Vegan Bodybuilder Shares What He Eats to Build Muscle Without Supplements
Robert Cheeke is one of the rare bodybuilders who create winning muscles on a vegan diet and doesn't turn to supplements in order to bulk up. Here he shares his secrets to a naturally strong physique that can win contests and raves at the beach.
The two-time natural bodybuilding champion now tours the country telling others how they can achieve their body goals, as he did. Cheeke was once that proverbial 120-pound weakling who now weighs 215 at his fighting weight. But he's not a fighter, in fact when you enter contests for natural bodybuilding you have to be tested for supplements and Cheeke takes absolutely nothing, other than vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts and a lot of beans.
Cheeke has founded a website to share his philosophy and his tips, for free, to anyone who wants to eat more plant-based proteins and add bulk to their frame. The site, Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, offers tips on how to make your waist tiny and your chest look larger, for instance.
Cheeke has been named One of the "Most Influential Vegan Athletes" in the world
Cheeke was named one of the "Most Influential Vegan Athletes" by VegNews and volunteers at Vegan Strong which is an expo where vegan bodybuilders help teach others how to eat a plant-based diet and build Schwartzeneger type muscles (A side note, Arnold himself is vegan today, but did not eat that way when he was competing.) The Game Changers documentary shows athletes at the top of their sports who believe eating plant-based helps them recover faster and have more endurance.
He shares his advice below, including his secret workout technique to build muscle without having to live in the gym. The four-time author of Shred It!, Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness; Plant-Based Muscle; How To Build A Successful Vegan Brand; is putting the finishing touches on his fifth book which he considers to be the best one yet, called The Plant-Based Athlete, to be published by Harper Collins later this summer.
The Beet was fortunate enough to hop on a Zoom call with Robert and he gives us all the secrets you need to know about how to build muscle naturally on a plant-based diet. You won't believe what he says about eating bananas.
Q: How long have you been vegan and what made you start?
RC: I've been vegan for 24 years. I know the exact date, it was December 8, 1995, I was 15 years old and a 5-sport athlete. Basketball, Track, Wrestling, Football, and Baseball. I was inspired to become vegan for animal rights, from my older sister's example. She organized an animal rights week at our high school when she was a senior and I was a sophomore. I attended and participated to support her, and I expected my vegan lifestyle to last a week, and here I am 25 years later.
Q: What's your favorite source of vegan protein?
RC: It's not something I focus on, I've been eating vegan for a long time, so I know what works for me. I eat a lot of burrito bowls that are full of protein-rich food like beans.
Q: How many calories do you eat a day?
RC: I generally eat 3,100 calories a day based on my height and weight, which is 6 feet and 215. My calories vary depending on my physical activity that day. If I'm training, I'll eat more.
Q: What's your favorite vegan protein powder and how much protein do you eat?
RC: I stopped using protein powders eight years ago. I was working for Vega back then, so I used a lot of supplements. But after I retired from competitive bodybuilding in 2010, I worked for Forks Over Knives, and I realized that I didn't need to consume all those protein drinks after all.
I took T. Colin Campbell's course through the Center for Nutrition Studies and that's what inspired me to eliminate all sports supplements from my diet. Since then, I have only supplemented with Vitamin B12 –no other supplements or pre-workout drinks, and I am bigger and stronger now than I ever ways when I used lots of vegan sports supplements. It was Forks Over Knives and Dr. Campbell's online course through Cornell University that inspired me to move away from protein powders and sports supplements. I haven't used them since.
Back then I was consuming around 300 grams of protein a day, and now I have about 100 grams of protein, which has improved my performance results. I focus on my nutrient intake, such as vitamins, minerals, and of course high energy foods instead of worrying about eating heavy-protein foods. By doing this I got bigger and stronger, which surprised everyone.
Most people don't realize how much protein they're consuming, and it's usually too much. Protein is the only macronutrient we can't store. The body stores fats and carbs and uses it as energy. Protein is a "terrible" source of energy because the body can't turn it into fuel fast enough, it's the last resort of energy for your body if you are lacking fats and carbs.
Therefore, I concluded that focusing on mostly whole plant foods (and very little processed foods) was a healthy and effective way to achieve fitness results.
