New Challenge: Add 20lbs of Muscle in 2 Months on a Vegetarian Diet

Time to set a new physical challenge for myself, now that I’m settled in Kathmandu for a while.

I’ve documented a couple of physical challenges in the past. Despite not being much of a runner, I succeeded in finishing in the top 200 of a 20,000-person road race back in 2010. Later that same year I tried to add 20lbs of muscle, in six weeks, on a vegan diet, doing just one hour of exercise per week.

That experiment didn’t turn out so good.

Despite that failure, I’ve never lost the desire to add significant muscle to my frame, and so I’m going to have another crack at it over the next couple of months. I won’t go into much detail about my plans here because I’d rather not waste your time with speculation. I’ll only know for sure what works and what doesn’t two months from now, and then I’ll happily fill you in.

I will however mention one big difference between my previous muscle-building experiment and this one: I’m no longer vegan, so I’ll be consuming lots of milk and other dairy products on this attempt.

Also, in keeping with my recent post about delaying gratification, I’m promising myself a reward of a trip to Everest Base Camp if I achieve my goal. That’s an experience I really want to have, so it should act as a strong incentive.

Want to join me?

My muscle-building experiment officially starts Wednesday, when I get body fat measurements taken and do my first workout. If you’ve had a physical challenge in mind to take on yourself, why not join me these next couple of months? I’ll be posting the occasional update here on the blog and I’d love to hear about your progress in the comments. Doesn’t matter if you want to add muscle, lose weight, train for a marathon, or complete 100 consecutive push-ups.

Whatever your own challenge might be, try to abide by the SMARTER goals system, as that will give you a much better chance of success. SMARTER is an acronym which stands for…

  • Specific — Your goal should be specific enough that it will be obvious when you achieve it, or not. Good example: The title of this post. Bad example: Look better naked.
  • Measurable — You should be able to measure your progress regularly so you can see if you’re on track and make adjustments if needed. For me, that will mean twice weekly weigh-ins and body fat measurements.
  • Actionable — You should be able to break your goal down into simple action steps. For example, if you want to finish a marathon in under four hours six months from now, one action step could be to go running three times a week, with a minimum distance set for each run.
  • Realistic — Don’t let this one scare you off setting lofty goals. Pretty much any goal is achievable if you’re willing to devote enough time, money and energy to it. Just make sure that you are indeed willing.
  • Time-bound — Give yourself a deadline. Saying you’ll lose weight “someday” won’t work. As Sean Ogle likes to remind us, there are only seven days in the week, and someday isn’t one of them.
  • Ecology — Consider what sacrifices you’ll have to make to reach your goal. If you take on an intense exercise routine, you’ll likely have to cut back on some other activity so you have enough time and energy to devote to it. If you want to quit smoking, it may be a good idea to stop hanging out with your smoking buddies for a while.
  • Reward — What’s your real motivation for setting this goal? Is it intrinsic or extrinsic? Hopefully the former. It’s perfectly fine to want tighter abs or more money, but if you don’t get a kick out of the process itself (e.g. exercising regularly or building a business), you’re unlikely to persist long enough to see success.

I went into a bit more detail on each of the above in the post about my running challenge, so check that if you’re interested.

Now, over to you: If you’re going to join me with a physical challenge of your own over the coming weeks, spill the specifics in the comments.

  • See how I earned $4,190 online last month

    Subscribe below and get access to my monthly finance reports so you can see exactly how I make a living from my laptop. You'll also receive my latest articles direct to your inbox.

  • Share a Comment



    1. Hi Niall:
      Great objective! I’ve got a similar one (build muscle and decrease body fat) but I now realised it’s not SMARTER so I’ll get to that. Unfortunately my good-enough day job does not allow me to plan for these things so when I say I’ll train two or three times a week cause I’m not that busy, it may change at any time. Also, I’m not vegetarian.
      Questions: how do you measure your body fat? How often will you train? What facilities do you have in Kathmandu? I’d love some specifics! Have a good one.

      • Hey Alex,

        I’m joining a gym here in Kathmandu and they’ll take my body fat measurements, just the simple pinch method on chest, waist and thigh.

        I’ll be training twice per week on average. If I see good results, I’ll share with you precise details of my workouts.

    2. Why the move to vegetarian? And: are you worried about anything as result (cholesterol, for instance)? I started my vegan diet because I gained a ton of weight while be vegetarian… (Turns out ice cream, butter, etc…all pretty fattening and calorie dense. Who woulda thunk, right?) But I’ve been contemplating more and more going off being vegan… I only feel like I’m not still craving something when I’m 100% raw vegan, which can be an all encompassing lifestyle. Sometimes I just want to sit down and have a turkey sandwich. I remember my muscles quite enjoyed that back in the day. But then…on the heels of such a thought…all the horrific images–of Turkeys…of you know what–come rushing back into my brain… So: what’s ~your~ rationale? Kathmandu? And: oh my gawd…soooo jealous about your Everest base camp trip. The highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. ends where Everest base camp begins. What’s your elevation now?

