Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet: The Complete Guide

Veganism has become increasingly popular over the last few decades, going from a fringe movement to mainstream. Health and environmental reasons and awareness of animal rights have made millions switch to a plant-based diet and a vegan lifestyle.

You might be wondering if a plant-based diet is any good for building muscle.

The answer is yes. While the majority of the scientific data suggests that a diet that includes animal protein is slightly more beneficial for lean mass gains, recent research shows that an exclusively plant-based diet can be just as effective.1 2

Also, plant-based diets are effective in reducing body fat.3

That being said, building muscle on a plant-based diet requires more attention to detail than the average omnivore diet. Just eating enough can be a challenge with a filling, high-fiber diet based solely on plant-based foods. Also, it can be tough to get all the nutrients you need if you exclude all animal products from your diet. 

Challenges are meant to be overcome, however. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about building muscle on a vegan diet.

Determining How Many Calories You Need

Your first course of action is determining how many calories you need to eat to build muscle.

Calories measure the amount of energy you get from the foods you eat, as well as how much energy your body burns at rest, during your daily activities, and when you exercise.

To build muscle effectively, you need to give your body enough calories to grow. You can build muscle in a calorie deficit, meaning you eat fewer calories than your body expends. However, it takes a lot more planning and effort, at least if you’re past the beginner stage of your lifting career. When you eat fewer calories than you burn, it doesn’t take long for your muscle protein synthesis to go down.4

For optimal results, you should aim for maintenance calories or above, eating at least as many calories as you expend. A slight caloric surplus is optimal. You don’t need or want any massive overfeeding, though. You’re looking to gain muscle, after all, not fat. A calorie surplus of 350 to 450 calories per day is enough.5

The exception is if you’re overweight. If you are, a slight calorie deficit might be a good idea. You’ll build muscle and lose fat using that approach.  It’s much easier to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously if you’re overweight.

You have two ways to estimate your calorie needs. Both are easy, but one requires more work on your part.

The first method is to use a calorie calculator. You simply enter your sex, height, weight, age, and activity level, and the calculator provides you with an estimate of how many calories you need to maintain your weight. Add those 350 to 450 calories I mentioned, and you’re good to go.

Calorie Calculator: Resting Metabolic Rate and Daily Need

While our calorie calculator uses the most accurate equation to estimate your energy needs, you’re still getting an estimate, not 100% accuracy. However, it’s a good starting point and gives you a rough idea of how many calories you need to eat to build muscle.

The second method is to record everything you eat in a food tracker for a week or so. Keep track of your body weight, and if it is stable, you’ve found how many calories you need for maintenance. Add some to give your body the initiative to add muscle, and go from there.

In Summary:

  • To build muscle effectively, you need to eat at least as many calories as you burn, unless you’re overweight or a beginner to the lifting game.
  • A calorie surplus of 350 to 450 calories per day is ideal.
  • Use a calorie calculator or go the manual route and track your food intake to determine the number of calories you need.

Protein on a Vegan Diet: A Challenge, But Not a Roadblock

When it comes to building muscle, there is no doubt that protein is the number one nutrient. You need to give your muscles enough protein daily, or you’ll find it much harder to put on lean muscle mass.

Research shows that eating 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is ideal for building muscle.6 7 On a weight-loss diet, up to a massive 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day might be beneficial.8

Eating less protein could compromise your ability to build muscle. It might be a bit more of a challenge to get the amount of protein you need with a purely plant-based diet, but it’s far from impossible.

The protein in your food comprises 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential. That means that your body can’t make it on its own, and you have to provide them through your diet. Also, the nine essential amino acids are the ones most important for building muscle.9 Your body can make the eleven non-essential amino acids when it needs them. 

All protein in your foods provides you with all 20 amino acids in different amounts and ratios. A protein with enough essential amino acids is called a whole or complete protein. If a protein provides too little of one or more essential amino acids, you’re looking at a so-called incomplete protein.

