The Skinny Vegan’s Guide to Gaining Muscle

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You hear a lot about how to lose weight. Not so many of us are trying to gain it.

This article would be so much cooler if it had a headline like, “How I Gained 20 Pounds of Muscle in 30 Days (On a Vegan Diet).” And if it included dazzling before and after photos, it would probably do a lot to show people it’s possible.

That’s what I had in mind when, earlier this summer, I took a look at myself in the mirror, realized I had gotten too thin, and decided it was time to hit the gym.

Actually, even for a small guy like me (I was all the way down to 132 lbs when I decided it was time to start putting weight back on) a goal like 20 pounds in 30 days wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.

Twice in my life, once in college and once shortly after, I’ve gone from 140 to 160 pounds very quickly, drastically increasing my strength and staying fairly lean at the same time. The only difference now, with a vegan diet, would be the absence of chicken breasts and milk — two foods I absolutely relied on during any rapid muscle gain diets I did the past.

I knew that adding weight wouldn’t be any help to me as a runner, but that was okay. I needed a break and a change of pace, and I didn’t like being so skinny. And if in the process I could show a bunch of people that it is possible to put on a ton of muscle really quickly on a vegan diet, then all the better.

How it really turned out

I didn’t gain 20 pounds in 30 days.

I did, however, gain 17 pounds in about 6 weeks, topping out at 149. Not exactly a strike-fear-in-the-hearts-of-enemies number, I know, but it’s a lot more than 132, and a total weight increase of almost 13%. And although the point wasn’t to gain strength but to gain mass, I got a lot stronger too, increasing my chest press from 130 to 195 pounds for a 7-rep set.

But my results could have been a lot better if not for two interruptions to my regimen:

  1. I traveled a lot and was not able to maintain the volume of eating I could do at home. This killed my momentum on three separate weekends. I suppose I could have been more disciplined with my eating, but a large portion of my calories came from a “fat shake” that I just couldn’t make on the road (more on the fat shake later).
  2. I got injured when I made a careless mistake in the gym. Six weeks after I had started, I tore a disc in my back when I inadvertently loaded more weight on one side of the barbell than the other for a deadlift and tried to lift the unbalanced load. When I learned this would keep me out for three weeks, I decided I was done with muscle gain.

Still, 17 pounds is nothing to shake a carrot at, especially for a skinny guy who has always found it harder to gain weight than to lose it. So here’s what I did, the vegan-adapted version of what I found success with the other two times I’ve succeeded at quickly putting on a bunch of muscle.

If you can’t gain weight, you’re probably making this mistake

Shortly after I got interested in fitness in college, I wanted desperately to get bigger. I drank all these Myoplex shakes, ate six meals a day, and lifted like crazy. And yet I just couldn’t get past 140 pounds.

After every trip to the gym, I’d eagerly weigh in, feeling all puffed up from my lift and sure I’d tip the scales. And every time, I’d see 140. F’ing 140.

So I did some research, and came across Anthony Ellis, a guy who went from 135 to 180, and finally discovered what was wrong:

Trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time is completely counterproductive.

Prior to learning this, I thought the road to muscle gain was more lean protein along with more lifting, and of course some cardio to keep the fat off. Wrong.

I made three big changes as a result, and experienced drastic, immediate muscle gain.

  1. I stopped running and all other forms of cardio.
  2. I started lifting fewer times each week, training each muscle group only once per week.
  3. I started eating more fat. Way more fat. Like, getting up in the middle of the night to make a peanut butter sandwich.

And I gained weight. I went from 140 to 160 pretty quickly. I don’t remember exactly how long it took, but I figure it was about six weeks.

My approach this time

Really, putting on weight is about only two things. Lifting, which is important. And eating, which is more important. I’ll explain what I did for each.

The lifting

For the lifting, I decided to try out Tim Ferriss’ methods from The 4-Hour Body, specifically the chapter “Occam’s Protocol I: A Minimalist Approach to Mass.”

Here, Tim proposes a lifting regimen that requires less than half an hour a week of gym time per week: just two sets of exercise each session (one each of two different lifts), performed at extremely slow cadence (5 seconds up, 5 seconds down), until utter and painful failure is reached.

And not just “I can’t get this next rep, so I’ll quit” failure, but really putting every bit of effort you have into pushing that last rep up, and then lowering it as slowly as possible. (Tim quotes a funny line from Arthur Jones: “If you’ve never vomited from doing a set of barbell curls, then you’ve never experienced outright hard work.”)

There are way more details you should know about Tim’s plan before you try it, especially about how frequently to work out and how to increase the weights. And since I don’t want to get sued for plagiarism, you’ll have to check out The 4-Hour Body to learn about that stuff.

I must admit, this was fun. An unexpected benefit was what knowing that my gym time was precious helped me get amped up for it –knowing, for example, that this one set of 7 or 8 reps is my only chance all week to do chest press certainly made it easy, almost fun, to keep going until I reached that point of true failure.

And it worked. I followed Tim’s plan to the letter for about three weeks, gaining 3-4 pounds per week, until I decided I wanted to alter the plan to include some lifts I really liked, like squats and deadlifts (in hindsight, not my best idea). But I followed the same cadence, rep scheme, and frequency of workouts, and kept getting results.

