How to Build Muscle and Boost Performance, By a Vegan Bodybuilder
Robert Cheeke celebrated his 26th year of eating a fully plant-based diet and realized he was feeling at the peak of his health and fitness. "I'm in the best shape I've ever been in, at 41 years old," says the vegan bodybuilder. Now he is devoting his life to helping others feel the same way. He has written a book with runner Matt Frazier and interviewed 60 other vegan athletes who share their tips for eating healthy, building strong, lean, muscle mass, and training at peak performance–all on a vegan diet. Cheeke says he has learned more by talking to other athletes who share their plant-based diet and training secrets and now he wants other people to benefit from all this wisdom including how to get adequate protein on a vegan diet. "You don't need to eat meat to be strong."
When Cheeke first cut out meat and dairy as a teenager he did it to support his sister, who organized an animal rights week at their high school. He recalls his life being completely different then. His body was skinny, lean, built more like a runner, completely the opposite of his current frame, which is closer to the Hulk: Robert carries 220 pounds on his 6-foot frame, and as a bodybuilder, he intentionally bulked up his muscular physique to put on 70 pounds over the first 8 years, which he says should put to rest any doubts about the ability to build muscle on a vegan diet. He has added another 30 pounds since he retired from competitive bodybuilding to reach his all-time biggest frame. His best secret? Cheeke doesn't take any supplements, aside from Vitamin B-12, and fills up on clean protein from plants, like beans, oats, lentils, and (added those other sources to show more variety of what I really eat) sweet potatoes.
Cheeke's decision to change his diet was quickly followed by an eagerness to build muscle, add lean body weight, and compete in bodybuilding competitions. He was able to not just compete as a vegan bodybuilder, but win competitions. Cheeke made a ground-breaking impact in the sport of bodybuilding on a plant-based diet in the nearly ten years of competing.
Heading into his 26th year on a plant-based diet he decided that the next phase of his career is going to be devoted to educating others about how to switch to a meat-free diet and thrive. Like many elite athletes fueled by plants, Cheeke is on a mission to help spread the word that plants have all the protein you need. The retired competitive bodybuilder points out that he's spent a quarter-century of his life 'debunking the myth' that you need animal protein to be strong. Cheeke is a true believer in adding more plants to your plate to build strong muscle and wants to inspire others with the compelling stories of plant-based athletes and how a veggie-filled diet helped set world records.
"I weigh 220 pounds, I'm 6 feet tall, and I was born to run. I'm naturally built like a runner, and for me to walk around with all this weight isn't easy, but one of my goals is to show that you can build muscle on a vegan diet. It's one of the things that motivates me to keep building strong muscle."
He wrote the book on how to build muscle on a plant-based diet
Cheeke completed a new book, The Plant-Based Athlete: A Game-Changing Approach to Peak Performance, published by Harper Collins and available in stores everywhere on June 15th. The book focuses on how to train and build muscle on a vegan diet, with the help of other athletes who have shared their stories. It includes tips on meal prep, the basics of plant-based nutrition, and includes stories of dozens of other plant-based athletes, as well as tips from many plant-based experts. "It's a how-to book, and that's the great part about it," he explains. Anyone can do what he did, or get stronger on a vegan diet.
"I asked 60 athletes to tell me their stories of how they became the best at what they do on a vegan diet. The book is also a how-to guide: How to create meal plans, or how to to build muscle, or how to create a new plan for endurance. They tell you how to recover better so you can perform better. Athletes reading this book will learn what their calorie needs are so they can maintain a healthy weight while training. "It turns out that 99% of people don't know how many calories they consume and expend," Cheeke says, which is why so many people either lose or gain weight unintentionally.
Cheeke's co-author is another vegan athlete: Matt Fraizer, who transformed from a casual long-distance runner to an elite athlete by changing his diet. He will be the first to tell you that when he first started running, he sucked. He was brand new to long-distance running and had an audacious goal to run the Boston Marathon, and while he managed to complete a full marathon, it took him more than four and a half hours to complete it, which meant he missed the qualifying cut-off time by an hour and a half. He decided to start a plant-based diet after hearing about aspects of recovery, and by the time he was fully plant-based he qualified for the Boston marathon, squeaking under the wire by one second. But he had shaved off an hour and a half from his first marathon time and reached the goal he set out to achieve.
Together the vegan runner and vegan bodybuilder have written the book
When we asked Cheeke how he and Frazier met, he said that Frazier attended one of his lectures in Washington D.C. when he was on tour more than a decade ago. "Matt told me that I was one of his original plant-based athlete" inspirations and motivations that helped him change his diet and find his path," Cheeke said. "I'm truly honored and grateful," he added.
Frazier approached Cheeke at the conference and ever since then they've stayed in touch, now motivating each other to do better. They shared stories and bonded over recipes and training tips. Each of them knows more vegan athletes and they decided to reach into their extensive circles to interview elite plant-based athletes to share their stories, tips, and") to contribute recipes, and what they got was so much more. The book has recipes and tips from Olympic athletes and World Champions alike, so you can learn what an Olympic figure skater or a world champion cyclist eats on a vegan diet.
