Combining the words "muscle" and "vegan" into one headline may seem like a bit of an oxymoron to some people. For the past several decades, we've been told that the only way to grow strong is to eat our eggs, drink our milk, and eat our meat.
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. If this was true, it would be impossible for professional athletes to follow a vegan diet, given their high demands for recovery. 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. The video below shows just how many different athletes from varying physical endevours are embracing this lifestyle.
Vegan Top Athletes from Mic the Vegan
Here's another list from our Ultimate Guide to Vegan Protein article:
- Serena and Venus Williams – Tennis Champions
- Brandan Brazier – Bodybuilder
- David Haye – Boxer
- Alex Dargatz – Bodybuilder
- Jimi Sitko – Bodybuilder
- Patrik Baboumian – Strongman
- David Carter – NFL lineman
- John Joseph – Ironman Chamption
- Tia Blanco – Surfer
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 foods at meal time in order to get all of their essential amino acids. You may have even learned about this in school!
This claim is false and science has been proven otherwise on several occasions.
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. In fact, one entire year in human development (during this phase) is equivalent to 42.4 days as a rat.
Taking a look at a species breastmilk illustrates the point more clearly.
Rat milk has around 86.9 grams of protein per liter while human milk has 8.5 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. This is for several reasons.
- 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:
Why Choose Plant Proteins?
When it comes to building muscle, the science doesn’t appear to show that one type of protein (plants or animals) is superior to one another. So when it comes to making muscle gains in the short term, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Another good bonus about plant-based protein powders is that they can be used in savory recipes as well such as this bean soup.
Plant Based Smoothies can Pack Just As Much Nutrients and Protein
However, when it comes to long term health, longevity, and morals, there are many reasons to opt for plants:
Making great gains comes with great responsibility. No one likes the big guy that’s a bully. Your job as a strong human is to protect the innocent (and look great while doing it). This means that not confining, torturing, and murdering sentient non-human beings should be high on the agenda.
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 saturated fat and cholesterol. 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 which points out the study design flaws (and conflicts of interest) in the studies that have shown this.
Decreased Cancer Risk
Proteins from meat causes higher levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1) which promotes cancer growth. Assuming you want to not lose your gains to a chronic illness, plants would be the way to go.
Decreased Risk of Kidney Damage
Kidneys have an important role of filtering and removing waste the blood. This includes the waste products of protein consumption. 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. The meat-rich Western diet is a major risk factor for impaired kidney function and causes increased workload in the kidney . However, when tested against plant protein, the plant protein preserved and even improved kidney function.
This 7-minute also expands on the differences between animal and plant protein.
Putting on Size and Muscle
How Much Protein Do I Need?
This article by Bayesian Bodybuilding does an excellent job going over the current body of scientific research regarding protein needed to. We highly recommend checking it out to get a complete understanding of the figures that we mentioned here.
If you’ve been researching training for some time, you may have heard the figure of 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is the minimum amount needed to gain muscle. This means that if you were 150 pounds you’d have to consume 150g of protein to make any sort of gains.
This is simply a myth. That’s not to say you couldn’t hit these protein numbers on a vegan diet if you wanted to, but it is just unnecessary and potentially unhealthy (especially if you were getting the protein from animal products or processed foods).
If you’re looking for a definitive amount of protein you need to be absolutely sure you’re maximizing your gains, the number you’re going to want to hit is around 0.75g of protein per pound of body weight. This number should still be considered on the very high end and you may not even need this much, but given all the variables at play from person to person, this is the number we’re going to go with.
Some of these variables to consider are:
- How much muscle do you already have? The more you have, the less you have the capability of putting on, thus the less protein you need.
- 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. A study done in 2008: "Increased protein maintains nitrogen balance during exercise-induced energy deficit." showed that 0.82 grams of protein was enough to keep the subjects from losing a significant amount of muscle during a weight cut.
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 is calories.
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 press it). 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.
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.