As it turns out, Tim’s approach isn’t all that different from what I had done to put on weight before. Infrequent workouts, heavy weight, and sets to all-out failure. So I knew going in it would work. The diet, however, I wasn’t so sure about.

The eating

As I wrote before: The major difference between this time and previous ones was my diet. I wasn’t vegan then, or even vegetarian. When I wanted to bulk up in the past, I just ate tons of cheese, milk, steak, and chicken breasts, and it was pretty easy.

Not that I doubted it was possible for people to get big on a vegan diet. Look at Robert Cheeke or Derek Tresize. But for me, a guy whose equilibrium size is more sapling than mature oak, I wasn’t so sure.

In looking at my diet, it was pretty clear that it was lower in both protein and fat than what had worked for me in the past. So I focused on adding those two nutrients to my current diet, without reducing carbohydrates, hence increasing total calories.

I also tried to eat larger portion sizes in general, and found that after just a few days this became comfortable. I did eat fewer salads and raw vegetables, since they take up a lot of room without providing many calories. (That’s just one reason why I would never stick with  diet like the one described here long-term, nor recommend it for all-around health.)

Looking back at the journal I kept of my meals, I see that the protein and fat increases came primarily from protein powder, almond butter, flax and coconut oil.

Here’s what a typical day looked like (I don’t have calorie counts, because I just hate counting calories, even with mass-gaining):

  • Smoothie, with an extra scoop of protein powder (11 additional grams protein) and an extra 2 tablespoons of almond butter
  • 12 ounces coffee
  • Orange
  • 1 cup brown rice with 1.5 cups yellow lentils and zucchini
  • Whole wheat bagel with almond butter
  • Banana
  • Vega Sport Performance Optimizer before workout
  • Apple juice immediately after workout
  • Vegan Fat Shake (see recipe below)
  • Handful of snacks, like Mary’s Gone Crackers sticks
  • 2 servings of millet with kidney beans, carrots, and collard greens
  • Glass of red wine
  • Clif Mojo Bar, peanut butter pretzel flavor

Not a crazy amount of food, really. But way more than I usually eat, and definitely higher in fat, thanks to the “fat shake.”

The vegan fat shake

The fat shake is something else I got from 4-Hour Body. Tim’s version is about as far from vegan as a shake could be, with raw milk and raw eggs as key ingredients. My vegan version was obviously lacking in the raw animal protein category, but I found it did a nice job of providing a lot of protein and fat among its roughly 1000 calories. I drank it about two hours after each workout, and also the first day after each workout.

Here’s the recipe:

  • 12 ounces raw, homemade almond milk
  • 2-3 tablespoons raw, homemade almond butter
  • 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon flax seed oil
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 2 scoops soy-free veggie protein powder (about 22 grams of protein)
  • 1 teaspoon maca powder
  • 1 banana
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon wheat grass powder, just to be a granola-crunching hippie badass

Blend all ingredients together in a blender.

Supplements

I also added a few supplements, in addition to the multivitamin I usually take. Each day, I added to one of my smoothies:

  • 5 grams creatine
  • 5 grams glutamine
  • 1000 IU tablet of Vitamin D3

And right before I got hurt, I realized that I was missing one thing from my earlier mass-gaining days, which was a proper post-workout carbohydrate drink. I had been using apple juice, but in hindsight I wish I would have used something that was designed to deliver quick, post-workout carbs.

Conclusion

It worked. Maybe with not staggering results, although if I didn’t have any experience with gaining muscle from the past, then perhaps I would have found a 17-pound gain to be staggering. I did start to gain some fat towards the end: my overall body fat increased by 1-2% throughout the process (that’s as accurate as I can get with my cheap body fat scale), so I probably would have stopped within a few more weeks anyway had I not gotten injured.

Just to restate, I wouldn’t recommend a diet like this long-term. I’m sure consuming that many calories (and that much fat) isn’t healthy. If you’re looking to gain weight on a vegan diet, then sure, you can look at my experience as one example, but I highly recommend checking out Robert Cheeke’s book, Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness, for diet advice from someone more experienced than I am, and Tim Ferris’ book 4-Hour Body for the details of the lifting regimen (which I have nothing but good things to say about, with the results I got in so little gym time).

And now, three weeks after my injury, I’m happy to say that the torn disc in my back is healed. I probably won’t do deadlifts for a little while, and I’m done with weight gain for the foreseeable future. But I’ve got lots more planned, and I’m excited about what’s next.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass simultaneously and it isn’t really doing anything for me. Sure, I’m having some significant strength gains but I don’t see much of a physical change. It’s good to know you can biuld muscle on a vegan diet but really, I am more interested in cutting fat on a vegan/vegetarian diet. I’ve already decided after my next race (2 weeks!), it’ll be my last for the season so I’d really like to spend some time focusing on reducing body fat. Any tips in that department?

    • I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years (transitioning 100% to vegan over winter), professional timbersport competitor for 9 years, weight lifter for 18 months and become a more dedicated runner the last year or so.

      Speaking from experience (I’m by no means a professional at this stuff), the only way I’ve been able to reduce my body fat is through cardio and clean eating. I have to change my cardio up from steady state (on treadmill, fast walk on a high inclince) to high intensity interval training and regular paced runs (on treadmill or outside). My body will plateau if I don’t change it up. I don’t know many who can gain muscle mass and lose fat at the same time. For most it seems virtually impossible. However, I have been able to maintain my strength/muscle mass by sticking to my lifting regimen/schedule and cut body fat through cardio (at most 6x week) and clean diet (5 meals per day w/ little to no cheats; good fuel is going to make you feel better overall anyway, right? ;-) ). There is a lot of literature out there and everybody is different. It was trial and error to find a plan that works for me. I have found that cardio is the most effective means for me to lose body fat (some days double cardio – AM & PM).

