Illustration of a skinny guy building muscle by dirty bulking.

What Is Dirty Bulking? Beginner Guide

There are countless weapons lifters wield against the skeletal armies of atrophy. One such weapon is the “dirty bulk.” It disregards standard nutritional recommendations, using whatever means necessary to get into a calorie surplus. Usually, that means eating plenty of junk food.

We’ve dirty bulked in the past. We’ve had clients do it, too. Most were everyday people, but some were college, professional, and Olympic athletes. You’d be surprised at what they eat to get into calorie surpluses.

Dirty bulking can be good for building muscle. It won’t necessarily make you fat, either. Some dirty bulkers gain muscle more leanly than some clean bulkers. The Devil is in the details, and we’ll delve into all of those details.

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Illustration of a skinny guy flexing his arms to build muscle.

Does Flexing Build Muscle? Yes, But It’s Not What You Think

I came across this fascinating story about Charles Atlas years ago when I was writing an article about training for muscle size. If you don’t know, we’re a muscle-building site for skinny guys, and Charles Atlas was the first person to mass-market a workout program specifically designed to help skinny guys bulk up.

His story is much more interesting than I expected. First of all, it’s a flexing program. You buy the guide, and then you do a flexing routine at home. The “dynamic resistance” from flexing is supposed to stimulate muscle growth. There’s nothing wrong with that idea in theory, but does it actually work?

There have been studies measuring muscle growth from flexing, too. We can look at the results of a recent one.

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Illustration of a skinny lifter using collagen to build muscle.

Does Collagen Help Build Muscle? A Quick Research Overview

Collagen is a popular “anti-aging” supplement for maintaining skin elasticity, keeping our joints strong, and helping our connective tissues recover. So far, the research has shown that collagen does indeed offer all of those benefits, in a small way—probably (study, study).

Lifters often run into nagging aches and pains in their joints and tendons. Supplementing with collagen seems like a reasonable way to improve recovery. That raises an obvious question: what about muscle growth? Does collagen help build muscle?

Jacinto and colleagues tried to answer that question by comparing whey protein against collagen protein, then seeing which yielded more muscle growth. It’s a neat study. Let’s delve into it.

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Illustration of a bodybuilder doing cardio after lifting weights.

Does Cardio Kill Muscle Gains?

Cardio can kill muscle gains. We’ve known this for many decades. It’s common knowledge among lifters and has been proven in peer-reviewed studies. Most recently, a study found that cardio cut muscle growth in half. We’ll go over the nuance of that study in a moment.

However, if you’re clever, you can use cardio to improve your muscle growth. This is fairly well-documented, too. We’ll go over some interesting research. I’ll also point out that in our twelve years of helping skinny guys bulk up, the guys who get the best results are the ones in good shape overall.

So, let’s talk about how to do cardio in a way that enhances instead of destroying your muscle gains.

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Illustration of a skinny guy who gained weight by eating more calories.

How Many Calories Do You Need to Gain Weight? (With Calculator)

You’ll often hear that the number of calories you need to gain weight depends on your age, sex, height, weight, activity level, and metabolic health. That works well if you’re overweight like everyone else. It works less well if you’re starting off thin and trying to become muscular, neither of which is typical.

If you’re trying to gain weight or build muscle, you can forget most of those factors. They’re for estimating how lean and muscular you are. If you lift weights, you can be lean and muscular at 20 or 50, so those proxies won’t do you much good. If you have a rough idea of your body-fat percentage, you can be much more accurate.

The other thing to consider is how fast you’re trying to gain weight. If you’re bulking leanly, you’ll need fewer calories. If you’re bulking more aggressively, you’ll need more.

So, I’ve made a simple calorie calculator that will ask you all these questions and spit out an estimate. Once you have that estimate, we can talk about what to do with it.

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Illustration of a barbarian bodybuilder lifting weights to maintain his muscle size and strength.

Maintenance Training Volume: How Many Sets to Maintain Muscle?

The other day, I wrote an article about Reverse Bulking, my favourite method for maintaining gains after bulking. The idea is to keep lifting weights, keep eating a good diet, and keep living a healthy lifestyle, but to start listening to your appetite again. Most naturally thin guys tend to eat less, lose weight, and reclaim any leanness lost while bulking—while maintaining their gains.

The idea of Reverse Bulking brings up a couple of questions. Perhaps the most important of those is how hard we should train to maintain our muscle size and strength. More specifically, how many hard sets do we need per muscle group? How much volume do we need?

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Illustration of a guy reverse bulking to lose fat while keeping his muscle gains.

Reverse Bulking: How to Maintain Your Gains After Bulking

Reverse bulking is for people who are sick of eating so much food but want to maintain the gains they made while bulking. I haven’t seen this discussed anywhere else, which is strange, given how well it works. I’ve been using this method on myself and clients for over a decade now, but we never named it, and I don’t think we’ve ever mentioned it our articles.

The idea is simple: most skinny guys hate eating enormous amounts of food. When they finish bulking, they want to go back to eating like regular human men again. But they’re worried that if they do, they’ll lose all their hard-won gains. That’s where reverse bulking comes in.

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Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up.

What is Bulking?

Bulking is often derided as a foolish way of building muscle. That’s true on average. Most people are already overweight. The last thing they need is more weight.

On the other hand, if you’re underweight, weak, or skinny, bulking is the best way to bulk up. Even if you aren’t thin, if your goal weight is higher than your current weight, bulking is the best way to get there.

But what is bulking? How does it work? How should you do it?

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Men with different body shapes, levels of muscularity, and degrees of leanness. Illustrated by Shane Duquette.

How to Build an Attractive Physique

Most men want to have an attractive physique. Few know exactly what that means. When they guess the degree of muscularity women prefer, they’re off by thirty pounds (study). Many have a deeper misunderstanding, failing to connect their appearance to their fitness and strength. Some shun attractiveness, mistakenly thinking it’s superficial. Others are superficial on purpose, thinking it’s the best way to become attractive. That’s never as convincing as the real thing.

We’ll cover the attractiveness research. We’ve spoken to some of the study authors. We also went deeper, testing our hypotheses by conducting our own surveys. We collected thousands of responses for each: survey 1 and survey 2.

But be warned: this article is long. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s a simple trick to improve your appearance: have a drink. It will boost your attractiveness (to yourself) by 50%. This is called “The Reverse Beer Goggles Effect,” also known as Beauty is in the Eye of the Beer Holder (study). It’s not a perfect solution, but it will save you twenty minutes of reading.

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Illustration of a skinny man building muscle.

The Newbie Gains Guide for Skinny Guys

If you’re new to lifting weights, you can build muscle incredibly fast. Lifters call this phenomenon “newbie gains.” Most men can gain over 20 pounds of muscle during their first year alone. Skinny guys can often do even better.

We specialize in helping skinny guys build muscle, and we’ve worked with over 10,000 clients over the past decade. We do this all day, every day, with clients ranging from everyday deskworkers to professional and Olympic athletes. There are methods to get incredibly consistent newbie gains. But there’s a catch.

Although most new lifters build muscle quickly, some “hardgainers” fail to gain any muscle whatsoever. What’s going on here? Why are some guys able to build a lifetime of muscle in a single year, whereas others spend an entire lifetime unable to build a single year’s worth of muscle?

In this article, we’ll explain what newbie gains are, how they cause such rapid rates of muscle growth, how to take advantage of the phenomenon, and how to avoid becoming a “hardgainer.”

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