Vegan Muscle Building - Can It Work?

A vegan lifestyle can create special challenges when it comes to muscle building. Article includes a sample eating plan and tips to help you maximize growth.

Vegan Muscle Building

Over the last years, more and more people have approached me with questions regarding a vegan diet and how to gain muscle/lose fat, so I decided that this might make for a good topic for Muscle & Strength. I am a convinced carnivore but I do respect other people's beliefs, and it makes for interesting intellectual challenge to come up with a diet for a vegan.

Someone who chooses the vegan lifestyle forgoes all animal product including milk and eggs, which seems like a terrible idea when it comes to building an impressive physique. After all, we have been taught for years that meat, milk and eggs are a cornerstone in our quest of becoming the next Arnold.

So the question remains: can someone on a vegan diet build gain substantial muscle and if so, how?

The answer isn't all that cut and dry, so bear with me. While it is possible to get sufficient protein from lentils, beans, nuts, soy, etc., there are some roadblocks a vegan needs to overcome.

I see three main obstacles on your path to 220 lbs with 5% body fat (by the way all three points are of interest to carnivores as well, so read on):

  1. Achieving a positive nitrogen balance, in particular mTor upregulation, when building muscle/recovering from workouts.
  2. Vitamin B-12 deficiency.
  3. Carb control in order to lose body fat.

mTor Upregulation

Let's talk about mTor a little bit since its one of the most mysterious and misunderstood mechanisms in the body. The truth is, we do not understand the old mammalian target of rapamycin fully but from what we do know it is that its responsible for the signaling and regulation of insulin, IGF-1 and certain amino acids.

Insulin is the most potent anabolic hormone known, and promotes the synthesis and storage of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, while inhibiting their degradation and release into the circulation. IGF-1 stands for insulin like growth factor and is an extremely powerful peptide hormone, which might even cause hyperplasia (creation of new muscle fibers). All in all, precisely the type of hormones that you need in order to build huge bulging muscles.

Vegan muscle building

What does my nutrition have to do with these hormones? Quite a bit actually. We want to use these hormones around our workout to recover as fast as possible and start protein synthesis.

For years now, we were told to diligently drink our high carb post workout shake in order to "spike our insulin levels" so it can "shuttle" nutrients into the muscle. As it turns out having carbohydrates without a full complement of amino acids means that mTORC1 signaling will be impaired and the insulin response of a carbohydrate load will not lead to protein synthesis (but to fat gain), which means no new muscle being build.

Ok, so we'll have some protein with my shake, what's the big deal?

Good point, after all, whey protein and l-leucine are the most powerful stimulators of insulin and protein synthesis (with or without carbohydrates). But this is exactly where vegans run into trouble, since most vegan proteins are incomplete or l-leucine deficient, so they won't stimulate mTor enough in order to facilitate protein synthesis.

This is why I highly recommend supplementation with BCAAs during or post workout. A study by Esmarck et al showed that protein synthesis was not dependent on insulin but by hyperaminoacidaemia (high blood amino acid levels) which can be achieved by as little as 10 grams of protein. Any more and the protein is wasted as energy and not as building material, or simply stored as fat.

So to summarize: as a vegan (or any bodybuilder) you must have 10 grams of whey or BCAAs upon awakening and during your workout. 10 grams of protein intra-workout are probably worth 60 grams at any other time during the day. Carbohydrates are much less important than we are led to believe, unless you train for 90 minutes plus.

Vitamin B-12 Deficiency

Vitamin B-12 is needed to create blood cells and cell division, Since it only occurs in animal products, hard training vegans can be deficient. The solution here is either brewers yeast or a simple b-12 supplement. The same goes for zinc. I recommend using ZMA before bed for deeper sleep and higher testosterone output.

Carb Control

Almost every vegan protein is loaded with carbs (lentils, beans, chickpeas) so if you are trying to cut, you'll run into problems. The first line of defense are nuts and soy products, but there is only much tofu one can eat.