Almond Butter: Delicious, Creamy, Nutrient and Calorie Dense
Because they are composed mostly of fat (which contains 9 calories per gram) you don’t need to eat too much to get yourself over that needed caloric threshold. Nuts/seeds are also high in protein with peanuts (35g protein per cup), dried pumpkin seeds (40g per cup), almonds (30g per cup), and pistachios (25g per cup) being some of the highest sources. With the right high powered blender, you can even make your own!
Shakes and Smoothies
Because you don’t have to chew them, it’s very easy to get your calories from a shake or smoothie without even noticing. Enjoy a banana and peanut butter smoothie for desert with some added flax seeds and you’ll be meeting your caloric needs in no time.
Extra Serving of Grains / Beans
Aside from nuts, grains/beans are likely going to be the second most calorie dense option on the plate (as well as the least expensive). When chowing down, don’t be afraid to give yourself an extra serving. Prep ahead for the week with a multi-cooker or rice maker to be sure that you always have enough on hand.
Quick note on greens and produce: While you should be consuming greens every day for their health promoting properties, just note that it may not be cost effective or ideal to get most of your calories from them. Consider cost per calorie and the caloric density of the food when customizing your meal plan.
What if You're Trying to Lose Weight?
If you’re trying to lose weight, increasing your caloric intake is not a good strategy to do so. That being said, if you’re having trouble meeting your grams of protein per bodyweight requirements and want to make strength gains and maintain muscle while trying to lose weight, then it is recommended that you pay closer attention to your protein intake.
Don’t worry though, it’s still perfectly feasible to hit your protein goals on a vegan diet (even with mostly whole foods) by following some of these strategies that we also mentioned above:
- Add health promoting protein dense foods like Tofu or Tempeh to your diet. These soy products about as rich in protein per calorie as chicken. Don’t worry about “breast growth” either – it’s a myth. To be clear, it's not a total myth, but as long as you're not force-feeding yourself gallons of soy milk everyday day, you don't have much to worry about.
Many are concerned about breast growth from soy phytoestrogens, but have no issue eating animal products which contain real estrogen and other hormones. There is, however, a plant-based hormone disruptor you should be concerned about - beer! (Video Below)
Video on The Most Potent Phytoestrogens
- Vegan protein powders are also a quick, convenient option. Although not necessarily as nutritious as whole foods, they can be useful in a caloric deficit to maintain adequate protein per body weight.
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, thus requires a different (and more tactical) methodology than most fitness “gurus” who use steroids.
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?
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.
Knowledge is Power and Will Help You Grow Faster
Now, without getting too scientific and technical, it is important to know that you are going to be focusing on achieving myofibrillar hypertrophy which is going to cause the maximum muscle growth compared to muscle endurance achieved through sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
It is important to note that not all weight training stimulates myofibrillar hypertrophy equally. Once you get into the 8+ repetition ranges, you may be starting to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy rather than myofibrillar. Generally, for most people looking to build muscle it is more ideal to go for the former.
But, regardless of whether you want to increase muscle size or endurance, the principle of progressive overload remains the most effective way to stimulate hypertrophy.
Progressive overload is defined as the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body. Whether you want to gain endurance or strength, you need to follow a plan that’s going to allow you to keep putting that increased stress on without burning yourself out.
Striking a balance between tactfulness and intensity is important. You don’t want to go into the workout like an insane cave man ready to smash something then proceed to lift as much weight as possible until you can’t move the next day.
Instead, you want to plan your workouts for at least 3-6 months in advance and plan for gradual increases in weight and reps over time.
Slowly Adding Weight to the Bar Will Maximize Gains
For example, if you were able to complete 5 sets of 5 reps each on your bench press at 100 pounds last workout, you would then have the bar at 105 for your next one by adding small 2.5 lb plates to each side. It may even be more appropriate to add smaller plates such as 1 lb plates if you can find them or your gym has them.
By following the hypertrophy principle (and resetting weights where appropriate) you’re setting yourself up for maximum success long-term whether you’re eating vegan or otherwise.
