Interview with Robert Cheeke, Vegan Bodybuilder and President of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness
Growing up in Oregon, I lived on a farm and had many farm animals as pets. I always had a love and appreciation for animals, and from an early age, I was concerned about their well-being. However, it wasn’t until December 8, 1995, that I decided to give up consuming meat. My older sister, Tanya, was organizing Animal Rights Week at my high school. I decided out of respect for her (a vegan since about the age of 15) that I would become a vegetarian for the week. I attended lectures, listened to speakers, read literature about animal cruelty, and watched videos about factory farms and animal testing. That week of becoming vegetarian has lasted for the past twelve years and continues today as I go on my 13th year of following a pure plant-based (vegan) diet.
Ten months after becoming vegetarian, I became vegan. Ironically, two years after giving up animal products, it was Me who organized the Animal Rights Week at my high school in Corvallis, Oregon. I also became active in an environmental awareness group at school called Students for Peace through Global Responsibilities (SPGR). I was active in promoting veganism for a long time, and I still am through my fitness company. I have been able to promote vegan bodybuilding on a worldwide stage through articles in major magazines, TV appearances, my vegan fitness documentary, and my through my five websites.
I love being vegan and knowing that I am having a positive impact on the environment and society. I have more energy than most people I know, and I very rarely suffer from any illnesses or fatigue. I eat a vast array of natural and organic foods that keep my bodyfat percentage low, protein intake high, energy levels high, keep my bones strong, and allow me to put on quality muscle. I believe that an animal-free diet is one of the best things you can do for your health, and the well-being of our environment.
What is the difference between vegan and vegetarian?
Vegans abstain from all animal products, anything derived from an animal and veganism is often a moral or ethical decision. Veganism is not just a dietary preference, but a compassionate and cruelty-free lifestyle (or as cruelty-free as possible). Vegetarians avoid eating meat and vegetarianism is often a health choice for most people, rather than a moral or ethical choice. Vegetarians often use leather and other animal by-products, and are not as concerned with issues such as animal testing. For most vegetarians, becoming vegetarian is a food preference. Vegetarians who want to eliminate animal products from their lifestyle, go vegan.
How much protein does someone need a day to have a body like yours?
A common standard is to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight for athletes, and 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight for bodybuilders and other athletes interested in bulking up and adding mass. Eating consistently throughout the day makes it easy to consume that amount of protein if a variety of foods are consumed. Most people get more protein than they need but I do believe strength athletes require more protein daily than the average person.
How do you get your protein without meat?
I pay special attention to protein and my main protein sources come from hemp, rice, pea, soy, tempeh, nuts, beans, lentils, grains and a variety of powders and bars including complete meal replacements, adding up to 100-300 grams per day. A normal day for me totals around 180 grams of protein from a variety of sources. Tofu, a soy product, typically has 10-20 grams of protein per serving. Soy also has a Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) of 1.0, which is the highest protein rating for a food to have, and it scores higher than beef protein. Hemp is one of the best sources of protein, period. It is a complete protein meaning it contains all essential amino acids, it is alkalizing, rich in chlorophyll, naturally contains essential fatty acids, is packed full of nutrients, and is grown from the most sustainable methods, making it arguably the best resource. We often hear about protein combinations to make a complete protein. This is an accumulation of essential amino acids. Combining sources such as hemp, rice, and pea provides a powerful amino acid profile for enhanced biomechanical efficiency, assimilation and absorption. Taking in large quantities of protein can be taxing on the liver and kidneys so it is important to drink a lot of water when you’re on a high protein diet. Drinking water helps your body’s organs process large amounts of protein. In addition to the high protein foods, I also eat a significant amount of fruits and green vegetables, and I eat raw and organic foods whenever possible. Raw sources of protein can be found in nuts, seeds, seaweed, broccoli, spinach, kale, and other veggies and are some of the most potent and most beneficial sources of protein available on the planet.
Bodybuilders have pretty much always relied on meat as their primary source of protein and protein is widely considered the most important aspect of bodybuilding nutrition. Most people think bodybuilders must consume large amounts of meat to gain muscle and get bigger and stronger. Too many people confuse protein with meat; they think meat is the only source. There are plenty of muscular vegetarian and vegan bodybuilders who prove you can get just as big and strong on a plant-based diet. It is indeed possible and quite easy to do. You can view dozens of vegan athlete profiles on www.veganbodybuilding.com.
