Reading time: About 9 minutes — or less than half the time it takes the entire grit-eating world to make grits.
Why Am I Doing This?
It’s not because I think I am the most jacked or in-shape dude out there. I am certainly not (as evidenced below), nor am I looking to be.
But I am trying make a point and rewrite a current, potentially dangerous, narrative regarding muscle gain.
There are a three main reasons:
- I want to debunk the myth that adding muscle requires meat, protein shakes, and heavy weights. And in fact, those things can be quite unhealthy and lead to injury;
- To show that adding muscle does not take a whole lot of time or 6-day-per-week, burnout workouts; and
- Ok, ok, to muscularize my recently veeg-ified, scrawny bod.
I will take them in order and then provide you with the results.
Protein Shakes and Bench Presses
There are two common beliefs regarding muscle-growth: (1) heavy weights are necessary / ideal and (2) you need a LOT of protein to build muscle (enter: “healthy” protein shake).
From my research, these views are not only inaccurate, but both heavy lifting and protein shakes may ultimately cause more harm then good to your overall health.
To be clear, I am not saying they won’t help you gain muscle— they will.
When I was most into weight-lifting about 5 years ago, I was drinking protein shakes, taking branched-chain amino acid supplements (BCAAs), and basically doing my high school football workout: bench, squat, deadlift, power clean, etc with heavy weights. Over a span of about six months, using John Romaniello’s program (blog, book) combined with a few others (e.g. Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Body), I gained the most muscle and strength I’d ever had. But that also came with some unexpected trade-offs.
The question is— what’s your goal?
If it’s purely strength and muscle gain — those programs are phenomenal and will undoubtedly work if you stick to them. Same with Cross-Fit and eating pounds of meat per day (something I also did for years).
But if your goal is building muscle while maintaining overall health, it might be worth considering other, less taxing options.
The Problem with Heavy Lifting
Over that span of a couple years where I was doing football / Cross-Fit type lifting and eating a lot of meat, two things happened: (1) I got injured and (2) though I looked “in shape,” I wasn’t necessarily healthy.
I’ve written about my concerns regarding heavy-lifting and Cross-Fit in my TB12 Experience. That article sums up what the future NFL Hall-of-Famer has learned about fitness, health, and injury, and the basis for his being in the best shape of his life at 41. I’ll quickly highlight some points here.
First, according to Brady, and many other athletes who have switched from barbells to bodyweight, lifting heavy weights increases the load on your body, which significantly increasing your risk to injury. The injury risk is increased because as you add weight, your allowance for error decreases. For example, the same errant move while squatting with 200 pounds on your back (e.g. curving your back), with it’s increase in pressure, is far more likely to lead to injury versus just body weight squats.
Second, in an atmosphere like a Cross-Fit, or any class where you are lifting weights at fast speeds, this risk increases. The reason is, as Wharton professor, Jonah Berger has shown, the group will make you want to “win” or at least keep up. This may lead you to sacrifice form in order to achieve numbers. Good for your pride, bad for your back.
This is why probably everyone you know who does Cross-Fit lumbers around with some back, knee, or shoulder issue. Here’s a decent Vox article on the science.
Luckily for this experiment, I had 12 Minute Athlete founder Krista Stryker to design and coach me through the workouts. Krista’s goal is to increase intensity at the lowest possible risk, having experienced injury prior to 12MA via heavy weights. This is why she uses only bodyweight and resistance bands.
The other advantage to Krista’s system— you can workout almost anywhere. If you spend a lot of time in hotels and Airbnb’s like I do (and did during this experiment), this is a major plus.
Now, if you avoid the heavy weights, you may still be tempted to grab a Muscle Milk or Quest Bar after your bodyweight workout.
I’d consider an alternative…
The Problem with Protein Shakes
The problem with protein shakes is two-fold: (1) most are not healthy (2) building muscle requires less protein than we think.
All protein shakes and bars that I’m aware of have one of the following problems:
- They add sugar or alternative sweeteners. Sugar is a Red Light Food (i.e. consensus unhealthy). Alternative sweeteners are at least a Yellow-Light (i.e. at least controversial). You may think sweeteners are ‘fine,’ but rarely would anyone credible say to you— “adding sugar or sweetener to this will increase your health.” At best, it’s a risk.
- They use whey protein (a dairy-derived protein). I point out the controversy surrounding dairy in my Yellow-Light post. I know plenty of people who are drinking almond milk lattes (avoiding diary) and yet still taking whey supplements. Seems to be defeating the purpose given whey comes from dairy. (P.s. most non-dairy milks suffer from problem #1).
- They add other ingredients whose health impacts are unclear. Here are some ingredients from the top protein shakes and bars: maltodextrin, sodium hexametaphosphate, carrageenan. Your guess is as good as mine.
- They contain arsenic, mercury, cadmium, or other metals. This article discusses some of the studies. Some very popular brands are cited as metal-heavy. Note that “organic” or “plant-based” do not provide automatic respite from this..
- They aren’t whole-foods. There is one thing you can get consistently from most researchers—whole-foods (e.g. fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, fish, whole-grains) are better than supplements. There are many examples where the supplement has been shown ineffective (e.g. vitamin C) or even harmful (e.g. vitamin E, vitamin A) in supplement form, but the opposite would be true in the whole-food form (like broccoli or citrus for C and avocados and greens for E).
With all of this risk, it would seem preferable to me to go with whole-foods. The reply argument to this is usually (1) I don’t have time or (2) I can’t eat all of that protein in whole-food form.
For (1) “I don’t have time.” I’m not your mother, but is this true? Or are you prioritizing other things over health?
