Out of all the misconceptions surrounding plant-based diets, the notion that vegans are skinny and couldn’t possibly build any muscle because of their “lack of protein” is amongst the most common ones. Especially those who are already into fitness fear giving up animal products because it could mean losing their gains. But is vegan muscle building and sustaining really that impossible or tough?
At the end of the day, you could build muscle on any diet which offers you enough calories, paired with a great exercise routine. In this article, we wanted to show you how it’s not really a struggle to make vegan gains – your plant-based diet can even put you in a great advantage.
There are a lot of strong, successful vegan men and women who are rocking their careers as professional athletes. World’s strongest man Patrick Baboumian, MMA/UFC fighters like Mac Danzig, Jake Shields or James Wilks, triathletes like Brendan Brazier, Hillary Biscay or Rip Esselstyn, tennis stars Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Novak Djokovic, ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek, or undefeated boxer Timothy Bradley, Jr. They all switched from steak, milk, and eggs to beans, nuts, and greens.
Rich Roll, for example, trains upwards of 25 hours per week eating just whole plant-based foods. He’s fitter now at age 46 than ever before in his life. And Robert Cheeke, who had been building vegan muscle for over 10 years, let go of his obsession on protein, stopped the shakes and packages of tofu each day, and ate around 10 percent of protein. He is currently stronger than ever and in the best shape of his life at 35. Another bodybuilder, Torre Washington, grew up vegetarian and has been vegan now for many years - getting stronger, leaner, and overall more successful as a result.
These are all great examples that it’s definitely possible to thrive as a vegan athlete. Some of the people mentioned above didn’t change their diet because of ethical reasons, they did so because it upped their game. Could it be an option for you, too? Let’s find out what’s required in order to build strength and fitness!
Vegan Muscle Building 101
1. Get into the right mindset
There are many things we can achieve in life, but few of them are possible if our mind is not in the right place. The same goes for following a diet or workout regime. Your success here is an accumulation of daily steps you take which will lead to your desired goal over time. Meaning: real change takes time. Don’t get fooled by people in the fitness industry showing you crazy transformations! That’s mostly messing around with portion sizes, dehydration, and lightening.
Also, lots of bodybuilders you see on the internet take questionable “supplements” or downright inject substances like growth hormones, testosterone or steroids in order to get that big. So, there’s no point comparing yourself to them! What’s more, some of these people have huge contracts with supplement companies in order to sell you that dream of powdering your way into a shredded self. They won’t be afraid to give out harmful advice, so take everything that sounds too good to be true with a grain of salt.
Be aware that everyone’s body is different. For some, it’s easier to put on muscle or weight. In any way, a natural weight and size are much healthier than trying to transform into one extreme or the other. Some people aren’t supposed to become very big while others find it more difficult to cut extra fat. But with the right tools (which you’ll find below), you can get as close as possible to your ideal, fit body.
Please notice that muscle mass is often hidden under body fat so you need to tackle both of these areas: growing muscle and losing fat. But don’t rely on your scale too much since muscle weighs more than fat and you might slim down while gaining a bit of weight.
Try not to become discouraged if you don’t see results right away - size and strength happen outside of the workout over time. The more enthusiastic you are and the more meaningful your reasons, the greater your success will be. You’ll work harder on it, be happier while doing so, and eventually see this as a lifestyle you can follow for good.
Lastly, finding people who are inspiring and have the same goals as you is so helpful. Let them hold you accountable and see how contagious their positive attitudes can be.
In a nutshell
Don't expect too much right from the start, work with your unique body composition and don't fall for scammy bodybuilders trying to sell you supplements. Be consistent, give it time, and stay motivated by hanging out with inspiring people.
2. Let go of the protein obsession
This has to be every bodybuilder’s favorite topic: getting their protein. And lots of it. But is this really the most important or healthy approach? Animal-based protein, meaning meat, dairy, and eggs, come with a huge load of problems. They contain cholesterol, saturated fat, hormones, methionine, cancer-causing animal protein, antibiotics, and zero fiber. They are part of the reason why some bodybuilders die way too early.
When ingesting protein, it is broken down into ammonia derivatives which means an extra workload for your kidneys. So we don’t want to overdo it and make sure we’re going for the best source of protein because every food comes in a package – either with fat and cholesterol (as in animal products) or with fiber and complex carbs (as in legumes).