      Researching fat burning methods and holding yourself accountable to your goals will help you prevail! Good luck, Leah.

    • I could write an entire post on this. Some quick tips:

      -Continue to strength train! A lot of times people think they need to lose body fat when really they just don’t have muscle tone.
      -Make sure you’re not eating fat-free or low fat products. Especially since vegans don’t get fats from animal products, healthy fats are key to feeling full and keeping the body healthy.
      -Calorie count! Even healthy foods have calories and it is possible to have too much.
      -Watch the carbs. Carbs are not the enemy. But they can’t become the corner stone of a vegan diet. They are very easy to prepare and taste good so it’s easy to rely on them too much.
      -Vegan junk food is still junk food. Don’t let vegan food get a “health halo”. Just because no animal were harmed in the making of your cookies does not mean the calories were taken out as well.
      -The dreaded protein talk. Protein is important because it makes you feel full. Also, just from experience, I found when I wasn’t eating enough protein, I just snacked and snacked and snacked trying to fill some nutritional void.
      -Measure things out. Two tablespoons of peanut butter has 200 calories and is probably a lot less than you think. If you want to have more peanut butter that’s not a huge deal-as long as you realize you’re eating 400 calories, not 200.

      These are just a few tips but the truth is there is one way to lose weight-
      Burn more calories than you consume!

  2. Nice work. The “Vegan Fat Shake” sounds like it would put me in a coma.

    • Yes. The fat shake usually incapacitated me for the rest of the night after I drank it. My stomach would feel gross and I would want to eat anything else for several hours.

  3. I’m interested in buying the book, but want to know first — is it something that is recommended for women? I just don’t want to buy it to find out it’s totally guy-centric.

    Also, when you build muscle, aren’t you automatically burning more fat?

    • Amy, what book? 4HB or Robert Cheeke’s? I don’t think either is exclusive to men.

      For your other question, I’m not the best person to answer it, but here’s what I can say. When you actually lift weights or do any activity designed to tear down muscle, I’m sure you’re burning some amount of fat, yes. Just like with running, you’ll burn some glycogen and some fat, and I imagine some muscle too at some point. But the issue is that for most people, in order to gain lots of muscle you need to eat a lot of calories (I don’t think the body is good at using fat to build new muscle). And some of those calories are going to end up being stored as fat, no matter how careful you are. At least, that’s how it is in my case.

  4. Thanks Matt! This is exactly what I needed! I’ve had trouble keeping weight on and had to temporarily hang up my running shoes. This will be very helpful in getting back on track!

  5. i wish i had the problem of needing to gain weight! when i went vegan (for health and running reasons) i thought i would shed a few pounds….nope. i second Leah’s question! =)

  6. I’m 140 lb sopping wet, I eat more daily calories than any 3 people in my family, and yet I still can’t gain weight. Fast for 12 hours, though, and I lose lots. So I enjoyed the post.

    Here’s my weight gainer shake. I hope you like it. I think it’s something like 1,200 calories depending on how you do it.
    - 4 bananas
    - 1 avocado
    - 1T coconut oil
    - 1 T Cod liver oil (not vegan, but super-healthy; sub flax oil here for vegans)
    - 1/4 cup OJ (don’t measure, it’s more fun that way)
    - 1 tsp cinnamon
    - 1/2 peach or 1 full plum
    - 2 T wheatgrass juice powder
    - 500 mg vitamin C (mineral ascorbate form)

    Best,
    Matt

    • We’re in the same boat, Matt. Thanks for the shake recipe! Great to have another one, when Weight Gainer 4000 from the store is never an option. :) I think Ferriss writes about cod liver oil in the strength section of 4HB. He loves it too. I’m curious, why no protein powder?

  7. Thank you!! My 16 year old son is going throught his phase where he doesn’t like his body. because most if not all of his friends are bulkier, taller than he is. He’s about 5.5 or 5.6 and 108lbs, he has always eaten ealthy and always listened to his body cry for “full” (I never made him finish his plate, opposite of what my mom did with me).
    Your post gives me a starting point in trying to help him gaining confiddence and possibly weight and muscle!!

    • Sure thing, Monica. Just do me a favor and talk to a doctor or conditioning coach — I don’t know anything about what’s recommended and what isn’t for 16 year olds, as far as weight lifting, supplements, and eating to gain a lot of weight goes.

  8. Firstly, I’m not a vegetarian or a runner, for that matter, but I like your blog for it’s humour and anger free style, and it’s taught me a lot. Good post again. I’m fascinated as to whether you’ve kept the muscle/weight on, having gone back to your old regime. Oh, and I think you’ll find that there are people who would take all sorts of chemicals if they thought they could gain 17lbs in muscle/weight in 6 weeks. Good effort. Keep the experiments coming.