"We have a typical day in the life of 25 World-class athletes," Cheeke says. Sample workouts, their entire routine, from when they wake up through when they go to sleep. The world is a lot different if you're an Olympic athlete. You fit in multiple workouts, visualization, and if you're a triathlete, you might spend 100 miles on your bike, or hours in the pool.
"What we hope people take away from each person's story is the inspiration of how you can be plant-based and train at peak performance. I was especially inspired by Rich Roll, John Joseph, and Rip Esselstyn, who are all in their late 50s and still training and fit. Rip set a world record two years ago, But he seems to say: I'm not slowing down because I'm nearing 60.
And John Joeseph, who is 58, still competes in Ironman triathlons, and is out there training for hours every day, he excelled late in life. These stories serve as a strong example for me and hopefully others, and the expression all three of them use over and over is to keep showing up. You don't achieve things overnight, it's actions taken every day that accumulates then you produce the results. We have the blueprint.
5 Easy Tips on How to Build Muscle From a Vegan Bodybuilder
TIP 1: First know what your calorie needs are. The only way to build muscle is when you have a caloric surplus, that's just how science works. You may be surprised to know that 99 percent of people don’t know how many calories they consume versus how many calories they expend.
You can't add mass and muscle when you're in a calorie deficit. I advise people to use the Harris-Benedict equation or calculator that reveals approximately how many calories they expend every day based on their gender, height, weight, and activity level. Bottom line: Simply eat more calories of good, quality sources and combine that with your regular training in order to build muscle. That's where it starts.
TIP 2: Secondly, to build muscle, do progressive overload training, meaning that you need to lift weights and do more reps on a regular basis. For example and let's start small: If you're pressing 20-pound dumbells, then a week later try pressing 25 pounds, then a week later try 30 pounds and add 5 pounds each week. After a month, you will press a significant amount of weight compared to where you started, and ultimately you will not only build muscle but gain strength.
TIP 3: Eat quality calories with nutrient-dense foods like sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, rice, oats, green vegetables, and other cruciferous vegetables. These foods will suit you better in the long run because they will help energize your workouts and reduce inflammation for better recovery. Overall, getting better nutrition will help your cells and your muscle tissue repair better.
TIP 4: Have some sort of goal in mind. You need an objective. If you're just spinning your wheels, going through the motions, or if you’re just checking off boxes, then you're not going to achieve as much as if you set a specific goal. For example, set a goal based on the amount of weight you want to lift, body mass you want to achieve, or reach x milestone by x date. Have a compelling reason why you want to be stronger, build muscle, feel healthier, otherwise, on the days when you're tired or feel like eating junk food, then you'll be more inclined to do that and your progress will collapse, and that's when you start building bad habits.
TIP 5: Have an accountability partner whether that's a training partner or having a social media buddy where you share your workouts with each other. You can also use an online journal where you keep track of your training like My Fitness Pal where you can log your data. For me, I like to add muscle-building pictures to my online groups and that's my form of accountability.
The Beet: How can we convince meat-eaters or anyone for that matter, that plant-based foods have all the protein we need?
Robert Cheeke: There are two ways. The first one is already proven by science. The second one is to lead by example. First, science explains that we can get all the amino acids we need from plants, some in higher amounts and some in smaller amounts, depending on what you eat. At the end of the day, it comes down to your calorie intake. Ask yourself: How many calories a day are you consuming and from what sources do you consume your calories?
Fundamentally and scientifically, you will get all the protein you need because amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The other way to convince people is to show them. For example, I've put on one-hundred pounds since I've been vegan. I went from 120 pounds to 220, and yes that took a while, but I put on 70 pounds in the first eight years which is about 10 pounds a year. The proof is in the experience and results and that's not just me. There are countless athletes and champions in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and strength sports like football, mixed martial arts, not just endurance sports like running, skiing, snowboarding, but in "real power" sports. People want to see examples and they want to know that people have done it and how effectively have they done it. The bottom line, show people that it's possible.
The Beet: In our last interview, you mentioned that you don't take any supplements. Is that still true and do you think other people should be open to supplements?
Robert Cheeke: Yes, correct. I haven't taken supplements aside from Vitamin B-12 for the last 10 years, but just recently, actually, three days ago, I started taking Matt Frazier's Complement supplement because he wrote about it in our book, and it includes Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D, Vitamin K2, DHA + EPA Omega-3 EFAs, and hard to get minerals like zinc, so I'm giving it a try. I don't take any sports supplements at all, nor have I in a decade and I'm the biggest and strongest I've ever been. We don't need to load up on protein powders but you can if you want if you feel like you need extra protein for whatever reason it is, but you can also get all the protein you need from food. I advise eating more legumes, leafy greens, grains, nuts, and seeds, or nut butters. Eat the things that don't sound like they are protein-rich foods like sweet potatoes or apples because those kinds of foods all add up and you will get enough protein without thinking about it. I do think everyone could benefit from vitamin B12 and likely from vitamin D-- I tend to get outside in the sun a lot. I also recommend people eat more foods with essential fatty acids like flaxseeds.
