Can an Ethical Vegan Gain Muscle? Yes!

Image description: Tracy with short blond hair, tattooed arm and a red tank is looking through the viewfinder of a camera, facing into a mirror, with an infinity affect. “Definitions” is in a green banner on the mirror. Let’s say the ethical / environmental arguments for adopting a vegan lifestyle (including a plant-based diet) convince you. You’re sure that’s the way to go if you care about animals enough not to want to contribute to their suffering, which consuming factory farmed animal products most certainly will. And you’re sure it’s the way to go if you care about the planet — we’ve all heard the one about the vegan who drives a Hummer having a smaller carbon footprint than an omnivore who drives a hybrid. It outdoes local and organic. If you care about the environment then plant-based is the way to go.

But a lot of people think that you can’t get stronger on a vegan diet. They think it’s inevitable that the quality of your muscles will suffer. When Sam and I embarked on our fittest by fifty challenge five years ago on our 48th birthdays, I had a young personal trainer who kept blaming my weight plateau on my vegan food choices. It was discouraging and I ended up having to let him go.

For the past two years I’ve eaten a largely vegan diet with only minor wandering off the path very occasionally (the wandering are for entirely unprincipled reasons but hey I’m not perfect). I’ve also been working out with a new personal trainer. He has never once called my vegan diet into question. Nor has he ever expressed any skepticism about my potential to get stronger and leaner.

And guess what? I am stronger and leaner than I was two years ago. My muscles are harder and I can do all sorts of things (pull-ups! Push-ups! Vinyasa flows without having to modify on my knees) I couldn’t do it struggled with a lot two years ago. This is despite frequent travel and no structured food plan beyond sticking to a plant based diet.

I am an intuitive eater who doesn’t deprive myself of foods I want. I hit the weights twice a week unless travelling. I run three to four times a week unless traveling somewhere where I can’t. And I go to one yoga class a week when I’m in town. I’m 53 and I’m the strongest, leanest and most Fit I’ve ever been in my life (even counting my mid-twenties when I worked out for three hours a day, four to five days a week).

This isn’t to boast (though I do feel good about it because well, it feels good!!). Rather it is to say “rubbish!” to the naysayers who challenge the vegan diet for its purported inability to support strength, lean mass, and fitness.

There are quite a few vegan endurance athletes (like Rich Roll and Scott Jurek) and even a new trend in vegan body builders (again, mostly men). So it’s not as if it can’t be done. You don’t hear a lot about women, but my case shows it’s possible to engage in a moderate routine combining resistance training with cardio and balance/flexibility training on a plant-based diet and get stronger. That’s without supplements either (other than occasionally B12 and a bit of pumpkin seed protein in my smoothies).

The main thing where some give is possible is on the protein front. Athletes can get by on more carbs than is sometimes recommended. A vegan body builder gave a talk at the London Veg Fest a couple of weeks ago and he said when he backed off of protein and focused more on whole foods and carbs he broke through a plateau that had frustrated him for quite a period of time. And in any case most of us aren’t trying to be body builders. We just want to support our activities and feel strong and energetic (I’m assuming).

Here’s an article that offers some tips for women vegan athletes opting for different protein percentages (they offer a range of three choices).

Are you a vegan athlete and do you have to spend a lot of time answering questions from skeptics?


What are Women’s Bodies for, Anyway?



katie sandwina holding 3 dudes
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of Katie Sandwina, a circus strongwoman from the early 20th Century. Here she holds 3 adult men in suits up as balance on her arms and shoulders. Sandwina was capable of lifting over 300 pounds above her head and defeated Eugene Sandow (a famous circus strongman) in a weightlifting competition.


Happy Saturday to all of you taking the time to read this morning! For this month’s post, I decided to collaborate with my friend, Jaclyn, who has been mentioned in some of my other posts here and here.

We begin our reflection with this question from 1909, posed by a girl’s Phys. Ed. teacher:

“Who would suggest that the delicate, anaemic, hothouse plant type of girl, afraid of sun, wind, and rain, timid, nervous and clinging, … will make a better wife or mother than the strong, full-blooded, physically courageous woman, a companion for her husband on the golf links and a playmate with her children?” (Verbrugge 2002, 58).

Vintage Muscle
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of a woman from the 1920’s, posing with her arm flexed. She has visible muscle in her biceps, triceps, forearms and shoulders. This juxtaposed with her vintage pincurl hairstyle makes for a striking image.

The suggestion being that women who were physically fit would make for better wives and mothers. In other words, the purpose of a woman’s fitness was not necessarily to benefit herself, but rather, to benefit those around her. The statement came at a time when cultural values were shifting away from the image of delicate femininity to what was referred to as the “New Woman,” who was seen as active, modern, vibrant and wholesome (55).

Some might look at this and laugh. Sure, this was over a hundred years ago. But things have changed. Right?


Rene Campbell bodybuilder
Image Description: This is a photograph of Rene Campbell, a professional female bodybuilder from the UK. She is in a black bikini and flexes her arms above her head. She is very visibly muscular. Female bodybuilders are often criticized for looking “manly,” “too masculine,” and have even been called “gross” or “disgusting” in reference to their muscular bodies.