    • Thanks Phil! Happy to have you reading, even as a nonvegetarian nonrunner. To answer your question, no, I haven’t kept a lot of the weight on. I’m at about 142 now, 7 pounds less than my peak 4 weeks ago when I got injured. So I’ve lost about a pound and a half a week. However, in the past when I’ve stopped these things without an injury, I’ve been able to maintain a lot of the weight with some minimal lifting. The fact that I did nothing for 3 weeks was sort of an exceptional case.

  9. Very cool post! and great to hear your results! I am currently Injured and off running so this might be a great idea to try. However I am a workout at home kind of guy so I might have to tweak the plan. Will be fun to see though!

    • Ian, I’ve wondered before if it’s possible to get big gains in strength or mass from at-home workouts. Have you had success with it? I’ve used it for toning (Core Performance, for example), but to do anything with weights heavy enough seems like it would be require a lot of expensive stuff. Or maybe lots of bodyweight exercises?

  10. I’ve been looking into Dr. Grahams diet more and more since you posted the 900 bananas in 30 days post and the 80/10/10 diet is pretty amazing! He posts a video about how we actually don’t best utilize protein for building muscle, but carbs. Something to think about!

    • I’ve heard this before too. And to some extent, my experience was an example, because I wasn’t getting nearly as much protein as non-vegan and even some vegan bodybuilders get, as a percentage of calories. I should have kept more detailed notes so I could figure out the actual percentage protein I was getting. I think it was much more fat and carbohydrate though.

  11. I herniated 2 lower back discs when I was 15 (from sneezing nonetheless!) and have had on/off again back issues since when I’m not careful. A couple of months ago, I threw mine out doing deadlifts too. I’ve come the conclusion deadlifts are just not a great exercise when you have back problems :)
    Just curious- How did the vegan fat shake actually taste?

    • Gina, I’m not ready to give up on deadlifts yet, because it’s such a terrific exercise if you can do it without getting hurt. But the doctor warned against it, so I’ve got to think about it more before I do it again. (I still contend that the unbalanced weight caused the injury.)

      The vegan fat shake actually tasted good. The vanilla extract and banana together were not bad, especially with chocolate protein powder. It tasted mildly like a real milkshake. Only not nearly as good.

  12. Can we see a before and after picture? :)

    • Michael, here’s the thing. I have a good “before” picture that I took the day I started. Very skinny, embarrassingly so. Then I got a picture when I gained about 5 pounds, then another at 10 or 12 pounds. Then when I got hurt, I didn’t think to take one, because I figured I wasn’t going to write a post about it since it got aborted early.

      When I decided that I would write the post, I looked at the photos and they’re okay, but I don’t know the dates and I don’t think a 10-pound gain photo really looks like much change. And now I’m back to 142 or so after the 3 weeks of inactivity.

      So basically, I’ll think about it. I still feel like I’m way too skinny to be posting shirtless pictures of myself on the internet. :)

      • Thanks for your reply Matt :)

        Now I see and that’s totally cool :)
        But objectively a “20 Pounds of Muscle in 30 Days” is a lot and I don’t believe that’s possible. Nevertheless you’ve a very important point in OUR extreme running “abilities” and the fact it requires this constant and continuing pressure of the body.

        I still love your posts even dough I’m not totally vegetarian :P

      • Kate Autry says:

        Im sure you look amazing even skinny. I think you should be proud of yourself. My husband is allergic to everything nuts, dairy, eggs, soy, and whey. He also has had a G.R.E.D and has dumping syndrome so gaining weight is very difficult without it being unhealthy. This site is very helpful and has all the resource for healthier living. Thanks for all the information and tips. Look forward to seeing your pictures. You have inspired us to try. Me to lose weight healthily and my husband to gain. Please see yourself as perfect just the way you are. Sppkinny is hot if your healthy.

  13. Congratulations on the mass gain. None for me thanks, I would rather be skinny and fast, and that “fat shake” has me queasy. But I’m confused about your post workout carbs. Apple juice is virtually all carbohydrate, and in liquid form with no fiber just about the quickest thing out there. Did you just not drink enough?

    • Vegpedlr, you’re one of the no-added-oil guys, right? No wonder you hate the fat shake idea!

      As for post workout carbs — I think it’s two things. First, like you said, I probably wasn’t getting enough. I think when I did mass gaining in the past, I’ve had more like 70g of carbs in the post-workout supplement. I was only getting about 30g from the apple juice, so I should have had more. Second, I believe maltodextrin is the main sugar in serious post-workout carb drinks. Not that it’s the healthiest; I just think that’s what I’ve used before when I was successful.

      • I believe fructose (from apple juice) replenishes liver glycogen stores, but not muscle glycogen stores; simple sugars such as glucose or sugar polymers such as maltodextrin that are rapidly broken down to glucose replace muscle glycogen.

  14. Thanks for the info! I am a skinny vegan too. Is it absolutely necessary to give up the cardio? I don’t want to stop running for 6 weeks, but I have been stuck at the same weight. Maybe I just need to eat more.

    • Jason, I suppose you could do it and still do cardio, but it’s not the most effective way. Nor would the attempt to gain weight probably do any good for your running. They’re very much opposite goals.

      The problem with cardio is obviously the calorie burn, so it’s that many more calories you’d have to eat. I can’t imagine eating another 500-1000 calories a day than I was during this, like I would have to if I wanted to replace what was burned through running. Maybe the fact that I burned those calories would make me a little hungier, but I’m not sure how that would go.

