Can You Build Muscle as a Vegan?: Yes, but Here are Some Key Tips and Common Mistakes
Spoiler alert...you don't need meat to grow up big and strong.
Yet still, even in almost-2020, I see the question posed almost daily, somewhere on the internet or in a fitness Facebook group: "can you really build muscle as a vegan?"
The short answer, yes of course.
But I asked it too.
Heck, I doubted I could. Up until...not that long ago.
Somewhere over the years, all the marketing efforts of the food and diet industry around the importance of meat and dairy have wormed their way into all our heads, and it takes some time to un-learn what we have hammered into us - I get it.
And the meat that so many gym bros chow down on all day? The steak and chicken breast and all that? Well, that animal got that protein from plants (think about it.) So by eating plants alone...of course you're still able to get protein. Plans are the root source of all protein. You're simply cutting out the cholesterol and saturated-fat drenched middle man, the vehicle, that is meat.
At the end of the day, you'd be hard-pressed to find a food that doesn't contain some protein. While it's true a hunk of meat might pack in 20-40 grams in a serving size, everything contains it - oats, zucchini, peanut butter, chocolate, cereal, plant milk, nutritional yeast, bread, and lentils. Once you realize that basic fact, and start counting what you're eating all day, you see how it can add up fast (check out some great vegan protein sources, here.)
And when it comes down to muscle building, it's not all about the protein, not by a long shot--despite what the 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger or old-school bodybuilders or maybe even your well-meaning trainer at your gym might have you believe.
Building muscle comes down to a lot of factors, in fact, all of which need to be given attention if you're serious about creating those bulging biceps or lifting booty or chiseled shoulders.
But, unlike simply dropping weight, which I had down to a science over the years, sadly, building muscle and weight took serious time. The results came painfully slowly. I"ve learned, over the years, yeah, that's how muscle-building works! You can't just sling some weights around a few times a week and wait for the gains...it isn't that easy.
Once I went vegan, I worried at first I'd lose all my hard-earned gains. I really thought they'd just....dissapear? I'd built my initial muscle on a diet of chicken breast, egg whites, whey shakes, and tilapia, and like many, thought that my animal-product-heavy diet was to thank for my new physique.
And since I see so many people asking about how to build muscle as a vegan, I know I'm not the only one with this worry.
1. You're not eating enough
Plain and simple, if you're eating just the amount of calories your body needs to maintain homeostasis (AKA, stay how it is), you can't expect to grow and put on new muscle. To see new results and literally build new body parts in the form of muscle, it has to have some extra gas in the tank. This is where people go ham and start "dirty bulking," eating everything in sight just to pack in the extra calories. I've been there, and I 10/10 discourage it. Unless you're also wanting to gain a whole lot of extra body fat as well.
What I do recommend is that you track what you're currently eating, in an app such as My Fitness Pal, for about a week, to get a baseline amount of how many calories you're currently taking in. Don't change or try to clean up your act - simply and without judgment, log what you're eating daily for seven days in a row, and then take the average of the total calories to see what your maintenance calories are. (If you're currently rapidly gaining or losing weight, this won't work, as you're obviously not eating at maintenance calories if your body weight is changing.)
Also, don't for the love of goodness trust any old online calculator to determine your maintenance calories or what you should be eating - they're often way off, and especially when it comes to what you should be getting for your specific macros (carbs, fats, and proteins...which, more on that in a sec.)
Once you have your maintenance calories, I suggest getting set up with a meal plan, specifically one made for those with bulking goals. They should have you eating somewhere between 5-20% above your maintenance calories in order to gain weight (this number will depend on if you're a novice or advanced lifter, as our needs change.)
I offer many plans, and they're what I've used for years to bulk up. If I'm working with you as your coach, we can talk about how aggressive your bulking goals are, and I can set you up with one that has you eating in the appropriate amount of excess, to see gains.
2. You're not getting enough protein
Woo-hoo, the protein issue!
We had to address is... but I put it second, cause I couldn't just plunge right into the biggie without a bit of a warmup. Here's the deal though: protein matters, when it comes to building muscle, especially.
You may have heard that you can't get enough protein as a vegan (this is untrue!) or you may have heard that you only need 10% of your calories from protein (this is also untrue - IF you're looking to build any significant amount of muscle!)
The fact of the matter is, there is no documented or known case, not even one single case, of protein deficiency in the United States of America or any developed country. Not one. It's just not a thing. The only way to get too little protein is to be starving and getting not enough calories in general.
BUT, if you're eating ample calories, you're not low on protein. The RDA for protein for an average adult woman is around 45 grams a day. Most Americans far exceed that without trying (like, double the RDA.) Which can lead to some pretty damaging health effects. If anything, we're all OD-ing on protein and yet simultaneously stressed we're not getting enough. I highly recommend reading Proteinaholic, by Garth Davis, for a fare more in-depth protein discussion that will blow your mind.