Q: What do you eat for breakfast?
RC: Today for breakfast I had cubed Yucan gold Potatoes that I made in a pressure cooker last night and heated them up today in the microwave. Some days I'll have oatmeal with fruits and nuts and other days I'll just have a fruit bowl with lots of berries like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and I'll add bananas, oranges, and apples.
Q: What's Your Favorite Vegan Smoothie for Building Muscles?
RC: I don't really drink smoothies because they take too much time to make. I'm a 12-hour workday person, I'd rather just peel a banana or eat blueberries out of the clamshell container. But, if I were to have a smoothie, it would be a fruit smoothie made with high antioxidant berries and bananas for thick texture.
Q: Do you have a pre or post-workout snack or fuel?
RC: Before I workout, I eat bananas. I stay away from pre-workout supplements and I don't consume any caffeine, ever. I eat two to three bananas on my drive to the gym and drink water.
After I workout, I have a burrito bowl with lentils, rice, broccoli. Sometimes I'll eat a buddha bowl with yams, quinoa, lentils, vegetables, avocado, and add peanut sauce to the bowl I like to eat a good mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and leafy greens in their whole form.
Q: How much did you weigh before you went vegan and how much do you weigh now?
RC: When I first went vegan in 1995, I weighed 120 pounds. [In high school.] By 2003, I weighed 195 pounds and by 2005, I won my first bodybuilding competition, and the second win in 2009, with 4 runner-ups. Today, I weigh just about 215 pounds, the most I have ever weighed, effectively gaining nearly 100 pounds on a plant-based diet over the past quarter-century.
Q: What are the best exercises for muscle building?
RC: I train 1-2 muscle groups per workout. So that's either chest and back, arms and shoulders, or legs and abs. I do 8- 12 reps per set, 4 sets per exercise, so that's normally 5 or 6 different exercises. I'm done in an hour and 15 minutes.
Q: If you only had 30 minutes to work out, what would you do?
RC: If I had 30 minutes I would do a total body workout to keep the pace up, which includes lunges, squats, and push-ups. I don't do much cardio but when I do I'll use the StairMaster, walk my two dogs (who are plant-based), or play basketball.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who's starting a plant-based diet?
RC: They have to understand why they're making the switch, it will help them stay on track. I went vegan because I didn't want to hurt animals and that helped keep my commitment strong.
They also need to figure out how they can "veganize" their favorite foods because you don't want it to feel like a chore or an obligation. If you like pizza or lasagna, make a plant-based version. I eat vegan burritos, vegan tacos, vegan Mediterranian platters, and vegan sushi.
Discover what you have been missing out on. Try new foods like exotic fruits.
Q: What advice do you give a client who feels like they're giving up on a vegan diet?
RC: Evaluate what you're actually doing that's making you feel this way because 99% of people have no idea what they're eating. People eat a lot of oil and on the weekends they forget about their diets and eat food full of oil, salt, and sugar. Restaurant food is filled with these bad ingredients that can destroy the diet or eating habits. If they're not seeing or feeling any results, I encourage people to get to the bottom of the problem. Maybe it's because you're consuming too much caffeine and not sleeping well so the recovery isn't good. Maybe you're not consuming enough fiber because 97% of Americans don't. Make positive changes that help you stay on track.
Q: What's your favorite vegan restaurant?
RC: I've just moved to Colorado from Arizona and my favorite vegan restaurant in Arizona is a chain called Loving Hut, an Asian fast food vegan restaurant. The company is based in Taiwan and they're nationwide. The dining is nothing fancy, not expensive, and the food has large portions--the way I love to eat. I normally order the Buddha Bowl with fried rice, vegetables, and tofu.
Q: How does being a vegan bodybuilder affect your performance compared to nonvegan bodybuilders?
RC: I've spent about 10 years competing in bodybuilding competitions. I normally place ahead of people and I've won multiple competitions. The first competition I won was in 2005 and I told everyone I was vegan and they were shocked, by 2010 I was carrying more size in terms of muscle. I was one of the early vegan bodybuilders, at a time where it really shocked people. It still shocks people now but I want to get rid of that and teach people that all the protein you need is in plants.