  15. Valley Veggie says:

    Cheeke’s book is great! Gotta get into that getting big mindset and own it if that’s your goal ;)

  16. Great post! It’s hard to find anything on gaining weight and your ideas were very helpful. I have to say, I feel full just reading about that shake, though! I’d have to modify it somewhat.

  17. I read 4 hour body and soaked in every word, loved it! I learned a lot about efficiency through it which I still carry on even though I don’t follow his exact prescribed plan. Although I still do the abs- love that routine. What an awesome post, it was interesting to see everything you consumed in a day, wow!

    • Katie, yeah I really like the whole mindset of 4HB. There are some things about it that I don’t love, but I think that’s how it’s going to be when a book challenges so many of these rules we’ve all been taught to believe forever.

  18. I strongly do not suggest using protien powder. Eat beans or avocados but when the powder is consumed it goes straight to your muscles and fills space. On your rest day if you do not consume enough and do any recovery workout all that protien will go to waste. Over years of using protien I gained some weight but lost it all when i stopped using it. Do not become dependent on processed nutrition, stick to food.

  19. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing your journey. I’ve been trying to gain weight and body fat for years but realized I was doing it all wrong when I wasn’t incorporating the right kind of fats. It’s definitely a slow process if you do it right (just like loosing weight is) but it’s worth it to do it right.

  20. Hey MAtt! Love the blog…very inspirational as a new runner/old veg :) Since you’ve gone vegan just wanted to point out that vitamin D3 comes from an animal source, lanolin from sheep’s wool, sometimes cod liver oil. Vitamin D2 is the “vegan safe” form, comes from fungus, however its bioavailability is poop…we are able to synthesize D3 much better b/c its the same as the D3 we produce from the sun. D2 does not react the same in our bodies. So its a catch 22…

  21. I went through the weight loss after I went vegan (coincidentally the same day as your post announcing you had made the switch) and spent this season training for 4 trail 1/2M+ races. It’s become a bit frustrating to keep hearing I’ve lost weight. I feel great and the lean muscle mass is still there. I’d still like to ensure I don’t loose any more so I would love to hear your everyday/race season approach to calorie intake versus what you burn in any given run. Perhaps a follow up post??

    Thanks for continuing to subject yourself to experiments for our collective benefit!

    • Jason, I heard Robert Cheeke say the other day that it’s really important just to keep your calories up. When you go vegan and cut out some of the calorically-dense foods like dairy, and replace them with plant foods that take up more room but might not be so high in calories, it’s very easy to not notice that you’re eating several hundred fewer calories per day.

      Beyond that, I don’t really have any advice more maintaining weight. If you’re going to do a lot of training, eating more is the only solution.

      I don’t do these things for the collective benefit; I do them because they’re fun. :) But I’m glad that you enjoy them!

  22. The only vitamin D3 that’s vegan comes in spray form:
    http://www.vitashine-d3.com/

  23. NDEM @bigtymer32 says:

    Good post I’m going to be bulking up too.went back to being vegan so I’m gonna to be writing a bulking food plan.will let you know how it goes.

    Ok guys let’s get drop fat and gain a lot of mass at the same time idea out.its one or the other unless your a lucky person that your body can.

    When massing you can do cardio but you want to be 2-3 times out the week and 20-30 min range.doing a lot of cardio will burn up the muscle your trying to gain.muscle is burned up for energy by the body faster than fat.

    Protien ,healthy fats,hard work and PATIENCE will get you to your goals.if anyone needs help or motivation hit me up on twitter @bigtymer32 let’s get fit,healthy and show what veg power is all about.

  24. Hi, Matt
    Great timing to see your article. I read 4HB recently and have been considering building mass, too (I am 5′ 10″/130lbs). As I am training for Honolulu marathon now, it will be a while before I can give up cardio. I was curious though, how do you make the raw almond milk in your “fat shake”?
    Regards,
    William

  25. Love the shake recipe. I might try it next season on a carb up day!
    Thank you!

  26. Not likely. Protein utilization for exercise is at most about 10% of calories, and it doesn’t occur until after you’ve been at it for a couple of hours. The body shifts in order to preserve carbohydrate for the brain. Low intensity cardio and sedentary life still burn fat very efficiently. The body does not burn muscle faster than fat. Ever. But when mass building it does make sense to limit it in order to focus the energybon what does build mass.

  27. Matt: You are my doppelganger. I was 120lb in high school, worked hard to bulk up and got to 160lb during my PhD on a weight lifting, non-vegan diet, took up running again in my 30s and shrank down to 135lb. Now that I’m in my early 40′s, a university professor, and have a family (of 5), I don’t really care about my weight or being thin and have settled on a mix of moderate weight lifting and 1,000 miles of running per year that keeps me happy. Plus the new research connecting high fat diet induced cardiovascular problems to brain impairment is enough to keep me going lean and mean. I will check out the Ferris book, however. Keep up the great work.

