How to Build Muscle on a Plant Based Diet

Are you also Googleing ‘How to Build Muscle on a Plant Based Diet’? Then this blog is for you. Bodybuilding and muscle building has taken the world by the storm. People are consuming an insane amount of protein to make their muscles pop out of their T-shirts. But very few people understand muscles scientifically to know what is really good for their muscles and what is not. In one of our previous blogs, we talked about the major differences between animal protein and plant protein and their impact on our health. In this blog, we would talk about muscles, their working mechanism, and the process of muscle building. We would also shed light on ‘How to Build Muscle on a Plant Based Diet’.

Learning The Basic Science of Muscles

First, let’s talk about the muscular system of our body briefly.

Muscles are associated with movements. We can not move without muscles in our body. Muscles do much more than we usually imagine. When we think of muscles, we think of biceps and triceps but there are muscles in our heart, stomach and on all parts of the body. Muscles our instrumental to our survival. Digestion, blood circulation, smiling, walking, running. lifting, all these actions are done by the relentless collaboration of muscles in the body:

Broadly all muscles in the body can be categorised in two categories:

  1. Involuntary Muscles: Involuntary muscles are the muscles on which we don’t have conscious control. Like the muscles in our stomach and heart. The process of digestion and blood circulation is not under our conscious control.
  2. Voluntary Muscles: Voluntary muscles are the muscles on which we have conscious control. Like the muscles of our hands and legs.

Involuntary Muscles are of Two Types:

  1. Cardiac Muscles: Cardiac muscles are the muscles in the heart. These muscles are responsible for the rhythmic contractions of the heart. It is not in our conscious control and hence put in the category of involuntary muscles.
  2. Smooth Muscles: Smooth muscle is found in the walls of blood vessels, urinary bladder, the intestines, and the stomach. Smooth muscle is used by various systems to apply pressure to vessels and organs. Smooth muscle is composed of sheets or strands of smooth muscle cells.

Now, in colloquial language, when we talk of muscles, especially when talking about sports, training, athletics etc, we don’t mean any of these muscles. We talk about the third type of muscles which is under voluntary control.

Voluntary Muscle and Its Functioning

  1. Skeletal or Striated Muscle: This type of muscle is the only muscle which is under our conscious control. These muscles are concerned with movement, posture, and balance. Skeletal muscle is made from a series of bundles of muscle fibres called myocytes. Each myocyte contains many myofibrils, which are strands of proteins (actin and myosin) that can grab on to each other and pull. This shortens the muscle and causes muscle contraction for movement. The bundle of muscle fibres is surrounded by protective membranes. This allows skeletal muscle to contract and release swiftly without subjecting the individual fibres to too much friction. Skeletal muscle tissue can be found across the animal kingdom, in most multi-cellular forms of life. Skeletal muscle tissues are joint with bones using another connecting tissue called tendons.
Table Comparing Different Types of Muscles and Their Functions
Table Comparing Different Types of Muscles and Their Functions (Image Courtesy: Pearson Education)

Difference Between Slow Twitch and Fast Twitch Muscles

So someone is a better sprinter and the other one is a better marathoner. Someone is better at jumps, whereas someone is good at holding difficult positions. Someone can lift more weight and others can do more reps with the same weight. The difference lies in the proportion and strength of different types of skeletal muscles

Skeletal Muscles are further divided into two categories:

  1. Slow Twitch Muscles: The slow-twitch muscle fibres are more efficient at using oxygen (Aerobic metabolism) to burn carbohydrate or fat as food to generate more ATP fuel for continuous, extended muscle contractions over a long time. They contract slower the than fast-twitch fibres and can go for a long time before fatigue. They can contract for longer periods but with lesser force. Therefore, slow-twitch fibres are great for making athletes run marathons and bicycle for hours. These muscles are red and the muscles get their red colour from this tissue. The muscles that help us maintain posture are rich in slow-twitch cells.
  2. Fast Twitch Muscles: Fast-twitch fibres make use anaerobic metabolism to create fuel. They generate short bursts of strength or speed than slow muscles and then become fatigued. Fast twitch muscles fatigue much faster than slow-twitch muscles. Their fibres generally produce the same amount of force per contraction as slow muscles, but they get their name because they can fire more rapidly. Having more fast-twitch fibres is helpful to a sprinter since she/he needs to quickly generate a lot of force. Fast-twitch muscles are further divided (Fast twitch type IIa, and Type IIb) depending upon contractile speed and force generation but we need not go in that detail.
Slow Twitch Muscles and Fast Twitch Muscles
Slow Twitch Muscles and Fast Twitch Muscles: (Image Courtesy: Verywell)

Difference Between The Muscles of a Sprinter and a Marathoner

Now, the natural proportion of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibres in our body and their strengths play an instrumental role in, what sport are we good at and if we are stronger, faster, or both.

lympic sprinters have been shown to possess about 80% fast-twitch fibres while those who excel in marathons tend to have 80% slow-twitch fibres. Your maximum muscle growth potential also depends upon the proportion of these muscles.

