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How to build muscle on a plant-based or vegan diet

Can you build muscle without eating meat? Learn how one guy packed on 13 pounds in just 2 months by following two simple nutrition habits tweaked for the non-animal eater.

As coaches, one of our favorite things to do is sift through all the new recruits to get a feel for their goals and see how we can help them kick ass in the program.

And every year we have at least a few guys who want to gain muscle without eating meat.

You may know them as “vegans” or “vegetarians.” But we call them “plant-based eaters.”

Why? Two reasons.

Reason Number 1: The words “vegetarian” and “vegan” don’t mean much. We’ve seen vegetarians eating boxed cereals, foods with processed chemicals, TV dinners and other crap. Their diets were defined by the absence of meat, not by what was included.

Reason Number 2: Our friend and nutrition guru Ryan Andrews once quipped, “I prefer to be called a plant-based eater because vegetarians are usually assholes.”


So, how do you gain muscle by eating a plant-based diet?  As it happens, one of our recent clients, Jasey, is a plant-based eater who gained 25 pounds in S2B and even won $1,000 of our money in the transformation contest.

Here’s how he did it. And how you can do it, too.

(A note to Meat Eaters: We have a challenge for you here in a bit. So keep reading.)

  Jasey at 145 when he started S2B. And 170 when he graduated from the program.

How To Gain Muscle, PLant Style.

“You’re gonna die if you stop eating meat.”

That’s what Jasey heard from his friends when he made the switch to plant-based eating. And although he was skinny as hell (145 pounds at 6 feet tall) he certainly wasn’t going to die. But he did need more muscle. Lots of it.

“I decided I wasn’t gonna turn into one of those frail guys who barfs when they eat,” he says.

So Jasey worked with his coach to slightly tweak the first couple S2B nutrition habits. The results surprised the hell out of Jasey. “I probably put on 10 pounds by doing two things,” he says.

(Actually, it was 13 pounds. We checked.)

Step 1 – Drink 3 Super Shakes Every Day.

Total gain from this one step – 9 pounds.

Like most guys who need to gain muscle, Jasey wasn’t eating nearly enough food. His coach, Chuck, fixed that immediately by having him drink 3 plant-powered Super Shakes every day.

With only a blender and a few choice ingredients, Jasey instantly and easily increased his calories, sending his body into muscle-building mode.

For a full month, Jasey didn’t touch any other part of his diet or modify any other meals. He simply focused on making and drinking his Super Shakes, without fail, every day.

It became his first muscle-building habit. Every day he logged into the S2B Coaching Program and gave himself a green check mark.

A snapshot of Jasey’s screen in the S2B Coaching Program.

Step 2 – Eat a Muscle Breakfast every day.

Total gain from this one step: 4 pounds.

After a month of consistently nailing his first nutrition habit, Jasey was ready for more. This time, Coach Chuck instructed Jasey to increase the quantity and quality of his breakfast.

S2B and Coach Chuck supplied the food recommendations and support, and Jasey showed off his culinary skills by coming up with own version of a tasty, muscle-building tofu scramble and pairing it with a big bowl of oatmeal and berries.

For the next month, Jasey ate this breakfast and only missed one day, charting 93% compliance.

Another shot of Jasey’s habit compliance screen in the S2B Coaching Program.

Jasey’s Muscle Breakfast: Tofu scramble and 1 cup cooked oats with berries.

2 Steps To More Muscle? You Better Believe It.

Jasey ended up gaining 13 pounds in the first two months of the S2B Coaching Program  by working on one habit at a time. And he did it without eating meat.

Month 1 – Drink Three Super Shakes Every Day
Month 2 – Eat a Muscle Breakfast Every Day

It’s the beginning of the exact same formula we use to help hundreds of guys build muscle every year, with a few simple tweaks to make it plant-friendly.

“But what kind of workout did he do?”

That’s the first thing most guys want to know.

But after coaching hundreds of guys, we know that working out is NOT the most important step to building muscle. The crucial component is how much food you eat. Which is why Coach Chuck started Jasey off with two simple but important nutrition habits.

Still, working out is an essential part to building a good body. That’s why Jasey trained his ass off a few times per week on the year-long workout program that’s part of the S2B Coaching Program. 

But what workout should you do?

The simple answer: As long as your training program focuses on mostly compound exercises and uses progressive overload, you’ll be good to go.

(If you have no idea what “progressive overload” means — or if you simply want a free six-week workout program — we recommend checking out Day 3 of our free 5-day muscle-building course.)

5 More Muscle-Building Tips for Plant-Eaters

While we suggest you start small by adding in one new nutritional habit per month, we wanted to share some more plant-based muscle-building tips. So we asked our friend Ryan Andrews for his top secrets.

1. Swap your water with a simple protein shake.

Add a scoop of protein powder to your water and drink it with every meal. Hey, look at that! You just added an extra 20 grams of protein without thinking about it.