Maximizing Muscle Protein Synthesis
When you’re a natural lifter, muscle protein synthesis only occurs for a 24 - 48 hours after the work out is complete. To state this even more simply, your muscles stop growing 24-48 hours after you complete a workout. This means that to be most effective with your workouts, you’ll want to train a muscle around 3 times per week to ensure that you’re getting to maximizing muscle protein synthesis.
This is best done by full body work outs every other day. This way every body part can keep growing and you aren’t wasting time.
This information may be contradictory to much of the fitness advice you’ve seen out there.
Full body workouts multiple times a week was commonplace in the bodybuilding community before the creation of synthetic steroids. Many champion bodybuilders including Leroy Colbert and Reg Park, and George Elferman were huge advocates of this training style. If you’re using steroids, doing routines such as “body part splits” may be effective because the 48-hour synthesis window doesn’t apply. Muscle protein synthesis will be occurring near-continuously, so you don’t have to be as mindful of making sure each body part is stimulated every 48 hours.
Train and Rest Strategically To Maximize Gains
With this in mind, a sample workout schedule for a 7-day week should look something like this:
Monday 9AM – Full Body Workout
Wednesday 9AM – Full Body Workout
Friday 9AM - Full Body Workout
By following a regimen like this, you’ll have a complete 48 hours for your muscles to grow after each session. You can choose to continue training on Sunday or skip that day to keep workout days the same every week.
The Most Effective Exercise Movements
It was briefly mentioned in the “Maximizing Muscle Protein Synthesis” section it is critical that you recognize your limits as a natural lifter – which is why full body work outs were recommended.
You need to hit all your body parts as effectively as possible, let them rest 48 hours, then repeat the process.
The way to do this best is by performing the “big compound movements”. With these types of movements, you hit big and small muscle groups at the same time (such as chest, triceps, and shoulders in the example of the bench press). These movements are (but not completely limited to):
- Bench Press
- Bent Over Row / Pullups
- Overhead Press
Accessory movements such as bicep curls can be done per your preference and your goals, but they shouldn’t be the bread and non-dairy butter of your workout routine, simply because they don’t stimulate enough muscle groups and it will be much harder to keep adding weight to them to maintain hypertrophy. Plus, the smaller muscles such as the biceps and triceps will be stimulated during movements such as the bent over row and bench press.
What Weight Do I Start At?
When calculating what weight you should start at for each of your compound movements, you don’t want to pick something that you’re going to fail at on the first session, but you also don’t want to pick something that’s too easy either.
We recommend using one of the online “1 Rep Maximum Calculators” seen here:
For ease of use, you could test your “max” weight lifted at around 5-8 reps and just plug it into the calculator. Don’t worry if you underestimate this a bit or plug in a lower rep or weight number in the calculator than you think you could do.
Depending on your routine, you’ll want to start with around 75% of your 1 Rep Max and slowly work your way up. You might think that this is too light or easy, but do not worry!
Leave Your Ego at the Door When Figuring Out Where to Start
The workouts will get tough soon enough and starting from a weight that’s too high is far more detrimental than too low.
The important thing to remember is tactfulness, patience, and being methodical trumps “broscience” and going in too headstrong any day of the week.
You’re probably eager to get this part done and just start the actual workout routine, but don’t! Spend a day figuring out your “maxes” for each of the exercises you’ll be incorporating into your routine.
It is also important to remember that soreness and going to failure is not proportionate to muscle growth.
The point is to increase workload progressively by either doing the same weight for more reps or doing more reps with the same weight.
Soreness usually occurs the most when you first start lifting or when you take a long break. This is because muscle soreness is a result of aggravated the connective tissues. While this may occur after a hard workout, it is not an indicator of whether you've stimulated growth in the muscle or not.
In fact, if you find yourself getting too sore, it may impact your ability to train frequently and cause less muscle growth and lead to overtraining.
Prolonged and frequent soreness could mean you're not training frequently enough, switching workouts too often, or you are not doing a workout properly.
Mapping Out Your Actual Routine
Now that you’ve got the principles down, it’s time to figure out the actual muscle building routine that you’re going to embark on.