We’re not so sure. In various chats over the last few months, we’ve noticed a staggering degree of negative comments and attitudes towards women who choose to pursue weightlifting. (Each activity receives its own negative commentary, but we’re going to stick to what we’re most familiar with.)

Jaclyn compiled a list of some of the highlights:

“Don’t get too fit”

“You’re not going to become one of those bodybuilder chicks, are you?”

“Don’t get too muscular though, you won’t look feminine anymore”

“You’re not going to be one of those chicks that looks like a man—that’s gross”

…and one of our all-time eye-rolling favourites: “Okay, but don’t get too bulky because men don’t like that.”

Tracy, while newer to weight training, has experienced some similar cautionary comments:

“Okay, but don’t work out too much.”

“Don’t get too jacked/ripped.”

“Don’t be that person.”

These comments not only come from a place of misinformation, but they perpetuate damaging assumptions about women and heteronormativity. We discussed the possibility of comments like this coming from a place of concern for health. But Jaclyn noted that these comments aren’t exactly along the (more concerned) lines of: “You’re not going to become one of those bodybuilder women, are you? …Because I hear that involves the use of drugs which can have a negative impact on your mood, fertility, and general health or because overtraining can cause physical/mental burnouts.” Nope.


Image Description: This is a photograph of three women posing for a bikini competition. Each of the women are tanned, with long hair and full make up. They strike poses so as to highlight small waists and curves around their hips and busts. Unlike body building which focuses on larger muscle mass and definition, bikini competitions place emphasis on more slender muscle. This is typically seen as the “physical goal” for women’s bodies.


For the most part, comments like these instead seem to implicitly “fit shame” (the flip side of fat shaming) or “police” individual behaviors that threaten societal ideas of what it is for a body to be feminine (i.e., slender, with only “feminine muscle” or femininely acceptable muscle.) See Sam’s recent post about the new popular aesthetic of a slender woman with a larger bum.

All of this not only perpetuates the damaging assumption that bodies are either feminine or masculine (and that this strict binary only allows for bodies that fit within a certain standard), but it reinforces the messages that women’s bodies are always bodies-for.  In other words, women’s bodies are always bodies-for-other-people but never primarily for themselves. In the case of Jaclyn’s experience, she is (implicitly, though often explicitly) being told that her body is a body-for-men when people say things like “Okay, but don’t get too bulky, because men don’t like that”.  This comment, which she frequently encounters, involves multiple problematic assumptions:  first, that all men are only attracted to the stereotypically “feminine body”, second, that all men are only attracted to women, third, that her sexual orientation is straight.  While we will not address these and other assumptions in this post, it is important to note the amount of troubling assumptions at play in the “bodies-for” message that women in fitness often encounter.

We didn’t even touch on assumptions around motherhood and aesthetics more broadly (i.e., What if she doesn’t want to be a mother? What if she wants to have large, bulky ?).

And certainly, while much has changed in women’s favour in the last century or so, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. The prevailing comments in response to women’s fitness pursuits aren’t always explicitly about how this will affect her as a housewife, mother, or golf partner, but the fact is that we still encounter this “bodies-for” messaging everywhere. Looking ahead, we wonder how much things will change a hundred years from now. Hopefully, for the better.


Katie (Sandwina)
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photo of Katie Sandwina who is posing in a one-piece jumper while holding a man above her head with one arm. 




Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

Tracy is a freelance writer living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy.

body image · Crossfit · weight lifting · weight loss

Six Things I Love about CrossFit and Six Things I’m Not So Sure About

I started CrossFit in Dunedin, New Zealand at the end of the cycling season in March 2012. It was NZ autumn and days were starting to get cold-ish and wet. I didn’t want to join a traditional gym, running in Dunedin didn’t much appeal (hills, hills and more hills) and I’d been hearing the buzz about CrossFit for awhile.

Being the academic, geeky sort I did a lot of reading in advance and so psychologically at least I was ready for what they offered. I had fun moving from CrossFit women (my gateway program of choice) to regular CrossFit classes and then started at CrossFit London just a few days after my long flight across the ocean and a dateline. I thought I’d share here what I like most about this style of training and what I’m still unsure about.

Six Things I Love

1. Wow, Women, and Weights: I’ve been lifting weights–free weights, as some people say–since I took Fundamentals of Weight Training for academic credit at the University of Illinois in the 1st year of my PhD in 1988. I had a tuition waiver, so why not? I also took Intro to Sailing the next semester. The only small hitch was that I  got a B (my only grad school B) and it’s listed on my transcript as just “Fundamentals” so when I was on the academic job market I ended explaining to places that requested my transcript that it wasn’t logic or metaphysics.

I love lifting weights. I decided back then, in my mid twenties, that if I was going to be big I was also going to be strong. But I’ve never had much female company in the weight room. Don’t get me wrong. Those really muscly, very inked men in the weight room at the Y have been incredibly warm and welcoming and helpful through the years–they are some of the nicest and most gentle people at the gym– but I’ve always felt a bit of an oddball.