What other kinds of food do you eat?
The bulk of my diet consists of fruits in the morning; protein sources such as nuts, protein drinks and bars for snacks; green vegetables, beans, tofu, and other protein and calorie-rich foods for lunch, and a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains for dinner. A typical meal for dinner may include a lentil soup with chopped veggies, steamed or raw broccoli, tofu, and brown rice. Potatoes, tempeh, beans, and nuts are also staples of my diet and are often consumed around dinnertime. I typically just drink water before and after meals, but for dinner I may include soymilk, almond milk, or natural fruit juice. I also eat a lot of sandwiches and burritos because they are so heavy and packed full of calories and protein which areimportant for me as a bodybuilder.
Fruits are by far my favorite foods. I prefer to eat more raw foods but also enjoy the warmth of cooked foods. I lean towards organic foods and have learned a lot about whole food nutrition from my Professional Vegan athlete friends and co-stars in my documentary Vegan Fitness Built Naturally, Brendan Brazier and Tonya Kay.
What supplements do you take?
When I am on the run and don’t have time to prepare a meal, I take a complete plant-based whole food meal replacement called Vega. Formulated by Brendan Brazier, a professional Ironman triathlete and fellow vegan, Vega is a quick and easy way for me to get quality nutrition. It contains many of my favorite foods, including hemp, pea, flax, rice, chlorella and maca. I especially like the fact that it contains five sources of quality protein, ensuring a balanced array of essential amino acids. I also snack on Vega raw energy bars before and after workouts for an extra boost. Even when I’m not on the run, I keep these foods around because they are some optimal sources of nutrition.
As mentioned above, keep in mind that a high protein diet can be taxing on the liver and kidneys so it’s important to drink a lot of water (I personally drink over a gallon a day when possible) to help the body’s organs process the large amounts of protein. The great thing about plant protein is that it appears to be much easier to digest and assimilate than animal protein, making the body’s job easier and providing a greater nutritional yield. I also recommend eating smaller meals more frequently to ensure your muscles will always be fueled and nourished, providing the best opportunity for recovery, growth, and achieving your desired results.
How often and long do you train?
Everywhere you look you will find different ways to train—different training principles, and techniques used to accomplish the same goals. Everyone has their own style, but I will go over some of the styles that are most common in bodybuilding and fitness, and my own personal approach to training. The routines are different, depending on what your goals are. For example, bodybuilding for mass will require you to lift heavier weights with fewer repetitions and longer rest periods between sets.
The first thing you need to do is establish what your goals are, what you want to accomplish through your fitness training.
Based on what you come up with, you will decide how many days you want to train per week.
I will use bodybuilding since it is what I do and it determines how I train. I lift weights fives times a week, working a different muscle group each day. In a calendar week, my training schedule might look like this: Monday-chest, Tuesday-back, Wednesday-rest, Thursday-arms, Friday-legs, Saturday-shoulders, Sunday-rest. Working with weights five days a week is effective and gives you an opportunity to rest after two or three consecutive days of heavy training. It is also easier than four days per week, because in five days, you cover all the major muscle groups on a different day and don’t have to combine two muscle groups like shoulders and arms, for example, in the same day.
Many pro bodybuilders workout with weights six days a week, but it is not something that I would recommend for a natural bodybuilder. Your body needs rest and recovery time. I wouldn’t even workout with weights more than four days in a row. Pros can get away with it because they have been bodybuilding for 10-15 years and know how their body will react to their training. They are usually also using drugs that help their muscles recover and grow faster than someone who is not using any anabolic bodybuilding drugs. I personally have tried lifting weights six days per week, and although I achieved some great results, I suffered three injuries and was often fatigued from overtraining. Therefore, weight training five days a week with two rest days worked very well for me, and I continue to train that way, as I think it is the most effective approach to natural bodybuilding.