  28. Matt, can you mention some brands and types of vegan protein powder you’ve found to be decent? Thanks!

  29. Matt,
    Great article. I’d love to see some before and after pics. I lost 50lbs after going plant-based and finally stopped losing weight at 151 lbs. At 5’10 I was looking pretty thin. So I started doing P90X to add muscle to my new skinny frame. After 9 months, I’ve gotten pretty good results, but I think after reading your article Im going to cut out any cardio workout for the next 2 months before P90X2 comes out and see if I can get better results. Im not going to consume any extra protein powders because I believe they are not health promoting which is the whole point of being plant-based for me. I’ll keep you posted how this works. If you want to see my before and after pics, just go to my website. Chris

  30. This was the best article I’ve ever read about building muscle and being a vegan. I am not my self a vegan, but I had one of my readers ask me about this the other day and I have been doing a lot of research. I shared your post with her, and I am sure it will help her a lot. Thank you

  31. I’m really not a meat lover (apart from chili) so this is such good info for me. I am always battling myself as to what to eat to build a little metabolism boosting muscle!!

  32. I’m an MD looking at going a Vegan/more whole foods, vegetable based diet. I already generally do stick to non-processed foods, fruits and veggies, but I still have a lot of meat in my diet.

    My main concern is that I’m athletic, 6’2″ 200lbs or so, worked hard to get this size, and would like to keep it that way or make gains. This article is helpful in proving that one can gain weight in the short term, but as you pointed out, it isn’t intended for maintenance.

    Are there any plans/articles out there for “Clydesdale” people like me to make the leap from mostly animal proteins?

  33. I am a vegan trying to gain weight (won’t go into why and any more detail about it). Question about the fat shake: can you break down how it’s 1000 calories? The ingredients don’t seem to add up to that to me but I’m also not too fond of counting calories. Hope you still check this! Thanks.

    • I just put the exact “fat shake” recipe into myfitnesspal.com and according to it, the nutritional info is:

      1,050 calories
      62 grams of carbs
      75 grams of fat
      56 grams of protein

      Hope that’s helpful :)

  34. Michael Labrecque says:

    I wish I could be vegan and build muscle, but I can’t afford many of those things. And I can only eat so many servings of beans before I turn back to old habits. Any tips?

  35. creatine isnt vegan, sir.

  36. Mari Fortes says:

    Hi Matt, my name is Mari and I’m vegetarian for 7 years now and vegan for about 8 months. It’s been about an year I started running, and now that I’ve achieved my weight goal, I would like to gain some muscles, because I didn’t really like the way I turned out to be (skinny and tiny). I bought some soy protein powder (I’m from Brazil, so it’s a nacional label) and I drank it for 3 days, 1 scoop (something like 30g of protein) with water. I got so SO swollen and it destroyed my stomach (it hurt for days), so I stopped drinking it. I haven’t bought another type of protein yet (rice or pea), but I was wondering if you have/had the same problem with soy protein as well. Just to make it clear that I’m not allergic to soy, ’cause I eat looots of soy products and I’ve never felt this bad before. I really wanted to drink some powder after my workout, but I don’t know what to do! Do you have any tips? Thank you so much!

  37. Hey Matt,
    Thank You very much for the article. I have been consuming fat shakes and I think I’m finally gaining some weight. (Have not ever passed 130lbs before)
    However, I’m still a bit worried about coconut oil sticking to my arteries. After all, it is solid at room temperature. Do you know if there is research regarding its consumption?
    Also, great advice recommending 4hb book, I borrowed it from my bf and the slow reps are killing me. :)
    I think I’m having trouble consuming protein and don’t want soy powder/tofu to be the only significant protein source. Know of pea protein?

  38. Hey Matt, I’m a 17years old asian. I hope to be like a fitness model, but i cant gain any muscle even i ate food that with alot protein like body builder’s poder, soya, all kind of meat, eggs … but i just cant get any fats… And now i get a problem with me, i’m very unhealthy with no blood color skin tone and doenst look fresh, so now i prefer vegetarain, and what should i do to success of growing muscles?

    • i think we have similar body types and ethnic backgrounds. i say cut out the white rice and eat for nutrition. go with brown rice and quinoa. avocados should be your best friend. add coconut oil to your foods. try starting there.

  39. So this definitely very interesting. I’ve never really considered how you gain weight as a vegan. I’ve been considering cutting out more of meat as my source of protein and I’m really not into soy. Though I’m on trying to gain weight, the idea of being able to build muscle without so much animal protein is an attractive one. Is there a half-way/meet in the middle approach? Does anyone know of one that works?

    Thanks!

    • nopainogain says:

      Aja, I recommend the site veganbodybuilding.com if you haven’t already checked it out tons of good info there.

      How do you gain weight as a vegan? It’s so simple people often get too confused over this. It doesn’t matter where your essential amino acids are coming from, as long as you are bringing in enough calories and complete protein by combining foods like beans and grains, or nuts and grains, that combine to form a complete protein, you will build muscle. People gain muscle as vegans by eating upwards of 4000 to 6000 calories a day, a calorie is a calorie. Stuff your face with high quality foods and train like a vegan warbeast, it’s that simple.

      Some great plant proteins (complete) are HealthForce Warrior Food and Garden of Life Beyond Organic. Highly recommend either one of these protein powders to supplement your muscle building efforts.

      Oh yes, and I find it crucial to take herbs like fo-ti, rhodiola, schizandra, and shilajit to maintain the highest levels of athletic ability and strength being a vegan, You cannot just begin training all out as a vegan without knowing everything about nutrition like flax seed is necessary for omega-3′s, crucial for building muscle and maintaing sanity, and taking a multi-vitamin.

      Sorry for rambling but what I just listed are the secrets to gaining muscle fast as a vegan. But in the end each individual needs to find what works for them, i’m not giving advice just sharing what works for me.

