Do you want to know how to develop a muscular vegan physique? Then look no further.
Here we provide you with an evidence-based guide to vegan diet and bodybuilding, using science and new developments to help you get those gains. Let’s get into it.
Chapter 1: Should you Bulk or Cut?
If you’re looking to maximize your vegan bodybuilding regime, then it is generally advised that you should alternate between bulking and cutting. This means that you should do phases of mass gaining, followed by phases of fat loss.
If you’re a little confused by these terms and how they apply to you, keep reading!
Find a Vegan Bodybuilding Goal That Works For You
The majority of people, especially men, are looking for a strong, muscular, and lean physique through vegan bodybuilding.
If you want to achieve this fitness goal and build some muscle, then you need to:
- Gain muscle
- Lose fat
However, you cannot aim for both of these goals at the same time. So what should you do?
Building muscle mass works very differently from reducing fat levels, and gaining muscle inhibits your natural ability to lose fat. This also works the other way round, with extensive fat loss making it more difficult for you to grow your muscles.
If you want to avoid stagnating, you need to alternate between phases of bulking and cutting - this is gym slang which I’ll explain below.
- Bulking - building your muscle mass while eating a surplus of calories. This produces an anabolic environment in your body which encourages muscle mass growth.
- Cutting - losing fat by eating below your caloric needs. This causes your body to burn its stores of excess fat, leading to fat loss.
Should you Bulk or Cut?
- If you have too much fat around your stomach, cut.
- If you’re skinny and your ribs are on show, bulk. - it’s simple as that.
- If you’re decidedly average, then there’s a more scientific way of finding out what you should do.
You need to estimate your body’s current body fat percentage.
Although you could go and get a proper DEXA scan with all the high-end equipment, a ballpark estimate should do in this case.
Take a look at the chart (try not to flatter yourself) and put yourself into a rough bracket.
1. For men - If you have around 15% body fat or more, cut down until you’re at around 10%.
When you’re around the 10% area, then you can start the process of bulking until you’re back at around 15%. Once you reach 15% again, repeat the process.
2. For women - Cut down to around 19% body fat. When you reach 19%, bulk up until you reach a percentage of approximately 27%. Repeat this process several times.
Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?
"This all seems very complicated. Can I not just find a way to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously?"
This phenomenon of doing it all at once is known as “recomping” or “body recomposition” by fitness fanatics - it’s like the Holy Grail of the fitness world.
1. Rank beginners. People who are new to the gym will be able to take advantage of something known affectionately as “newbie gains.” This enables a newbie to build muscle mass even if they’re eating a vegan diet with fewer calories than normal.
2. Detrained athletes. Detrained athletes who have had to take a break from their usual training regime will often be able to make gains while eating a low-calorie diet, although these effects will wear off eventually.
3. Overweight individuals. People who have high levels of body fat that will be able to support their muscle growth while simultaneously losing their excess fat.
4. Steroids. Steroids can help to produce a body recomposition effect, although we don’t recommend taking them, whether you’re on a vegan diet or an omnivore.
Most people who are beyond the newbie stage, like vegan fitness models, will never be able to take advantage of the joys of recomping.
Chapter 2: Get Your Calories Right
Next, we must work on maintenance calories, known as TDEE.
This useful number tells us exactly how many calories we need for either bulking or cutting effectively.
It’s Crucial to Balance Your Energy
Every day, your body burns a certain number of calories, and it does so when you breathe, walk, eat, and even watch Netflix.
You also burn additional calories when you do things like go to the gym and perform some vegan bodybuilding.
By feeding your body with the exact amount of calories that you use, you will reach an equilibrium where you don’t gain weight or lose weight - you just stay the same. This is known as maintenance calories.
- If you feed your body with more calories than it burns, your body will store these excess calories as body fat.
- If you eat too little and give your body fewer calories than it burns, your body will burn the body fat as a source of energy.
Alas, you can continue eating plant-based junk food all you like, so long as you watch your calories and burn more calories than you eat (1).
Contrary to popular belief, binging on “healthy clean foods” is not an automatic ticket to weight loss.
It sounds strange if you’re not used to it, but it’s very simple once you understand the underlying mechanisms of weight loss and weight gain.
How Many Calories Should You Be Eating?
To jumpstart your healthy vegan diet and vegan bodybuilding journey, make sure to calculate your maintenance calories first, also known as TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).