The amount of time you spend in the gym is an important factor. There are many myths out there about bodybuilders training eight hours a day to look the way they do. That is complete nonsense and a ludicrous idea. If more were better, we would be in the gym 16-hours per day, but that is not the case. Sixty to ninety minutes in the gym is a perfect amount of time to spend weight training. Any more than that can be counter productive. Fitness activities like running, soccer, and basketball, are okay to do for a longer period. With weight training, you put a lot of stress on your muscles and joints. After an hour or so, they become fatigued and can inhibit further progress.
How do you train?
Before I get to the gym, I already have a plan of attack that includes what muscle group I will be working and a specific routine I wear athletic pants and a sweatshirt to stay warm and lower the risk of injury. I always begin with a 10-minute warm-up. For the first five minutes I usually use a stair-stepper to begin sweating or I do a variety of other warm-up exercises that get my muscles ready for the workout. The next five minutes are spent on warm-up exercises for the muscle group I will work. The sets are light and consist of around 20 repetitions followed by stretching the muscle I will be focusing on. Once I am warmed up, stretched, and ready to go, I begin with my working sets. My workouts change each time. I will not do the same chest exercises or same number of reps, or same weight, week after week. Sometimes I use mostly barbells, other times mostly dumbbells, and other times machines and cables. On top of that, there are flat, incline, decline, supersets, drop sets, pyramids, and other variations to target the same muscle group.
I train with lots of intensity and rest 30-90 seconds between sets depending on the exercises. I usually train alone, but I enjoy training with a partner, too.
What kind of exercises would you recommend to people who do not compete, but do want to look and feel their best?
I suggest people do a full-body workout or focus on full-body training, incorporating resistant weight training as well as cardiovascular training into their program. The key is to take action and make it happen. Be accountable and be consistent with the exercise program and adaptation and improvement will take place and lead to success. Ease into it and start with just a few days a week, leading up to five days a week of weight training.
What is your favorite exercise?
I have a bunch of “favorite” exercises. Some of my favorites include: flat bench press, decline bench press, deadlifts, leg presses, machine bicep curls, squats, and any exercise involving training the back. I think the “Big Three” are keys to success: squats, bench press, and deadlifts. If because of injuries you cannot do those exercises, find ones that train the same muscles such as machine chest press or dumbbell press instead of bench press; leg press and lunges instead of squats; or good mornings, hyperextensions, or a variety of rows instead of deadlifts.
What is your least favorite exercise?
I don’t really have least favorite exercises. I used to say lunges, but they aren’t too bad. I guess I’d have to say cardiovascular exercises. I prefer training with weights over doing cardio.
Do you usually cook for yourself, or have someone else cook for you?
I’ve been vegan for over a decade, but I don’t cook! I’ve never been into cooking, although I used to do some baking back in high school. My roommate prepares a lot of food so I often eat what he is having. Living in Portland, OR I’m spoiled with dozens of vegan-friendly restaurants that I frequent as well. When I do prepare some of my own food it is usually very basic and includes preparing potatoes, yams, rice, or making my own sandwiches.
What is your favorite vegetable?
Broccoli, potatoes, and spinach are my favorite vegetables, but I like many of them.
What is your least favorite vegetable?
I don’t really have a least favorite. I’m not a huge fan of iceberg lettuce.
How have you done in body building competitions?
I have competed in seven bodybuilding competitions as of the winter of 2008.
I entered my first contest in 2001 and have competed ever since. I typically compete just once or twice a year and sometimes take a full year off from competing. In the seven contests, I have placed 1st, 2nd a couple of times, 3rd, and 4th on two occasions. I won the 2005 INBA Northwestern USA Natural Bodybuilding Overall Novice Championship and was runner-up at the 2005 INBA World Natural Bodybuilding Championships. I’ve competed in California, Oregon, and Washington. Currently, I plan on taking a break and may not return to the stage until 2010.I’m working on a National Speaking Tour and more documentary projects that are keeping me busy. I’m still training though, and I’m bigger than ever right now.
Do you and have you ever used steroids?
I have never used steroids and have never been interested in taking them. I believe they are dangerous and should be avoided.
Robert Cheeke is the Founder and President of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness and is available for speaking presentations around the world. www.veganbodybuilding.com