      • Hey Sean!

        Kathmandu is 1400m above sea level. Kinda crazy to think I’m almost 1.5km up in the air as I walk these streets.

        I quit being vegan a few months ago while traveling through Turkey and Iran. It was just taking way too much time and effort to stick with veganism in those countries, and often my only choice was to skip meals if I didn’t want to eat dairy. My primary reason for becoming vegan in the first place was because it made me feel healthier, but skipping meals doesn’t.

        Aside from that though, many of the points made in the book The Vegetarian Myth made me rethink the whole vegan thing. It’s all much more complex that I once believed.

        Thanks for the comment.

    3. Hi there! I’ve just started looking through your videos and blog, and decided to comment because I was actually thinking of doing a similar weight gain challenge. Based on your videos, I believe we have the same body type, and I think what you’re doing is great! I really admire your bravery in doing what you love to do, and hope that one day I can capture even a little of it for myself. Thanks again man!

    4. Hey Niall,

      I’ll join you in your physical challenge!

      My challenge will be: Lose 50 lbs on the paleo diet in 2 months (and complete a half Ironman).

      This may seem unrealistic and too complicated, but I feel it is very realistic for many reasons.

      1) I’m quitting my full-time job this week. I’ll have time to train every day then.

      2) I lost over 25 lbs in 30 days last year on the paleo diet (no grains, no dairy.)
      Here’s proof:
      (I subsequently went off the diet and I’m back to the weight I was at last year. Surprise surprise!)

      3) I ran a half marathon a year ago with very little training.

      I’m signed up for an Ironman 70.3 in Racine, WI on July 15. That’s a 1.2 mi swim, 56 mi bike ride, and 13.1 mi run.

      I was on the fence about whether I would make it happen, but you just motivated me to really devote myself to the challenge.

      Whatever happens after 2 months, I know I’ll be in a better place than I am today. Thanks for the inspiration to put it down on paper!

    5. I’ll be watching this with a very eager eye, mate. Just for the simple fact that I would love 20 pounds of muscle on my frame.

      I would join you, but finances are my priority right now and when I do a challenge – I like to be 100% on that.

      Really looking forward to seeing how you manage on the road, good luck.

    6. I think it’s a very good challenge but a little bit unrealistic. 🙂 No problem I join it.

      I’m going to gym three times a week in May, but in June and July I will go four times.

      I have some hardcore training plan. I’ll do these exercises.

      I hope if I eat lots of protein, do some good exercises and try to abide by the SMARTER goals system I’ll have plus 20 lbs (9 kg). Now I’m 73 kg (160,9 lbs). I’ll be 81 kg (178,5 lbs) at middle of July. Hm. Good challenge. 🙂

      And you Niall? How much do you weigh?

      You think is this a viable challenge?

      • Hey Joe. I weighed in this morning at 182 lbs (82.5 kg). I was hoping to get my body fat measurements today too but I have to wait until Sunday.

        Is this challenge viable? I’ll let you know in a few weeks 😉

    7. As a longtime bodybuilder, I probably wouldn’t say trying to gain 20lbs of muscle (?) is optimal or possible in that period, but it will be a good educational experiment for yourself.

      The problem with saying ’20lbs of muscle’ is that you won’t know how much muscle (dry weight) you’ll gain, you’ll only know how much fat free mass you’ll gain. I can gain a lot of what is called lean body mass or fat free mass by manipulating water levels and carbohydrate intake without any actual nitrogen accretion in the muscles.

      For example, if you increase creatine intake along with carbohydrate and water around resistance exercise, your muscle cells will pull in more glycogen. For every gram of glycogen they pull in about 5 grams of water. For every gram of creatine they pull in several grams of water as well. Your muscles will be enlarged and you will gain a few pounds from those simple tricks, but there won’t really be any long term changes in the muscle cells yet. And by the way I really recommend you begin supplementing with creatine, not just for the strength benefits but for the cognitive benefits. A search of “creatine supplementation” on Pubmed will reveal that it is one of the most studied, proven, and safe supplements that actually do something.

      As you’re a vegetarian, I recommend you Google around for GOMAD, a favourite of skinny bodybuilders who are struggling to gain weight. GOMAD stands for “gallon of milk a day.”

      If you want the most level headed and researched articles on mass gain, look up Lyle McDonald’s site. There are a tonne of free articles. I have no connection with him other than appreciating his work.

