How to Build Muscle & Be Your Plant-Based Personal Best

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How to Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

If there is one common behavior I see over and over again in the health and fitness industries, it is the fear people have of trying something new. That’s precisely how I felt when I enrolled in the Center for Nutrition Studies Certificate Program in Plant-Based Nutrition through eCornell in the spring of 2012. I took the course because I genuinely wanted to learn more about nutrition, but I did not expect to change my viewpoints very much. As I learned more about nutrition during the course, I couldn’t help but start to challenge my own ideas about building muscle on a (whole-food) plant-based diet. You see, I had been a plant-based athlete, including a 2-time bodybuilding champion, since 1995. I had clearly ‘been there, done that,’ and figured I knew more about building muscle than nutritional scientists who were spending time researching ideas while I was spending time in the gym proving results.

Throughout my first 15 years as a plant-based athlete, my diet consisted of a lot of processed vegan foods and supplements, with some whole foods like fruit, of course. I was a firm believer in consuming large amounts of protein, up to 300 grams a day, even though I only weighed 185 pounds. A lot of that protein came in the form of protein drinks, anywhere from two to six consumed a day. I wasn’t focused on nutrient density, but high calories at all costs, up to 5,000 calories consumed per day. Though I had built a strong physique eating plant foods for a decade and a half, I was intrigued by Dr. Campbell’s ideas of consuming low amounts of protein, avoiding supplements, and eating nutrient-dense whole plant foods. That’s when I decided to give it a try.

When I cut out protein powders and all other sports supplements from my diet I, like many people, worried about my ability to build or even maintain muscle, and wasn’t exactly feeling optimistic, but proceeded anyway. The result? I was stronger than ever before, and not only maintained muscle mass, but I have built significant muscle over the past few years following a whole-food, plant-based, supplement-free diet, and I am now bigger and stronger than I have ever been! These days, my current weight is 197 pounds and growing. My caloric consumption is significantly lower than when I ate copious amounts of processed foods and supplemented heavily, and my protein intake is less than half of what it once was. Yet, I am building muscle at a record pace, in my mid-30s, five years after I retired from competitive bodybuilding. So what’s going on here?

I attribute my recent muscle gains to the following 4 principles

  1. I ensure that I am consistent in my efforts, both nutritionally and with my exercise routine. Consistency leads to adaptation, improvement, and success over time. That is because our behaviors become habits and habits dictate our outcomes. I don’t make excuses or justify bad habits. I change my habits to elicit the results I am seeking.
  2. I am consuming nutrient-dense foods rather than calorie-dense foods, so I get a better nutritional return on investment, with superior levels of macro and micronutrients. Along with this approach, I get higher levels of antioxidants, fiber, nitric oxide, water, and other components that lead to better muscle recovery after exercise, and improved overall health
  3. My focus is to keep stress low, even though I am on the road 200 days a year as a touring author and speaker. When I can keep stress low, I get better sleep, and that aids in muscle recovery, improved athletic performance, and enhanced muscle growth, following weight training.
  4. My confidence that a whole-food, plant-based diet, high in whole-food complex carbohydrates with relatively low amounts of proteins and fats will lead to my best results, keeps me optimistic about what I can achieve.

At the end of the day, I believe that creating new behaviors and habits will build new results, and that we have the power to write our own health and fitness stories, based on the information we learn and the actions we apply. Since my general focus on positive health and fitness has increased, my consistency has improved, and the better results I get, the more inspired and motivated I am to keep going. Success breeds success, and success leaves clues. When I eat healthier foods I feel better and have more energy. When I feel better and have more energy, I get to the gym more often, and I work harder when I’m there. When I workout frequently with intent and focus, it leads to an increased appetite and improved muscle growth stimulation. When my appetite increases, I consume overall a greater volume of food, which assists in muscle recovery and growth. When I recover quickly and experience muscle growth, I am inspired to train more, train harder, eat better, and watch the results speak for themselves. Something I learned from Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and many others over the years, is that there is no better way to effectively communicate a viewpoint or idea than to positively lead by example, to demonstrate the results.

My mission is to lead by positive example and show all of those who are afraid of the unknown, and hesitant to try to build muscle on a relatively ‘low protein,’ whole-food, plant-based diet, that not only can you do it, you can do better than you’ve ever done before. This month I embark on my 21st year as a plant-based athlete and I am bigger and stronger than ever before. This is because on a beautiful afternoon in the spring of 2012, in Austin, Texas, I decided to put down the processed foods and supplements and get back to nature by eating real food. The results speak for themselves. I have inspired thousands of people who have read my latest book, Shred It!, endorsed by Dr. Campbell and dozens of other world renowned experts, to have the confidence to pursue meaningful health and fitness goals, fueled by whole plant foods.

If there is one message I can leave you with, one that I hope will stick and resonate with you, it is that everyone has the ability to create their own health and fitness outcomes. We all have 1,440 minutes each day to work toward becoming our own personal best. I challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone, to get back to the basics of nutrition by eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, and to lead by example as you discover your best self.

Robert is the best-selling author of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness - The Complete Guide to Building Your Body on a Plant-Based Diet, and his latest book, Shred It!, available on www.veganbodybuilding.com. As A Two-Time Natural Bodybuilding Champion, Robert Is Considered One Of VegNews Magazine's Most Influential Vegan Athletes and is a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate graduate.