat to use at a later time.
There’s an argument that having a larger surplus will build more muscle than a smaller one. Which the study above did show to be true. However, the difference wasn’t significant. Also, the difference in fat gain was far greater.
I’d conclude you can potentially build more muscle in a lean bulk over years compared to what you’d build in a dirty bulk. The reason being after a dirty bulk, you’ll have to spend substantially longer having to diet all that extra fat off. Whereas on a lean bulk though the muscle gain might have been a tiny bit smaller, they won’t have to diet as for long. This means they can go back to building muscle far sooner.
Though it used to be thought that getting fat was part of the process, the evidence suggests you don’t need to.
If you commit yourself to a proper bulk, it will be inevitable that you will gain some body fat. The tiny amount you will gain through a lean bulk phase will be minuscule. Let’s say you gain half a pound a week. And you commit to a 6-month mass phase. You would have gained 12 pounds. Let’s be conservative and say half of it was fat, the other half lean body mass. You’ve gained 6 pounds of fat over 6 months. For most people that will take 3-6 weeks to burn off which is no time at all.
If you did a dirty bulk gaining 2 pounds a week. That’s 48 pounds in 6 months. Let’s be generous and say you gained 8 pounds of lean body mass. You now have 40 pounds to lose….
When you gain excess fat tissue, you are making yourself unhealthier. If you end up gaining 40 pounds in 6 months, you are likely going to give yourself an obese BMI reading.
You might still be somewhat fit, but your health is still going to be worse off. Your clothes are going to be uncomfortable, you’ll struggle to walk as easily, your blood pressure will increase and you have the risk for higher cholesterol. You could even put yourself at higher risk of becoming prediabetic.
It’s not just unhealthy physically, it can also hamper you mentally. Talking from experience carrying excess body fat just makes life harder. Makes you less confident, makes you feel less motivated, ruins your self-esteem. If in any case, you can avoid it, please do. A little amount of fat after a lean bulk is no issue, but 40 pounds of fat is an issue.
Your performance may decline
The most important thing during a bulk is that your performance will improve. However, when you’re gaining excess body fat, your performance will get worse.
When carrying excess weight, you’re going to feel more sluggish and you’re less likely to feel as motivated to train. To build muscle you need to be increasing your volume. If you’re feeling worse, you’re at risk of your volume not increasing.
Excessive body fat is associated with lower rates of testosterone. This means you’re likely to be lower in strength and power when performing your lifts, which could mean, the excess calories will most likely just be increasing your fat stores instead of muscle. (1)
Why do people dirty bulk?
This is the bit, where I will give dirty bulking some credit.
A lot of guys just don’t eat enough and don’t eat enough consistently.
You can muscle without being in a surplus, or a very small surplus. However, for many skinny guys, they’d be spinning their wheels. Especially the sort of people who need to know every little detail, but never take any action.
For instance, you can build muscle in a small surplus of under 100 calories per day. But the number of calories you burn per day always changes. Tracking food is never 100% accurate either. Therefore that 100 calorie surplus is never 100%.
The same kind of neurotic person most likely will be obsessed about the source and bioavailability of their protein. Which is a valid thing to an extent. But when you’ve just started, there’s bigger fish to fry.
Then to top all of that off, the rate of weight gain for muscle is so slow, it’s hard to stay motivated.
Therefore instead of worrying about all that, if you just eat in massive surplus without overthinking it. You will get stronger, no doubt about it. Increase your protein intake by default. You will gain weight, you will feel stronger and you will fill out your clothes.
Some peoples genetics means their bodyfat distribution will make them look better. So whilst they think they gained a lot of muscle, it’s fat. But if you’ve always been skinny all your life, seeing weight gain, lifting weights, is going to make you feel good regardless.
However, if like me you’ve lost a lot of fat and the thought of eating everything in sight and getting fat again scares the life out of you. I will outline why finding a happy medium is my preferred solution.
What to do instead
I recommended doing a calorie percentage instead.
If you’ve lost a lot of fat. I recommend you go to maintenance calories. From there make sure to eat enough protein and apply progressive overload consistently. At first, you’ll regain any lost muscle from dieting. I’d apply for this for at least 3 months.
If at the end of a 3-month block, you’re unable to increase the volume of your lifts, then apply a 10% calorie surplus, then go again for another 3-month block.
This way you’ll be eating enough to ensure you have enough energy to progressively overload. However, whatever fat you gain will be minimal and can be dieted off in no time.
If on the other hand, you’re very skinny. I advise you to start with a 10% surplus. However, if you’re not averse to a little more fat gain and would like to see faster progress, do a 20% surplus. Doing this you will gain fat, but not as much as going all-in on a dirty bulk.
Add either 10% or 20%, to the number of calories you burn, via the calorie calculator.
It is perfectly possible to gain muscle without getting fat.
These days with the information we have, doing a dirty bulk is just an excuse to overindulge.
There are many reasons I suggest against it. You’re going to gain far more body fat than what is necessary. Whereas you could have built nearly as much muscle without having to spend months shedding all the fat after.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.