Nuts deliver a good amount of fat, so if you are training for a bodybuilding show, you won't be able to eat the amount of nuts you'll need to get to 200 grams of protein. Here is where you'll need to supplement.

Luckily, the supplement industry has picked up on the needs of vegans and there now is a wide array of hemp, rice, pea, buckwheat and soy proteins one can use to supplement your competition diet.

Sample Vegan Muscle Building Diet

Here is an outline of how I would approach a vegan diet:

  • 7 am - 10 grams of BCAAs. Afterwards, consume some pure cranberry juice. Yes it's tart, but it's also the best liver detoxifier one can find. This goes for all lifters, not just vegans. If your liver isn't healthy, all that precious protein you are consuming will be wasted.
  • 7:30 am - Pancake from almond flour, almond milk, protein of choice. 1/2 grapefruit. Add almond butter and/or honey if calorie content allows.
  • Noon - Tofu burger with lentils/tomato sauce poured over, rice cakes with almond butter if bulking.
  • 3 pm - (Pre workout meal) Oatmeal cooked with protein powder and almond milk, add fruit and nuts if calorie content allows.
  • 5 pm - During workout 10 grams of BCAAs.
  • 6 pm - Salad with tofu, nuts and avocado. Add quinoa if bulking.
  • 8 pm - Repeat meal (from 7:30 am, noon or 6 pm) depending on goals.

If you're dieting, every meal should contain vegetables (goes also for carnivores as well, by the way).

So while it's true that vegans face more of an uphill battle, it doesn't meant that it's impossible to build an impressive physique. You'll just have follow some simple guidelines and observe how your body reacts.

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About The Author
Maik is an Olympic-level swimmer who turned to muscle building. He is now an author, and one of the most sought-after trainers in Manhattan.

16 Comments+ Post Comment

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Posted Tue, 08/19/2014 - 13:44

Anybody know where to find a vegan BCAA supplement? 10g BCAA twice a day and vegan is hard to find

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Posted Mon, 04/29/2013 - 01:57

Honey is not vegan

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Posted Mon, 07/08/2013 - 22:00
Chris Cristo

is too, while it may be produced by animals, its basically made from pollen.

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Posted Fri, 04/21/2017 - 22:05

Honey is definitely not Vegan. Any food product that comes from an animal source is not vegan, period.

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Posted Mon, 02/11/2013 - 02:27

There are vegan friendly protein powders. Other than obviously soy, there's hemp, rice, pea protein just to name a few :)

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Posted Wed, 01/30/2013 - 18:23

Thanks for this article man! And thanks for being open enough to consider training from our point of view.

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Posted Sat, 11/17/2012 - 12:46

I'm not a vegan, but I'm pretty sure most protein powders do not qualify as vegan-friendly. Whey is a milk byproduct and so is casein. Egg protein onbviously is also an animal product. Soy protein may be OK, but it contains phyto-estrogens, which mimic estrogen and cause hormonal imbalances.

I think vegetarian bodybuilding works, but vegans will have an extremely hard time finding acceptable proteins.

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Posted Sun, 08/05/2012 - 04:42

Since when was whey protein not made from milk?

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Posted Fri, 07/13/2012 - 04:31
Henry Pfeiff

Hi. Thank you for taking the time to write this article.

There are certain points that I wd like to raise with respect to what is presented above.

I am a vegan hitting the gym 4 times a week.

You mention: 'So to summarize: as a vegan (or any bodybuilder) you must have 10 grams of whey or BCAAs upon awakening. You need to be aware that vegans do NOT consume ANY product that comes from an animal including whey and honey. To help fellow vegans, you could have mentioned for instance, Sunwarrior which contains L-Leucine and ALL the necessary amino acids for buidling muscles.

Meat eating is accompanied by inflammation inside the body. Any person suffering from Crohn's disease and who switched to a vegan lifestyle would confirm that the symptoms disappear.

