Ve-Gains: Training on a Plant-Based Diet

Quite often when I mention to (non-vegan) people that I’m plant-based I’m instantly met with questions about protein… Where do I get? Is it hard to get enough? Etc. Being vegan definitely carries less of a shock factor these days as the movement continues to explode and vegan options keep appearing everywhere, but clearly there is still work to be done because many people seem to be unaware of this fact: Animals that are reared for food get their protein from plants, in the form of amino acids which integrate into their tissues. When humans eat animals, the protein is broken back down into amino acids, so really this is second-hand protein versus going straight to the source… Plants.

I won’t get into why one diet is healthier or more eco-friendly/ethical than the other because that’s not the point of this article - you can find more about those aspects HERE. The misconception that a vegan diet is lacking in protein and can’t support goals of being muscular or strong/athletic is something that I once believed myself. I can say now with hindsight that this was simply ignorance and a lack of education outside of my then, meat-based eating. I’m using the terms ‘vegan’ and ‘plant-based’ synonymously but to be clear, what I mean is that nothing that I eat/consume comes from animals.

After making the switch my whole attitude towards health and training changed; I became less concerned with being ‘hench’, adopted a more holistic approach and took part in a charity boxing event which made me lose quite a bit of weight. I then had a moped accident and dislocated my shoulder which meant I couldn’t train the way I wanted to for a while, so when people asked the million-dollar question, “have you noticed any difference in performance?” I struggled to answer. When setting goals at the beginning of this year I decided that I would change all this and launch my own investigation into training on a plant-based diet; how well could I develop my physique and performance?

Having picked up injuries from the moped incident (severely sprained ankle as well as the dislocation) and ego lifting (back irritation), the first challenge was deciding how to demonstrate performance increase. Throughout the first month of training I was trying things out to see what did and didn’t feel right. By February I had decided on fronts squats since this puts less load through the lower back, I wasn’t even considering the lift that had given me issues due to going too heavy and sacrificing form; deadlifts. That was until I spoke to a couple of friends who suggested that it might all be in my head… Injuries are a funny thing, even once they’ve healed it’s like our mind hasn’t moved on. Still overly cautious and waiting for even the slightest sensation to register as a signal to stop. Determined to test this new diet against my once favourite display of strength, the deadlift, I took the plunge and it turns out my friends may have been right.

Training Approach

Here's a breakdown of how I trained over the 5 months:

 

January – 3 session p/w:

1.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

2.) Legs – Experimenting with mostly unilateral (single leg) movements

3.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

 

February – 3 session p/w:

1.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

2.) Legs – Front squats (hypertrophy) + accessory work

3.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

 

March – I took some time off to focus energy elsewhere with sporadic training sessions dotted in for maintenance.

 

April – 3 sessions p/w:

1.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

2.) Legs – Front squats (strength) + accessory work

3.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

 

May/June – 4 sessions p/w:

1.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

2.) Legs – Front squats (strength) + accessory work

3.) Upper body push-pull (bodybuilding)

4.) Deadlifts (strength)

 

You can view the full session plans HERE and a few points to note:

  • I had set goals of the 1RMs I was aiming for in my last week of doing the front squat and deadlift so I progressively increased the load without much thought to % of 1RM – this might not be the best approach if you don’t have training experience, in which case I would consider following a protocol such as 5/3/1 for developing strength on big lifts.

  • The key to growth is progressive overload.

  • Every 4 weeks I took a de-load week and focused on calisthenics (bodyweight training) or in a few instances, stopped completely to allow my body to recover – this is very important, if we neglect to do this our training can become more detrimental than progressive.

  • Form over everything – one rule that I’ve always lived by and paid the price the one time I ignored it is to NEVER compromise on form/technique.

Nutrition Approach

I’ve never been one to obsessively count my calories and macros, firstly because I’ve found that sticking to a few basic guidelines works perfectly for me and secondly because let’s be honest, that’s no fun. However, being a personal trainer means I work with people who often have different goals to my own and require a more precise nutrition approach. These are some bottom line facts about nutrition:

  • To lose weight we need to be in a calorie deficit.