The truth is that nobody really knows how much protein per day a person needs. There are some good and bad recommendations but our bodies just aren’t predictable machines. You might see numbers ranging from 1g of protein per kilo to 1g per pound, some even higher.
The official recommendation is 0.8g/kg per day which is based on a person’s healthy weight and includes a fairly liberal safety margin. The general population in the West eats way more than that. Nitrogen balance studies (the best way to determine protein needs) have shown adults can be healthy and thriving on as little as 0.5-0.66 g/kg. They have also shown that you can actually build strength and muscle at that level with a proper resistance exercise program.
The time during which the most growth happens in our bodies is during infancy. Mother’s milk has 6% protein, providing us with everything we need in order to grow into healthy human beings. Why the need to go for 20% or more protein later?
Problems with excess
These high numbers just cause people to reach for isolated protein sources or animal-based foods. No scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond 10% of daily calories stimulates additional muscle growth. In fact, excessive animal protein intake can be harmful.
Not only is there evidence that it is often stored in fat cells, it contributes to the onset of a variety of diseases such as osteoporosis, impaired kidney function, and heart disease. It raises a hormone called IGF-1 which can stimulate the growth rate of certain cancers. This happens when you consume soy protein isolate as well!
Focusing on concentrated sources of protein (such as powders or supplements) isn’t just potentially more harmful, it’s also not necessary. An American Dietetic Association’s position paper states that
“recommended protein intakes can generally be met through diet alone, without the use of protein or amino acid supplements."
The protein recommendations for strength training range from 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg body weight per day, which comes down to 120 to 150 grams of total protein. When you eat around 3000 calories per day and stay on a 15-20% protein diet, you would be getting 115 to 150 grams already – without any supplements.
Meeting needs simply by eating
This goes to show that protein needs and energy needs are equivalent. If you need more protein, you can just consume more food. Overall calories matter more than macronutrients. It’s a challenging, tiring and virtually impossible task to be counting your calories or macros every single day – the numbers are never very accurate and your body’s needs are different each day. The only way you could determine that would be in a lab.
It can be helpful to loosely track your food intake for a few days in order to see if you’re eating 1200 or 5000 calories but keeping it up won’t be possible or even necessary.
Finally, you don’t need to combine different plant-based foods to get complete protein. Read more in our extensive article here. And consuming soy (which is actually an awesome source of protein!) is not going to give you cancer or make you more feminine!
The phytoestrogens found in soy don’t change baseline blood levels of hormones – as studied on men drinking 1.7 cups per day which actually resulted in lowered estrogen levels. Dairy is more of a concern since it contains actual estrogen from mother’s milk, not just a plant version of it like soy does.
Our take on Protein Powders
If you cannot bring yourself to eat enough calories, then taking a clean protein supplement in the form of a powder can be an acceptable option. Though it certainly won’t bring you the health benefits of the actual whole plant food source, it can help you out to a certain extent.
Usually, just by eating more and working out more, you will be able to build muscle. You could achieve the same as taking a protein powder by making your own smoothie from scratch, just using whole food ingredients like fruit, greens, oats, and seeds before going to the gym.
If you feel like you must take some, go for very clean rice or hemp protein powders and don’t have more than 15% of your daily calories from protein because an excess doesn’t help you here. Look out for brands like Vega, Sunwarrior, Garden of Life Raw Protein, or PlantFusion. They are great for convenience, but definitely not required to meet your protein needs.
In a nutshell
Most people get way too much protein which can take a toll on their bodies. No need to go for more than 10-15% of your daily calories, there aren't any benefits to higher numbers. Plant-based foods contain all the protein you need, supplement are only a good idea in rare cases. Simply eat more to get more protein from whole plant-based foods.
3. Focus on healthy food
If you want to build muscle and have lots of energy, you need to support your body properly. Whereas some bodybuilders get into dirty bulking, it’s far smarter and more efficient overall to stick to clean fuel.
As stated above, a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet that includes a colorful rotation of foods like grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and legumes will satisfy the demanding nutrient, calorie, and protein needs of even the hardest training athlete – without the saturated fat that gives us heart disease, the casein that has been linked to a variety of congenital diseases, or the whey – a low grade, highly processed discard of cheese production.
The higher protein foods that will support muscle growth are beans, lentils, peas, edamame, soy, and rice. Other great foods are leafy greens like spinach or kale, fruit as a glycogen store replacement, and raw nuts for more calories. Remember that carbs are your friend, not your enemy! They are the main source of fuel for intense training and just as important for muscle growth as protein – but you need a whole lot more of them in your diet.
