Even though more and more people are opting to include more plant-based meals in their diet or converting to be 100% plant-based, there still seems to be a general concern about the impact of removing meat from your plate has on muscle growth. We caught up with Simon Hill from Plant Proof to get his tips on how to build muscle on a plant-based diet. (And, this guy should know… he provides nutrition advice to Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky! Cue excuse to include a picture of Chris Hemsworth.)
If you think building muscle is not possible on a plant-based diet – think again. As I’ll soon explain, the notion that a plant-based diet does not belong in the fitness world is a big misconception, one that many professional athletes such as Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic are quickly dispelling. Here, I will share with you my top tips for you to build a strong physique on a health-promoting plant-based diet.
Before we jump in, I want to get one thing straight: we can theoretically build muscleon any diet, and I am not here to tell you otherwise.
After all, muscle grows when these two conditions are met: 1) we engage in resistance training that prompts our body to adapt to handling more load and 2) when we eat enough calories and protein to support muscle repair and growth. However, the point is that while any diet can make us look fit, the benefit of a plant-based diet is that above making us look fit, it can promote longevity and prevent long-term chronic disease, all within the respect of our environment. I don’t know about you, but it seems like a no brainer to me!
The first essential step to building muscle is setting up a training plan that you know you can stick to. Choose CrossFit, functional group training, callisthenics, HIIT or weight training – anything you please. Ultimately, a fitness regime will only work if it’s sustainable and enjoyable, so find what keeps you motivated and works for you! Having said that, in order to increase muscle growth, the key is to progressively overload your muscles, essentially providing them with a reason to grow. So no matter what your workout consists of, you want to be increasing your reps or amount of weight you are able to lift within the same time frame.
There are various techniques to improve strength and hypertrophy and it would be no small feat to include them all in one article. My recommendation would be to find an experienced personal trainer and set up a plan with them. Just remember that being sore the next day does not necessarily mean that you will grow your muscles: the true and reliable indicator of progress is being able to handle more weight and do more reps at the same tempo (time under tension).
In terms of frequency of training, you don’t need to be spending hours and hours in the gym – 45 minutes 3 to 5 times per week with a good program and solid understanding of how to perform the exercises is more than enough to get results!
Just as important as training right, eating the right amount of food can make or break our fitness aspirations. In fact, eating enough calories is an essential step in building muscle because if the body’s energy needs are not met, the body can fuel itself with lean body tissue, reducing muscle mass and endurance. At the same time, however, if we consume more calories than we are burning, we will likely be gaining fat at the same time as muscle.
Ultimately, the amount of calories you should eat comes down to what your goals are: for example, if you’re looking to “tone up”, you’ll want to engage in resistance training while you are in a calorie deficit (15% below daily calorie burn) or equilibrium. The combination of getting stronger whilst losing body fat is what creates “tone”. If, instead, you’re looking to do a “lean bulk”, you’ll want to engage in strength training while in a slight calorie surplus (15% above daily calorie burn). To calculate your daily calorie burn and target intake use an online “TDEE Calculator” or visit a qualified Dietician/Nutritionist to create a completely personalised food plan to complement your fitness pursuits.
Next, you may be wondering what foods are best for muscle growth. In fact, building muscle is more than just getting the right amount of calories: it’s also important to eat a balanced diet that takes into account all macronutrients. In general, for a moderately active person who is looking to build muscle, we want our macronutrient targets to be 55% carbs, 25% protein, and 20% fat. That’s right, for optimal muscle growth we need to focus on carbs as well as protein.
In fact, while carbs are often demonised in the fitness world, a carb-rich diet is essential to improve stamina and build strength. Carbohydrates are stored in our muscles and are our bodies main source of fuel. Therefore, limiting carbs essentially means depleting our glycogen and blood glucose stores, effectively denying our body its main source of fuel. This can result in muscular fatigue and reduced performance, which is definitely not something you want when you’re trying to build muscle. So don’t believe the media or keto-promoting folks: carbs are essential to make our bodies thrive. The key, however, is to choose the right type of carbs: unrefined and wholefood options such as oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and fruit are going to help you thrive just like the longest living populations in the world – pizza, pasta and white bread will obviously not.
As for protein, many often worry that a plant-based diet can lack protein and the necessary nutrients to sustain muscle growth. These are fears I shared too before delving into the research, learning from elite athletes and ultimately seeing first-hand results with my own training. Muscle growth relies on a number of factors, and while it is true that protein is essential to building muscle, it does not have to be in excess, and it definitely doesn’t need to come from animal sources.
For someone who is regularly engaging in resistance training and is trying to build muscle, the Recommended Daily Intake is 1.31-1.8g per kg if the individual is in calorie maintenance or surplus, and 1.8-2.2g per kg if in a calorie deficit (when in a calorie deficit, the extra protein helps maintain muscle mass). This can easily be met by eating plant-based protein rich foods which carry the added bonus of being low in saturated fat and free from cholesterol common in animal protein sources. A well-rounded intake of plant proteins will help support our muscle recovery and growth, but it’s also important to make sure we are eating foods rich in essential amino acids such as the lysine and leucine. My favourites are tempeh, black beans and quinoa.
When it comes to fats the focus should be on consuming whole foods rich in polyunsaturated fats (Omega’s). My favourites are hemp seeds, ground flax, chia seeds & walnuts – not only rich in Omega 3’s but also packed with additional protein & fibre.
Overall, a varied diet rich in whole plant based foods that’s made up of legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables will provide your body with everything it needs to not only build muscle and recover but have you feeling truly healthy.
This podcast has inspired, impacted and reached millions of people. During this series he speaks to like-minded people about common fears among men and women transitioning from animal foods.
Simon shares his personal experience with living plant-based and his wealth of knowledge on staying healthy as well as delicious recipes!