How to Build Muscle as a Vegetarian

How to Build Muscle as a Vegetarian - Featured Image (1)

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Many vegetarians struggle with their fitness goals, but lack of meat isn’t the reason why. As with anyone else, you’re simply not meeting your nutritional needs or neglecting the fundamentals of weightlifting. Once you nail those details down, you can gain muscle no matter your dietary restrictions. Here’s how to build lean muscle as a vegetarian.

Understand the Different Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian diets come in several forms, each with different requirements. Your type will partly determine how you acquire the carbohydrates, fats and protein needed to build muscle. These are the three most common types:

  • Vegan: This diet eliminates all animal products and relies only on plant-based foods.
  • Lactovegetarian: This diet excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs but still allows dairy products, including milk, yogurt and cheese.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarian: This diet excludes meat, poultry and fish but allows eggs and dairy products.

A vegan diet limits your options more than the other two, which means you have to be more creative and find more supplements.

Dietary Rules for Building Muscle

The most optimal way to build muscle is by following these guidelines:

  • Stay in a caloric surplus and eat more calories than you burn.
  • Consume at least .8 g of protein per pound of body weight. 
  • Eat at least 1.2 g of carbohydrates per pound of body weight.
  • Make natural fats about 20% of your daily calorie intake.

Think of these numbers as the benchmarks for your diet. You don’t have to strictly adhere to them every day, but the more consistently you follow them, the better. The three standard vegetarian diets — even veganism — have sufficient options for all three essential nutrient groups. You just have to know where to look.

Carbs and Fats

Vegetarian carb sources don’t change much from nonrestrictive diets. If anything, their options are better because of the lack of processed foods, like pastries, cereal and white bread. The ingredients are organic and eco-friendly, and often tastier if you buy from a farmers market.

Additionally, since carbs make up the bulk of your calorie intake, you should have little trouble staying in a caloric surplus. Your primary carb sources should include these foods:

  • Whole-grain bread
  • Fresh fruits
  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Legumes

Conveniently, nuts and legumes are also fantastic sources of natural fats. Along with avocados and olive oil that many vegetarians are fond of, you should be able to consume plenty of fat to reach the 20% threshold each day. 

Protein Is Paramount

Calories, carbs and fats all play essential roles, but they won’t help you build muscle by themselves. Protein is the catalyst for muscle growth. Lactovegetarians and ovo-lacto vegetarians can get sufficient protein from dairy products and eggs, but vegans don’t have those options and must work a little harder. Here are some high-protein foods that fit even the strictest vegan diet:

  • Tofu
  • Seitan
  • Hemp seeds
  • Lentils
  • Green peas
  • Quinoa
  • Soy milk

You will also get some additional protein from your other food sources, namely nuts, beans and vegetables such as spinach. If you find yourself falling short of the .8 g benchmark, you have a plethora of vegan-friendly protein supplements to choose from that will get you over the hump. Aim to consume 20-30 grams of protein each meal so your body gets a consistent intake throughout the day.

Stick to the Training Fundamentals

Once you address your nutritional needs while staying within the rules of your diet, everything else is largely the same. You have to lift weights regularly and work your muscles to failure during each workout.

You must progressively make your workouts more difficult in tiny increments and force your body to adapt to keep building muscle. The fitness community calls this technique progressive overload. You can accomplish this in several ways:

  • Reduce the rest time between sets
  • Increase reps
  • Boost weight
  • Use better form
  • Increase how often you train a specific muscle group

Lifting weights isn’t just about getting bigger and stronger. It’s also about executing each movement properly and activating more muscle fibers. You will only develop perfect technique and achieve a better mind-muscle connection through years of experience.

Many people are hesitant to commit to a long-term bulk because they worry about gaining too much body fat. However, excessive fat gain will only occur if you let your diet fall apart. As long as you loosely follow the previously discussed guidelines and stay active, your fat levels will accumulate much more slowly than your muscle gains. This process is called a lean bulk. Commit six-plus months to your first bulking phase and give your body ample time to pack on the muscle.

Trust the Process

You can’t rush muscle growth. It will take years to achieve your physique goals if you’re a beginner. Just make sure you follow the four guidelines of muscle-building nutrition — within your dietary restrictions, of course — and slowly engage in progressive overload at the gym. Stay consistent, trust the process and enjoy your gains.


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