Everything a Vegan Bodybuilder Eats in a Day
Breakfast: In the morning I really focus on hydration. I stay up pretty late at night so I get a late start. I like to drink flavored water like Bela Wellness from my Vegan Strong Box. Then, I normally have a banana in the morning as well as an orange, apple, or any other citrus fruit. I don't like to eat heavy foods in the morning. Sometimes, I'll have oatmeal with fruit and nuts if I need to eat more calories for that specific day. I do like to drink fruit smoothies sometimes.
Snacks: I keep it simple. I like to eat fruit throughout the day or I'll have a Lara bar that has 4 or 5 ingredients that are mostly nuts or fruits. Right before I workout, I eat a banana, I digest it easier than any other fruit and it's filling.
Lunch and Dinner: I like meals like burrito bowls, plant-based sushi, and my wife has been making a lot of those meals, I eat a lot of international cuisines. Thai food, Mexican food, Ethiopian food. Noodle dishes, plant-based burgers--I try to keep it pretty clean. My post-workout is typically dinner because I work out at night.
Robert Cheeke's Workout Routine is Easier Than You Think
The Beet: What's your workout routine like? How often do you exercise?
Robert Cheeke: I start my day by walking my dogs for about 30 to 60 minutes. Sometimes I walk uphill or through trails but it's a good use of cardio. I train 5 to 6 days a week and I lift weights for 60 to 90 minutes depending on the muscle group then every other day I end my workout with 20 to 40 minutes on the stair master and I climb about 100 flights of stairs at a time, I do this for extra cardio.
The Beet: Let's talk about your upcoming book: What was the inspiration behind it?
Robert Cheeke: The true inspiration behind the book is to tell the compelling stories of the world's greatest plant-based athletes. I wanted to shed light on some of the athletes you have probably never heard of before but are so good at what they do. For example, Laura Kline is a multi-sport athlete and the best at what she does. Another example is Darcy Gaither who is a world champion kayaker. She kayaked the entire length of the Amazon River fueled by plants and most recently she ran 40 miles in the Colorado Mountains to celebrate her birthday. I also wanted to highlight some of the more famous vegan athletes most people have heard about like Scott Jurek or Rich Roll who shared their stories on how they achieved the results they have by eating a plant-based diet.
I actually started the book in 2013, I pitched it to publishers and had a literary agent and the concept, and made good progress and the book was almost picked up by a publisher, but it ended up not working out. So, during that time I went back to the basics and I self-published some books. But, as the plant-based athlete awareness grew thanks to all the hard work we've done and with the help of The Game Changers, I thought to myself, I think it's time to try this book again. Writing has always been a passion of mine and something I work really hard at, I've been working at it since the third grade. It's been a lifelong dream of mine to produce a book about this topic so I gave it another shot. I reached out to vegan ultra-marathoner Matt Frazier and we met up in person to talk about the idea. I said to him, "man I'd really love to do this book and be able to write about the best plant-based athletes in the world and really dive into their lifestyles, diets, training, and mindset, I want to know how they think, I want to share their stories on how they became who they are today. I also want to create a how-to method for anyone so if the reader is inspired by these athletes they can apply the methods to their own life, even if they're not plant-based now--that's what we aspire to do."
Frazier agreed to the concept and we spent the last two years working on the project. We landed a major publisher, Harper Collins, that took a lot of hard work that I'm super proud of. We also launched a hardcover book available on Amazon now and in major retailers like Target and Walmart on June 15th.
The Beet: What's the most powerful lesson we can all learn from these athletes?
Robert Cheeke: The message is, you have to show up. Day after day, that's with your training, diet, and goals, you don't become an athlete overnight and the same goes with getting in shape. What I love most about some of these athletes is that they weren't even trying to become athletes, they worked hard at overcoming something like drug addiction and found success as an athlete. They showed up every single day and became a champion. One of the themes throughout the entire book is that you have to believe in yourself because others aren't going to do it for you. You have to believe in yourself and find reasons to show up every day. It comes down to the people who have a mission who outshine the rest of the world. A lot of it comes from mental attitude and mental strength. You need the perseverance to have the desire to achieve high-fitness results.
The Beet: Have you changed something in your life after talking to these athletes?
Robert Cheeke: Great question, I've been much more disciplined with my training. I found that I can get a little bit complacent, especially after working on a book for so long. After talking to various athletes, both men and women, I feel more disciplined. I eat more salads even though that sounds cliche but there's a reason why people do it. I've also added the extra cardiovascular exercise of doing the stair master every other day. Those small adjustments that don't require a ton of effort all add up.
The Beet: Do you have a mantra?
Robert Cheeke: My mantra is inspired by H. Jackson Brown Jr. who said, "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than the things that you did do." That's why I want to help people chase their dreams and achieve their goals. And, that's why I've devoted a quarter-century of my life to veganism because I don't want to regret not doing the things I love that make a difference in the world around me.