In general, most plant-based sources of protein are incomplete. Plant protein often contains limiting amounts of at least one amino acid, in addition to an overall lower essential amino acid content. Plant-based protein contains lower amounts of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) than animal-based protein. The BCAA leucine, in particular, is crucial for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. 

However, that doesn’t mean that a plant-based diet is useless for building muscle. Most people don’t base their diet on one or two protein sources, and your body is smart enough to combine two or more low-quality proteins into one high-quality package.

For the vegan athlete, several factors affect your protein needs.

The first is the lower amounts of essential amino acids.

As you can see, the essential amino acid content of plant-based protein sources is lower than animal-based ones.

Leucine is the amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis.10 Studies show that 20 grams of whey protein, providing roughly 3 grams of leucine, likely is enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis maximally.11 12

To get the same response from a plant-based protein, which contains less leucine, you’d have to eat more of it. For example, you’d have to eat 33 grams of potato protein,  37 grams of protein from brown rice, 38 grams of pea protein, 40 grams of soy protein, 45 grams of wheat protein, or a whopping 70 grams of protein from quinoa.13

And that’s just the protein. 

Plant-based protein sources are often not very protein-dense. They contain a lot of water, fiber, and carbs, along with protein. That means that you have to eat a lot of food to get enough protein to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis if you rely on one protein source alone.

Potato protein is a high-quality protein.14 However, you’d have to be very fond of potatoes to be able to get enough protein from potatoes alone.

The second factor is that you don’t absorb the protein from plant-based proteins as easily as animal-based. For example, while you absorb 85–95% of the protein in eggs and chicken meat, you only absorb 50–75% of the protein in peas and beans, common vegan protein sources.15 16 Likely, this is because of so-called anti-nutrients, like tannins and trypsin inhibitors found in plant-based foods, which interfere with nutrient uptake.

If that sounds discouraging, don’t worry. I am just presenting the facts, not trying to discourage you. The good news is that there are easy ways you can increase the anabolic properties of plant-based proteins and build muscle with a vegan lifestyle.

It used to be that you’d need to combine different plant-based protein sources to get the high-quality protein you can fully use to build muscle. If one protein source didn’t have enough of one amino acid, you’d combine it with another protein source with more than enough of that amino acid.

Current research does away with that hassle.

You don’t need to worry too much about such things, because your body is smart enough to do the combining for you. There is no need to combine different plant proteins in a particular meal, as long as you eat a varied diet.17 As long as your diet contains various legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, your body will take care of things, improving your overall protein quality enough to build muscle without issues.

As a vegan, you can simply eat a little more protein than an omnivore. Increasing your protein intake by 25% compared to standard recommendations does the trick.18 19 For someone looking to build muscle, that might mean aiming for the upper end of the 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram per body weight per day mentioned earlier. That’s enough for 99% of the population, including competitive bodybuilders and strength athletes.

As a vegan, you might find it more challenging to get enough protein from your diet without simultaneously getting more carbs and calories than you need. Compared to animal protein sources, a plant-based diet provides you with fewer “pure” protein sources. For example, if you want to get 200 grams of protein from plant-based foods alone, chances are you get a lot of carbs at the same time. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but it can be.

Some examples of foods that give you as much protein per serving as animal-based foods are pumpkin seeds, black beans, lentils, almonds, and soybeans and products based on them, like tofu. They aren’t loaded with massive amounts of carbs, so you can get enough protein from these foods without your calorie intake skyrocketing simultaneously.

If you’re still having issues getting enough protein or need a protein source without significant amounts of carbs or fat, a protein supplement is helpful. Unlike a few decades ago, there are plenty of vegan protein powders to choose from that both taste great and don’t mix into a semi-liquid sludge. The classic option is a soy protein powder, but you can also find supplements based on rice protein, hemp protein, pea protein, and others, or a combination of different plant-based proteins. If you add a shake or two a day, you should have no issues getting enough protein to build muscle.