    8. I forgot to recommend the book “Starting Strength” to you. Or skip the book and teach yourself about the main compound lifts: squat, deadlift, bench, row (or weighted pullup).

    9. Where are all the women in this challenge? I will take your challenge, I could use a bit more muscle. I am going to shoot for gaining 5 lbs of muscle and losing 5 pounds of fat. I am not too big to begin with so I just want to transform. I am vegetarian as well so this will be on a veggie diet.

    10. The little boy who thought it would be hilarious to flip off the camera and then come and bump it just made my day! .. put a huge smile on my face anyway 🙂

    11. Niall, Congrats on your new goal. I support u 100% and will be joining u. I may not put on 20 lbs. of muscle being a girl, but I will certainly give it a try. I was slow on getting going on my own fitness goal, but now I’m inspired. Go Niall!

    12. Good luck with this Niall.
      I have been thinking of setting myself a challenge like this as well, but with a difference. I have been thinking about doing a year long programme and blog monthly about my progress (when I do eventually get my blog going). Plan is to not join a gym, but use minimal kit, any free kit, like large milk bottles filled with water, a sand bag and body weight exercises, basically do it on as tight as budget possible and in short training sessions. After the year I want to have a body good enough to apply to get on the cover of Mens Health Magazine. What I would like to prove with this experiment is that you don’t need a lot of time or money to do something like get fit and that it doesn’t have to consume your life. After the year I would have a chart with total spend, total time and all the workouts, so others could copy it. I have already decided to quit drink for six months anyway, could extend it to twelve, so I could build on that. I just think it would be an awesome achievement and hopefully inspire others. It wouldnt be easy but it would hopefully inspire others to try to get fit if I can remove the time/money excuses.

        • My blog will be called The Life Style Engineer I will post a link on here as soon as its live.

          As for not joining a gym thats part of the challenge and the experiment. I want to stop people using the “yeah I would do that but” or “well its ok for him” type excuses. Truth is some people couldnt afford the gym membership or may not have one nearby. Thats why I want to do it on a budget and with little equipment to show that what I did dosen’t make me special just an ordinary guy.

          On a plus side though glad my comment has provoked some discussion. It was just an idea going through my head wasn’t sure anyone would find it interesting, glad someone did.

    13. Hi Niall, this is my first post on DTR, so first thanks for this great website and sharing your travel & life experience with us.

      I’ve been trying to put on some lean muscle mass for years and, God, that’s slow. So I’m very intrigued by your new challenge.

      I’ve ended up settling down for the classic bulking & cutting method. At 30, I managed to put on 15lbs in 2 months and maintain that weight, putting me at a BMI of 22. I think what you can achieve in 2 months by training hard and eating loads is 5lbs of muscle + 15 of bodyfat, and still look good.

      Right now I’m also on a bulking phase and hope to put on another 10 lbs in 2 months.
      Looking forward to seeing your July pics!
      Good luck 🙂

        • I do all the classic exercises that can be done in the machies + weight section of a gym, except for squats because of my back; I replace them with the leg press and back extension machines.

          If your back is good, I would say go for squats, according to most BB’ers they are the best exercise for mass building. Add to that pushups or bench press (chest + arms), and pullups or lat pulldowns (back + arms). Those three exercises do not require tons of equipment, so they can be done in most places you go.

          If you have some time to look online for some advice, I have subscribed to two Youtube channels, Scooby1961 (Scooby’s a vegetarian and veteran bodybuilder) and the Hodge Twins (who are 37 and have achieved impressive results with natural bodybuilding while starting at 34), channel name twinmuscleworkout.

          So you’re 82.5 Kg already! How tall are you?

            • This explains that, I imagined you were maybe 180cm tall and 70-75Kg! A weight above 80 is quite good already. I’m 77 for 183cm, and want to get past 80 before July. I’m trying my best to get my 5-6 meals a day to fuel my body.

              I learnt that besides protein, complex carbs (such as wholemeal bread) are the ectomorph’s best friend, as without them, his body will burn muscle for energy as he has no bodyfat. So in between meals, I have 2 or 3 sandwiches a day.

              Weightlifting is harder when you’re taller, but Schwarzie was 6’2 in the 70’s and Lou Ferrigno was 6’5 (yeah I watched Pumping Iron)! So when there’s a will, there’s a way.

    14. I’m in for a challenge.

      In 2 months, July 16th, must have 77cm waist circumference size. For a man with 175cm height, 36.5cm neck (circumference) that would be an equivalent of 11.6 body fat percentage (BFP)

      I simply use a tape measure. I reckon the numbers contain many errors, but if the errors are more or less constant along the weeks, it doesn’t matter. The goal is to reduce abdominal fat.

