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Top 10 Tips for Building Muscle on a Vegan Diet

Head and shoulders photograph of Anju Mobin
A woman working out at the gym with a barbell
Bodybuilders are often told to eat meat and eggs to build muscles. Therefore, a vegan diet that totally restricts animal protein can make you question if building muscle as a vegan is possible. Well, studies have confirmed it is absolutely possible. From diet advice from nutritionists to strength training know-hows, here are our top 10 tips for building muscle on a vegan diet.

Studies have shown it is possible to build muscle on a vegan diet, despite the limited options vegans have when it comes to protein. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reveals that the right vegetable protein in the right proportions can yield similar outcomes to animal protein for body composition and performance (1).

It is important to eat a balanced diet of vegan meals that provide adequate nutrients for building muscle. With that in mind, here are 10 additional top tips for building muscle on a vegan diet.

1. Stick to Strength Training

The best exercise for building muscle is strength training. Lifting weights is a great way to build muscle as heavy weight challenges your muscles. Doing squats and deadlifts will build strength and muscle faster. Go for overhead presses, pull-ups, dips, bench presses, leg curls, etc.

HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is the best way to produce growth hormones that build your muscles. A 20-second sprint or speed cycling with 10 seconds of rest eight times or so would do the trick.

2. Maintain a Calorie Surplus

When building muscle, you need to provide your body with enough calories to gain muscle mass. Ideally, you have to be in a calorie surplus. This means at least 20-40% more calories than your required daily maintenance. Go for calorie-dense plant-based foods.

Include a good amount of grains, beans, tofu, tempeh, meat and dairy alternatives, nuts, etc. Increase your portion sizes and make sure you consume enough micronutrients. You can also consume sufficient amounts of fat to increase your calorie intake. The general recommendation is around 1 g per kilogram of body weight for off-season bodybuilders.

3. Hit Your Protein Targets

Eat to grow. Take foods that contain high amounts of protein. Research shows that you need to consume 1.6-2.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight for bodybuilding.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and there are 20 of them. Nine of them are called essential amino acids (EAA) because they aren't produced by the body and have to be provided by outside sources such as food or supplements.

Three of the EAA that help build and stimulate muscle growth are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and help in improving recovery time. Foods that are high in BCAAs include quinoa, seitan, brown rice, beans, seeds, nuts, amaranth, and soy products such as tempeh, tofu, and edamame.

You can also try to fill the nutritional gap with protein supplements such as pea protein isolates, hemp protein, soy protein, chia protein powder, etc. Eat protein with each meal for optimal muscle growth.

Rapidly digested proteins that contain high amounts of essential amino acids and adequate leucine are most effective in stimulating muscle protein. Soybeans, oats, legumes, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach are high in leucine.

4. Have the Right Food Combinations

Jot down a daily meal plan to make sure your calorie, protein, and carb intake are on point. As long as your macros are right, you have enough to build muscle.

As most plant protein don't provide all nine EAAs, try to combine one or more complementary foods for a complete protein profile. Having legumes with grains is a good way of doing that. Try brown rice with chickpeas or pita with hummus and veggies.

Try out vegetarian meal delivery or plant-based meal delivery to ensure you have the right foods on hand. This prevents you from indulging in unhealthy food cravings. Some of the best vegetarian meal kit delivery services are Sunbasket and Home Chef. If you have a gluten allergy, you try out one of the many gluten-free meal delivery services.

5. Eat Real Food

Make sure the food you eat is healthy. Try to avoid processed foods, sugary drinks, and sodas. Instead, go for real food. Bring as much color to your diet as possible. Fruits and vegetables with high amounts of vitamins and minerals are great for your muscles.

Vitamin A, B, C, and D boost your immunity and can help you keep fit. You will have the stamina and energy to keep up with your training program. Potassium, magnesium, iron, and other essential nutrients help rebalance your electrolytes and prevent muscle cramping.

6. Load Up on Carbohydrates

Carbs should make up 45-60% of your calories. Carbo-loading is a common practice amongst bodybuilders. It is associated with an increase in muscle thickness and circumference in bodybuilders (2).

Carbo-loading elevates muscular glycogen stores far beyond resting levels. This means the body can use glycogen instead of breaking down muscle tissue for energy.

7. Change Your Routine

Your body is very good at adapting to any situation. If the intensity and style of your exercise are the same for a prolonged period of time, your body starts adapting to it. If you want to see some changes in muscle growth, change your exercise pattern.

Muscle growth is all about powerfully engaging all your muscles and continuously increasing the intensity of your training. If you are doing heavy weights with low reps and long rest between sets, change it up. Do higher reps with lower weights and less rest in between. Change the tempo, rep, intensity, and angle of muscle training.

8. Increase the Intensity of Your Exercise

To build more muscle, boost your workout intensity. Add jumps, sprint levels, and weight, do training rounds, incorporate Tabata intervals, and try to beat the clock. Increase resistance and the number of sets and repetitions you do and decrease your rest interval.

When you work out at an increased intensity, your body grows stronger. Within a few weeks, you will see a change in your endurance, strength, and body fat percentage.

9. Sharpen Your Time Management Skills

Be punctual with your meal timings. Eat every few hours so that your body has enough nutrients to perform and function better. Pre- and post-workout meals are important. Pump up the protein intake before or after weight lifting.

You can have a pre-workout meal 30 minutes to 3 hours before your workout, depending on your body's needs. Have your post-workout meals within 45 minutes after your workout. That will ensure enough energy to smash a workout and the right nutrients to replenish your muscles and restore any glycogen depleted during your workout.

10. Feed Your Workout

Feed your workout. On the days you exercise, take protein within 60 minutes after your workout to facilitate muscle recovery and increase muscle gain. You can either have a post-workout shake or a proper meal containing enough protein.

Make sure you take 700-3,000 mg of leucine in addition to a balanced array of essential amino acids (3). Evenly distribute your daily protein intake every 3-4 hours across the day.

Conclusion

Building muscle on a vegan diet is possible. In fact, bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed that his diet is about 80% vegan.

The right exercise at the proper intensity, adequate intake of the right protein spread out over the whole day, carbo-loading, and time management can make it doable. It's all about following the right tips and staying consistent.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598028/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6873117/
  3. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
Head and shoulders photograph of Anju Mobin
Anju Mobin is a certified nutritionist and has worked in numerous medical clinics. She specializes in nutrition and fitness content with over a decade of experience as a writer and editor.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.