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A Guide to Bulking and Cutting for Plant-Based Athletes

In recent years, plant-based diets have risen in popularity. An increasing number of people have adopted the plant-based lifestyle for its health benefits and ethics surrounding animal treatment.

The plant-based lifestyle has also begun peaking the interest of high-performance athletes — including bodybuilders, powerlifters, cross-fitters, UFC fighters, NFL Players, NBA Players, and more.

It is well-known these traditional athletes go through “bulking” and “cutting” cycles to achieve aesthetically pleasing physiques and the “perfect body weight” (at the perfect time, of course).

However, the question has been raised, “do these same strategies work for plant-based athletes? The simple answers is, yes.  This guide will tell you everything you need to know about “bulking” and “cutting” to achieve that perfect athletic and aesthetically pleasing body….all while eating plant-based.

Plant-Based Bulking Phase

In order to promote muscle growth, you must eat a caloric surplus.  It is recommended to incorporate a daily 400-800 calorie surplus into your diet. Are all calories created equal? No.

Carbs may have a bad reputation, but they’re a great way for athletes and bodybuilders to gain muscle and enhance recovery.
During a “bulking phase” your additional 400-800 worth of calories should consist of an increase in nutritious complex carbohydrates rather than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates provide a wide range of nutrients, including phytonutrients. Foods with phytonutrients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Since the goal is to pack to muscle, and not fat, starches and sugars should also be limited.

Here are some high-quality complex carbohydrates to incorporate into a plant-based “bulking phase”

  • Whole grains breads
  • Gluten-free and whole grain pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Wild rice
  • Buckwheat
  • All-Bran Cereal
  • Black Beans
  • Black-Eyed Peas
  • Garbanzo Beans (chickpeas)
  • Kidney Beans
  • Lentils
  • Lima Beans
  • Navy Beans
  • Pinto Beans
  • Potato
  • Quinoa
  • Rice (brown, colored and wild)
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Sweet Potato
  • Wheat
  • Wheat Berries
  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Vegetables
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts
  • Fruit

*Limited the amount of processed sugars. However, consuming sugar from fruit is recommended.

You may be thinking… “ carb up?…I have heard this before. Is that it?”  No, carbs are only a portion of the equation. If you are looking for lasting muscle gains you should also increase your monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are known as the “good fats”, and they should be a part of your caloric surplus. These types of fats are good for your heart, your cholesterol, your overall health, and sustaining serious muscle! These fats should be added to any plant-based eaters “bulking cycle”.

Here are high-quality fats to incorporate into a plant-based “bulking phase”

  • Avocado
  • Nuts (Walnuts, almonds, pistachios, peanuts)
  • Nut Butters
  • Olives
  • Olive oil
  • Tofu
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Dark chocolate
  • Edamame
  • Lentils
  • Green peas


But…where do you get your protein?

Protein is the main component for building muscle, and protein is just as necessary for plant-based athletes as it is for carnivores.  When you exercise and lift weights, you create tiny micro tears in your muscles. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down and uses those amino acids to repair the tears. In order to get bigger and stronger, you will need to consume 1g protein per 1 lb of lean body mass, daily.

Here is an example that will help you calculate your daily protein goals:

  • Body weight: 200lbs
  • Approximate body fat: 20%
  • Body mass = (body weight x body fat %) OR in this case (200 x 20%) = 160
  • 160lbs body mass x 1g =  160g

You should consume 160 grams of protein per day!

Here are plant-based proteins you can consume during a “bulking stage”

How Should I Train During a Bulking Phase?

Simply eating more carbs, fats, and proteins doesn’t mean you’ll gain muscle mass. You also need to exercise and weight train with heavy compound lifts at a moderate rep-range.

Out of all the exercises, perhaps the most important ones are the big 3. You must have heard bodybuilders and athletes talking about the big three exercises and maybe even wondered what these big 3 powerlifting exercises are.

Well, we will answer that question for you today. The big 3 powerlifting exercises are squats, deadlift, and bench press.

