Unfortunately, vegans are often stereotyped as being skinny and weak. This is because people have been conditioned for many years to believe that lots of animal protein must be consumed to build strength and muscle. There is a general perception that protein is only derived from meat and dairy and that a vegan diet is, therefore, devoid of protein (for more on this, read our post on where do vegans their protein from?).
If you want to build strength and muscle on a vegan diet, you may be wondering if this is even possible. The good news is that yes, it is! Consider these few examples as evidence of this before we continue on to explain how it’s done:
- Nimai Delgado – vegan bodybuilder
- Patrik Baboumian – vegan strongman
- Torre Washington – vegan bodybuilder
- Shelli Beecher-Seitzler – vegan bodybuilder
- Jehina Malik – vegan bodybuilder
- Some of the strongest animals in the world – Elephants, Silverback Gorillas, Rhinos, Hippos, Cape buffalo, and more are all herbivores!
So now we’ve laid that myth to rest; let’s consider how you can build muscle and strength on a vegan diet…
Building muscle and strength: the basics
First, let’s consider the basics of how to build muscle and strength before we go on to explain how to do this on a vegan diet.
The basics of building muscle and strength are quite simple. There are essentially three things you should focus on:
- Strength training
- Eating enough food to create a calorie surplus
- Eating enough protein to support muscle growth and repair
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail…
Strength training is also known as resistance training. It involves various exercises which build strength and muscle by making your muscles work against a weight or force. Different forms of strength training include:
- Bodyweight training (e.g., push ups, squats, lunges, yoga poses etc.)
- Free weights (e.g. exercises involving dumbbells, kettlebells etc.)
- Weight machines (e.g. weighted machines in the gym for chest presses, leg curls, lat pulls etc.)
- Resistance bands (rubbery, elasticated bands used for many types of exercises)
It is generally recommended that beginners train 2 – 3 times per week initially to gain the maximum benefits from strength training. Each muscle group should be rested for 48 hours between training sessions to maximise size and strength gains. You should therefore develop a training plan which targets different muscle groups in each training session.
It is important to consult with professionals before beginning a new training programme. This may include your doctor, physiotherapist or registered exercise professional such as a personal trainer. This can help ensure your training programme is right for you and your body and prevent any unwanted side effects such as illness or injury.
Eating enough food to create a calorie surplus
It is generally agreed that a calorie surplus is required to gain muscle. Eating an excess of calories will lead to weight gain in the form of muscle or fat. It is generally recommended that eating 10 – 20% more calories is appropriate when trying to build strength and muscle.
Eating too many additional calories may lead to excessive fat gains, which is not what most people want when they are trying to build muscle. If there is too much fat covering your muscles, they will be less visible and defined!
It’s important to eat a healthy balanced diet when trying to build muscle and strength. The quality of the calories you are consuming matters because good nutrition helps to support strength and endurance while training as well as contributing to muscle growth and repair while and preventing excessive fat gain.
Eating enough protein to support muscle growth and repair
Since muscle is made from protein, protein is required to build new muscle. Some proteins must come from our diet, so it is, therefore, essential to eat enough protein when trying to build muscle and strength.
The amount of protein you need to consume daily depends on several factors, including your age, gender, weight, activity level, and personal body goals.
The recommended daily intake of protein for the average person is around 0.8g per kg of body weight, which equates to around 50g per day. However, this will not be sufficient for gaining muscle mass. To gain muscle, you will likely need to eat somewhere between 1.2g – 2g of protein per kg of body weight per day.
This calculator can give you an indication of your individual protein requirements.
How to build muscle and strength on a vegan diet
A healthy vegan diet is more than capable of supporting you to build muscle and strength. It’s important to remember that protein isn’t everything. Carbohydrates are also crucial in providing you with the fuel you need to power your workouts.
The advantage of a vegan diet for building muscle and strength
Plants are loaded with vital nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fibre, healthy fats, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. As such, a plant-based diet can be advantageous when it comes to building muscle and strength, aiding the body to build, maintain and protect new tissues.
The nutrients provided by a diet heavy in plant-based foods can assist with your training goals in a number of ways, including:
- Boosting your energy to fuel tough workouts
- Reducing inflammation to speed up recovery times between workouts and in the event of injury
- Helping to increase muscle efficiency, allowing you to complete more reps and at a higher weight
- Helping to increase blood flow to provide your muscles with more oxygen while transporting nutrients required for injury prevention
- Boosting your immune system to stave off illnesses that could prevent you from training
What to eat on a vegan diet to build muscle and strength
As touched upon earlier in the post, you will need to ensure that you are eating enough protein to support muscle growth. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources, including tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds and various grains, beans and vegetables. See our previous post: where do vegans get their protein from? For a full explanation of vegan protein sources.
To ensure you can achieve your calorie surplus in a healthy way, make sure you include plenty of the higher calorie vegan foods in your diet. Eating too many low-calorie foods such as leaves and other vegetables, for example, will fill you up without meeting the necessary daily calorie requirements to build muscle. In addition to these, consider higher calorie foods such as:
- Nut butters
- Vegan dairy alternatives
- Vegan meat alternatives
- Dried fruits
If you are struggling to meet your protein and calorie requirements from your main meals, consider adding snacks in between meals. There are many vegan protein shakes and bars available which can help you get the required calories and protein easily and conveniently.
You can find these in many health food stores and major supermarkets. A good tip, however, is to buy them in bulk from places like Amazon. This allows you to stock up, saving you money and ensuring you always have convenient protein sources to hand.
Meal planning is key to success when building muscle on a vegan diet
Meal planning can make all the difference when eating to support specific fitness goals. This is true for vegans and non-vegans alike. However, because there are fewer sources of complete plant-based protein, it is even more important for vegans to plan their meals in advance to ensure they get all of the essential amino acids required to build and maintain strong, healthy muscles.
As a side note here, there are a few plant-based complete sources of protein, and these are soybeans, hempseed, chia seeds, quinoa, buckwheat, spirulina and blue-green algae. Stocking up on some of these will make your meal planning easier.
How to plan your meals
Once you have calculated your calorie and protein requirements using the calculator mentioned earlier (here again, if you missed it), you can begin planning your meals around this. Divide your protein requirements between the number of meals and snacks you wish to have in a day (3 meals and two snacks/bars/shakes as a general guide).
Use a calorie counter, such as Myfitnesspal, to make your meal planning easier. This will allow you to easily determine how many calories and how much protein is in a given food source. You can use this to determine the required quantities of the foods you want to eat. Myfitnesspal also shows you the macronutrients in your meals so you can easily plan healthy balanced meals, ensuring you are eating enough fat and carbohydrates as well as protein.
Input your meals and snacks into a food tracker in advance to keep track of everything you will be eating. There are plenty of free apps which can help you do this.
If meal planning is a struggle, consider getting help from a nutritionist or personal trainer to make it easier. There are also plenty of resources available online, such as meal planning guides, templates, recipes and even complete vegan bodybuilding diet plans.
Now you know the basics of building muscle and strength on a vegan diet; you can get started working towards your fitness goals. Remember, it’s advisable to consult a medical or exercise professional if you are starting a new exercise or diet programme. The information in this article is not intended to replace professional advice but simply serve as a general guide.
Good luck on your vegan fitness journey – be sure to let us know how you get on!
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