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Is Clean Bulking Realistic?

By Joe Talarico on Aug 16, 2023 8:30:00 AM
5 Minutes Reading Time


Clean bulking involves consuming a slight surplus of calories in order to add new muscle with minimal fat gain. Classically, when an individual says they are going into a bulk it is seen as putting excessive amounts of weight on, most of which is fat. It was always seen as just a normal part of the process in the bodybuilding community. So is clean bulking possible?

What IS Clean Bulking?

Research and years of new bodybuilders coming into the field have incorporated the clean bulk. Research finally proved you don’t need to EXCESSIVELY eat calories for the sake of putting on muscle. What they found is (especially for advanced lifters) there is a cap to how much muscle you can put on at a given time. Past that threshold, you are just adding excessive muscle. The result showed only needing a surplus of 250-500 calories resulted in just as much muscle growth as eating more, without the additional fat gain.

Any extra muscle gained in the higher surplus group was negated when factoring in how much longer that individual would have to diet due to the additional fat gain. Some even have found a body fat range to stay in to still yield the best results while not aesthetically losing your physique. This range is usually 10-15%.

The Reality

The one fact we have to accept is that SOME fat gain is required. Our bodies will need a surplus in order to grow. The only realistic way we have to ensure we are putting on muscle is to see the scale moving up. Unfortunately there is no real defined way to ensure each pound gained on the scale is muscle versus fat. On the contrary, if we try to stay on maintenance calories, we risk not seeing the scale move and having even LESS of a clue if we are truly putting on muscle. Our bodies are too complex for us to think we can just “gaintain” our way to muscle so SOME fat is needed. On the plus side, as mentioned before, it can be kept very minimal so you aren’t going above 15%.

How Do We Clean Bulk?

Surplus - as mentioned before how many extra calories you eat above baseline will be the biggest determinate. Start with 250 calories, and see how you respond on the scale. Only adjust as needed. We should be aiming to gain 0.25%-0.5% of our body weight week to week. Any more than that and we risk too much extra fat gain. Any less and we won’t know if we are adding muscle.

Genetics - There of course is the variable of each person's genetics. Some people can add additional calories and so little to no weight gain, while others (like me) can add just 200 calories above baseline and the scale starts to shoot up. I wouldn’t spend so much time comparing how much someone else gets to eat compared to you, and just focus on your own progress.

Training - Now that we are eating in a surplus, we need to make sure the intensity in the training is there. That doesn’t mean having to fail every set of every exercise. In fact, we should actually be staying 1-2 reps shy of failure. This will help with not overloading our central nervous system and making sure we can recover in time to hit those muscles again. Progressive overload is crucial. We should be making sure we are doing 1 more rep or 5 more pounds than the week before. There is no need to be failing every rep, because the progression is built in already to make it tougher week to week.

Food Quality - Prioritize minimally processed whole foods. This is because processed foods like chips are designed to make you over consume. You are more than welcome to still eat them (especially if your calories get high enough that you need something calorically dense). Just note that for the rest of us, it’ll be a lot easier for you to “accidentally” go over your 250 calorie surplus with easy to consume foods like chips.

Track Your Progress - You by no means have to do this, but some individuals find it nice to track their progress. This can look like taking weekly or monthly pictures, and body-fat measurements so that they can effectively see their progress over time and make adjustments.

Overall, building muscle takes time. It takes years and years of consistently eating in a surplus followed by cutting phases if your goal is to fully pack on the most muscle possible. Thankfully, you’ll be able to get the majority of that in just a couple years of consistent eating.

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Joe Talarico

Joe is a certified Precision Nutrition and strength & conditioning coach. He assisted the UCLA Women’s Tennis team in winning their 2014 NCAA Championship Title, as well as study under the great strength coaches at Pepperdine University. He was a collegiate rower at the University of Rhode Island (where he got his Kinesiology degree) as well as an amateur physique competitor. He is currently the master trainer at Upgrade Labs in Santa Monica where he is combining his years of training clients in the gym with newer technology to optimize their performance and recovery. He also cohosts The RelationSH*T Show Podcast with his fiancée where they discuss all relationship topics unfiltered from who pays on dates, to open relationships.

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