But all these exercises must be done with proper techniques and in proper repitiation. Here is a technique guide that will help you perform the big 3 powerlifting exercises correctly:

Plant-Based Bulking Cheat Sheet

  • Daily 400-800 calorie surplus
  • Consume 1g protein per 1 lb of lean body mass
  • Increase carbohydrates
  • Increase healthy fats
  • Heavy compound lifts, 5-8 reps per set
  • Limited cardio


Plant-Based Cutting Phase

When looking to shed body fat, there is no magical and unattainable formula. It comes down to simple math…you must burn more calories than you consume. A calorie deficit is an absolute must. A calorie deficit occurs when you take in fewer calories than your body needs to operate throughout the day.

When your body is in a caloric deficit, it uses excess body fat for energy to power through your day. However, since the body is just as content with converting lean muscle mass into energy, we have to be careful not to burn our hard earned muscle.

For cutting, a daily 400-800 calorie deficit is recommended. However, just like your “bulking phase”, not all of these calories are created equal.

How Much Protein Should I Consume During a Cutting Phase?

When looking to cut body fat and maintain muscle mass, protein is king.  While restricting your calories will help you reduce body fat, you want to make sure that you’re consuming a high amount of protein in order to maintain muscle mass. During a cutting phase, a high protein diet helps your body to better maintain muscle mass and keep you feeling full! This, in turn, will increase your overall amount of weight lost from fat, and not that hard earned muscle. During a “cutting phase”, it is recommended to consume 1.2g protein per 1 lb of lean body mass.

So, as an example, if you weigh 200lbs at are 20% body fat, that would please your lean body mass at 160lbs. You should consume 192 grams of protein per day!

Here is an example that will help you calculate your daily protein goals:

  • Body weight: 200lbs
  • Approximate body fat: 20%
  • Body mass = (body weight x body fat %) OR in this case (200 x 20%) = 160
  • 160lbs body mass x 1.2g =  192g

You should consume 192 grams of protein per day!

What about Carbs?

Carbohydrates are an energy source in food that comes from starch, sugar and cellulose. Carbohydrates provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber in the diet. However, not all carbs are created equal. During a “cutting phase”  it is recommended to reduce “refined” carbohydrates, nearly eliminated processed sugars, and increase fiber rich foods.


Here are refined carbs to eliminate a plant-based “cutting phase”:

  • White Breads
  • Pasta
  • Cereal
  • Beer
  • Juice
  • Soda
  • Honey
  • Starchy vegetables (corn, potato, beets)
  • All processed sugars

Should I Eliminate Fat all Together?

While it’s common to reduce fat intake on a cutting diet, not eating enough fat can affect the production of hormones like testosterone and IGF-1, which aid in the preservation of muscle mass. During a cutting phase, it is recommended to reduce your healthy fat intake by about 15%, and totally eliminate the “bad fats”

Here are bad fats to eliminate from your “cutting phase”

  • butter
  • margarine
  • animal fats (beef, steak, pork, chicken)
  • high-fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream)
  • Oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter)

How Should I Train During a Cutting Phase?

Just like eating more carbs, fats, and proteins doesn’t mean you’ll gain muscle mass, simply reducing your carbs and fats, will not give you that desired “shredded beach body”.

Your training program must be altered to incorporate

  • Super-sets
  • high volume
  • 8-15 reps per set
  • HIIT training
  • Steady State cardio


Plant-Based Cutting Cheat Sheet

  • Daily 400-800 calorie deficit
  • Consume 1.2g protein per 1 lb of lean body mass
  • Reduce carbohydrates
  • Reduce fats
  • Increase fiber
  • Super-sets, high volume, 8-15 reps per set
  • HIIT training and steady State cardio


If you’re thinking about introducing bulking and cutting into your regime, make sure incorporate the strategies above. Simply put, these strategies work. You can achieve the same, or even better results, as a plant-based athlete. Take it slow and as always, listen to your body.

Here is a Summary of everything you need to know about plant-based bulking and plant-based cutting cycles: 

Plant-Based Bodybuilding Tips - Elevate Nutrition


Written by Elevate Co-Founder Paul Salomone


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