Are you a new vegan and are wondering how to build muscle on a plant-based diet? Or maybe you just saw the Game-Changers movie with all the vegan bodybuilders and athletes and want to know how they built all the muscle?
We get it, building muscle is not easy, some people would argue that it is even harder than to lose weight. I myself would say that, you can lose weight by only controlling your diet (although it is not the best way) but, to build muscle bodybuilders need to train hard and consistently on top of having a diet that supports muscle growth.
In this article, we are going to reveal all the key elements you need to consider when embarking on your muscle-building path. Warning: it might get ‘sciencey’
1. How is muscle built on a vegan diet?
If you already know everything that goes behind muscle-building, feel free to skip this section. But for those who don’t, let’s explore the science of muscle growth.
Muscle growth or muscle hypertrophy happens when muscle fibers are ‘challenged’ to deal with higher levels of resistance or weight resulting in —micro levels— of damage or injury.
After ‘damage’ happens during a workout, your body repairs or replaces the damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process where it fuses muscle fibers together to form new muscle protein strands or myofibrils. This is what increases the mass and size of the muscles.
So how do we make sure to activate the cells to promote muscle growth? Let’s take a look at 3 mechanisms that support muscle hypertrophy:
a. Muscle Tension
Muscle tension means applying a load of stress greater than what your muscles had adapted too. You do this by lifting progressively heavier weights or adding reps. Bodybuilders like to call this ‘progressive overload’.
You can think about it like this: If your muscles can easily perform the task you are requiring of them, they have no reason to grow. But if you ask them to perform a new or more demanding version they’ll need to adapt (grow).
b. Muscle Damage
You are probably familiar with the muscle soreness that comes after a workout. Congrats! it means you have successfully created localized muscle damage.
But don’t worry, it is actually a good thing since it releases inflammatory molecules and immune system cells that activate satellite cells (responsible for creating new muscle fibers)into action.
Overtime soreness becomes less frequent but it does not mean the mechanism is not happening.
c. Metabolic Stress
Have you noticed your muscles looking bigger during and shortly after a workout? This is known as metabolic stress or what bodybuilders like to call the ‘pump’.
Metabolic stress happens when glycogen increases in the muscle cells causing them to swell, which helps to contribute to muscle growth without necessarily increasing the size of the muscle cells.
This means that people can get the appearance of larger muscles without increases in strength.
2. How do hormones affect muscle growth on a plant-based diet?
During and after your workout, your body is secreting different hormones that can either promote muscle growth (anabolic) or inhibit it (catabolic).
Anabolic hormones, including testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin growth factor work by:
- improving how the body processes proteins
- promoting protein synthesis inhibiting protein breakdown
- activating satellite cells, which are a type of stem cell that plays a role in muscle development
- enhancing tissue growth
So logically, to create muscle growth, you need to have a higher number of anabolic hormones vs. catabolic hormones.
Can you guess how you can promote anabolic hormones?… Yes, through strength and resistance training! This type of workout can help:
- release growth hormone from the pituitary gland
- stimulate testosterone release
- improve the sensitivity of the muscles to testosterone
In conclusion, the key to creating consistently anabolic states is to focus your workouts on weight training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio training.
On the other side, you want to avoid long sessions of low-intensity cardio since they increase cortisol levels, the catabolic hormone that inhibits muscle growth.
If more catabolic (muscle-wasting) hormones find cell receptors, you will actually lose muscle mass to protein breakdown.
3. How to feed your muscles for growth on a vegan diet?
Having the right nutrition to support your fitness goals is equally as important as performing the right exercises.
This is essential since the process of muscle growth involves two stages: the breakdown phase that happens during training and the synthesis phase that happens during rest. Muscle growth occurs when the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown.
To put it simply, if you are trying to gain muscle mass your body needs to be in an energy surplus and it needs to be of the right type of foods.
So, exactly how much do you need to eat for muscle growth on a vegan diet?
Figuring out how many calories you need to eat to gain muscle on a vegan diet is essential. If you eat too little calories, your body will end up ‘eating’ your muscles to survive and if on the other side, you consume too much you will end up gaining unnecessary fat at the same time as you grow muscle. (Although gaining a certain amount of fat is unavoidable.)
To aim for a lean bulk (try to gain as much muscle as possible while minimizing the amount of fat), it is recommended to be on a 10%-15% caloric surplus.
Also, you want to consider not only the number of calories but the macronutrients. As a general rule, if you are a moderately active person looking to build muscle, you’ll want your macronutrient targets to be 55% carbs, 25% protein, and 20% fat.
Yes, contrary to popular belief, not only protein is important for muscle growth. Carbs are essential to improve stamina and build strength since they are stored in our muscles as our bodies main source of fuel.
Therefore, limiting carbs can result in muscular fatigue and reduced performance, which can hinder your overall muscle growth goals.
If you are not familiar with macronutrient, they are the different types of (yes) nutrients present in foods. They are split into carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. For a more detail explanation of macronutrients, you can check out this article.
There are a lot of formulas and calculators out there to determine your calories and macronutrients, I personally like the one at Macros Inc.
You simply input information like your height, and activity level and fitness goal and they give you your recommended calories and macronutrients. They also have an option to choose between higher carbs and fewer fats or vice versa which I think is very useful for vegans since most plant-based foods are on the higher carb end.
You will receive something like this (personalized to you obviously)
But…how do I get that amount of protein on a plant-based diet?
When I hear someone ask how to build muscle on a vegan diet I assume they are under the impression that you:
1. Need more protein than you really do.
2. Think it is hard to get protein from plants.
Luckily, if you have calculated your macros you have already solved ‘problem’ #1 by learning how much protein you need to build muscle and, chances are, it is less than you thought.
