Plant-based strength training can be extremely difficult.  I’ve tried it before and it did NOT go well.  However, last year, after Thanksgiving dinner, my girlfriend and I decided we would officially be primarily plant-based…again.  Even after a pretty rough first experience with it, I said yes because I’m extremely stubborn and hate sucking at stuff.  So we began the process of getting rid of our meat, dairy, eggs, and anything else that had ties to animals*.

*I say primarily because we were about 95% free of meat.  There were times where friends made dishes with meat and we did not refuse.  Sometimes we ate eggs, sometimes we ordered pizza, and sometimes we just wanted to have some meat.  We also did not give up honey, though we seldom use it.

I have learned a good deal from my experience as a plant-based athlete and personal trainer.  Here are my thoughts, I hope they help you.

Why I Do It

First question I usually get after someone learns that I am plant-based, after the initial ridicule, is about protein.  The second is usually why do you do it?

It’s simple really:  The environment.  It felt like one thing I could really do to have an impact on climate change.

Facts

  • Water.  It takes way more water and fossil fuels to produce meat protein than plant protein.  The idea of water productivity, the production per unit of input, is extremely telling of the efficiency of plants vs. meat, especially in terms of nutrition.  This is called nutrition productivity and it measures how effective the water is at producing specific nutrients (protein, fats, energy, calcium).  Meat has one of the lowest nutrition productivity of most agricultural products (Renault, D. and Wallander, W. W.,1999, page 285).
  • Land.  Livestock takes up 70% of agricultural land and 30% of the earth’s land surface (Steinfeld et al., 2006). This means that as population grows and meat consumption stays the same per person, or grows per person, that more and more land will need to be dedicated to livestock i.e. rainforests.
  • Gases.  Livestock is responsible for 12.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Steinfeld et al., 2013).  A.k.a. climate change.

So with all these facts, I decided to do some research and decide if plant-based strength training could be done at all.

Protein

First of all, you absolutely CAN get enough protein on a plant-based diet.  While the typical recommendation for protein intake is 0.8g/kg, intake for any athlete, but also plant-based strength training athletes should be in the 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg of bodyweight range (Egan, B., 2016).  This means for every kg of your body weight (kg=lbs/2.2), you should eat between 1.2 and 2.0 grams of protein.  The problem on a plant-based diet is that plant protein varies in structure from what you want it to become, a.k.a. muscle.  When you eat muscle, it has a better profile for becoming muscle, which is why nothing will ever top meat as a protein source for muscle synthesis.

Hartman et al found that subjects who supplemented workouts with a soy protein saw similar increases in strength and muscle size as compared to subjects who supplemented with an animal protein.  These results did show greater increases in the animal protein group than the soy group, but both saw increases (Hartman et al., 2007).

Two major problems in getting enough protein on a plant-based diet, is caloric density and protein quality.

  1.  Plants have lower caloric density.  This means that per weight unit, plant-based foods carry less protein and calories.  You will get full because of the volume (amount) of food, but not the caloric density (how many calories you ate).  This means that as a plant-based athlete, you will have to eat more, and more frequently than your omnivorous counterpart.

2.  Of the essential amino acids (proteins) the body needs, the main one needed for muscle synthesis is leucine, of which plants usually contain small amounts.  This means you might actually need to ingest MORE protein on a plant-based diet than a traditional diet.  Another alternative is supplementing leucine.

My Results

With all that said, I think there were two factors that have made my year of plant-based strength training extremely successful.

  1. Choice of program.  I chose to follow Jim Wendlers 5-3-1 program.  I decided this would be most suitable for someone like me who is trying plant-based strength training.  It consisted of weight training focused on the efficiency of my nervous system and not muscle growth.  I performed one major compound movement each session with the focus on increasing my 1 rep max (1RM), some additional auxiliary movements, and core training.  Essentially a powerlifters program.
  2. Painstaking attention to the macronutrient profile of my food.  For several days I would plan all of my meals, tinker, and adjust whatever I needed to to make sure that I would hit my protein goal for the day.

My training saw the following increases on a plant-based diet:

  • Deadlift 1RM by 22%.
  • Back Squat 1RM by 18%.
  • Learned and executed 5 unbroken strict muscle-ups.
  • I saw a 2% drop in body fat and a 5 pound increase in lean muscle mass as a hard gainer (someone who has a hard time putting on mass).
Kendrick Farris Vegan Weightlifter

Advice

Some important things to remember when getting started:
  • Meat is more densely concentrated with calories than plants.  So if you just replace the part of your plate you used to have meat on with your grain/veggie dish, the calories will be significantly decreased.  This was my undoing the first time around.
  • Important nutritional considerations:
    • B12-  Everyone should be taking this.
    • Probiotic – can be a supplement or can be consumed via vegan sources (Kimchi, kombucha, tempeh and a few more).  This is only because you lose yogurt/dairy.
    • Magnesium and calcium – These two will be the first to suffer if you aren’t eating enough calories.  Major sources are leafy greens, nuts, seeds, oats, tofu, tahini, and beans.
    • Protein powder – currently I use Orgain, but I am going to try one recommended on a podcast called MRM Veggie Elite.
    • Nutritional Yeast – good for B vitamins if you can use it regularly.  If not, you want to supplement.
    • Eat all the colors – Green should be everyday at least once, then all the fruits and different type of veggies.  Keep things whole food so you don’t become the plant based athlete who only eats oreos.
  • Groceries I Never Thought I’d Buy
    • Hemp seeds!!
    • Chia seeds
    • Nutritional Yeast
    • Every single vegetable

Wrap it up:

This post is not meant to promote a plant-based diet.  It is meant to show you that if you have good reasons for wanting to, even with an extremely active lifestyle, being plant-based is not only possible, but successful.  I have had similar if not more success with other diets, but find that after a year of a plant-based diet, I can confidently say it aligns best with my beliefs while allowing me to maintain the lifestyle I want to live.