I’m standing in the dark stairway, struggling to find my keys, rummaging through my backpack with one hand, while leaning against the wall with the other. Just to be safe – I tell myself – just to be safe…
Breathing hard, I’m desperate for a glass of water, a hot shower – which I’ll probably be too lazy to take – and a cozy pillow with a warm blanket. My head is spinning, my mouth is dry and tastes like booze all over, and I’m completely exhausted. I can already see the first signs of dawn outside, but I’m not planning on going to bed – not yet, anyway. I have one last thing to do before going to sleep.
Finally, my keys!
I burst through the door with no regards to my sleeping flatmates – right now I’m selfish and I’m drunk: I couldn’t care less if I wake them. I stagger to my room, open my laptop, and begin typing: will alcohol destroy my gains?
I don’t give a shit about anything right now – I just need validation. I need someone to tell me – while sounding scientific – that a night of hard partying and drinking is not going to make my muscles fall off. The first few articles, forums, and YouTube videos are plain garbage – just bros preaching bro-science to other bros, or some massive dude on roids sipping beer and claiming that alcohol is actually good for muscles. No, I need more; I need better.
So, I try: how does alcohol affect muscle-growth in athletes? This time I find a shitload of science – but more importantly, I find the validation I was so desperately chasing. Finally, I shut my laptop and – with my head still spinning – drift off to sleep, feeling calm – and a little less guilty – for the first time since I got home.
Did I find the truth? Maybe not. But I found myself some comfort – and that was good enough.
This was years ago, when I was just getting more serious about my fitness-goals. At the same time, I was also doing my Bachelor’s degree in one of the party capitals of Europe, so it was hard to find balance… It was scary to think that my muscles will disappear after a few beers with my friends, but it also sucked to be the only sober person at a party. After getting fed up with feeling guilty every time I wanted to have a drink or two with friends, I dug into the science to find out the unbiased truth about the relationship between alcohol and fitness.
How bad is alcohol really?
Alcohol is bad… But it’s not the Devil!
Now, I’m not going to go into the many ways alcohol can harm your health. Instead, I’ll just focus on the one aspect that I was most worried about at the time: how alcohol affects muscle-growth, recovery, and fat-loss.
Probably the scariest thing I came across was the claim that alcohol reduces your testosterone-levels. Now, there is some truth to this: getting wasted will cause a huge drop in your T-levels, and it can take up to 48 hours to recover back to normal. Regular drinking – even just a drink or two on an everyday basis – will also cause lower testosterone levels in men, making it harder to build (and keep) your muscles.
But here comes the interesting part. Having 1-2 drinks occasionally (maybe once a week or so) has actually been shown to cause a temporary spike in plasma T-levels. This means that if you want to have a drink (one drink) on a Friday night, you really shouldn’t be worried about your testosterone.
Now, if you want to optimize your testosterone naturally – and you like beer as much as I do – I have some bad news for you. Beer has been shown to contain chemicals that increase your oestrogen, and decrease your testosterone levels – I’m sure you’ve seen man-boobs and beer-bellies before. Still, a few beers every once in a while shouldn’t have a noticable effect – nevertheless, keep this in mind next time you want to have the manliest drink out there!
Whenever you work out, you break your muscles down to an extent – which then have to be repaired by your body, adding a little extra each time (if your training and diet are on point). This process is called muscle-protein synthesis (MPS) – a scientific way of saying gains, brah.
MPS is constantly happening in your body, but the process is elevated in the 72 hours following a good workout, peaking at around 24 hours. Now, alcohol has been shown to decrease MPS by up to 24%-37%, depending on the individual’s diet (high protein is better in this regard). This basically means that – although this is heavily dose-dependant – ingesting alcohol within 24 hours of your last workout may cause you to not fully recover after your workout: you break your muscles down when training, and they’ll mostly stay broken down. This is why regular drinkers fail to pack on muscle-mass, or even lose some of their initial muscles.
You probably know the feeling of rushing to the toilet every 10 minutes after having a few drinks. It’s not just that you’ve introduced a lot of liquid into your body; alcohol is actually a diuretic, causing water to flush out of your system. Since your muscles are about 70%-80% water, we might have a problem here…
If you’re dehydrated, you’ll temporarily lose some of your size and strength (yeah, I know…I’ve also felt strong enough to lift an elephant when I was drunk…but I might have been wrong at the time…), although you can quickly regain that strength when you finally rehydrate yourself. As long as you’re in a dehydrated state though, your body has a harder time delivering amino acids and other key nutrients into your muscles, further inhibiting your recovery.
You’ve probably heard the saying that alcohol makes you fat. This is complete bullshit though! Despite containing a fairly high number of calories, alcohol cannot be converted into body-fat! Still, drinking alcoholic beverages can lead to gaining fat for the following reasons:
- Alcohol is a toxin that your body wants to get rid of ASAP. This means that your body shuts down fat-oxidation until it fully breaks the alcohol down – burning the alcoholic calories first. Any calories inside of you that haven’t been processed yet, and any food that you ingest while you still have alcohol in your system is more likely to turn into body-fat, since (1) your muscle-protein synthesis is suppressed and (2) your body is burning alcohol above anything else for energy, while storing other foods as fat.
