Vegans don’t come much stronger than prize-winning bodybuilder Robert Cheeke. Charlotte Willis meets him to find out more about his life and diet…
Robert Cheeke is one of the most famous and inspirational vegans in the bodybuilding community, and for good reason. He was arguably the first plant-based individual to compete at professional level, paving the way for future meatless athletes and strength-trainers to follow. His slogan, ‘no meat, no problem’ is famously and proudly advocated by his vast social media following of gym-goers and fitness fanatics, myself included.
“I was a vegan bodybuilder before the internet was invented!” – as an avid follower and fan of Robert Cheeke, I find this fact astonishing! These days, Robert’s regular blog posts, photographs and discussion boards boast an impressive audience of dedicated followers spanning the globe. What’s more, Robert exudes equal levels of passion for animal rights and health, having turned to veganism from a young age to remove himself from the cruelty of living a carnivorous life. Robert has helped build an impressive reputation for vegan bodybuilding, transforming his passion to activism and helping inspire strong vegans to further themselves using a plant-based diet. I caught up with Robert at his first UK appearance at VegFest London 2016.
Bodybuilding was a huge part of your life up until your recent professional retirement. What first inspired your passion for fitness?
Growing up, I watched cartoons of Captain Planet and followed pro-wrestling. Back then, I really admired those things. The idea of strong, powerful and positive individuals who were doing good things for the planet and being good role models was something that really resonated with me. I wanted to be this big, strong positive leadership figure in real life – and that’s what led me to bodybuilding. Back then, I had no idea what bodybuilding was. All I knew was that I wanted to become bigger and stronger to try and become those characters I saw on TV.
I then started lifting weights, getting stronger and seeing my body develop while enjoying and having fun with it. So in essence, I discovered the sport of bodybuilding by accident. A friend actually introduced me to it. All I knew was that I had to lift weights, I had no idea about the posing and competition-style training of specific muscle groups. That accident led to a 10 year bodybuilding career from 2001-2010.
What would be your biggest and greatest personal achievement?
Winning my first competition in 2005 was the start of a great series of events. I went on to compete in the 2006 Natural Bodybuilding World Championships. But, I would say that putting vegan bodybuilding on the global map via association with myself on social media and in magazines, being an active member of the lecture circuit helping to promote vegan fitness and athleticism for the past 10 years, and filming a movie about it in 2005, would be the largest achievements for myself. I’ve been able to inspire people to surpass what I’ve achieved and become bigger, stronger and more accomplished.
When did you turn vegan, and what was your previous diet like?
I turned vegan in 1995, five or six years before I discovered bodybuilding. Before that, I was a typical high-school kid! I ate the standard American diet food staples such as chicken sandwiches, burgers and very little veg. I went from this to being vegan – a sharp U-turn.
At the time, my favourite sport was long-distance running, and after five years of being a vegan multi-sport athlete I decided I wanted to put on some more weight, and build up my body to get bigger and stronger. In doing so, I ended up gaining almost 30lbs in one year, which jump-started my vegan bodybuilding career. I continued to build, growing larger and developing incredible strength, all through a vegan diet.
Why the sudden change in diet?
I grew up on a farm and raised animals, but there was a disconnect between the food on my plate and these innocent animals that I was looking after. It was when I finally started making this connection that I looked into animal rights and actively decided I no longer wanted to contribute to animal cruelty, as there was no need to consume these animals for sporting gains.
At the time, there was no internet! I had books, my friends and family as role models, and so I paved my own way. I went from a standard diet to learning what and how to eat by trial and error, figuring out how to get the most macronutrients and calories to perform to my best.
Did this evolve into your present-day meal prepping regimes?
It was a long process of learning. Discovering how to culminate a meal that is going to be nourishing and sustaining for an athlete, to fuel a very high-impact lifestyle of training 2-3 times a day. This helped me formulate meal plans and the basis of my nutritional understanding that I use today.
What’s your current weight and training regime like?
So currently I am around 200-205 lbs, and I fluctuate between here and there. It’s a weight that I’m happy at and I’m immensely strong these days.