Excellent staple foods and protein sources for the vegan bodybuilder or someone looking to build muscle include:

  • Beans: soybeans, kidney beans, black beans, and so on. Beans are excellent sources of protein.
  • Tofu: tofu is made from soy milk and is a high-quality source of protein.
  • Legumes and pulses: lentils, chickpeas, and green peas.
  • Tempeh is fermented soybeans formed into protein-packed blocks.
  • Spirulina: algae filled with protein and micronutrients.
  • Soy milk and yogurt
  • Quorn: Quorn is a meat substitute made from fungus and high in quality protein. Some Quorn products contain egg whites and are not vegan-friendly, so make sure to check the nutrient facts label.
  • Seitan: a meat substitute made from gluten. Not for the gluten intolerant, but very high in protein.

As you can see, soy products, in general, are excellent for building muscle due to their high-quality protein and versatility.

In Summary:

  • Eat 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram per body weight per day.
  • Choose a variety of protein sources to give your muscles all the amino acids they need to grow.
  • A protein supplement is a convenient way to increase your protein intake if you struggle to get enough.

Fat

Dietary fat is an essential nutrient with many functions in your body, including hormone production and keeping your cells healthy. Fat is also an important energy source for crucial processes in your body and fuels your daily activities and workouts.

There is no determined optimal fat intake for building muscle, but if you stay within the interval of 0.5–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, you’re golden. Some people prefer to eat even more fat, especially those on the ketogenic diet, which is fine. But for general muscle-building purposes, eating 0.5–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day suits most people and allows for a wide variety of dietary options. Some researchers recommend that 20-30% of your daily caloric intake comes from fat.20 You probably shouldn’t go below that, as a low fat intake might compromise your testosterone levels.

Regardless of the amount of fat you’re aiming for, a vegan diet has you covered.

The only issue is the three essential omega-3 fatty acids:

  • ALA – alpha-linolenic acid
  • EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid
  • DHA – docosahexaenoic acid

Read more: Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Effects, Benefits, and Safety

The majority of the health benefits associated with omega-3s are from DHA and EPA. Plant-based fat sources, like nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, only provide you with ALA. Your body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but it’s very inefficient. Only 5% of the ALA is converted to EPA, and close to zero is converted to DHA.21

In other words, more than 90% of the potential DHA and EPA from plant-based sources disappear in the conversion. With animal-based sources of omega-3, like fish, that is not an issue. You get the DHA and EPA fatty acids directly without conversion. 

That is a challenge for vegans looking to get enough omega-3 fatty acids.

What’s the solution? Algae.  Algal oil is rich in both DHA and EPA. It effectively improves your levels of both these omega-3s and is vegan-friendly to boot.22 You might not be aware of this, but omega-3s aren’t naturally produced in fish either. Fish get their omega-3s from the algae they consume. With an algae omega-3 supplement, you bypass the middleman, or middlefish in this case, and get your essential fatty acids straight from the source. An algae omega-3 supplement, combined with a regular plant-based diet, makes it easy to obtain all three omega-3s you need for optimal health and performance.

Great fat sources include the following:

  • Avocadoes
  • Seeds and nuts: flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, cashew nuts, and many more are concentrated and convenient sources of healthy fats, often loaded with bonus protein. They also make for healthy snacks.
  • Nut butters
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Healthy oils like olive oil, peanut oil, and hempseed oil
  • Tahini: a spread made of sesame seeds with a distinct flavor. Some love it; others hate it.

In Summary:

  • A fat intake of 0.5–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day gives your body what it needs and offers you the ability to tailor your diet to your preferences.
  • Keep an eye on the omega-3 fatty acids, as they can be hard to get enough of with a plant-based diet.

Carbohydrates

You don’t have to worry about getting enough carbs with a plant-based diet. While your muscles prefer carbohydrates during high-intensity work like lifting weights, they aren’t necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis as long as you get enough protein.23 24

Whether you prefer a low-carb or high-carb diet, or something in between, you can tailor a plant-based diet to suit your needs. You’ll have no issues finding carbohydrate sources rich in nutrients, not just empty calories. For example, whole grains and legumes like beans and lentils provide high-quality carbs and other nutrients while also giving you enough energy to fuel your high-intensity workouts. Also, they provide you with plenty of quality protein as a bonus.

