Combining the words "muscle" and "vegan" into one headline may seem like a bit of an oxymoron to some people.
However, with the dawn of the internet, it is becoming increasingly clear that none of those three elements are critical to build muscle. Quite to the contrary, the evidence is showing that these products are actually detrimental to overall health.
The fitness industry is overrun with sponsored content of people trying to build brands and promote products. Given this fact, the most important nuts and bolts of building muscle is often times hard to come by.
We've put together this article to give you everything you need to grow muscle as a vegan natural (drug-free) lifter without any fluff or nonsense.
Here's everything you need to know about building muscle on a vegan diet.
The Basics of Protein as a Vegan
The most common objection people have to going vegan if they are lifters is that they simply won't get enough protein. However, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction.
As more athletes, even big guys in the NFL turn to a vegan diet, many are noticing an increase in their strength and muscle gains despite most people’s common misconceptions. (1)
Is Protein Combining a Myth or a Fact?
One of the first objections to building muscle on a vegan is that plant protein is “incomplete”.To understand and debunk this properly, one needs to know a bit of basic science. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Some of these amino acids can be synthesized by the body, but others need to be consumed thus coining the term “essential amino acids”.
These essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
You may have heard that vegans and vegetarians need to pay attention to “combine” certain types of vegan foods at meal time in order to get all of their essential amino acids. You may have even learned about this in school!
Read Also: Vegan Shopping List for Beginners
This myth originated from a study done in 1914 on rat subjects, where the researchers noted that baby rats did not grow well when just fed a diet of plants. Now, while some research done on rats has the potential to carry over to humans, this research does not.
Rat Protein Requirements Aren't the Same As Humans
Rats grow much quicker than humans and their developmental phases happen much quicker. 4 days as a rat.
Taking a look at a species breastmilk illustrates the point more clearly.
Rat milk has around 86.5 grams. That’s more than tenfold difference!
Although all plant foods are complete proteins, certain foods may contain lower levels of specific amino acids than others.
However, this does NOT mean that one needs to be ultra-conscious about combining plant foods to make up where specific ones might be lacking.
- So long as you eat a diet that is semi-varied in different types of plant foods, you will be getting all of the amino acids your body needs for optimal function.
- Your body keeps a storage of amino acids for any protein synthesis needs that may occur.
- A “recycling” mechanism is also in place where your body breaks down up to 90g of protein per day in order to reassemble it into whichever actual amino acids it needs.
Dr. Michael Gregor does a very comprehensive breakdown of the protein combining myth (all in the span of 4 minutes) in the following video:
Decreased Heart Disease Risk
Just because you’ve got a lot of muscle doesn’t mean that you can escape the harm done to your body from Choosing plant sources to make gains will ensure that you’re not clogging up your arteries and reducing your lifespan in the process.
If you happen to hear the bro-science myth that dietary cholesterol doesn't increase blood cholesterol - we highly recommend you check out this article (8)
Decreased Risk of Kidney Damage
Kidneys have an important role of filtering and removing waste the blood. In only 2 decades, death from chronic kidney disease has doubled and now charts in the tens of thousands each year, with hundreds of thousands suffering from liver failure. However, when tested against plant protein, the plant protein preserved and even improved kidney function.
Putting on Size and Muscle
How Much Protein Do I Need?
This is simply a myth. couldn’t
If you’re looking for a definitive amount of protein you need to be absolutely sure 75g of protein per pound of body weight.
Some of these variables to consider are:
- How much muscle do you already have?
- The more training you do, the less your body breaks down muscle and the more it synthesizes it – thus the less protein you need.
If you’re trying to lose weight and prevent yourself from muscle loss while doing so, you may need slightly more, but not much. showed that 0. (13)
Caloric Surplus to Gain Size
If you read the earlier portion of the article regarding protein requirements, it should be quite clear that while adequate protein intake is necessary for optimal muscle growth and maintenance, the main concern for bulking up and putting on muscle
In order to grow and build muscle effectively, your body needs to be in caloric surplus.
That being said, based on actual protein requirements needed for muscle growth, as long as you’re consuming the appropriate amount of calories and training correctly, protein will not be an issue.