      My secret vegan muscle building weapons: Goji berries (complete protein), Quinoa (complete protein), fo-ti (increases testosterone in males when combined with TCM ideologies), rhodiola (used in secret research by the Soviets on athletes google it), schizandra (like fo-ti, gives you energy to keep training and stay stress-free and beautiful!), shilajit (make sure it’s high quality and real) increases cardiovascular capacity and does wonders for your overall health also increases the effects of other herbs.

      Good luck on your quest to the body of your dreams my fellow vegans~

  40. nopainogain says:

    I will admit it is too easy to fall into the idea of stopping any forms of cardio in order to gain mass, however i have found that muscle can be gained even if you refuse to succumb to this slug like philosophy of quitting cardio, as long as u r rdy to brace yourself for the pain, and train insane. Yes insane. As long as the calories coming in are downright huge, you can train cardio everyday and still gain like a monster. How do I do it? Well the amount of strength training i do would make most people puke, but the key is variety and consistency. If you are getting stuck it simply means you are not eating enough or training hard enough. Sure you could blame your cardio, or you could accept the fact that you need to change up your workout to something more brutal and simply eat more. Many pro athletes train like this, a perfect example is Cristiano Ronaldo. There is no way a pro soccer player can afford to cut down cardio, but Cristiano was able to build very solid muscle and bulk up even with rediculous amounts of b/c he was dedicated beyond all else to making gains whatever the cost and had the support he needed to not get stuck like you mentioned happened to you in your article. If you dig down deep enough you will find your inner rage beast and reach any level of growth you can imagine no matter how much cardio is on the table.

    • nopainogain says:

      btw i’ve been a vegan for 9 years, and fallen into the no cardio method in the past, found it to be an easy man’s way out and is detrimental to overall athletic ability for those hardcore athletes out there. Honestly until I said fuck it, and started training and eating like a damn warbeast gladiator i struggled making gains too. Did you know gladiators in ancient Rome were mostly vegetarians and ate insane amounts of barley? Brawn comes thru daily hard work, don’t give up, and one day you will arrive if u set your mind to it and just do it.

  41. Thanks so much for writing this article! Im trying to gain weight because i have gone down a cup size or two after not eating chicken breasts with hormones in it for a few years! Its hard being vegan sometimes because I feel like my body has gone from gaining weight to not being able to gain weight. I enjoy being vegan abit more than the way I look so when you can have both its great! :) :)

  42. Great to see how other people train on a Vegan diet.

    Have to disagree with stopping cardio. If you want to do cardio and lift at the same time all you have to do is increase your caloric intake. simple. Also, I recommend making sure you have adequate rest and days off. Recovery is where your muscle is built, not the gym. I do understand the fear of burning all your calories off on your run…. but what is more important in the long run…a strong heart or a strong bicep? no one ever died from a weak bicep. Also, I feel like consuming extra fat to bulk up is a 80′s pumping iron myth. It kinda goes along with the idea that you need to give your body something to burn so your muscles don’t become lean…. again, it’s just how many calories you consume. I remember reading magazines like FLEX 10-15 years ago that recommended eating bags of potato chips to bulk up. Terrible advice. you should be eating quality calories in the amount you need to sustain your daily routine. Also I recently quit coffee ( and any other caffeine). You’re body doesn’t need fake energy, it needs fuel. PLANT FUEL! haha. Just my input….. stay lean, stay strong, stay hungry, stay VEGAN!
    thanks for an awesome site…

  43. i think no one is really mentioning how the creatine is really the secret giving you the boost of weight gain, unless it was already part of your normal supplement routine. i found this page looking for more vegetarian type meals to prepare to gain weight. can you recommend some?

    • I agree. When I saw “creatine” on the list, I lost a hope. Personally I wouldn’t choose to eat creatine because it doesn’t sound to be healthier than using protein from milk. I would be happy to hear some alternatives.

      • I am personally not a big fan of creatine either, but only from a digestion standpoint… I can’t really handle it in my system. There’s no denying its effectiveness for gaining weight, but I wouldn’t exactly call it the ‘secret ingredient’ or anything. I think that the ‘Fat Shake’ is probably one of the best things mentioned in this article. As a vegetarian I tend to focus obsessively on protein, but getting good, healthy fats in my diet is a struggle.

  44. I’ve been following a diet similar to this and the 4-Hour Body weight gain diet for a few weeks now. One thing I’ve noticed is that my bowel movements are much softer and higher in frequency. Where I was going at most one a day, now it’s at least, and most times more than, once a day. Is this to be expected from the extra calories and/or shake consumption or is all that extra food just going into the toilet?

  45. Thank you for this great piece. I am vegan and have struggled to put on muscles as there aren’t many vegan sources except legumes and soya. The blog post and the comments section have give tons of new ideas. Thanks everyone.

  46. Im 13 days from my 2nd marathon (hopefully crack a sub 4hrs= <3hr:59mins:59sec!) this year and will be doing my own 6mth vegan bulk up. So the point above is true yes some of the weight gained was water retention and cell volume filling (can be at least 3kg sometimes). The key in the end is enough fat and protein calories and if not always eating mega high carb from GRAINS you wont get too bloated. Im 85kg atm and will try and bulk to 110kg for a bit of vegan bulking fun + i also want be 90kg max next august for a pb marathon :)

  47. I just started trying this last week. I haven’t gotten and real noticable results, but I definitely feel different now. My goal is to keep going for 6-8 weeks, but like you said, the diet involved isn’t the best for long-term. Any suggestions on how to best maintain the muscle even after you return to your normal eating habits?