How Many Carbs Do You Need?

The answer to that question depends on several factors. What do you do outside of training? For example, if you’re a construction worker, you probably want to fill your plate with more carbohydrate-rich foods than if you sit at a desk. Do you do any cardio? Standard guidelines for carbohydrate intake for athletes recommend 5 to 7 g/kg/day.25 However, that might be too much if you only lift weights and have a sedentary lifestyle outside the gym.

The calories you have left to spend after you’ve determined your protein and fat intake should be from carbs.

  • Both protein and carbs provide four calories per gram. Fat, on the other hand, provide nine.
  • If you eat 200 grams of protein and 100 grams of fat per day, you will get 1,700 calories.
  • If your target calorie intake is 2,500 calories, you’d have 800 calories left to spend on carbohydrates.
  • And, because every gram of carbs provides four calories, your daily meal plan would call for 200 grams of carbs.

If you need a lot of calories, the high fiber content of staple vegan foods makes them so filling that it’s hard to eat enough. Large amounts of fiber can also cause stomach issues and bloating, as can lectins, proteins found in legumes. Thoroughly soaking and boiling your beans reduces the number of lectins, but doesn’t eliminate them, so be careful with relying too heavily on legumes for your carbohydrate needs.

If your energy requirements are high, you might even have to resort to more refined carbs that let you eat enough of them without upsetting your stomach. Regular pasta, white rice, and white bread, for example, would be considered less healthy options by some. Still, if you need a lot of calories without overdoing your fiber intake, they can be beneficial. Less nutritious doesn’t mean unhealthy, and if you’re eating a lot of food, you’ll likely get all the nutrients you need anyway.

You won’t have a hard time finding good carb sources on a plant-based diet. Some examples include:

  • Beans and legumes: not only do they contain plenty of protein, but they also provide you with high-quality, low-glycemic carbohydrates.
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes and yams
  • Bread
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Pasta
  • Grains and cereals

As you can see, vegan carb sources don’t differ from an average omnivorous diet.

In Summary:

  • Once you’ve determined how much protein and fat you need, the rest of your calorie intake should be carbohydrates.
  • If you need many calories, consider not using only high-fiber carb sources, or your stomach might protest.

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients that you only need in small amounts but are tremendously important for various functions in your body. Some are particularly important to keep track of as a vegan. Either because plant-based foods contain less than animal-based foods or because of anti-nutrients that prevent you from absorbing them completely.

Some of these micronutrients are not directly involved in building muscle. However, being deficient is anything but good and will affect your health and muscle-building capabilities in the long run. And it’s always better to prevent than to treat.

You don’t need a lot of these micronutrients, but that does not make them any less essential for health and performance and, indirectly, for building muscle.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is the only vitamin you can’t get from a non-fortified plant-based diet, no matter how varied or nutritious. You only find significant amounts of B12 in animal-based foods. Therefore, you either need to eat plenty of foods fortified with B12 or use a supplement.26 Even vegans who supplement their diet with B12 can have levels as low as vegans who do not, so make sure you’re getting enough. Taking 50–100 μg or daily or 2000 μg weekly should ensure you meet your daily requirement.

It can take years before symptoms of vitamin B12-deficiency appears, which means it’s possible to think you’re getting enough while you’re not.

You need vitamin B12 for a healthy nervous system, cell metabolism, and making red blood cells. Deficiency can lead to anemia and neurological damage. Long-term, the damage might become irreversible.

The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day for adult men and women.27 However, some researchers suggest vegan athletes supplement their diet with up to 6 micrograms of B12 per day.28

While B12 is primarily found in animal-based foods, there are vegan-friendly B12 supplements made through fermentation.

Iodine

Iodine is an essential trace element for both physical and mental development. Your thyroid requires iodine to function correctly. Both too little and too much dietary iodine can disturb thyroid hormone production.

