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Building muscle

Building muscle on a plant-based diet is simple.  The formula is easy to remember, since to build muscle, all you need is adequate calorie excess, combined with strength or resistance training.  Growth will happen over time if you train and rest adequately.

Calorie excess + Muscle building exercises = Muscle growth

Calorie Excess

To build muscle mass, one must be in what some call a "bulking" phase.  This requires a state of calorie excess, but here, the goal is to build quality muscle, not store fat.  To build quality muscle, your meals must contain quality calories.  Although we can manufacture most amino acids by ourselves, 9 of them are "essential" and must be obtained through diet, meaning that the calorie excess must contain those amino acids.  I also suggest getting most of your calories from carbohydrates, then splitting the remaining calories evenly between protein and fat, as described below.

For strength athletes, recommended intakes of protein are in the range of 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogram.  For the average person, protein intake will be adequate as long as they're getting enough calories from a variety of plant foods.  Most plant-based athletes, including myself, don't even count calories or grams of protein, trusting that we are getting enough simply by eating the rainbow, while consciously including protein rich foods, like beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, seitan and quinoa, just to name a few. 


Remember this important tip: putting on muscle is much more related to training in calorie excess, with adequate protein, than it is related to protein excess.  Since protein is an inefficient source of fuel, compared to carbs, they should be used to build muscle, not for fuel before exercising.  


Start by calculating your daily calorie requirements by using an online Harris-Benedict calculator.  A calorie excess of 200-500 calories, accompanied by an adequate strength or resistance training program, will lead to muscle growth over time.  Whether you're following a gram per kilogram approach, or a macro split, make sure that you're getting adequate calories.  You should consider logging in your food intake here and there.  Smart phone apps, like My Fitness Pal, or Cronometer, will assist you with this process.  Once you have enough days logged, you can decide how often you need to log.  At the beginning of my journey, I was logging 1-2 days per week, then after 1-2 years, I was logging 1-2 days per month.  Now I don't log much anymore, having confirmed time and time again that once you're eating protein rich foods and adequate calories, you can trust that you're crushing your macro goals.


Trust the process.  Building muscle takes time, adequate strength and resistance training accompanied with adequate protein intake and excess calories.  Focus mostly on these tips:

  • start by calculating your daily calorie needs using an online Harris-Benedict calculator

  • make sure to log your current food intake on a smart app like My Fitness Pal or Cronometer to see where you stand

  • aim for a calorie surplus of 200-500 calories per day

  • aim for 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram per day

  • aim for a macro split of 50-20-20 (see the Macros and Micros section in For Athletes)

  • choose protein rich foods like: 

    • legumes like beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, etc.

    • nuts, seeds and nut butters

    • grains, like oats, quinoa, teff, etc.

    • plant-based protein powders also helps me get that extra boost when needed

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