Depending on the time that you each week to work out, a 5x5 workout routine can be very effective and straightforward for maximum results. Three of the best 5x5 programs are:
Jason Blaha's Ice Cream Fitness Novice 5x5 Program - Most comprehensive program, but requires the most time.
Stronglifts 5x5 - You have to sign up to his e-mail list to get the routine, but it comes with very helpful spreadsheets completely free.
Jason Blaha's Linear Hypertrophy Program - Available in YouTube Description (website not online anymore). Meant for those with busy schedules and very limited time. This is one of our personal favorites!
The reason why we didn’t want to make our own program for this article was because of the simplicity of these routines and because similar routines exist in many forms. We don't necessarily endorse the other content put out by the creators of these routines, but given their effectiveness and simplicity to follow we figured it was best to share them.
These references above simply do the best job of creating a routine out of the principles that we suggest you stick to in this article.
Once you have a bit of experience and have made some gains, you can still apply principles of hypertrophy, overload, and maximizing muscle protein synthesis to create something ideal for your next set of goals whether that be aesthetic or performance lifting.
Cardio and Muscle Growth
There’s no doubt that doing cardio is very beneficial for your overall health and well-being. However, when doing one of the routines above, it’s going to be very difficult to do any sort of long distance or medium intensity cardio. This is because your body won't be able to properly recover between workouts and you will have a harder time progressively overloading the muscle.
If Not Done Tactfully, Cardio Can Hurt Your Gains
Say you squat on Monday then go for a long distance or intense run on Tuesday, your next squatting session on Wednesday is no doubt going to be hindered.
If you’re trying to gain weight and already having trouble pounding in the calories, burning a bunch of calories during a cardio session could make it all that more difficult to get the calories you need per day and may even leave you in a caloric deficit.
However, assuming health is a big part of your fitness goals, we do recommend forgoing light forms of cardio such as walking which are associated with a whole host of disease preventing and life extending benefits.
However, it is important to be mindful of the calories when doing your light cardio. If you’re trying to gain weight, make sure those extra calories you’re burning are being put back into your system via extra food. This way you reap the benefits to your cardiovascular system while still getting the gains that you desire.
Extra Bonus Tips
Staying Within a Budget
We’ve compiled a whole article about shopping on a budget as a Vegan. Now that you know what types of foods you’ll want to eat, this article is sure to help you get them at the best price possible! (link to our article)
Get an Increased Pump WITHOUT Harmful Supplements
If you’ve tried any of the popular pre-workout supplements out there such as Jack3d, you’ll know that the pump and jump you get from them can be addictive, but doesn’t come without extreme dangers to your health.
However, don’t worry, we’ve got a way to get you an increased pump that’s actually GOOD for you.
Beet juice is incredibly powerful at increasing circulation and blood flow which is essentially what a pump is: excess blood going to your muscles because of working out. They will also increase your endurance.
In fact, many companies have even created a beet workout supplements. Just eat the beets yourself, though. Whole foods will always provide more health benefits.
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? These foods can drastically aid recover and reduce inflammation. 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
Berries 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. It can be annoying and cumbersome to track every single meal, but we recommend that you use them to plan out what your staple meals will look like for the first few weeks of your muscle building routine and then adjusting where necessary.
Vegan Fitness Athlete YouTube Channels:
These guys / gals are great to follow for extra inspiration and tips, but one very important word of advice:
Do not change up your routine simply because you see them doing something at any given time. There is no "holy grail" of weight lifting and athletes are constantly experimenting with new ways to get an edge. All of the principles we've given you here are sound and well-researched and perfect for you to make some really great gains.
Consistency and Final Tip
Final Tip and Most Important: All the tools you need to make gains are right in this article. Do not stray from one routine to another just because you saw someone bigger and stronger than you do it on YouTube. Take all advice with a grain of salt and make sure that if you’re going to apply it to your life that it is thoroughly researched.
The most important thing to success in any endeavor is to be consistent. If you stick with what we've taught you in this article for 6 months to a year, you’re bound to be very pleased with the results. 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! If you have trouble staying consistent, we recommend this article for some helpful tips and hacks to make sure you get yourself to the gym week after week.