Research shows that vegans often lack iodine. According to some studies, 80% of vegans are iodine deficient.29 30 31

The recommended daily intake of iodine is 150 micrograms for adult men and women and 220–290 micrograms for pregnant and lactating women.32 

The most abundant sources of iodine include dairy products, eggs, fish, and seafood. Those are sources vegans can’t access. To make things worse, soy, broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables contain so-called glucosinolates, which inhibit your uptake of iodine.

That makes it challenging for vegans to get enough iodine from regular foods. At least without kelp as part of the diet. Seaweeds like kelp are a tremendous source of iodine. In fact, kelp might contain too much iodine, even for someone on a low-iodine, plant-based diet. The iodine content of kelp varies a lot, and in some instances, even a single portion might exceed the tolerable upper intake for iodine.33 In addition, some types can be contaminated with toxins. So be careful with kelp, as you can’t be sure how much iodine you’re getting. Too much of a good thing can be harmful.

Iodised salt is regular salt mixed with small amounts of salts of iodine. Some people avoid it, thinking that salt without anything added is the best. In this case, though, it’s better to use salt with added iodine, especially if you’re a vegan.

If you’re not getting 150 micrograms of iodine per day, adding a supplement to compensate might be a good idea.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your body produces in the skin when exposed to the sun. You need vitamin D for immune function and blood sugar control. It is also crucial for bone growth.

If you’re out and about in the sun enough, you don’t need to get any vitamin D from foods. The problem is that many of us are not. And during the winter, the sun isn’t intense enough in many parts of the world. Vitamin D is one of the few micronutrients where a supplement might be prudent for the general population.

The average diet does not provide an abundance of vitamin D, which is even more apparent when looking at a vegan diet. Not many foods contain vitamin D, and the best ones are non-plant-based. A large study of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans found that vegans had the lowest vitamin D levels.34 That can be a problem if you don’t get enough sun exposure either. Many countries recommend that everyone take a vitamin D supplement during the winter, which might be even more important as a vegan.

When supplementing with vitamin D as a vegan, you should know that some supplements are not vegan-friendly. There are two types of vitamin D: D2 and D3. D2 is always vegan-friendly, but D3 can be derived from animal sources. Vitamin D3 is more effective at raising your vitamin D levels.35 Vegan-friendly vitamin D3 supplements derived from lichen are available, but if you use a D2 supplement which is not as effective, it might be a good idea to up the dose a bit to compensate.

Athletes need adequate levels of vitamin D to perform. Vitamin D deficiency is common among athletes. Runners, weightlifters, football players, basketball professionals, swimmers, and more all have a high vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency rate.36 A 2019 meta-analysis found that supplementing with vitamin D improves lower body strength.37

The recommended daily intake of vitamin D varies from country to country. For example, in the US, the recommended dietary allowance of vitamin D is 15 micrograms (600 IU) per day.38 Some research indicates that athletes, especially indoor athletes, might need much more. To maintain optimal vitamin D levels, some suggest an intake of 5,000 IU per day for eight weeks to reach optimal levels, followed by a maintenance dose of 1,000–2,000 IU/day.39

Supplementing 2,000–4,000 IU/day is not a bad idea to ensure your vitamin D levels are on point. Those amounts are not associated with any adverse health effects. It can be beneficial during winter and if you’re not out and about in the sun a lot.

Calcium

A vegan or vegetarian diet is associated with a lower intake of calcium.40 Some studies find that people who eat an exclusively plant-based diet only get half as much calcium as non-vegans. Vegans also have a higher risk of bone fractures, possibly related to a low calcium intake.41

Calcium is an essential mineral necessary for bone health, muscle function, proper blood clotting, and your nervous system. All these things are crucial not only for general health but also for athletic performance.

Adults between the ages of 19 to 50 need 1,000 mg of calcium per day. After the age of 50, females should make sure to get an extra 200 mg per day.42 During a high-intensity workout, you can lose significant amounts of calcium by sweating.43 Also, if you’re on a weight-loss diet, you want to ensure you get enough calcium, maybe even a little more than usual.44

As a vegan, you don’t have access to high-calcium sources like dairy products. Fortunately, there are plenty of plant-based calcium sources as well. Fortified milk and yogurt alternatives, tofu (especially calcium-enriched tofu), soybeans, soy nuts, dried figs, almonds, and chia seeds are just a few examples. Leafy greens like spinach and kale are naturally rich sources of calcium. However, they also contain oxalate, which prevents your body from absorbing much of it. These greens are still healthy and valuable sources of nutrients, but you can’t go by the calcium content you find in nutrient labeling.