2. Use nuts & seeds instead of oils.

Nuts and seeds have protein. Oils don’t. Take advantage of this. Instead of lentils with coconut oil, try lentils with pumpkin seeds (1/4 cup pumpkin seeds = 15 grams protein).  Instead of salad with olive oil, try salad with almonds (1/4 cup almonds = 10 grams protein).  Instead of oatmeal with margarine, try oatmeal with cashew butter (1/4 cup cashew butter = 12 grams protein).

3. Supplement when necessary.

If you’re unable to get something from food, don’t be afraid to supplement.  Supplements that can help plant-based eaters include: zinc, selenium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, carnosine, creatine, carnitine, taurine, choline and DHA/EPA from algae.  (There are plant-based versions of all these supplements. Just check with the company.)

4. Scale back (a little!) on veggies.

Vegetables are filling, especially bulky raw veggies like peppers, carrots, and broccoli.  This isn’t very useful when you’re trying to eat more food to gain weight. So feel free to scale back on vegetables and replace them with foods that have more calories like grains, beans, nuts and seeds.

(We still recommend one or two fists of vegetables with every meal, though.)

5. Always have cooked beans ready to eat.

Beans = protein.  But it’s hard to eat them if they’re sitting on the shelf at the store.  Cook up a big batch of beans a couple times per week and have them ready to eat at all times. Frozen and canned beans are totally fine, too.

“What About Soy? Isn’t That Bad For You?”

Our friend Ed Bauer, a vegan athlete with plenty of muscle, gets asked this all the time.

Here’s what he says:

“Sure, going overboard on soy can be harmful. But having a limited amount in your diet is fine. It will not turn you into a woman and it does not influence your sex drive. I try to limit my daily soy intake to around 50 grams, mostly from whole food sources like tempeh and tofu. But a little more on occasion has never been a problem for me.”

We agree.


Read more articles from Nate at the Nate Green Experience.

Nate Green Nate Green is an author and fitness expert.

9 Responses to How to build muscle on a plant-based or vegan diet

  1. Sam Rosen says:

    Dudes, this is awesome — completely inspiring as a plant-based eater. I adopted some of the PN principles a few months ago and gained 12 pounds in a little over a month. I’ve hit a plateau around that level, though, and will use the super-shake principle to break through it. Thanks for the generous, and unconventional, advice.

  2. Jeremy Partl says:

    So, can a vegan go supplement free? It would be hard to see if the supershake habit needed to be included. Or would there be other alternatives?

    • Nate Green says:

      The Super Shake habit doesn’t NEED to be included. It’s simply an easy-to-implement option. If you didn’t want to go that route, I’d suggest starting with the Muscle Breakfast habit.

      Also, there are some common nutrient decencies that come up with people using plant-based diets. That’s because a lot of “vegetarians” are more focused on what to eliminate (meat) instead of what to actually eat.

      Check out this article by Ryan Andrews for a quick lesson on which vitamins/supplements may be good to include.


      PS – Ryan also mentioned a few above: “Supplements that can help plant-based eaters include: zinc, selenium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, carnosine, creatine, carnitine, taurine, choline and DHA/EPA from algae.”

  3. Conor says:

    As a meat eater, this was a pretty interesting post to see what it would be like from the other side of the coin. Great info!

  4. Brian Flint says:

    Anything is possible depending how much one is committed and informed.Problem as I se it many fall into the trap of relying on supplementation and at the end of the day all this reliance on the likes of shakes is debatable for optimum health.

    • Nate Green says:

      Hey Brian – Thanks for leaving a comment.

      If you take a look at the shake, the bulk of it is made up of whole foods. In a muscle-gaining program — especially for a plant-based eater — a high quality protein supplement is very helpful.

      Still, you have to remember this is a muscle-building recommendation. If you’re a plant-based eater (or a meat eater) who isn’t trying to pack in a ton of calories to grow, then it makes sense to stick with more whole food options throughout the day and use shakes when you’re crunched for time.


      PS – One other thing I’d like to point out, because it wasn’t covered in the blog post. Jasey was taking in 2-3 Super Shakes a day. But he was also eating three whole food meals, too, especially as he progressed past the first couple of months.

  5. Matt says:

    Thanks Nate. It’s great to see the increasing support for a plant based diet. I gave up meat, put on 3kg of muscle and have never felt better. It can be done. Keep up the amazing work mate.

  6. Shane says:

    Hehe but T-Rex’s have such itty bitty upper bodies!

    Cool challenge. I feel like it’d help me understand and appreciate the vegan lifestyle a lot more. Couldn’t hurt when it comes to dating and befriending vegans, either :)

  7. daniel says:

    Yes. Super. Thank you for this plant based meal list and for the list about habbits not to do.
    greetings Daniel