  48. Any suggestions to a person trying to gain fat/mass but forced to do cardio? My job requires 10 hours of constant walking with light-medium lifting three times a week. I can get beyond 150 no matter the amount of food I cram down.

  49. I gained 10 kgs in 3 months. I’m a vegan. occassionally and unknowingly if I consume milk then that’s that, otherwise I’m a vegan. I ate day in and day out, only healthy food (very less oil, high carbs and high protein). My diet contains Sofit (flavoured soy milk) and peanut butter apart from other routine vegeterian items. I’m 5′ 5″. 3 months back my weight was 57 kgs. Yesterday I weighed in, it was 67. I also gym. 1 hour 20 minutes everyday with the max weight I can, but with less repetitions. Key is not to overtrain. overtraining/ cardio will make you lose weight. I would like to bulk up, just on natural diet (without suppliments or steroids, I’m not sure about soy milk and peanut butter). I’m lovin the wrestler, bodybuilder kind of look my physique is getting. Only problem is, I’ve developed a belly. But it looks ok when combined with my other physique.

  50. Hi Matt,

    I’m confused. At one point, it seems like you suggest one should drink apple juice immediately after the workout followed by the vegan fat shake 30 to 60 minutes later, but at another point you appear to say that apple juice alone is insufficient immediately after a workout.

    If one ought to drink immediately after the workout, but before the vegan fat shake, what should one use instead of apple juice?

    Can solid food that is healthy and high in sugars like bananas, dates or raisins be eaten immediately after a workout, followed by the vegan fat shake 30 to 60 minutes later?

    Finally, is it even necessary for weight gain to drink or eat immediately after the workout if one plans to wait 30 to 60 minutes and consume the vegan fat shake?

  51. Just curious about how you kept on weight afterwards. Did you have to keep your calories up, and/or keep up some weight training?

    Thanks
    Chris

  52. I realize this is an old article, but I remembered seeing it on here a few months ago and looked it back up after I looked in the mirror last week and had the same realization. I had planned on just upping my overall calorie (focusing on protein and fats) intake daily, but I think I’ll take a tip from you and cut down on my running for a few weeks as well. Having a hard time gaining weight is a sensitive topic to bring up to people or discuss. As a girl, I stay away from the scale and mirrors mostly because I know how easy it is to get involved in a mind game. But I’d like to gain a little muscle to complement the leanness I have from running and a vegan diet. Thanks for the article!!!

  53. Not questioning the honesty of your claims, but I’m having a hard time swallowing the 30 min workout from The 4-Hour Body to gain 17 lbs of mass! At first felt excited, but checking out reviews on Amazon, the first page was all 1 star reviews, half of which were guys claiming there was no way to gain muscle with that amount of lifting. I’ve also injured myself in the past (as you did) when I was aggressively increasing weight and pushing myself in the way you describe. So assuming that’s not going to work for me, what workout would you recommend/what did you do in the past?

    I’ve been working out about 6 months, typically do three days a week with pullups and 3 or more upper body exercises (mostly bench and overhead press). I try to do squats (w/out weight) or leg presses too but my knees start to hurt from stress injury pretty easily. I’m painfully aware that everybody who’s anybody does weighted squats, but it’s not a great idea for me. I switched to a paleo diet in that time as well, which has been awesome for my health (asthma, skin, etc) but my weight has remained at 140 (… for the last 10 years), with a visible increase in muscle mass and decrease in fat. So I’m incorporating your fat shake and some carbs like sweet potatoes (I eat meat, but I can’t tolerate dairy/whey and don’t want to throw even MORE animal protein into the mix.) Shooting for 2800 calories/day now (and want to vomit.) Just still wondering about the workout piece. Thanks in advance for your help! And thanks for blogging!!!

    • Hey Adam, the workouts that I did back in college when I gained all that weight were from a guy named Anthony Ellis — I don’t know if he’s still around and putting out info, but I’d imagine you can find it somewhere. But compared to the the 4-Hour Body method, it just doesn’t seem like a good use of time — the Anthony Ellis workouts were 3 times per week, an hour (or so) each time, and very intense (I doubt it’s any less likely to result in injury than the Tim Ferriss approach, but everyone is different so who knows).

      Both programs did have in common these two huge factors: no aerobic exercise while you’re trying to build muscle and put on weight, and you have to eat a lot (and probably more than is healthy, long term, especially the amount of fat).

  54. Very happy to find this article. Lack of fat intake has definitely been my problem since going vegan. Have now loaded up with almond butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, and working on my version of the super shake. Thanks for the tips! :)

  55. Thanks Matt. I just started my 100 Days Weight Challenge with my colleagues. They are losing weight, and I am the only person who needs to gain weight. Thanks for all the tips, I shall try them out!

  56. I’m torn between the ideas about gaining fat in order to gain weight and muscle. Could you shed some insight in understanding the evolution from gaining weight by eating more and lifting to how the muscle is made and how/if fat is necessary? I believe the idea of converting fat to muscle doesn’t hold true so I was hoping to get a more detailing explanation on the importance of gaining some fat when also increasing muscle mass.

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