  • To gain weight/muscle we need to be in a calorie surplus.

  • We need protein (amino acids) to support muscle growth/recovery and this demand increases when engaged in exercise, especially bodybuilding and strength training.

  • Carb intake should be lower on rest days than on training days and post-workout is the best time for a refeed or cheat meal. Generally, opt for low GI carbs to keep energy levels stable.

  • Natural fats are essential, it’s processed fats that should be avoided along with processed anything for that matter!

  • A vegan diet can be as unhealthy or under nourishing as any other diet if we fail to eat a wide variety of (preferably organic) whole foods. Switching from a meat-based diet to one of processed alternatives is not going to reveal the wonders of a plant-based diet – instead, cook from scratch and think veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and lots of colour!

You can calculate you daily calorie/macro needs HERE.

This was my average intake throughout the 5 months training:

Calories: 2500cal (+ 700cal on workout days)

Protein: 90g (+ 30g on workout days)

Carbs: 330g (+ 100g on workout days)

Fat: 80g (+ 20g on workout days)

To get an idea of what I eat throughout the day, check out this article by Sundried (dinner is missing!) or have a scroll though my instagram to see the food I’ve been sharing since mid-April. Also, ETHCS have just launched a vegan cookbook which is perfect if you’re new to veganism and need some ideas!

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My increased intake on workout days was provided by a post-workout shake. Having tried a few different plant protein powders and not liked the taste/texture, I was determined to formulate a shake that was not just bearable, but enjoyable and this chocolate concoction doesn’t disappoint!

INGREDIENTS
Whiz up the following in a blender:
• 1 scoop organic plant protein (cacao flavour) - a blend of pea, rice and hemp which offers a complete amino acid profile and 21g of protein, low sugar
• 1 tbsp cacao powder - for taste
• ¼ tsp cinnamon - for taste
• 1 tbsp peanut butter - fats to boost calories
• ¼ avocado (or ½ banana) - for texture/creaminess
• 3 medjool dates - accounts for 54g of the shake’s total carbs, added for sweetness and to cause insulin spike which pulls nutrients into muscle tissue
• 200ml hazelnut milk - accounts for 28g of the shake’s total carbs, you can use water instead but it doesn’t taste as good
• After blending, add 1 tbsp of chia seeds for added texture and nutrients

In April I introduced 5 grams of creatine monohydrate (creapure) into this post-workout shake – it’s vegan, quite well studied and proven to boost performance in short intense bursts of exercise. Without getting into the science, it replenishes the fuel for our muscles’ explosive movement energy system. I was using this supplement before at my strongest (meat-based) so I wanted to include it in my approach to maintain a level playing field. Something that occurred to me was that, while our bodies do produce creatine, meat-eaters receive additional creatine from the animals in their diet – could this be a factor in the apparent performance difference often thrown at veganism? I have to say I did feel stronger after introducing it and I didn’t bother with a “loading phase”, just the 5 grams post-workout – the body can only store so much before converting the rest into creatinine, a waste product.

The Results

Across the 5 months I gained a total of 4.5kg and kept my body fat consistent. Creatine does draw more water into the muscles so some of that weight will be water, however this trade off was necessary to make a fair comparison against my best performance pre-vegan. I took Styku 3D body scans and progress pictures throughout the 5 months and when comparing January to June, clear physique development can be seen.

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My performance targets were strength based; front squat 1.5 x my bodyweight (120kg) and deadlift 2.5 x my bodyweight (200kg). I reached both of these targets and considering that my deadlift PB (pre-vegan) is 2.75 x BW after more than a year of consistent strength training, I think that achieving 2.5 in such a short space of time supports the notion that performance (specifically strength) development is achievable on a plant-based diet.

This investigation reminded me of how important goal setting is to keep us motivated to train and push ourselves, which is why I have already set new goals for the second half of the year; handstands, levers, flags and planches – all calisthenics (bodyweight) patterns that I’m yet to master. So now that the sun is shining more frequently, you’ll find me out in the park with V-Gang putting in work!

Shea JozanaComment