When fibres in a particular muscle group consist primarily of fast-twitch muscle fibres, then it is much easier to build mass in that muscle. Fast twitch-muscle fibres have greater potential for gaining size than slow twitch. That’s why sprinters tend to be more muscular and bigger compared to endurance athletes.

The training, types of exercises for improving the efficiency of different types of muscle are different. Hence, having an understanding of the physiology of the body helps us develop more effective exercise programs for our specific needs.

Muscles and Their Functions
Courtesy: Ace Fitness

That’s why different athletes competing in the same sport have different training programs depending on their capabilities and weaknesses.

Now, let’s understand how muscles are broken, repaired and strengthened in brief.

Understanding The Process of Muscle Building

Muscles adaption to increased stress to improve its efficiency, strength, density, shape and mass etc is called muscle building. Muscle cells resemble a bunch of sticks bundled up for firewood. Myofibrils are cylindrical bundles of filaments composed of sarcomeres. Sarcomeres are the fundamental unit of muscle contraction and are composed of proteins namely, myosin and actin.

The composition of muscle is about 20 % protein and other Water, phosphates. While minerals comprise the other 80% of muscle.

Muscle structure

Skeletal Muscle Structure
Skeletal Muscle Structure

Muscles growth is called as Hypertrophy. When someone does resistance training consistently, they may notice muscle growth. The growth is due to increased water, several myofibrils, and connective tissues.

Build Muscles: Why is it Important?

Muscle gain is not about gaining a mass of muscles or becoming a heavyweight bodybuilder. Growth is about strengthening them, making them more flexible, and produce more force, in lesser time. Let’s know why it is important to build muscles.

  1. Muscle growth makes the body look toned. The people who gain muscles while remaining lean, appear tight, firm and more in control. They look more confident and fit.
  2. Muscle growth improves day to day functions of the body like locomotion and other body-related movements.
  3. Tissues of muscles are metabolically active. Growth in muscle improves the way the body handles nutrients and their absorption. For instance, people who are more muscular and lower body fat generally have better insulin control.
  4. Muscles are like engines. They burn calories to provide motion. Muscles keep burning calories in the form of carbs and fat all the time and hence related to increased metabolic activity and fat loss.
  5. With advancing age the body experiences loss of muscles also known as sarcopenia. It is due to the lesser number of muscle fibres, decreased size, impaired contraction mechanism and decreased motor unit recruitment. Hence, it is important to keep working for muscle growth to make up for the lost tissues and keeping the tissues metabolically as active as possible. If we don’t do that then with age our strength would keep dwindling. Movements and control of the body would become difficult with time. Hence, it is advised to keep working for muscle growth.
  6. The gain of muscles would make you overall fit, more immune and lesser prone to catching diseases. People, who work out consistently have much better immunity compared to sedentary people.

Now, let’s study the factors affecting muscle gain.

Building and Gaining Muscles

Hypertrophy

Muscle growth is known as hypertrophy. It is the development of mass, density, shape, and function of muscle cells as we have already discussed.

Hypertrophy is generally broken down into two types by the scientific community:

  • Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy: In this type of hypertrophy increase of muscle size is due to an increase in the volume of sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle cell.
  • Myofibrillar hypertrophy: In this type of hypertrophy increase of muscle size is due to the increase in the contractile proteins. This is also known as functional hypertrophy.

There people who say that bodybuilders primarily demonstrate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and that their muscles look puffed up, while weightlifters primarily demonstrate myofibrillar hypertrophy, and their muscles are denser.

Muscle gain depends on various factors other than physical work out and diet. Let’s take a look at some prominent factors that affect muscle gain.

Factors Affecting Hypertrophy

  1. Physical Work Out: Our muscles are smart and hence, if we keep doing the same type of exercise daily then the muscles become used to it. We have to keep pushing our muscles by changing the workouts, increasing the load, increasing the time. Keep surprising your body. Keep using different muscles and keep experimenting with your work out.
  2. Rest and Sleep: Muscle is not built when you’re working out, they are built when you’re resting. You have to push your muscles but not to the point it gets injured and hence, the appropriate amount of rest in between the exercises (Not too less and not too much) is needed. Similarly, proper sleep is required.
  3. Proper Hydration: Water is crucial for proper circulation of blood, digestion, nutrition transfer etc. It keeps joints, bones and muscles healthy too. Water doesn’t provide energy but it is the medium in which all energy reactions take place. And hence, if you don’t keep yourself hydrated, you would feel fatigued. Keep yourself hydrated to grow your muscles and experience optimal performance.
  4. Hormones: Muscle growth also depends upon the hormone environment in our bodies. Many hormones are instrumental in endurance training and muscle growth. Hormones like testosterone, growth hormone (GH), and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) increase strength and stimulate muscle growth. Whereas hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and glucagon increase the availability of glucose, (the primary source of fuel in our body.). The optimum level of hormones can be maintained with proper pre and post work out meals. Don’t fall in the trap of supplements and drugs.
  5. Diet: If you’re working hard for muscle growth then you need to a balanced diet. It will provide you with enough calories, fibres, protein, vitamins and minerals is essential for muscle growth.