This is quite easy to do – use our TDEE calculator or just calculate the formula below:
1. Calculate your lean body mass (LBM) - In kilograms, take your weight and multiply it by (1-)your current body fat percentage. For instance, if you weigh 80 kg and you have 15% body fat, then your LBM would be 80 x (1-0.15) = 68 kg
2. Estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR) - Now, insert your lean body mass into the following formula: 370 + (21.6 x LBM) = BMR. So with an LBM of 68, you'd get 370 + (21.6 x 68) = 1838 calories
3. Multiply your BMR with an activity factor
The number of calories you burn every day will vary according to how active or sedentary your lifestyle is.
Take your BMR and multiply it according to the guidelines that best describe you:
- Sedentary (Little to no exercise in a week): BMR x 1.1
- Lightly active (Light exercise 1-3 days/week): BMR x1.2
- Moderately active (Moderate exercise 3-5 days/week): BMR x1.35
- Very active (Hard exercise 6-7 days/week): BMR x1.45
- Extremely active (Very hard exercise + physical job): BMR x1.6-1.8
Now you’ve calculated your maintenance calories! Isn’t it a marvelous feeling? So how should you adjust it when you’re bulking and cutting?
1. When bulking, increase your TDEE by 10%
This caloric surplus should help you to gain around 1-2kg per month if you’re a man, although beginners will be able to sometimes achieve weight gains of 2kg per month and beyond. For women, this increase should help you to gain around 0.5-1kg per month.
2. When cutting, reduce your TDEE by 20%
This should lead to weight losses of around 2-3 kg per month for both men and women.
For example, if you’re an active vegan who weighs 80kg and you have a TDEE of 2,800 calories, then you would do the following:
- When bulking, your calories would be 2800 * 1.10 = 3080 kcal
- When cutting, your calories would be 2800 * 0.80 = 2240 kcal
Skip all these calculations by using our TDEE calculator:
Made by Vegan Liftz
Chapter 3: Get Your Macros Right
Although it doesn’t matter what your calories are made of when it comes to simple weight gain and weight loss, the macros of your calories certainly do matter when you’re trying to build muscle and change your overall body composition.
Why Are Macros So Important to Building a Great Body?
Macronutrients are the three basic nutrient groups that our bodies need in order to function properly - protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Whether you follow a vegan diet or not, all of your calories come from one of these three macronutrients or “macros.”
- 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
- When cutting, we want to lose body fat and not muscle mass.
- When bulking, we want to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat storage.
Vegan Diet Hint: Getting Your Protein Right
Animal-based and other non-vegan protein products tend to create more protein than plant-based products, although this does not make it impossible for vegans to acquire protein.
If you’re following a vegan diet but you’re not focusing on enough protein intake, you may end up becoming deficient.
You see, protein provides our bodies with the amino acids they need in order to repair and build new muscle tissue - assisting with them vegan bodybuilding gains.
A protein intake of 0.8g per kg has been shown to improve muscle and strength gains in numerous studies (2).
Also, higher intakes of protein are great when you are leaning down:
- You'll lose less muscle mass during cutting (3)
- Makes you feel fuller by increasing satiety (4)
- Provides a thermic effect that may aid in reducing body fat (5)
- Helps with reducing body fat during energy restriction (6)
Although I have some very big reservations when it comes to eating animal-based protein, I definitely recommend eating lots of plant-based protein to get all the essential amino acids, nonetheless.
So How Many Grams of Protein Do I Need?
A huge meta-analysis was carried out in 2017, looking at the effects of protein supplementation on strength and muscle gains. They looked at a total of 49 relevant RCTs for longer than 6 weeks.
The key takeaway fact is this: eating more than 1.62g protein per kg of weight per day resulted in no more RET-induced gains in FFM.
To put it simply, eating 1.62g protein per kg of weight per day is the best way to maximize gains in strength and muscle.
However it turns out that there can be quite big differences between individuals when it comes to how much protein they need for building up muscle (7).
One review found that 1.6g protein per kg is actually the mean optimal intake, making it an average that is likely to work well for average people.
For the purposes of adding as much muscle as possible and looking awesome, intake should be somewhere between:
1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram per day / 0.73-1 grams of protein per lbs.
However, vegan protein tends to be less anabolic than animal-based protein.
Furthermore, do bear in mind that higher protein intake can be good during a weight loss period, as protein can help to effectively preserve muscle mass when shredding (9).
For instance, an 80-kg, or 176-pound plant-eater would thus need to eat:
176 x 0.73-1 = 128-176 g of protein.
For a vegan bodybuilder, this is a very crucial thing to take into account.