Many vegan-friendly foods are fortified with extra calcium to help you reach your recommended daily intake. If you still find it tough to get enough, you can always resort to a calcium supplement.

Iron

You need iron to transport oxygen to your brain and muscles. There are two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. You absorb and utilize the iron from heme iron better. Unfortunately, heme iron is only found in animal products.

Non-vegetarian males need 8 mg of iron per day, while non-vegetarian females require 18 mg daily. However, as a vegan, you need 1.8 times more than that. That’s because you absorb the non-heme iron in plant-based foods less efficiently, and the heme iron in meat and fish also boosts overall iron absorption.45

Vegans and vegetarians, especially women, are more likely to have low or depleted iron stores and a higher prevalence of anemia.46 47 48

If you’re eating a plant-based diet, you want to ensure that you absorb as much of the iron in your diet as possible.

There are several ways you can improve iron absorption. 

  • For example, eat or drink something with a lot of vitamin C, like an orange or a grapefruit, whole or juiced, along with your meals. That’ll boost your iron uptake significantly.49 Keep in mind that you have to get vitamin C with the meal for the desired effect. 
  • Another way to ensure the best possible iron uptake is to avoid drinking coffee or tea or eating chocolate with your meals. They contain tannins that prevent you from properly absorbing the iron in the meal.50
  • When possible, legumes and grains should be soaked, fermented, or germinated before eating. Doing so makes these foods superior sources of nutrients, including iron.51

Be careful with iron supplements. It’s not too hard to overdose on iron using supplements, and too much iron can be toxic. Too much iron over a long period is associated with heart disease and cancer. Non-heme iron from plant-based sources is potentially worse than heme iron. Any excess iron passes through your intestines and might increase the risk of bowel cancer.52 Since you absorb less non-heme iron, more of it will reach your colon.

If you lose a lot of iron, maybe through heavy menstrual bleeding, an iron supplement might be prudent, but don’t take one without proper medical advice.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral. Nearly 100 enzymes depend on zinc for their activities, and almost everything involving metabolism and hormone production needs zinc to function satisfactorily. Zinc is also important for the immune system and as an antioxidant. If you don’t get enough zinc, your protein turnover and the growth and repair of your cells won’t operate properly. That means you want to ensure you get adequate amounts of zinc if you’re looking to build muscle. The recommended dietary allowances for non-vegetarian adult females and males are 9 mg and 11 mg per day, respectively.53

Like iron, you find zinc in abundant amounts in vegetable sources, but you don’t absorb it as effectively as when obtained from animal sources.54 However, it seems that the body adapts and uses more of the zinc it does absorb as well as minimize zinc losses.55

Plant-based sources of zinc include whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. These foods also contain the antinutrient phytic acid, which prevents you from absorbing certain nutrients, including zinc, properly. That’s why the Health and Medicine Division of the United States National Academies suggests you might need up to 50% more zinc than someone who also eats animal-based foods.56

Soaking and fermenting foods like nuts, seeds, and beans before eating them removes a lot of the phytic acid, markedly improving zinc uptake.57 Also, eating a lot of protein improves zinc absorption. When trying to build muscle, you should be eating high-protein meals anyway, so you probably don’t even have to think about that.

If you know you’re struggling to get enough zinc, a supplement can help. If you decide to use a zinc supplement, you should know that supplemental calcium, iron, magnesium, and copper inhibit calcium intake. Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to take your calcium supplement at another time during the day. That also means that you’re can’t rely entirely on a multivitamin/mineral to cover your zinc needs. It only applies to supplements, not the same nutrients from regular food, so don’t worry about mixing and matching supplements with your regular meals in any particular way.