Plant Based Diet for Muscle Building

Now, the myth that vegans can’t be world-class athletes has been shattered to pieces by various world-class athletes, sportsmen, mountaineers, and endurance athletes etc. All the nutrients that are essential for muscle gain can be easily attained from plant-based sources.

Let’s discuss them in detail:

Macro Nutrients That Are Important for Muscle Building

Calories: To build muscles, you have to keep a calories surplus in your body to feed the muscles. But don’t go overboard. You have to eat enough so that your muscles have the fuel that they need for repair and rebuilding.

Some of the healthy vegan sources of calories are Sweet Potato, Potato, Rice (white and brown), Legumes, Sprouts, Nuts, Oilseeds, Nuts, Dry Fruits, Banana, Millets, Tofu etc. All of these are good sources of calories. You can supplement your diet with them for calories surplus.

Protein: There is a general notion that you need 2 gm protein/ kg of your body weight. So if you’re 50 Kgs, you need 100 gm of protien daily. Although, there are many types of research which say otherwise. We don’t need as much as protien as it is touted by various industry. Some say an average person needs something like 30 gm-50 gm of protien depending upon the intensity of workout and size. While others say we need 0.8 gm of protein per kg of our body weight. In fact, consuming too much protein damages the body and various organs. It’s not good for your health. So, don’t be obsessive about it. If you keep eating a healthy balanced diet as per your need, you will be good. Now, let’s discuss some good vegan sources of protein that you can easily access.

Build Muscles on a Plant Based Diet

Legumes: (Mung, Chickpea etc.) are a really good source of proteins. It is advised to consume them as sprouts. In form of sprout, legumes are a nutritional powerhouse loaded with fibre, B complex, Protein etc.

Lentils: Lentils are also a rich source of protein, fibre and carbs. And hence, a really good food source for muscle building. Their fibre is known to feed good bacteria in the stomach.

Hemp seeds: Hemp seeds come from the Cannabis sativa plant. This belongs to the same family as the marijuana plant. They are a really good source of easily digestible protein. It contains 10 grams of complete, easily digestible protein in 28 grams. Hemp seeds are also rich in magnesium, iron, calcium, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Green Peas: Green peas are often ignored as a good nutrition source. But it green peas contain 9 gms of protein per cooked cup. One serving of green peas covers can fulfil the 25% of your daily fibre, vitamin A, C, K, thiamine, folate and manganese requirements.

Nuts, Dry Fruits, Oil Seeds: Nuts, Dry fruits seeds are great sources of protein. They are generally rich in fibre, micronutrients and healthy fat too.

Soy Milk and Other Products: Soy products can be very good for your health if you consume them in limited and regulated quantity. They are loaded with protein, fibre, calories and various other micronutrients. You can easily extract soy milk at home and eat soy paneer too.

Pumpkin Seeds: Another lesser-known seed that is a nutritional powerhouse. Pumpkin seeds are very rich in nutrients. And an excellent source of protein, magnesium and calories. It roughly contains, Per 1/4 cup (30g) 160 calories, 10g protein, 13g total fat, 4g carbohydrates,  and 1g dietary fibre.

Importance of Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are also instrumental in muscle growth. Hence, their deficit won’t let your muscles grow in proportion to your hard work. It is important to supplement your diet with seasonal, and local fruits and vegetables. You can eat vegetables raw and consume them as a salad. Eating seasonal fruits and raw vegetables as snacks are gonna give your body the micronutrients it needs for the proper functioning of various cells, organs and tissues. They also provide with the dietary fibre. Dietary fibre is really good for your digestive system. Having a good and strong digestive system would aid your muscle growth. Else, you would face difficulty in digesting protein. Although, it is important that you consume fruits in the right way and at the right time. Most, people don’t know how consumption of fruits at the wrong time can have adverse effects on your body.

Few World Class Vegan athletes:

  1. Virat Kholi: Caption of Indian Cricket Team
  2. Sunil Chhetri: Caption of Indian Football Team
  3. Venus Williams: American Tennis Player and Grand Slam champion
  4. Lewis Hamilton: A British Formula One Racer
  5. Mike Tyson: American Professional Boxer
  6. Patrik Baboumian: Holds multiple weightlifting world records and was declared Germany’s strongest man.
  7. Carl Lewis: Carl has an illustrious career with 9 gold and one silver Olympic medals voted World Athlete of the Decade for the 1980s and was also voted as Olympic Athlete of the Century.

There are hundreds of such names in almost all sports, be it surfing, long-distance running, climbing, etc. These athletes are live proof that you don’t need animal protein to gain muscles and improve performance. Anyone can gain and build muscles on a plant based diet.

Happy Healthy eating to all. 🙂 Stay healthy and stay fit. 🙂

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