Now let’s talk about #2: getting your protein from plants.
Meeting your protein requirements can be done easily through a plant-based protein-rich diet which also has the added benefits of being free of cholesterol and low in saturated fat.
A well-rounded intake of plant proteins is enough to support muscle growth on a vegan diet, but it’s also important to make sure you are eating foods rich in essential amino acids such as the lysine and leucine.
Some great vegan sources of protein are beans, soy, tofu, tempeh, lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa, but it is important to remember that all plant foods such as vegetables or fruits also contain some protein, which adds up during the course of a day.
In the beginning, you might want to track your meals to make sure you are hitting your macronutrients and calories. There are LOTS of apps out there to track your intake but one I personally like is cronometer.
If you want some ideas to get you on track towards your vegan-muscle-building goals check out these videos of a male and female vegan bodybuilders.
Overall, a varied plant-based diet rich in legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables will provide our body with everything it needs —including protein—to not only build muscle, but to keep you healthy today and tomorrow.
While you can build muscle or lose fat with any ‘diet’, a vegan lifestyle promotes longevity and prevents chronic diseases. On the other side, animal protein contains saturated fat and cholesterol which have been shown to increase one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. I don’t know about you, but the choice seems pretty obvious to me!
Do I need any supplements to build muscle on a vegan diet?
A whole-foods plant-based diet can provide almost every nutrient and vitamin you need and even for those few cases when you might need to supplement, the benefits of a vegan diet far outweigh those of an omnivore one.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important:
While it is 100 percent possible to get all your protein requirements through your food, some people find it easier to supplement with vegan protein powder for convenience and even taste.
Nowadays, you can find really good quality protein shakes with no additives or nasty ingredients, just make sure to check the label and try to get most of your protein from whole foods when possible.
There are numerous vegan protein powders available, such as soy isolate, pea, hemp, and brown rice. It’s best to find a powder with several sources to ensure you’re getting all of the essential amino acids.
If you are looking for a recommendation, the one I am currently loving is Liv Body, the ingredients are super clean, it has some superfoods on it, and it doesn’t hurt that the flavors and texture are awesome. (ps. try adding half a scoop to your oats…you can thank me later)
You can also check a list of all my favorite protein powder in this article for a more detailed review.
Vitamin B12 is not directly related to building muscle on a vegan diet but it essential for your overall health since it helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells.
B12 deficiency is one of the most common, not only in vegans but in anyone who doesn’t pay close attention to meeting their daily requirements for this vitamin
To consume enough B12, make sure you’re eating foods such as fortified cereals, fortified plant-based milks, nutritional yeast, and mushrooms. You could also consider taking a vegan supplement regularly.
You can also check a list of my recommended Vitamin B12 supplements here for a more detailed review.
Omega-3s are fatty acids that your bodies need for keeping your hearts healthy, protecting you from all sorts of inflammation-related illnesses, and even reducing your risk of developing certain mental health conditions, like depression and bipolar disorder.
There are a few main types—ALA, DHA, and EPA—that are necessary for your body to function properly so it’s important to get all three of them.
For vegans, ALA is easy to get since it is very abundant in plants and — in theory— it can also be used by your body to convert it into DHA and EPA.
However, your body might not adequately convert your dietary ALA to DHA and EPA, so a vegan algae-derived supplement can go a long way towards ensuring your needs are covered.
4. Rest your way to muscle growth on a vegan diet
As you might remember from the beginning of this article, muscle growth happens not while you are working out, but when you are resting.
A study conducted at the University of New Mexico looked at the effects of rest and recovery in regards to muscle growth to find ways for trainers to support their client’s recovery efforts more effectively.
They found out the ideal rest for hypertrophy (muscle growth) to be 1 to 2 minutes in between sets. However, ground-based movements such as the deadlift, squat, and overhead press require more rest than smaller muscle groups such as biceps, triceps, and forearm flexors.
When talking about rest day, most studies recommend taking two rest days a week. This will allow all your muscles to recover and returned to the gym refreshed and growing.
With 2 rest days, you have 5 days to target each major muscle group 2-3 times per week and make sure you are getting quality sleep (especially) on your workout days.
5. How fast can you expect muscle to grow on a vegan diet?
I have left this piece for the end of the article because it might be a hard truth to accept but thankfully, if you have made it all the way here, you are committed and staying in this path for the long run.
Truth is, building muscle doesn’t happen overnight. Creating substantial muscle gain is more likely to take years rather than months since the amount of muscle gain that can take place in a month is actually quite small.
Even if two persons followed the exact same training, diet and rest, the amount of muscle someone can gain in a determined time period changes not only between men and women, but also between each individual by variables such as genetic makeup, and hormonal levels.
With all of those things considered, the average man can gain about one to two pounds of muscle per month and the average woman up to one pound per month.
Building muscles may be a slow race, but the benefits and fun of the process make it all worthwhile.
- The principles of muscle growth are pretty much the same for a vegan diet as for any other diet or lifestyle while a vegan bodybuilding diet can provide additional health benefits.
- Education plays an important role in Implementing a vegan diet for muscle growth. Since it requires a good deal of planning and education, being correctly informed can set apart a successful diet from an unsuccessful one.
- Strength training and a calorie surplus are essential to achieve muscle gains as well as a balanced diet that includes 25% of protein.
- Getting your protein needs from plant-based foods is not only possible but better from an overall health perspective, compared to a diet that includes animal products.
- Rest and supplementation are aspects often overlooked but essential for muscle growth and general health.
- If you train hard, eat properly and rest plenty, you will be rewarded with some new muscle mass but hopefully, you will love to learn the process as much as the result!
Recommended: The Best Vegan Mass Gainers To Put On Muscle Mass