While a Good Source of Phytonutrients, Lettuce Won't Help You Get a Caloric Surplus
Protein deficiency in the Western World and United States is almost non-existent simply because most people consume adequate or an excess amount of calories. Let’s take an extreme example to illustrate this point:
Say you ate 2000 calories per day of only black beans. This is not advisable, but hear me out:
For every 339 calories of beans you would get 21 grams of protein.
This means that 2000 calories of only black beans contains 123.89 grams of protein!
Applying the same example to 2000 calories of broccoli yields 164 grams of protein!
Both of these options would also include tons of antioxidants, fiber, and phytonutrients that you simply aren’t going to get by consuming loads of chicken breast.
Please note: You shouldn’t actually eat only black beans or broccoli. This is just a hypothetical example.
Make sure a majority your calories are coming from nutrient rich whole foods such as beans, lentils, grains and NOT from stuff like Oreos or candy. Junk food won’t help you as it doesn't really contain any nutrients beside empty calories.
If you aren’t hitting the grams of protein per pound that you think you need based on the information we provided above, it’s very easy to make minor adjustments and adding super rich protein foods such as lentils, tempeh or tofu (which is even more delicious if you use a tofu press). You can check out our top five picks for best tofu press so you can upgrade your tofu game. Not only does pressing tofu makes the texture better but it also makes the tofu more flavor rich. You can even use some pea or rice protein powders if you want an on-the-go option, but we never recommend that over whole foods if possible.
Not sure where you can find tempeh? Be sure to see our guide on where to buy tempeh.
Caloric Density on a Vegan Diet
When first going vegan, many people neglect to realize that plant foods are far less calorically dense than most animal foods. This means you have to eat a greater mass of foods to get the same amount of calories. Don’t worry though. It’s not as hard as it sounds once you become mindful of it. This is actually one perk of eating plant based - you can eat a lot more delicious food!
There are some very easy ways to give yourself a needed caloric boost if you’re finding yourself unable to meet your goals.
Nut Butters & Whole Nuts/Seeds
Nut butter such as peanut, almond, cashew, etc. are a very easy way to sneak some extra calories into your diet without even noticing.
The Principles on How to Train
*Please note that this guide is intended for someone that wants to put on muscle without being on anabolic steroids (aka natural lifter). Muscle recovery time without the use of these substances is longer
What is Hypertrophy and Why is it Important?
The technical definition of hypertrophy is as follows: (from Wikipedia):
“Muscle hypertrophy involves an increase in size of skeletal muscle through a growth size in its component cells”.
That’s exactly what you want to achieve if you’re reading this article, right?
Check out this vegan starter kit
It’s important to understand that there are two different types of muscle hypertrophy:
- Increases the muscle’s ability to store glycogen (very necessary for endurance athletes such as marathon runners).
· Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
- Increases the size of the myofibril or rod-like units in a muscle cell.
Jason Blaha's Ice Cream Fitness Novice 5x5 Program Most comprehensive program, but requires the most time.
Jason Blaha's Linear Hypertrophy Program - Available in YouTube Description (website not online anymore). This is one of our personal favorites!
Science Behind Athletic Performance Enhancing Properties of Beets
Hacks for Reducing Inflammation and Speeding Up Recovery
If you followed the either of the workouts that were recommended in this article, then muscle soreness and recovery shouldn’t be as big of a deal as it would on other less-effective programs. Also, your goal is hypertrophy, not muscle soreness, so keep in mind that not being sore is not necessarily indicative of an effective routine.
However, reducing inflammation and minor soreness after a workout is hugely beneficial to both your well-being and your gains so we’ve included a a special “hack” that does just that.
Consume More Berries and Watermelon!
Sound snakeoily? The videos below do a great job of explaining the current research and why, so check them out!
Watermelon for Sore Muscle Relief by Dr. Michael Gregor
Resources That You'll Need
Chronometer and MyFitnessPal are two great ways to make sure you’re getting the right amount of macronutrients and micronutrients.
Vegan Fitness Athlete YouTube Channels:
Consistency and Final Tip
Final Tip and Most Important: Do not stray from one routine to another just because you saw someone bigger and stronger than you do it on YouTube.
The most important thing to success in any endeavor is to be consistent. If you bounce around from routine to routine and method to method (especially if it’s not based on scientific grounds or doesn’t have a proven track record), you’re not likely to make much headway in anything that you do!
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Want to take all of the guess-work around going vegan?
Click here to check out the Vegan Starter Kit.