Read more of this on:
Vegan Diet Hint: Getting Your Fats Right
Fat can be used by the body as fuel (although carbs are the preferred energy source), but its utility stretches far beyond simply providing some calories for energy needs.
The fats we eat are used to support healthy hormonal status, manufacturing of structurally sound cell membranes, nutrient absorption, amongst many other vital body processes.
And let's not forget that it makes food taste damn good (tahini sauce makes vegan foods like brown rice taste better, as everyone certainly knows).
How Many Grams of Fat Should You Eat?
Beyond hitting the needs for the essential fatty acids, there's really no clear-cut answer of how much fat you need as a vegan bodybuilder.
We’ll go into more detail later, but carbs are brilliant for athletes who want to improve their endurance and boost their muscle mass gaining abilities.
You see, after you have satisfied your body’s basic needs for fat, adding more of it is not particularly good for you. Instead, it’s better to fill up on carbs.
A good range for fat intake to start with, however, is 15-30% of calories from fat. This leaves plenty of space for the all-important carbohydrates, and within this range, you can adjust up and down according to your unique needs and preferences.
How this typically works out is that during cutting, the fats will creep down towards 15%. While on a bulk, you have a larger intake of calories which means fats can go up as well.
Here's how it would work out when you do the math:
Vegan bodybuilding athlete X has estimated his TDEE to be 2800 calories. That means 2800 x 0.15-30 = 420 - 840 calories should come from fat. As 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, this equals to 47-93 grams of fat.
Read More On: Fats on a Vegan Diet
Vegan Diet Hint: Getting Your Carbs Right
Vegan foods rich in carbs are great, especially for any athlete or vegan bodybuilder. They can aid athletic performance, help you recover between training sessions, build muscle during a bulking phase, and help you retain as much muscle as possible during cutting.
When you exercise intensely, your muscles use your glycogen stores as a form of fuel, making sure that these glycogen stores are stocked up with carbohydrate in order to enhance workout performance (10) (11).
How Many Grams of Carbohydrate Should You Eat?
According to a recent review on strength sports nutrition guidelines, you should intake between 4–7 g/kg of carbohydrates per day when you’re trying to build muscle. That should give you some ideas about the optimal carbohydrate intake (14).
However, here's how I prefer setting up your carb target:
Let's use the example of our 80kg, 176-pound gym-goer with a TDEE of 2800 kcal, a protein intake of 150 g and a fat intake of 70 gram.
As we established before, a gram of each macronutrient contains:
- 1 gram protein = 4 kcal
- 1 gram carb = 4 kcal
- 1 gram fat = 9 kcal
Now, for this vegan bodybuilder, it’s 150 x 4, which equals to 600 calories from protein and 60 x 9 = 630 calories from fat. So, for them to reach their 2,800-calorie daily goal, they would need to eat their remaining calories in the form of carbs.
Take 2800 and subtract 600 kcal from fat and 630 kcal from protein, and that leaves us with 1570 kcal from carbs, converted into grams 1570/4 = 393 g carbs. It may seem slightly complicated if you have never done this before, but once you get the hang of it, it's really easy.
Read More On: Carbs in a Vegan Diet
Tracking Macros and Adjusting Accordingly
A very convenient way of keeping track of your macros and vegan bodybuilding progress is by using MyFitnessPal via your smartphone.
You simply add the amount of vegan foods you eat and then MyFitnessPal will calculate your calories, protein, fat, and carb intake for the day.
However, if you like the flexibility of doing all of this macro stuff 'on the go', you'll likely find that after a couple of weeks of consistent logging that you get used to it rather quickly.
Within a couple of seconds, I can enter the information into the app and it doesn't feel like a massive chore. As with picking up any other new habit, it will eventually mesh together with the rest of your lifestyle. You can also use www.cronometer.com if you prefer a browser-based option to keep track of your vegan bodybuilding journey.
Chapter 4: Designing a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet Plan
Now we need to translate all these numbers and recommendations into a solid vegan bodybuilding diet plan that will match your lifestyle.
So in this chapter, we'll look at how to implement your calories and macronutrient targets within a nutritious meal plan compromised out of tasty, vegan foods that you actually love eating.
We go more in-depth on this in this guide on how to create a vegan bodybuilding meal plan
Hitting Your Macros and Micros
Even if you hit your macros, is eating burgers and fries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner healthy, as such?
In fact, the caloric deficit can help with weight loss and actually improve certain aspects of your well-being (1).
Macros are important, true. But you must closely monitor micronutrients if you want to be healthy:
Now I know how you’re probably feeling:
"I don’t know what all that stuff is, how can I keep an eye on all of that?!"
