Back in college, I had a friend who was in intimidating shape. A little later in life, he’d give up team sports to run triathlons and dominate his local CrossFit gym, but when I knew him, he was busy bulking up for baseball season. He had budding fitness influencer energy — one morning, I woke up to him doing 100 burpees because his “girlfriend was coming to town” — and it was hard to take his personal credos seriously. Particularly his preoccupation with ice cream.
This guy, along with some of his friends on the baseball and lacrosse teams, swore by “ice cream bulking.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: a dedicated weightlifting routine alongside an unheard-of ice cream habit. My friend did his absolute best to put down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s every single day. It kind of worked — his shoulders were huge by spring. But the experiment always felt anecdotal to me. Here’s a 20-year-old beefcake with an efficient metabolism and a ton of testosterone still hanging around from adolescence. Of course he can process Phish Food! Why should we give it any credit for his gains?
That tidbit is a highly specific example of “dirty bulking,” an umbrella term for ice-cream bulking and all other regimens where a trainee makes a point to pack away as much food away as possible, irrespective of whether it’s healthy. This often means a lot of processed sugar, salt or fat. You know: junk food. It’s not out of disdain for dietary discipline (though it might be, for some), but more because people have a caloric goal to reach. No foods are banned from the pantry. Eat whatever it takes — and however much your stomach can take — to put on mass.
Dirty bulking goes against the most basic tenet of longevity-minded wellness: balance. Time and time again, the answer for a fitter life is boring boilerplate: get enough sleep, train consistently but don’t overdo it, eat what your body actually needs. But bulking, as a pursuit, isn’t necessarily concerned with longevity. How many yoked octogenarians have you seen? Bones turn brittle as we age. Hormone levels crater.
From this point of view, the gonzo maximalism of dirty bulking goes hand in hand with the unlikelihood of anyone bulking to begin with. You don’t need to lift 300 pounds on the bench press. It’s not going to help you live longer. It might not even give you much of an advantage in performing day-to-day physical tasks, believe it or not. If you’re going to do it, though, you might as well do it correctly and operate at a caloric surplus, right? Studies indicate you need to consume an excess of 2,500-3,000 calories a week to actually support all the protein turnover you’re catalyzing in the gym. Why not let pizza, beer and ice cream help carry the load?
Well, the primary issue is that foods high in simple carbohydrates and saturated fats have a tendency to leave us feeling sluggish, gassy and depressed (the Holy Trinity of any shitty afternoon). Eating a weekly feast of processed foods can also cause water retention — which will lead to swelling throughout the body — and irregularities in blood sugar levels, which can lead to adult onset diabetes. Will you gain weight on a dirty bulk? If you’re working hard in the gym, absolutely. But it won’t just be just muscle. A sizable portion of that weight distribution will be fat.
It’s a common method used by actors, wrestlers and wrestlers who act: put on a ton of weight, no matter what that has to entail, then “cut” aggressively as the shoot or bout approaches. In order to lose the fat, you need to eat at a caloric deficit, and actually start doing cardio, HIIT, dynamic strength-training circuits. As you might’ve guessed, there’s no real guarantee that you’ll retain all the muscle you put on during the dirty bulking phase. Which kind of calls the whole process into question, especially if you didn’t put on enough muscle to begin with. If you’re a layman lifter, it raises a very reasonable query: Why would you ever do this?
The simple answer is you probably shouldn’t, and you definitely shouldn’t with Twinkies and Cheetos. But of all the junk out there, there still is a case to be made for ice cream.
Consider: a pint of ice cream usually contains somewhere between 15 and 20 grams of protein. There are alternative options out there with even more protein. If you finish the tub, that’s nearly 1,000 calories, and that number actually doesn’t vacillate if you switch to a flavor without added sugars. Granted, about half of those calories come from fat. But for those struggling to find a calorie-rich dish that they’d actually want day in and day out (how many times have men’s magazines told you to just go eat “a handful of almonds” or a “scoop of peanut butter”), who are also struggling to put on muscle, you could do way worse than a scoop of ice cream.
If dirty bulking has one thesis worth stealing, it’s that foods shouldn’t be labeled as “bad.” Burnout is all too common in today’s wellness space, where people mentally self-flagellate for missing a day on the Peloton or eating a piece of birthday cake. Ice cream isn’t exactly lighting up the antioxidant chart (except for some calcium and phosphorous, the nutrients are MIA), but in any reasonable diet, it shouldn’t have to. That’s where your fruits and veggies go to work. It isn’t lowering cholesterol or blood sugar levels, either. That’s why we have oats, beans and fatty fish.
I guess I should’ve given my ole college buddy more credit. Squats + sundaes certainly can work. If you imagine your fitness like a comet sputtering through the sky, then dirty bulking might be your move. You’re going to get big, and then, unless a coach is running you around a field for several months thereafter, you’re very likely going to get out of shape. But if you’d rather be a star, fixed and burning bright for the long run of life ahead, try to treat the processed stuff like treats. Ice cream can help you reach those caloric goals. Just don’t forced-feed yourself pints every evening. If nothing else, the solitary joy of eating ice cream must remain sacred.