Starches for great strength
Opt for complex carbohydrates like oats, potatoes, pumpkin, whole grains, and fruit. In order to consume enough calories for your workouts, choose bread and pasta instead of just eating steamed potatoes if you cannot consume very large portions. Since you don’t want to put on extra body fat, stay away from empty calories like oil, sugar, or alcohol. They also mess with your energy levels, motivation, and overall health.
You want to be consuming nutrient dense food where you’ll find all of the different compounds you need to replenish your body and be fueled for activity. Wholesome vegan foods are perfect for that and help to build healthy muscle tissue. Some important nutrients to look out for are:
Stock your kitchen, fridge, and freezer with healthy staple foods so you’ll never be hungry and replace your favorite foods like ice cream or meat with vegan versions. If you’re not familiar with many of these staples, try them out from time to time to see if you like them. Get excited about how awesome they are for your body!
No need to fear calories, if you simply choose great sources, you will be healthy and thriving instead of overweight and lethargic. Remember, mindset makes a whole lot of difference and diet has a much greater impact than workouts do. Overall, it’s much better to eat a vegan diet to build muscle and sustain your physique.
In a nutshell
Replenish your cells with nutrient dense food and fill up your iron, calcium, zinc, potassium, and glycogen stores. Stock your kitchen with healthy, tasty staple foods to stay compliant and never get too hungry. Focus on complex carbs, legumes, and greens.
4. Eat, eat, eat
As we mentioned above, it is easy to meet all of your nutritional requirements if you consume enough whole plant-based food. You could probably gain muscle on any diet with a caloric surplus and eating fewer calories than you need won’t help you here. In order to find out how much you should eat every single day, check out this BMR calculator.
Please be aware that this is just an estimate. It’s not reasonable to think you’ll be counting your calories every day from now on (or to be able to do so without a huge margin of error) but it can give you an idea regarding portion sizes and meal compositions. Track your food with cronometer for a while to see where you’re at and go from there.
The stereotype of the weak, skinny vegan who can’t put on muscle mainly exists because plant-based foods have a lower calorie density than animal-based foods most of the time. The same goes for unprocessed or whole foods versus processed foods.
So if you’re taking the healthy route, you’re going to have to increase your portion sizes to get enough energy for the day. We can use the principle of calorie density here and just reverse the advice we would give to someone who wanted to lose weight!
This means focusing on starchy foods like bread, pasta, and crackers, topping them with high-fat foods like avocado or nut butter, and blending your fruits or vegetables so you can consume more of them. Adding some dried fruit is great, too.
Sticking to whole, unprocessed foods won’t work for some appetites due to the sheer amount of food you have to (or can!) eat. This doesn’t mean you need to add protein powders or oils – upping your whole fats will already increase your calorie density enough, as will flour products.
Working with calorie density
Choose to eat fewer raw vegetables and salads since they add a lot of bulk without offering much energy (though they are amazing in terms of nutritional density!). Blend or juice them until you can eat a huge amount of food. Most whole plant-based foods contain 600 or fewer calories per pound – with the exception of nuts and seeds, which range from 2,500 to 3,000 calories per pound.
So, try all the different types of vegan food you find out there, experience the flavors and textures, and the volume will most likely fill you up before you overdose on calories. Work with your appetite as much as you can but make sure you’re not undereating.
The cleaner you eat, the harder it’ll be to keep fat on your body, especially if your meals are calorically dilute. If you want to avoid gaining fat, don’t overdo it with the nuts, seeds, and avocados. These are much easier turned into body fat than carbohydrates or protein. If an athlete fuels themselves with healthy, plant-based whole foods, they will increase their muscle and boost their metabolism, making it easier for them to maintain their ideal weight.
Please eat enough starches since carb-starved people convert the protein they eat to glucose at their kidney’s expense which doesn’t make them feel so great and is taxing their body in the long run.
When and what to eat
Working out on a full stomach isn’t a great idea, obviously. You want to eat most of your calories after your workouts to replenish your glycogen stores and fill up your tummy. No need to focus too much on protein here. You can make a post workout shake that’s very nutrient dense and anti-inflammatory where you include greens, fruit, soy milk, maybe even beans.