Fortunately, there's no need for you to go to university and spend 5 years on becoming a full-fledged nutritionist or vegan bodybuilding expert. For the most part, one just needs to make conscientious diet choices.
Eat Mostly (90%) Nutrient-Dense, Whole Plant Foods
In layman terms, the nutrient density of a vegan diet refers to how many nutrients your plant-based food has per calorie.
For example, if Food X has 100 nutrients calorie, and another food called Food Y has 4 nutrients per calorie, then we can say that Food X is much more nutrient-dense than Food Y - by eating more of it, you’ll be eating a more nutrient-dense diet.
However, we’re not looking at junk foods - we’re looking at whole and unprocessed plant foods. A rich plant-based diet includes starches, root vegetables, whole grains such as quinoa and brown rice, legumes such as chickpeas, beans and lentils, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds - all that good stuff that our body needs.
As a rule of thumb, whole plant foods such as these are incredibly nutritious and contain loads of essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Basically, you want to consume plant foods as close as possible to 'as grown in nature'.
Ideally, a healthy vegan diet requires that you eat at least 90% whole foods, using that remaining 10% on foods that are less nutrient-dense and perhaps more processed. This allows you to enjoy a plant-based diet while still indulging some pasta, bread, cake, cookies, cereals, muffins, vegan ice cream or whatever you find to be extra palatable.
How Often Should I Eat Every Day?
To be frank, it doesn’t matter if your plant-based diet is spread over 2 or 5 meals; volume itself just doesn't have much of an impact on your body fat.
Therefore, the frequency of your meals should be decided according to your own preferences. Ask yourself this: do you prefer many small plant-based meals or a couple of larger plant-based meals?
Finding it hard to get enough calories in at the bulking phase?
If this is the case, consider getting a big breakfast and then spread your food out over about 6 meals. This way, vegan bodybuilding nutrition won't require you to eat a truckload at every meal - which, by the way, tends to be nauseating if you’re not used to it.
Finding it hard to keep your calorie consumption low in your cutting phase?
If this is you, why not try intermittent fasting? This is where you eat during a 6-8 hour window, balancing out at around 2-3 meals per day. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though!
Looking for more vegan meal ideas? Check out this video by Torre Washington:
Chapter 5: Supplements for Vegan Bodybuilding
With vegan bodybuilding, I recommend that you supplement intelligently.
An example of how to do that would be to find nutritional gaps in your vegan diet, such as vitamin B12, and take specific supplements in order to bridge them.
Or if you want some extra 'oomph' and power at the gym, you can invest in science-backed, safe compounds such as creatine or protein powder (although this is completely optional).
Vegan supplements only serve 2 purposes:
- Fill in any nutrient gaps in your vegan diet
- Help you with improving vegan bodybuilding performance and enhancing lean body mass gains.
With that out of the way, it seems appropriate to start with one of the most urgent components of a vegetarian or vegan diet:
Vegan Protein Powder
Protein powders are considered both supplements and powdered foods, often being used as a meal replacement for people on calorie-controlled diets.
Vegan protein powder is great for making sure that your protein intake is of an adequate amount, something which is easy to miss.
But, if you’re looking to get a good amount of protein in your vegan diet without breaking the bank, then pea-based protein powder is a good way to go. It tends to be on the cheap side and has loads of BCAA in it, which helps build muscle if taken appropriately.
Check out this article for our recommended vegan protein powders.
Besides protein powder, creatine is also a performance-enhancing supplement that is reasonably supported by scientific evidence.
A creatine supplement effectively helps you to:
- Improve your anaerobic working capacity. This is great for high-intensity training, such as strength training with high reps (10-15) (24)
- Performance improvements of +8% and +14% on 1RM strength and endurance strength, respectively (25)
- Lean mass gains increase of a massive 0.36%.
- Better pumps in the gym
The fact that there are no natural vegan food sources of creatine unless you consume meat gives all the more reason why you should consider taking creatine supplements.
Check out this article for our recommended vegan creatine supplements.
A pre-workout is a supplement, usually in powdered form, that is believed to provide people a boost in physical performance during their training routine.
Even athletes following a vegan diet can now enjoy the benefits of taking pre-workout supplements, such as:
- Enhanced mental focus
- Increased fat metabolism
- Added motivation
- Boosted energy levels
However, to absolutely take pleasure in these benefits of having pre-workouts around, any expert would recommend looking into the ingredients list of a supplement so it won’t mess with your established fitness goal. You can read about the side effects of taking pre-workout supplements.
