Vegan diets are more popular than ever, with millions of people joining the plant-based movement worldwide.
Even celebrities like Zac Efron and Beyonce are hopping on the trend. However, some active consumers are beginning to question if weightlifting or bodybuilding is possible on such a diet.
After all, they certainly don't get their protein from meat. However, building muscle as a vegan is simpler than most might think.
In short, it entails a series of lifestyle and dietary changes that include finding alternatives to animal-based proteins and nutrients. Aside from that, a vegan weightlifting routine is practically the same as any other.
If you've divulged the fact you're vegan to anyone, the first question out of their mouth was probably about protein. How do you get your protein without eating meat? This question is even more important to vegan weightlifters, since protein is a muscle-building element. Non-vegans get most of their protein from animal products like eggs, meat and dairy, which account for roughly 62% of the protein U.S. adults eat1.
However, vegans can get just as much protein from plants — and get just as ripped. Peanut butter, whey, tofu, edamame, lentils quinoa and oats are all amazing sources of vegan protein.
Vegan bodybuilder and fitness coach Anastasia Zinchenko recommends eating 1.1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight to support muscle growth2. Of course, this is a bit more than the U.S. government's recommended amount of 0.8 grams per pound3. However, if vegans want to bulk up, they'll need to increase their protein intake.
2. Amino Acids
When it comes to gaining muscle, vegans must do more than simply boost their protein intake. They should also increase their amino acid consumption. Non-vegans don't have to worry much about amino acids because the ones found in animal products —namely lysine — are already slightly better at making muscle than plants.
Luckily, there are plenty of vegan options, including seaweed, sesame seeds, tofu and soy protein powder, that supply vegans with these necessary muscle-building amino acids.
However, it's still a good idea to take some kind of protein supplement since your body won’t readily absorb whole foods. Compared to eggs and meat, vegetal proteins aren't as bioavailable. Additionally, they may contain more fiber, which can limit protein and nutrient absorption in the small intestine.
Therefore, many weightlifters recommend taking a supplement in the form of a shake to make protein and amino acid intake easier. Additionally, vegans must take a B12 supplement to meet dietary needs and remain healthy4.
3. Calorie Intake
Building muscle takes a proper amount of proteins and amino acids, but it also requires adequate calorie intake. During a workout, your body uses stored fats, carbs and proteins to maintain performance5. These substances also contain a lot of calories and, without them, your body can't make muscle.
In fact, if you don't get enough calories, your body may begin to burn muscles as fuel, leading to atrophy or a plateau in muscle growth. Simply eating enough food, in general, can make a difference in promoting muscle growth.
How many calories should the vegan weightlifter eat?
If you want to improve your body composition throughout your bodybuilding journey, you'll want to calculate your maintenance calories, also known as the total daily energy expenditure. This estimate will vary depending on your height, weight and activity level.
Once you've calculated your TDEE, you can focus on gaining muscle or bulking by increasing it by 20%. This will allow you to gain muscle weight while keeping your body fat to a minimum.
4. Meal Timing
Between lifting and meal prepping, when should you eat all these calories? That depends on how many you need to eat.
Generally, you should aim for three to four meals spread out throughout the day, with 30 to 45 grams of protein in each meal6. If your muscles receive fewer than 30 grams per sitting, muscle tears may persist due to a lack of protein. And, eating more than 45 grams of protein doesn’t seem to correlate with even larger lean muscle mass. The body’s response to protein, therefore, tends to plateau after 45 grams.
Additionally, some experts recommend eating this protein within 30 minutes of completing your workout. This time frame is called the anabolic window. It revolves around the concept that muscles are more sensitive to protein during this time, making them more likely to absorb and immediately use it to repair muscles.
However, this claim is unfounded, as studies have shown that the anabolic window extends to 24 hours post-workout. When you eat is basically irrelevant as long as you meet your protein and calorie intake through periodic daily meals every three to four hours7.
While diet is an important component of any weightlifting routine, training should not be overlooked. Training hard and putting in the work at the gym is just as important to vegans as it is for non-vegans. There really isn't a big difference between a meat eater's workout and a vegan's. If you're trying to build muscle, you lift. There are no shortcuts. Avoid switching to a new routine every other day or giving up entirely, as this will get you nowhere.
Instead, commit to a routine and follow it for a month or two to keep a constant variable. As you progress, begin adding more weight in small increments to force your muscles to do things outside their usual workload and promote continual growth. Another strategy would be to gradually increase your reps or reduce the rest time between sets. These simple changes will help any weightlifter see major gains.
6. Rest and Recovery
Heavy weight-training sessions initiate the muscle-building process, and routine visits to the gym will facilitate growth. However, rest days are just as important, since time spent outside the gym is where your muscles recover and repair themselves. How many rest days should you take? After all your hard work, you don't want to take too much time off and risk muscle atrophy, right?
While suggestions vary, even among researchers, it's probably safe to say taking a rest day every other day is a good place to start for beginners. If you've been weightlifting for some time, though, you can take a rest day every two or three days. However, no matter your level or how hard you train, if you begin to feel muscle soreness, it's best to take a break for a day.
Above all, listen to your body. You want to give it your all, but you can't do so if you aren't well-rested and recovered.
Patience Is Key!
All good things come to those who wait — and train hard.
If your diet and workout routine is on point, you simply have to trust the process and await results. If you've been doing everything right for a month and still don't have a six-pack or big bulky biceps, press on.
Think of it as an investment in yourself, and remember, you can get shredded as a vegan weightlifter. You simply have to be patient!
- Sources and Amounts of Animal, Dairy, and Plant Protein Intake of US Adults in 2007–2010
- Vegan Protein For Maximum Muscle Gains - Complete Scientific Guide
- Optimizing Protein Intake in Adults: Interpretation and Application of the Recommended Dietary Allowance Compared with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range.
- Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.
- 5 Workout Recovery Tips
- Per meal dose and frequency of protein consumption is associated with lean mass and muscle performance
- International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.