For (2) — well how much protein do you actually need?
In Part 1, I show how much protein you need. There seem to be two crucial points:
1. The consensus seems to be that you require the following amounts of protein:
- 8 grams of protein per KG of body weight to meet daily requirements
- 1 – 1.2 grams of protein per KG of bodyweight to maintain muscle for athletes
- 1.2 or more g of protein per KG of bodyweight to build muscle
For example, my bodyweight is ~165. In kilograms that’s about 75. 75 kg x 1.2 = 90 g of protein to add muscle.
2. This can be done via plant foods such as beans, whole-grains, and nuts.
Most with whom I’ve talked or read in the past have made points that do not coincide with the above data (data from the World Health Organization and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). They would tell you that you need lean meats and eggs, and that you should be eating upwards of one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight or more.
For me that would be like eating 165-200 grams of protein per day— a total I never got close to.
Intuitively, with the questions surrounding meat and high-calorie diets as they relate to optimal health and life span among experts— does 200 grams of cow-derived protein per day sound like it’s most likely to be the healthiest way to go?
Seems to be, at minimum, worthy of investigation.
Ok, now that you have the gist of what am trying to do— adding muscle in the healthiest, low-risk-for-injury way possible— let me stop stalling and get to the results.
Quick review of the ground rules and goals I set up for myself:
- Goal: Add 5 pounds of lean body mass (muscle), measured by a DEXA scan
- Time Period: 100 days
- Diet: 100% Vegan.
- Muscle-Building or Protein Supplements: Zero. All whole-plant foods.
- Exercise Type: Bodyweight and resistance bands only. No weights.
Unfortunately, I was not able to stick to this plan.
Yes, I ate a completely vegan diet with no protein supplements. And yes, I did not exercise with anything but my body and some resistant bands.
So what did I miss?
It was the time period of 100 days.
After I published Part 1, I realized that the end of the 100 day test was going to bleed into a trip to Paris that I had planned. Now if you think for a second that I was going to go to Paris and NOT eat about 30 croissants and baguettes, you got another thing comin.’
Because of this, I wasn’t able to gain 5 lbs in 100 days…
I did it in 60.
That’s right, two months.
Just 8ish weeks of push-ups, pull-ups, and lentil soups. At 2-3 workouts per week, it really wasn’t that daunting.
And not only did I do it in 60 days, but those 60 days included: a trip to Albany (forcing me to do pull-ups on a ladder), a wedding in Madison, WI, a trip to NYC, five days in Aspen, and two bachelor parties: one in Park City, Utah, and one in Cartagena, Columbia. Not exactly ideal muscle-building circumstances.
I’ll show you my results in two ways:
- Increased Strength. Improvements in repetitions per exercise from beginning to end, then
- Increased Mass. DEXA scan results.
And if you’re lucky, a shirtless, frowning, pale picture of yours truly…
Improvements in Exercises
Here’s a shot of my first work out. As you can see, the reps are pretty minuscule. Most of them barely getting to the target range (6-8 for pull-ups, 15-20 for push-ups) in the first set, and none of them making the target by the third and final set.
In defense of my panziness: (a) these are ‘strict’ pull ups and push ups— all the way down and all the way up, controlled— not any of that half-rep nonsense and (b) I hadn’t performed strength training in quite some time.
Ok, ego— you good? Good. Great. Time to move to the results…
Now take a look at a September workout, a mere 2 months later. This time clearing the target range with the first set (easily with the push-ups), and getting towards the upper part of the target with my third set.
As you can see, my completed reps doubled in the third set from beginning to end. Overall, I experienced a 60% increase in total reps. (At the time of this post, each number has gone up another 10-15% or so).
Not bad for chickpeas and quinoa.
Here’s a 20 sec vid on some of the exercises I used (all are noted in Part 1):
So, my muscular performance and strength clearly improved significantly. But did I gain 5 pounds of muscle mass?
Improvements in Muscle Mass (Measured by X-Ray)
Increase in muscular strength does not equal increase in muscle-mass. Yes, they tend to be correlated, but just because you can do more push ups, does not mean you have increased your bust.
Why is that? According to research, muscular strength can be increased not just by bigger muscles, but by supporting factors such as bone structure / density and neural improvements.
That means I still had to pass the ultimate tester— the DEXA scan.
And here she is:
Exactly 5 pounds of muscle (6 lbs overall). I know, seems a little convenient. But this is what the damn X-Ray says people.
Now, you’ll also notice that my total fat went up by a pound, keeping my fat percentage the same. This will happen when you’re trying to figure out how to get to 2300 calories with plants. I probably was overdoing it with the fat sources (avocado, nuts, seeds) during the non-workout days (that has since dropped below the starting point).
And for those of you concerned about bone density, a measure correlated with probability of osteoporosis and other health risks, mine tripled from 0.1 to 0.3. (As of this post, I have reached that upper third percentile of 0.5 – 1.5).
Again, the point is not that I’m the strongest, most jacked dude. I’m clearly not. The point is to rethink what we believe is necessary for building muscle and to show that it can be done without the risk inherent in heavy weights and high meat / protein shake diets.
Thanks again to Krista Stryker, from the 12 Minute Athlete for training me. You are amazing.
Ok… FINE. Here’s a before / after. Tried to go for the smiling before, frowning after technique. I’m an idiot.
You’ll notice some more bulk, includuing a little chunkiness under the naval. I guess I’ll have to hit up some ab sculpting classes in December…
Not to self: get a tan. You live in LA for Christ’s sake.