The way the article has been written misleads people into believing that a meat eating lifestyle is superior when it comes to building muscles and that it is harder for a vegan to strive. You are wrong about it. And the only way for any meat eaters to be sure about Vegan lifestyle being suiperior to meat eating one is to experience it and then give testimonials. It is too easy to read theories from nutirion and biology books and say there is deficiency in B12 amongst vegans. It is too easy to question vegan lifestyle when one is not ready for it. MOST meat eaters have a deficiency in B12! You did not write that. It is not just a matter of eating B12. It is a matter of the body absorbing it.Same for protein. Research pay too much attention in what is in the food we eat rather than how our body responds to the intake of the food.

You also mention "Nuts deliver a good amount of fat, so if you are training for a bodybuilding show, you won't be able to eat the amount of nuts you'll need to get to 200 grams of protein. Here is where you'll need to supplement." Be serious. Do meat eaters who compete not supplemet. Also, vegans have such a huge variety when it comes to sources of protein. ALL greens have protein. Have you heard of moringa leaves! I bet you never ate it.

And don't forget that the U.S. is largest consumer of milk and curiously they have the highest rate of osteoporosis. Time we ask whether we are really being educated by scientists or are we being indoctrinated. We simply refuse to make any conection simply because 'scientists' have said that. Well, the science they practise are not exact. Worse, it is flawed. Look at the world health for confirmation.

I have been a trainer in 'Regressing Coronary aretery disease through a vegan lifestyle" Results: 100 %! In just 3 days, patients blood composition return to normal. Diabetic patients have to stop medication or else they fall into hypoglycemia.

So please make sure you write something that really helps people get a clearer picture of the reality. It's dangeorous to speak from a convinced carnivore point of view when you actually don't know the topic well. And the ONLY way to know what you are talking is to walk the talk.

P.S: The picture of the man with an orange/grapefruit is also misleading. Vegans have a much wider variety of protein sources than meat eaters.

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Posted Fri, 10/05/2012 - 13:26


it seems you have a few facts wrong. First off, I dodnt write the article for patients with Crohns ( I actually train a few) but for healthy bodybuilders.
Eating meat does not cause inflammation in the body, as any serious study will confirm. Chemically treated, processed food is another story. The human race would long be gone if that was true.
Osteoporosis is also caused by an overconsumption of sweeteners and preservatives, and yes milk is a good source of calcium.
Moringa leaves are a great source of micronutrients, but deliver 9 grams of protein per 100 grams , which means I would have to eat 2 kilos a day. ALso they bring 8 grams of carbs per 100 gram which means a carb cutting bodybuilder cant get ahead which was the point of my article.
On the flip side, it would be possible to eat 2 lbs of chicekn breast a day in order to cover 200 grasm of protein.
In regards to leucine, it is up to you how strict you want to be, I respect anyones believes and was simply trying to explain the problems vegans have in regards to building muscle (as evident in the fact that none of the top guys is a lifelong vegan). Andreas Cahling switched later in his career and lost 20 lbs of muscle.
As mentioned, I respect anybodys choice and believes but I do not believe that an us vs them mentality is going to do much good.

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Posted Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:16
RJ Perkins

Solid read I have a female client getting ready to compete in her first competition who is a vegan and right off the bat I told her she would need BCAA's so I put here on Xtend of course I have her add 1 scoop into her daily water jug to sip throughout they day, 1 scoop during training and 1 scoop post wo, she is doing phenomenal, so meat or no meat it is possible to compete as a vega!

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Posted Thu, 05/17/2012 - 19:43
Maik Wiedenbach

KCarlssen, carbs in the afternoon are fine, overall calories matter

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Posted Thu, 05/17/2012 - 06:37

hmm, oatmeal in the afternoon. interesting concept. will try to swallow that idea. ;)

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Posted Tue, 05/15/2012 - 21:02
Maik Wiedenbach

you are very welcome! i ll write another one:)

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Posted Fri, 05/11/2012 - 09:57

More reads like this! Very informative and empowers a demographic that really faces an uphill battle. Much appreciated.

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Posted Tue, 05/15/2012 - 21:03
Maik Wiedenbach

great to hear, will write more along those lines