In Summary:

  • A plant-based diet makes it more challenging to get enough of all the nutrients your body needs.
  • If you struggle to reach your micronutrient goals, consider supplementing vitamins B12 and D, calcium iodine, iron, and zinc.

Dietary Supplements for Building Muscle

While supplements aren’t necessary to build muscle and strength, they can be helpful. A purely plant-based lifestyle is somewhat restrictive, and getting enough of certain nutrients can be challenging. While whole foods are always number one, you might want to take advantage of a few supplements.

Creatine

Creatine is the number one supplement for muscle-building, backed by hundreds of scientific studies. It helps you perform better, become stronger, and gain more muscle. 

Creatine is primarily found in animal foods, but the supplement is synthesized from vegan-friendly sources. The capsules can be made from gelatin, so you might want to use the powdered form. It’s much less expensive, anyway. 

Some research suggests that vegans benefit more from supplementing with creatine than omnivores since a plant-based diet provides very little creatine.

Read more: Creatine: Effects, Benefits and Safety

Caffeine

If you need a pre-exercise boost, you can’t go wrong with caffeine. Caffeine improves performance in most sports, including weightlifting and strength training in general. Caffeine pills are either synthetic or made from coffee beans, which means they are vegan-friendly. Of course, good old coffee works fine as well.

Read more: Caffeine: Effects, Benefits, and Safety

A Multivitamin/Mineral Supplement

Getting enough of all vitamins and minerals on a plant-based diet can be a challenge. A good multivitamin/mineral supplement with the micronutrients typically lacking in a vegan diet, like vitamins B12 and D, iron, and zinc, could be beneficial.

Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine improves exercise performance by increasing carnosine levels in your muscles. Like creatine, beta-alanine is found mainly in animal foods like fish and meat. That means you might benefit more from supplementing with beta-alanine if you only eat plant-based foods.

Read more: Beta-Alanine: Effects, Benefits, and Safety

Protein Supplements

Getting all the protein you need for muscle gain from a vegan diet is entirely possible, but some might not find it easy or practical.

That’s where protein supplements can be beneficial. They provide you with a convenient, often inexpensive, and concentrated source of protein. 

Unflavored protein, in general, does not taste great, and vegetable proteins are more difficult to mask using flavoring agents and sweeteners compared to, say, dairy proteins. Back in the day, vegan protein powders tasted rather unpleasant, but these days, they taste okay. 

Soy protein is the most common plant-based protein supplement. It’s also, by far, the one backed by the most scientific research. Soy protein supplements provide high-quality protein, great for gaining muscle mass and strength.58

Read more: Soy – Healthy Alternative to Meat or Toxic Hormonal Disruptor?

However, not everyone can or want to use soy protein. A few decades ago, you’d have a hard time finding any other plant-based protein supplements on the shelves, but these days, you have more options. 

Pea protein, hemp protein, rice protein, pumpkin seed protein, chia seed protein, peanut protein, and more, including blends of different vegan proteins, are readily available. They aren’t backed by as much research, and they might not be quite as effective for building muscle as, for example, soy protein or whey protein. However, some studies show that they are excellent options, so you probably don’t have to worry too much.59 60 61

Just keep track of your overall total protein intake, and you should be good to go, regardless of which protein supplement you prefer for your protein shake.

Training

Are you looking for a vegan training program?

Bad news and good news!

The bad news is that there are no vegan training programs.

The good news is that you don’t need one! A plant-based diet does not limit your training in any way. The following strategies apply to anyone looking to build muscle, regardless of diet:62

  • Always try to use a slightly heavier weight or do a rep more than last time. This practice is called progressive overload, one of the fundamental principles in strength training.
  • You can use heavy or light weights as you prefer. Research shows that anything from 3 to 30 reps per set works equally well for building muscle. From a practical standpoint, keeping most sets between 6–15 reps is probably a good idea, though. Always going heavy puts wear and tear on your joints, and high-rep training to failure is pretty painful.
  • Perform at least ten sets per muscle group and week. That’s the minimum amount of work if you want optimal muscle growth.
  • Training frequency doesn’t matter much, as long as you get your total weekly training volume in. Four sets of leg training three times per week leads to similar results as twelve sets once per week.
  • Get at least two minutes of rest between sets. That way, you’ll be able to perform your best set after set.
  • Once you’re past the beginner stage, don’t rely solely on compound or isolation exercises. Mix things up with a variety of exercises to hit your muscles from different angles.