I would say I train around 4 days a week, as I’m retired from professional bodybuilding as of 2010, so these days I tend to train for the pleasure of it. There are all types of things that get in the way, such as travel and jetlag, so when I return after missing a few days I’ll mostly train one specific muscle group per session. It is a very traditional method of bodybuilding that I’m used to and comfortable with. I’ll train my shoulders, arms, back and legs on specific days and focus on incorporating cardio regularly. I vary my weights exercises to keep my body guessing! It also adds fun into your workouts and stops you getting into a fitness rut!
So can you describe a perfect post-workout meal?
Usually a huge burrito bowl! Brown rice, pinto and black beans, avocado, lettuce, potatoes and veggies.
You’ve changed diet to exclude protein powder and fortified supplements in favour of a purely whole-food, plant-based diet. What made you change?
I was using a bunch of vegan supplements, including protein powders, shakes, pre-workouts, post-workouts and bars, before working on the film Forks Over Knives. But after that, I began learning more about the whole-food approach as a student of T Collin Campbell’s (author of The China Study) plant-based nutrition certification course. I became more aware and decided to dedicate more time to research into the plant-based approach as advocated in the course.
At first, I argued that as an athlete you needed a higher level of protein than was suggested by Campbell. But I came to realise that the body is capable of using smaller amounts of protein, around 10-15%, to build incredible strength and size on a plant-based diet. And eating enough protein is seriously not an issue on a vegan diet, in fact it’s near impossible to not eat 10% of your calories from protein without even trying! You have nuts, seeds, legumes, grains and soya which naturally boost your protein intake effortlessly. Some of my favourites are beans and pulses, made into big salads.
With an incredible diet comes incredible results, but what is your go-to cheat meal?
I love a vegan mac and cheese, vegan pizza or something slightly processed. I’m not a huge sweet person, so cakes and pastries don’t do anything for me! I prefer to incorporate a variety of delicious foods into my diet. That way, I never really feel the need to have a cheat binge or let myself go. If you follow a whole-food diet, a cheat meal can be super healthy and come from alternative sources such as an avocado pudding.
Who in the vegan community inspires and motivates you?
There are so many! Brendan Brazier (ultramarathon runner) was a huge inspiration for me for over 10 years, and then there’s Torre Washington and Danny Tailor. Vanessa Espinoza, my training partner and long-term friend, is number one on my list. She’s a great role model and training partner – always pushing me to do my best and is pound-for-pound the strongest person I know, male or female. We’re writing a book together called Plant-based Muscle, which will be available online in the coming months.
What three tips can you offer our readers who are looking to become stronger, or gain mass and muscle on a vegan diet?
Follow a consistent programme and put yourself into a position for success. This is true for whatever you’re looking to achieve, you have to be in the gym on a regular basis and commit your focus when you are there to allow yourself to develop, work hard and reap the benefits. Train the hardest you can in that time and listen to your body – this way, you’ll know when you can push yourself further.
You have to eat healthy foods. It sounds obvious, but it’s fundamental. Look at the return of investment in what you eat and what you will get out of the food. Ask yourself what will this food do for me? Is it going to enhance my health and aid my body’s growth, or is it going to be detrimental? Focus on consuming whole-foods with the maximum amount of nutritional value and enjoy your food!
Be goal orientated. Have a focus to your training that will drive your ambition to succeed. There’s no use just going through the motions. Set yourself a deadline, a goal weight or size. Keep track of your progress and recognise when you are getting it right and wrong. Keep that end goal in mind when training!
Besides bodybuilding, what do you do to relax and unwind?
It is important to acknowledge when you need to rest and repair your body. You push yourself very hard when you train, and therefore need to treat yourself with respect. I like to write. I also channel my creativity by taking photos of nature and my surroundings. I also like to travel often, exploring different cultures and foods. I haven’t owned a TV in 15 years! Getting out into nature and appreciating its beauty is something that brings balance and creativity to my life.
You can find out more about Robert and subscribe to his newsletter updates by visiting www.veganbodybuilding.com, follow Robert on his Instagram @veganbodybuildingandfitness and discover more in his book Shred It!, which guides you through how to build muscle on a vegan diet. Many thanks to both Robert and Karen for their time.