CrossFit is different. The gender ratio is about 50-50 most days and the women are strong and powerful. It’s so refreshing to see so many women lifting weights. Lots of them are lots stronger than me and that just makes me smile. I feel like I’ve found my people!

2. The Workouts: Intensity, Variety, Scalability

CrossFit workouts are intense. There’s nothing else like them. Burpees, box jumps, medicine ball throws, pull ups, sprinting, rowing, with some Olympic weight lifting thrown in for good measure. There’s also never a dull day. The workouts change every day and you just don’t know what to expect. Also, all of the efforts can be scaled to your ability. You might not be able to do pull ups (lots of people can’t) but you can do jumping pull ups or banded pull ups (with a big elastic band for assistance). So there is always a place to start and a place to move up to. That ability to measure, set targets, achieve goals really appeals to me.

They combine two things I’ve written about before as essential elements of good training programs, high intensity and heavy weights.

As Speedy joked at CrossFit Dunedin, “If you want to walk on a treadmill for hours and watch television there’s a Les Mills gym across the street with lots of that going on.”

3. The Teachers: Excellent careful instruction, nice ratio of instructors to students, and people who are really committed. Thanks Rachel, Grant and Speedy and Dave!

4. The Community: Yes, I own my own kettlebell and I could jump up on to my deck instead of doing  box jumps and I could do burpees and sprint out in front of my house. Would I? No. Certainly I’d never do them as fast. I love that the CrossFit participants cheer one another on. It’s an incredibly supportive and motivating workout environment.

5. It Works: My body has changed a lot since starting CrossFit. What most people want to know is whether I’ve lost weight and the answer is not very much. More than 5 lbs, fewer than 10. But I’m down a clothes size and I have all these brand new muscles in my core. I’ve had muscular arms and shoulders and legs for years but these muscles are new. I move more easily. I notice that it’s a lot easier to fall and get back up at Aikido. In fact, everything is easier, from running to picking up heavy things around the house.

6. I love kettlebells!

Six Things I’m Not So Sure About

1. The jargon: Again, I did my research so WOD didn’t throw me. It’s Workout of the Day. Rx is the recommended weight. AMRAP is as many reps as possible. And so on… It’s useful shorthand but the jargon can feel like it’s meant to exclude beginners from those in the know. There are lots of guides to CrossFit lingo out there but really, it shouldn’t be necessary.

2. Fitting it all in: I do CrossFit in the morning, three times a week in theory, and then lots of other stuff too (Aikido, rowing, bike riding, running, soccer) and sometimes the CrossFit weight workouts leave me too sore to do the other things I love to do. It’s a challenge for those of us who do CrossFit and something else to fit everything in. But that’s true I think for weight training in general.

3. Where are the older women? There are lots of women but not very many older women. Often I’m the only women not in her 20s! Most days there are women in the 30s as well but I’ve only met a few women in their 40s and 50s, both here and in NZ. No wonder the other women run faster than me. I read inspirational stories about CrossFitting grandmas but I haven’t met one yet. This is my favourite. I like her functional fitness goals.

Three years ago, Jean Stewart began to feel old. A proud woman, she realized she needed to make a change in her life to improve her long-term health.

“I see people who are stooped over and old, in their 60s and 70s,” Stewart says. “I don’t want to be that way. I was losing function for everyday living, stooped over and lifting things improperly. I just wanted to live my life (and be) healthy.”

As a retired physical education teacher, she’s always had a passion for fitness, but became bored in physical therapy-type exercise classes. Worst of all, she was tired of being treated like an old person who was incapable of physical activity. So, at the age of 83, Stewart decided to reinvent herself.

“She came walking into the gym with our newspaper ad folded under her arm and handed it to us,” remembers Cheryl Cohen, founder, owner and head trainer of Desert CrossFit in Palm Desert, Calif. “I asked her what she wanted from CrossFit and she said, ‘Well, I would like an easier time in the garden, getting down and getting back up again. I’d like to be able to move the 20-lb. bag of potting soil.’”

4. Paleo diets: I am a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, so not an ideal candidate for the caveman diet. I’m also not big fan of dietary dogma. I like the slogan over at Go Kaleo: “Eat real food. Move around a lot. Lift heavy things. And skip the kool-aid.” And besides there’s a fair bit of evidence our human ancestors were nearly all vegetarians.

5. I like to train hard while smiling and laughing as much as the next person but sometimes there’s a bit too much gallows humour around the CrossFit workouts that I worry puts off new people. At least, would put off new people who aren’t into pain and suffering. CrossFit tshirts exemplify this with slogans like the following: Embrace the Pain; Become the Machine; Your workout is my warmup; CrossFit on front, on back: “Hard. Fast. No Cuddling After”; Yes, you will pass out before you die.

This is my favourite though: On women’s shirts with image of weights–“I don’t cook, I clean.”

6. Why do the workouts get women’s names? Chelsea is 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 squats, On The Minute Every Minute For 30 Minutes. There’s also Fran, Angie, Barbara etc.

If you’re in London and want to give CrossFit a try, there is a free ‘give it a try’ class every week. You can register here.