Check out this article for our recommended vegan pre-workout supplements.
Since we tend to miss out on other macros and micros in our vegan diet, multivitamins play a big role in sealing that nutritional gap. Each pill is packed with vitamin C, B complex, D, A, E and nutrients such as potassium, iodine, and zinc.
Taking multivitamins in a daily basis will result in the following:
- Improved mood
- Reduced stress
- Better memory
- Sustained muscle strength
- Enhanced energy levels
Check out this article for our recommended vegan multivitamin supplements.
Fat burner supplements significantly help people whose fitness goal is to cut or lose weight. So, if you share the same fitness goal as those people, a fat burner is another product you might want to include in your supplement drawer.
Even with its supposed side effect like an upset stomach, which is kind of limited depending on the ingredients it contains, a fat burner do a body good in the following ways:
- Increased energy levels
- Fat loss
- Suppressed appetite
Check out this article for our recommended vegan fat burners.
Other Essential Supplements
Apart from the recommended supplements above, you will also need the following if you’re serious about vegan diet practices or on a vegan bodybuilding journey.
- Greens and superfoods - They help enrich the body with complete nutrients to detoxify your body and improve your overall health. When picking the best green superfood, consider the nutrient content as well as the taste and mixability -- most greens taste nasty.
- Testosterone boosters - More testosterone means better and stronger muscle function. It also claims to improve physical and mental strength, help in muscle growth, and reduce stress by supporting hormone balance.
- Collagen - Low-calorie collagen supplement that will support your joints and soft tissues, while keeping you looking young and healthy.
- Omega-3 - An Omega-3 product to provide enough DHA or EPA. Make sure that it’s algae-based -- vegan friendly and you never have to worry about fishy burps.
- Vitamin D - A vegan-sourced vitamin D with a clean formula and would provide enough D vitamin without the unnecessary fillers.
- Vitamin B12 - A vitamin B complex to support brain function and boost energy levels during workouts.
- Probiotic - A probiotic supplement that’s made of vegan-friendly and organic ingredients to improve overall gut health.
- Iodine - Taking in a decent amount of this trace element is a good idea for a strong thyroid, and not getting enough iodine in your diet can actually lead to thyroid dysfunction problems.
Chapter 6: Follow an Effective Training Routine
At this point, we pretty much have all the basics in place which will support your efforts in the gym.
The question then is:
What exactly do we do at the gym?
The Simple Truth Behind Gains: Progressive Tension Overload
With the vast amount of conflicting information on how to train optimally, it's hard to even make a decision on what workout routine to go with.
And worse yet, when you've finally settled on something that looks half decent, you find a new, shiny training method to try out and jump ship again.
This 'grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side' mentality is the worst possible strategy if your goal is to build muscle and drop fat.
'Routine-hopping' i.e. not consistently sticking with one training program for more than a week or two (or three) will guarantee that you never get anywhere. Here's the simple explanation of why:
By constantly switching up your routines, changing exercises, trying out new reps x sets schemes and so on, no variable is ever kept constant. And as such, it's going to be virtually impossible to implement the most important piece of the puzzle: progressive overload.
You may have encountered this term before and wondered what it meant. Essentially, it means imposing your muscle fibers to greater stress over time.
Think about this: Your training must be progressive in nature.
The guy doing 135 pounds on the bench press for 3 sets of 10 reps year after year will not grow - despite how hard these sets are perceived to be or much protein powder he consumes.
Struggling To Build Muscle As A Vegan?
Now it's a matter of putting this information into action. There is some hard work involved to produce serious results, but this is also supposed to be fun and enjoyable.
In summary, it is important that you must first establish your fitness goal – bulking or cutting, then balance your calorie intake, get your macronutrients accordingly, come up with a vegan bodybuilding diet plan, intelligently supplement yourself, and lastly, create and follow an effective training routine.
Vegan bodybuilding takes work.
However, our good friend Simon Black has created a vegan diet that will help jumpstart your muscle-building process.
His course, the Vegan Muscle Diet provides an 8-week customized diet plan depending on your fitness goal and food preferences or restrictions.
Here are some of the things you get in his plan:
- Detailed recipes with step-by-step (video and text instructions) to make meal preparation super simple (no prior cooking experience needed).
- A downloadable weekly shopping list to help you stick to your plant-based journey.
- Options on how they can customize every meal even more to suit your taste buds.
If you're someone interested on CBD, then you might like this article on the benefits of CBD oil in muscle building.