      I used last year already some Tim Ferriss’ methods described in his book “the 4hour body” to reduce considerably my weight. I didn’t run the last mile yet, and my weight fluctuated lately a lot due to stress and work.

      I’ll report every week my status in waist size.

      • “I reckon the numbers contain many errors, but if the errors are more or less constant along the weeks, it doesn’t matter.”

        Right on, Juan. Consistency is more important than accuracy in this case.

        Looking forward to hearing about your progress.

    15. My goal is to have intercourse with 5 new girls in the next two months. I average about 1 a month currently but have an easy work travel schedule these next few weeks.

    16. Hi Niall,

      life experiments are back, yay 🙂

      I’ll sign in for a different challenge. Just quit my job and I’m about to fly off to Ecuador and vagabond around South America for a year or so – no fixed plan.

      The challenge is simple – stick to a vegan diet whilst there. I heard it might be a tad difficult at places… (Argentina = one massive steak).

      GOMAD? think about the cholesterol and cluttered arteries man!

      Good luck to all who challenged themselves here!


      • Oh it’s definitely possible to add muscle on a vegan diet. I don’t mean to insinuate that it’s not. I’ve met Robert Cheeke in person and that dude is cut.

        Two things though:

        1) I didn’t give up on veganism solely for this. I gave it up a few months back when it was proving difficult to find vegan meals while traveling (through countries like Iran and UAE), and after a book called The Vegetarian Myth made me rethink a few things.

        2) While there are plenty of examples of people out there who have bulked up on a vegan diet, I’m hesitant to believe that everyone is capable of doing the same. I suspect that different diets work better for different people. Veganism worked well for me for a while, and now I’m going to experiment with something else. We’ll see how it goes.

    17. I am changing my lifestyle and have set my first 10% goal of loosing 25.5lbs.

      The two month time-span sounds like an awesome time measurement to gauge my future weight loss with.

      I’m in.

    18. Today Wednesday 23th May, I measured 88cm waist circumference.

      Having set last week 77cm in 2 months, the goal is, I realize, unrealistic. Being just some months ago under 80cm, it is embarrassing having to write such a big number today. I won’t be able either during this time to keep total focus on this goal as I have many things in mind right now. Nevertheless, I will write every week my numbers for 1) own awareness, 2) social embarrassing/accountability

      • Hey Juan. Thanks for checking in. Don’t even focus on your final goal for now. Just keep chipping away at it. Once you see some progress, you’ll be more motivated to keep going.

        And I hear you about focus. I’m finding that I have to drop a few other things to really focus on my fitness goal. I’m needing much more rest than I expected, and that’s taking time away from other things.

    19. Weighed in this morning and my starting stats are 249.6lb with a body fat % of 46%.

      My goal for the 2 month challenge is going to be

      1. To loose 25lbs Making my goal weight 224.6lbs

      2. To be below 40% Body Fat %

      Here’s wishing everyone every success with their goals.

    20. My check in, from my last workout on Sunday (I have another tomorrow, Thursday):

      – Weight: 188 lbs
      – Body fat: 6.86%
      – Lean body weight: 175.1 lbs

      Note: I used the Jackson/Pollock 3 Caliper Method here to calculate my body fat. Caliper measurements taken by a trainer at my gym. Not very confident in their accuracy, but as long as it’s consistent, I should be all good.

      • Scratch the above. A more experienced trainer took my measurements four days later and used a more rigorous pinch technique. By his calculations, my body fat works out at 13%, which sounds more realistic.

    21. Today, again 87 cm waist.

      I believe I’ve made progress during last week by the tape measure didn’t want to give me good news 🙁

      I keep on it!

      //About the Bella post and the critics, please keep expressing yourself freely and as you are. We all benefit from honest words.

    22. Update:

      I weighed in and measured before my workout this morning. Finally hit the 200 lb mark, up from 184 lbs at my first weigh in on May 16th.

      Body fat is down to 11.8%, same as last week, though I don’t have much faith in the pinch technique the guy uses to measure (one session my thigh fat is 12mm, four days later it’s 16mm, then down to 14mm).

      But if the numbers are to be believed, I’ve gained 16 lbs in 3.5 weeks while reducing my body fat by one percent.

      Thing is though, I don’t think I look much different, and I feel a little chubbier around the waist. Should be interesting to see my before and after pictures at the end of all this 🙂

      • Hey, you’re now a 200-lb bodybuilder! 🙂 Nice to hear that. If you put that mass on so quickly, you can concentrate on changing it into leaner muscle mass during the remainder of your challenge.
        Muscle gains are always slow, but I’m sure you’ll notice a difference at least in your arms, in another 4.5 weeks. Keep up the good work!

    23. Have you been drinking straight milk this whole time? And if so, how are you not a gaseous, bloated, perma-shitter??