There’s a good video on YouTube that went up in 2015 where a big guy with Harry Potter glasses easily lifts a weight off the floor, not breaking a sweat. In a dusty, windowless gym, he picks up a barbell, loaded, the chyron says, to 100 kilos — his bodyweight. The lifter, named Clarence Kennedy, rips it off the ground, onto his clavicles, then all above his head for a second or two, before it drops. Then he increases the weight.
The motion, called the clean and jerk, is one of the two main Olympic lifts, and to be done right, it needs to be fast. Watching the video 100 times, as I have, reveals a lesson about form: it’s mostly but not all legs, and the bar doesn’t get too high and stays close to the body. Near the video’s end, Kennedy, who holds Irish national records as a competitive weightlifter, and has retired from international competition, lifts 220 kilos. The weight, teased in the video’s headline, is within spitting distance of his weight class’ world record. On a good day in Tokyo and with some luck, Kennedy, if he lost a few pounds, might nail it again, and earn a place on the podium.
There are a number of surprising things in the video. One, he’s retired and has opted to train in his gym. Which is another surprise: with beat-up bumper plates, it’s anonymous, and away from the sport’s power centers. Kennedy has subscribers, but he lifts just for video. It’s private, and real, but feels like a samurai sword gone to rust in a scabbard. But the wildest thing might be that he’s vegan.
For most of its advertised history, strength sports and animal protein have been joined at the hip. It’s a meat and potatoes discipline, where steaks build up muscles, and whey powder grows them. Sports like powerlifting used to be sold, and defined, as violent pastimes and displays of force; ways for men, mostly, to eat meat, and, mostly, to get strong fast. Meat is cooked into its history, from the 1800s strongmen — shaved heads, curly mustaches — who subsided on massive cuts of meat at beefsteak restaurants, to the bodybuilding magazines pushing animal protein throughout the Cold War, to this past decade’s 70s-era aesthetic lifting revival, where an equivalent emphasis was placed on both barbell work and rendered pork.
Clarence Kennedy lifts a “clean and jerk.”
But in lifting, hemlines rise and fall, and as the relationship with cuts of meat veered into caricature, many athletes have moved to the other direction. Thanks to a stark rise in macros-friendly vegan grocery staples, and a shift away from supplementation, gyms are filling up with vegan athletes, a concept that a decade ago may have seemed alien. It’s an evolution that the Kennedy video spells out. It’s initially shocking to see someone so strong who’s fueled by vegetables. Then it’s not.
Anecdotally, a number of talented lifters are vegan, as well as a good number of more professional athletes. Along with Kennedy, there’s Patrik Baboumian, the big sideburns powerlifter from that Netflix documentary, Kendrick Farris, the best American weightlifter from its least competitive era, strongmen like Joni Purmonen, bodybuilder Kai Greene, and scores of others. Stateside, enough pro athletes follow the diet that Vega, a vegan protein supplement brand, has begun a sponsorship program. Tennis player Serena Williams, the best athlete alive, is mostly vegan, and Formula 1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton, her runner up, takes the diet all the way. In the NBA, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are vegan, as are some NFL players, which is relevant since they have to take bench press tests before getting drafted. There’s a minority of well-compensated athletes: Cam Newton, the quarterback, star safety Tyrann Matthews, and a story involving a dozen Tennessee Titans.
A vegan diet, that works for athletes
Taken together, the diet seems less abnormal than undetailed. If the question used to be “can you?” it’s now “how?” How do workaday lifters, who don’t have nutritionists, hit their macros without meat — and without going broke?
It’s an important contrast. Though plant-based lifters and athletes have stretched back and succeeded for a century in the West, and in the East well before that, the modern vegan American diet was, for the longest time, calorically empty and without great protein. As recently as a decade ago a vegan lifter would have to fill their grocery cart with rice and gluten-based meat alternatives — that mostly have trace amounts of protein — and supplement with soy, an imperfect protein when taken in high quantities. Putting on muscle involved peanut butter; going lean was unthinkable.
That’s not the case now. Grocery stores and restaurants stock a plant-based panoply of alternative proteins, like Gardein products and Beyond, which have respectable protein numbers, and allow lifters to mimic, at least calorically, a meat-based diet without the meat. Supplements have progressed past soy to a wealth of superior choices, like pea and rice protein — this one’s my favorite — that can be used more judiciously.
Being a vegan lifter is still tough, to be sure, and can be expensive. But the task now is less Sisyphean than tricky. It’s about as tough as keeping Kosher in Iowa. And as it’s become easier to follow, resources for how, from hyper-specific subreddits to sites that rank ingredients by protein, to books to ebooks to podcasts, have grown. The macros in a traditional American diet — shake in the morning, salmon for lunch, steak at night — can be filled out by meat alternatives, or powders, or by legumes and beans, and soy here and there; through a rich assortment of groceries that can be measured to the gram, with just a bit extra work.
This easing, more than anything else, seems why more athletes are vegan. Grocery stores and restaurants are now welcoming spaces, and there’s less room for sports professionals — trainers, doctors, and nutritionists — to dissuade their athletes from cutting out meat. Going vegan might be tough, or expensive, but it’s not really impossible.
Practically, there are differences. The best vegan protein sources — legumes, beans, some meat alternatives — can come with carbs. (Meats don’t.) This can make vegan lifting diet plans skew higher in carbs than traditional American diets, which makes cutting tricky. (Carbs generally get cut on a calorie deficit.) But it’s still not impossible. Most cuts — most serious athletic diets — involve work. So does going to the gym.
Veganism, done right, seems ideal: it’s the least taxing diet for the planet, animals, and lifters’ knees and joints. But you don’t have to sign on to the moral arguments to eat vegetables, and save money with beans and rice, and have less inflamed joints, and avoid the chemicals they put in steak. It’s just easier now.
Which all comes back to Kennedy. It’s not really possible for almost anybody alive to lift like him, vegan diet or not. But what’s special is the extent to which the video breaks from the past. For generations, lifters have been sold on the promise that eating enough meat would get them strong. But we see there’s another way. Veganism might still be hard, and might not lead to PRs. But there’s no cost to trying. It’s an athletic diet like any other. Which is a massive change, and the best kind of progress.
Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. If you’re interested in following up on any topic I’ve written about, I’m happy to offer reading lists beyond what’s linked here and direct you to other sources. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.