NOW, if you're building muscle, lifting heavy, changing your body, etc, then you do need more. BUT, certainly not 2 grams per lb of bodyweight or any of that insanity. I've done hours and probably WEEKS of research on this topic and to boil it all down if you're trying to build muscle, shoot for around .8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight if you're seriously trying to build.
I weight approximately 130 lbs, and currently, get 130 grams a day. This is triple the RDA, and the absolute highest I would ever go. When I'm not in contest prep, I will drop down to around 100 grams a day, since I'll still be lifting, but not nearly as concerned with my gains. Again, I use a professional meal plan. I didn't arrive at these numbers accidentally. For the love of gains, please get you a plan. DIY other things in your life, like your home renovation or your taxes...before you DIY your nutrition and specific macros.
P.S. What about plants being "incomplete proteins" since they don't contain all the essential amino acids of meat? There's no basis in science for this being an issue, at all. It's junk science. All plants contain the essential amino acids, the same as meat. Sure, some have lower amounts, but the research shows over and over the source of our protein does not matter (except for, you know, all the great benefits of eating more plant-based sources) for muscle-gains. It's hyped up because of the meat industry's efforts, but actually, it's not a problem.
3. You're over or under-working a body part
More is not more at the gym.
It's easy to think that if you want a bigger booty, throw in several leg days a week, but you could easily be doing more harm than good to your gains. When we work a muscle group, say our butt, micro-tears are created in the muscle fiber. Once we stop, and go home, fuel up, and rest, those muscle tears start rebuilding. Literally, repairing the damage we just did to our bodies. And it grows back stronger than before. Over time, that's where gains come from.
However, work a muscle group several times a week or on consecutive days, and you're not giving it the due rest time in between to this repairing--you're simply tearing it all down again before it's ever rebuilt from workout #1.
Similarly but on the opposite hand, if you're going weeks and weeks between workouts or working out super sporadically, you're not taxing your muscles enough to see growth.
It's for this reason among MANY that I can't recommend enough an actual, honest to goodness professional workout plan, like the ones I offer or another option. But please, don't DIY your workouts. I don't. I lean on an expert plan made by a trainer, who knows exactly how much to push each group, how to space it out, and when to put the rest days in.
4. You're not using progressive overloading
This is a fancy way of saying, put down the girlie weights. Or to be more precise, use them as you need, but graduate from the small stuff eventually, and don't get stuck in your comfort zone with weight range and reps.
Progressive overload is THE king of gains when it comes to what you're actually doing while at the gym (or home gym.) Basically, if you've been curling 3 sets of 10s using the 15 lbs for months now, that' why you're not growing. Up the weights, even gradually, and push your self. It shouldn't get easy.
You can also tack on more reps and volume, at the same lower weight. Anything to make your workouts harder again, and keep you from plateauing in your comfort zone.
Buy need weights, or join a cheap gym if you'd rather, but just don't keep lifting the same old weights.
5. You're not getting enough sleep
If you're regularly clocking in at fewer than 7 hours a night, you won't see the gains or fat loss you could be having, period. Shoot for 8 if not 9 hours a night.
Nimai Delgado, a fully vegan bodybuilder who's never eaten meat.
With all that said, I think it's also important to know what you shouldn't be worrying about. Because perhaps, like me, you've wasted time worrying about these things for years. These are issues I"ve seen brought up on Instagram, in articles, in Youtube videos, that quite simply, the science does not back up any of it.
1. You don't need to be tricking your body constantely. If you're doing squats and bicep curls week after week, guess what, you should be. This muscle confusion point is more like just plain old confusing and would have you believe you have to be constantly and dramatically overhauling your workouts to see results, which is just not true.
While it is beneficial to mix up your workouts to stave off boredom and monotony, and while progressive overload is key (see point ), your workouts can and should feature a lot of the unsexy, basic staple moves (squats, lunges, deadlifts, curls, presses). You don't need to constantly reinvent and try the trendy "Instagram workouts" with convoluted moves that hurt my head, personally.
2. You don't need to be doing cardio obsessively...in fact, you shouldn't be (but you also should do some)
I've been in both camps --cardio bunny and anti-cardio queen. I've finally learned, if you're doing cardio constantly all day, that's going to mean that caloric surplus you thought you'd gotten into, in point 1? You may not be, if you're burning through everything doing mad cardio.
However, this doesn't mean you need to only lift and do zero cardio. Take it from me, that's a surefire way to feel sluggish and put on a lot of unwanted body fat, not to mention, cardio is so key for health! And we should work out not just to look a certain way, but actually be healthy!
Bottom line, do some cardio, maybe 3-4 times a week, and make sure you're fueled up (no fasted cardio) before your cardio, and refueling afterward. All my workout programs include a healthy, ideal blend of weights + cardio, but you can totally count a long daily walk or run if you'd prefer.
And don't forget, no fitness goals, whether gaining muscle or losing fat, come to fruition if you're waiting on the mythical "motivation" unicorn to arrive -- read all about why motivation is junk, and what to focus on instead, here!
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