Generally, you will want to eat around 2-3 hours before activity. This will allow you to eat a well-balanced, energy boosting meal, while giving your body the time needed to digest enough and be ready for activity without feeling sluggish, full, or having stomach cramping. Good pre-workout choices are:
The best time to eat for muscle recovery is 30-60 minutes after activity. During that time, your muscles are waiting to receive fuel and begin the repair process. Replace electrolytes, get those carbs back in and go for the plant-based protein sources here.
Don’t forget to think about the overall theme of caloric density when putting together your meals, though. For some people, building lean muscle works best when switching between a caloric surplus and slight deficit by just changing the composition of meals, not the foods themselves. This could mean eating a few slices of bread with a small salad instead of a huge green salad with one slice of bread. Be mindful when it comes to cardio or anything else that takes energy away from growing muscle and factor that in.
Make sure that not only your kitchen is well stocked but that you also have some ready-made food on hand at all time. Get into meal prepping to help you make better food choices! It also frees up some time and money. You could batch cook some rice, quinoa, beans, or lentils, cut up your veggies for a quick stir fry or roast, or bake some whole food muffins for snacks.
Finally, let’s talk about hydration as well. All processes in the body work in the presence of water so you’ll have much more efficient fat burning, heart beating and the expelling of toxins if you’re well hydrated. Stop drinking water approximately 30 minutes before strenuous training so you’re not feeling unwell.
You can drink during activity, though some people avoid it for the first hour because it causes them stomach cramping during intense sessions. Focus more on hydrating well all throughout the day and the night before.
In a nutshell
Muscle growth requires a caloric surplus. Make smart food choices and opt for calorically dense sources like flour products, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit if you cannot consume large portions. Allow some time to pass between your meal or snack and working out. Replenish your cells after workouts with alkaline foods, such as veggies, greens, and fruits. Drink plenty all throughout the day.
5. Exercise smart and joyfully
Finally, no matter how awesome your mindset and diet, you need to work those muscles in order for them to grow. This happens as a result of the micro-tears within a muscle following resistance training (usually weight training). The weight causes muscle fibers to tear – the same can happen while being under physical stress when doing bodyweight exercises or manual labor.
The food you eat and rest you take both help in the recovery process to build you back up bigger and stronger. Both the higher calorie diet and exercise are needed for this – without enough calories, you cannot build muscle and without exercise, you will probably just gain fat from a caloric surplus. But when put together appropriately, they work harmoniously and create outstanding results of proper nourishment, fat-burning and muscle-building.
Finding a regime
Depending on your current level of fitness, you can try working your way up to 5-6 exercise sessions per week, training each muscle group 1-2 times per week. Consistency will be your friend and helps to keep the muscle protein synthesis going.
Be aware that more muscle on your body means you have a higher resting metabolic rate, so make sure to adjust your calories accordingly. For building up strength, you might want to cut back on cardio unless you want to burn fat – though this can be achieved by a shorter rest time in between sets to keep your heart rate up, too. It’ll be easier to gain muscle that way.
Create a personal schedule of your favorite workouts and hold yourself accountable by hanging it up where you can see it every day. Getting a free trial membership somewhere or taking a few classes at your local gym can be a great starting point, too. That way, you can let qualified trainers show you how everything is done.
Different levels and methods
When scheduling your workouts, keep your current fitness in mind. Challenge yourself but don’t overdo it because it won’t result in much growth or success in the long run. Treat your workouts as you would any other important meeting and find a good time to get them into your days and weeks.
If you’re very busy and want to take a minimalistic approach to your training, you can follow Tim Ferriss’ method: it requires less than half an hour a week at the gym and is comprised of just two sets of exercise each session performed at extremely slow cadence (5 seconds up, 5 seconds down), until utter and painful failure is reached.
It’s not for everyone but you might want to give it a try. During intense exercises like these, all the tearing of the small fibers in your muscle will feel pretty sore as a result. These fibers now need time to heal, regenerate, and grow bigger than before. That’s when the gains actually happen, outside of the gym!
The actual amount of time to rest you need depends on several things: frequency, duration, intensity of your workouts, health status, and how well your body is conditioned to revitalize itself, to name a few. Don’t forget to stretch after working out to aid your recovery, prevent injuries, and increase circulation.
In a nutshell
Start where you're at and slowly build your strength and fitness. Find a routine that feels you and keeps you motivated. Get a free gym membership trial or take some classes. Rest enough to support muscle growth and don't forget to stretch.
Have you been getting fitter and stronger on a vegan diet or are you an athlete interested in a plant-based diet? What has been your experience and which foods do you choose to eat? Let us know in the comments below.
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Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.
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