- Many alcoholic beverages – cocktails, beers, champaign, or ciders – contain a high amount of carbs (especially sugars), that are not only extremely high in calories, but your body can not even process them (since it’s focused on burning alcohol). These calories, however, can – and will – be converted into body-fat.
Since the non-alcoholic calories you’re consuming while drinking (and afterwards for a few hours) are turning into fat, drinking alcohol can really interfere with your progress when cutting – but it doesn’t help your bulk either.
Some people still believe the myth that alcohol helps you sleep better. Sure, it helps you fall asleep faster, but it completely messes up the quality of your sleep in more ways than one:
- You’ll wake up more often during the night (you might not even remember these in the morning)
- You’ll probably have more bathroom trips (remember: you’re losing water)
- You’ll have an abnormal, disrupted sleep-cycle (significantly less restful, and less valuable overall)
Now, the majority of muscle-recovery and hormone-production (at least for testosterone and growth-hormone) happens overnight while sleeping. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep – which you probably won’t if you’re intoxicated – then you’re just harming your recovery-process and your hormonal balance even more.
If you drink alcohol, your body will have a harder time with absorbing key micronutrients from your digestive system. Not only that, but alcohol will also cause some micronutrients to start flushing out of your body (especially vitamin-B). Again, this isn’t a major issue for the seldom drinker with a healthy diet, but it can cause problems if you’re drinking too often or if you eat like shit on a regular basis.
Your body needs vitamins and minerals for almost everything – including optimal hormone-production, muscle-recovery, bone- and joint-fortification, and maintaining your energy-levels. Don’t shoot yourself on the foot by thinking that micronutrients aren’t important – if you flush them out and don’t replace them, your whole body (not just your muscles) will suffer!
Now, there are two effects that I’ve noticed alcohol has on most people I know – including myself. There isn’t a lot of scientific research on these, but I’m guessing they’re familiar to you too.
First of all, I tend to make bad food choices whenever I have more than a drink or two. I eat greasy pizza, chips, street-burgers, and basically any junkfood I can get my hands on. I feel hungry, and that clouds my rational thinking (not that I’m that rational after a few drinks anyway), leading to the worst possible choices in food: super high in calories, and almost zero nutritional value. If this weren’t bad enough, remember that this food is almost guaranteed to convert into body-fat, due to the alcohol still inside of me…
Secondly – if I have a workout planned for the next day – my motivation to hit the gym is almost non-existent. I still push through, but these next day workouts are complete shit: I suffer through them without focusing, just wanting to get back home as soon as possible. Most people I know don’t even attempt to train the next day – they just skip their workouts, blaming it all on their hangovers.
As I said, alcohol is bad, but it’s not the Devil. Having a drink once a week with friends is perfectly fine, and getting fucked up a few times a year won’t set you back that much either. Still, alcohol does some pretty nasty stuff, so you should do everything you can to prevent – or at least minimize – these effects on your fitness-levels:
- Try to keep your frequency of drinking alcohol to a minimum! This way, your body won’t build a tolerance to alcohol, and you’ll need much less to experience the same psychoactive effects. Limiting yourself to a maximum of one drink a week, and one night of getting drunk every 6 weeks is a good start (you can try to lower the frequency even more from there).
- Drink lots of water whenever you ingest alcohol! In fact, every other one of your drinks should be a glass of water – and you should also have at least two glasses of water when you get home. The next day right after waking up, chug down a huge glass of water (just like you did with your drinks the night before 😉).
- Stop drinking alcohol at least 2-3 hours before you plan on going to bed, and focus on sobering up as much as possible!
- Have some better food options at hand (lower in calories, higher in fibers and protein) for when you get hungry. These delicious protein bars are the perfect choice!
- If possible, time your rest-days around your drinking days!
- Develop your confidence and social skills to a degree that you won’t need alcohol to feel comfortable in social situations – alcohol should just be an occasional fun addition to your night!
- If you plan on partying, then start the night earlier, so you can finish up earlier!
- Take a natural sleep aid and a few drops of high-quality CBD-oil to make the best of your slightly drunken attempt to have a good night’s rest!
- Avoid certain drinks at all cost: beers, champaign, sweet-wines, and cocktails are your enemies! Instead, go for spirits (mix them with either soda-water, or sugar-free sodas)!
- Take a good multivitamin! Preferably every day, but at the very least before and after your drinking days!
- Don’t use your hangover, your low motivation-levels, or your tiredness as an excuse – you made the choice to go drinking, take some responsibility for the consequences!
While I’m definitely not promoting alcohol-consumption in any way, if you follow these advices, then you should be just fine! Don’t make a habit out of drinking though – it won’t only hurt your muscles; it will also hurt your overall health! But don’t feel guilty if you have an occasional drink (or drinks, really occasionally), focus on having fun! It’s totally possible to find a good balance between staying healthy while achieving your fitness-goals, and having a fun social life – if you do it right, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice either (note that a fun social life isn’t equal to constant drinking).
I really hope that I was able to clear the fog around alcohol and fitness with this post! Let me know what you think in the comments! Also, if you want to read more articles like this one, follow Vikingfinity – I release two posts a week, and you don’t want to miss them!