Thanks to the tidal wave of progress in the plant-based space, the eye roll-inducing “Where do you get your protein?” question has finally started to recede from the public’s mind. However, there are still plenty of skeptics out there—even with the impressive rise of the vegan pro athlete (Lewis Hamilton, Alex Morgan, Kyrie Irving, we’re cheering for you!). As a certified personal trainer and longtime vegan, I am setting the record straight.
What is strength training?
Strength training, also known as resistance training, is a form of exercise focused on strengthening the muscles. During strength training, the muscles work against force to further build strength. This typically involves weighted exercise machines, resistance bands, and free weights, but if you have limited access to workout equipment, body weight strength training is another option (think push ups, planks, squats, lunges, and more).
Aside from strengthening muscle, resistance training can also help manage chronic pain, aid weight loss, increase bone density (and therefore reduce the risk of osteoporosis), improve posture, and can sometimes help improve quality of sleep.
Misconceptions about strength-training for vegans
Here are five of the most common strength-training myths the nay-sayers bring up—busted!
1 Enough calories = enough protein
For sedentary people, this is likely accurate. But if you strength-train, you’ll need to pay attention to your protein intake. If you’re inactive, you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. For a 150-pound person, this works out to 54 grams of protein per day. That’s tofu scramble for breakfast, a black bean burrito for lunch, and dry-roasted edamame as a snack. You’ve hit your protein goal even before having dinner!
If you strength-train regularly, you’ll need more protein. Most recommendations for vegan strength athletes range between 1.8 and 2.7 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day. If you’re a 150-pound strength athlete, you’ll need between 122 and 184 grams of protein per day. A day’s worth of protein for this athlete may include a tofu scramble with seitan strips for breakfast; a smoothie made with hemp hearts, chia and flax seeds, and protein powder for a snack; a lunch of edamame pasta with tomato sauce and veggie ground round, and a black bean burrito for dinner.
Hitting your daily protein goal is definitely attainable as a strength athlete—it just takes a bit more thought when it comes to mealtime.
2 Eating the same amount of food as when you were non-vegan will supply all the calories you need
Sometimes, athletes who go vegan will lose weight unintentionally. Whole, plant-based foods are very nutrient-dense, but they’re typically not as calorie-dense as most animal products (which is good news if your goal is to lose weight!).
If you’re very active, keep in mind that you’ll likely need to eat a larger volume of food as a vegan to get the same number of calories. Plant foods also tend to be more filling than animal-based foods (hello, fiber!), which can make it difficult to judge your caloric intake based on fullness alone.
If you’re concerned about losing weight, it may help to keep track of your calories for the first week or two of your transition. This way, you can know for sure if you’re hitting your mark or if you’re at a deficit.
3 You can rely solely on supplements for daily protein
Plant-based protein powder can provide a convenient muscle-building boost, but it’s not a good idea to rely on it as your main protein source. The key to a healthy diet is a varied diet, and only by eating a variety of foods can you obtain the wide range of amino acids—the building blocks of protein—you need to thrive. The good news is that all plant foods contain amino acids; they’re just present in different proportions.
For example, pumpkin seeds and seaweed are high in leucine (required for muscle-growth), oats are high in tryptophan (vital to a healthy nervous system), and sunflower seeds are high in methionine (necessary for building cartilage). A protein-shake-and-veggies diet is not going to provide you with enough amino acid variety, so make sure you eat a range of different protein sources. Try to get the bulk of your protein from foods like tempeh, tofu, seitan, black and kidney beans, nutritional yeast, nuts, and seeds. If you need to top off your protein, one or two shakes a day is fine.
4 You can get all the nutrients you need from food alone
I know I just suggested not relying on supplements to obtain your daily protein, but hear me out. When it comes to a select few micronutrients, supplementation may be necessary. There’s only one non-negotiable supplement all vegans should take, whether they’re athletes or not: B12. This vitamin is required to make new red blood cells and keep your neurological system functioning effectively, and deficiencies result in serious consequences including nerve damage and cognitive impairment.
Non-vegans get B12 from animal products, but only because those animals themselves were supplemented with B12. In centuries past, humans used to obtain B12 from eating soil particles on our food. Times have changed, so take your B12 supplement! Other supplements to consider if you’re a vegan strength athlete are vitamin D and creatine.
Most of us—whether we’re vegan or not—don’t get enough vitamin D. Both vitamin D and weight-bearing exercise are essential for healthy bones, so if you’re a strength athlete, you’re already halfway there. If you don’t get 20 minutes of direct sun exposure every day, consider a supplement. Finally, while our bodies make their own creatine, we vegans don’t get any from our diets. So while you won’t be deficient if you don’t supplement, taking creatine can improve your short-duration, high-intensity athletic performance—such as sprinting or lifting weights.
5 It’s more difficult to gain muscle and strength as a vegan
If you’re getting the protein you need from a variety of plant-based sources (and you’re kicking butt with your training, of course), you’ll crush your muscle and strength gain goals just as well as any non-vegan.
And there is research to back this up. In April 2023, one study found that mycoprotein, which is made from fungi, is just as effective as animal protein at supporting muscle during resistance training. The study was split into two phases. In the first, 16 healthy adults ate either an exclusively vegan diet, with meat from mycoprotein brand Quorn, or an omnivorous diet.
In the second phase, 22 healthy adults endured a high-volume progressive resistance training program for 10 weeks. Again, some followed a vegan diet, others followed an omnivorous diet. The results showed that those eating the omnivorous diet gained 2.6 kg of whole-body lean mass, while those following a vegan diet gained 3.1 kg. Both groups increased the size of their thigh muscles by the same amount.
“We now have a strong body of evidence, perhaps more than is available for any other alternative protein source, to show that mycoprotein is an effective protein food to support muscle maintenance and growth,” said lead researcher Alistair Monteyne.
And from a personal standpoint as a plant-based trainer, I know I was able to sweep the floor at my gym’s pull-up and chin-up competitions—beating all the omnivore trainers, including the men. So, can we say #VeganStrong?
Vegan since 2003, Karina Inkster, MA, PTS, is a health and fitness coach, author of three books, and host of the No-B.S. Vegan podcast.