With a healthy, high-protein vegan diet, you can continue with your favorite training program, and it’ll be your efforts in the gym that determine your results, not what you put on your plate. If you’re looking for a training program designed to pack on muscle, you’ll find a bunch in our workout tracker.

Beginner Barbell Program, three days/week:  Our time-efficient training program for beginners who want to build muscle and strength. If you’re new to the lifting game and want to hit the ground running, you can’t go wrong with this barbell-based program. You work out three times per week, performing three exercises per workout.

Beginner Machine Program, two days/week: as an alternative to our barbell program for beginners, this program introduces you to strength training using machines instead.

StrengthLog’s Full Body Hypertrophy, three days/week: A full-body training program for intermediate levels and above. You work your entire body three times per week, with each training session being unique, targeting all muscle groups with a wide range of repetitions to stimulate hypertrophy.

StrengthLog’s Upper/Lower Program, four days/week: If you want to train four days per week, you can’t go wrong with our upper/lower program. It’s a minimalistic program based on compound movements, but you can add isolation work according to your preferences.

Bodybuilding Ballet, 4–6 days/week: Train like a bodybuilder with our most popular and advanced training program for building muscle. For intermediate and advanced lifters.

Bodybuilding Blitz, five days/week: If you only have an hour a day to train but want to get the most out of that hour, Bodybuilding Blitz is for you. Short and sweet, but designed for gains.

Bodybuilding 313 – a Training Program for Bodybuilders, 5–6x/week: This is a classic three-day training split, used by many top bodybuilders throughout the decades. You train three days, rest one, train three, and so on, using both free weights and machines.

These programs and many more are available in our app StrengthLog, which is 100 % free to download. However, we also have a premium version with additional benefits. Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

Of course, you can use any other program you like to build muscle on a vegan diet as well.

Designing your own program? Check out Top 20 Bodybuilding Exercises for Every Muscle Group for inspiration and guidiance!

Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet: Summary and Recommendations

No animal products? No problem! 

Building muscle requires effort and dedication, both in the gym and in the kitchen. Getting enough of all the nutrients you need with a vegan diet can be challenging, but it’s far from impossible. Regardless of your fitness goals, you can reach them with a vegan lifestyle.

Nutrition plays a crucial role in building muscle. By following the tips in this article, you’ll make sure you provide your body and muscles with the protein, fat, carbohydrates, and micronutrients you need for gaining lean body mass. 

  • Get enough calories to grow. Calorie balance or a slight surplus will help you gain muscle.
  • Eat 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Getting enough protein is crucial for muscle growth.
  • Getting enough fat from a plant-based diet can be challenging, so make sure your intake of healthy fats is on point. Between 0.5 to 1.5 grams of fat per kilogram of body weight and day ensures you get enough for optimal energy and the production of anabolic hormones.
  • Plant-based diets often lack vitamins B12 and D, iodine, iron, zinc, and calcium. These are all essential nutrients for health and growth, so keep an eye on them and make sure you get enough.
  • Helpful supplements for building muscle include creatine, beta-alanine, and, of course, protein powder supplements.
  • Last but not least, engage in regular strength training. Your vegan lifestyle does not limit you in any way, but high-intensity resistance training is the name of the game for gaining muscle.

Armed with the information in this article, you’ll be able to make the same gains in strength and muscle as someone who relies on animal foods. Hit the weights, stick to a balanced, high-protein vegan diet, and you’ll be packing on the muscle.

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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas has over 30 years of training experience and is a highly appreciated writer and educator on exercise, fitness, and nutrition. Few people stay more up to date and have a better grasp of the field of exercise science than Andreas.