Alcohol and Exercise. Is There Room for Both? (Part 1)
Does Alcohol Really Effect Gym Goals?
Like most people, I love a drink or two, or three (or more) on the weekend with my friends. You may have heard that small intakes of certain alcoholic drinks may actually improve health. It's a bit of an exaggerated "health claim" that many people use to their benefit to defend their weekend binging or daily 6-pack after work. That's not really how it works, but what you CAN say is that a drink here or there has the power to relieve some mental stress, create a socially fun or "loose" environment, and let go a little bit. Also, consuming a couple drinks and getting a buzz isn't likely to be extremely detrimental to your overall health.
Take the whole "Red Wine" health claim for example. A nutrient in grapes called resveratrol that has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol (the good kind) is responsible for this. However, it is ONLY applicable if you consume alcohol in moderation. The minute you over-consume (which is easy to do) you can kiss the health claims goodbye. Everyone is aware that long term over-consumption can cause or contribute to many diseases, and degradation and damage to organs and body parts.
So how does alcohol affect your gym goals? And how much is "Moderate Consumption"?
Let’s break it down into two categories:
1. Building Muscle/Strength/Performance (Part 1)
2. Losing Fat (Part 2)
I've heard so many contradicting arguments of alcohol's effect on muscle building through the years. People in college would say anything from "don't be a wuss, I go out and party 4 times a week and I'm strong as hell!" to "I wouldn't dare to drink right now, I'm trying to maximize my protein synthesis, if I drink alcohol I can say See Ya Later to my muscles".
Muscle Protein Synthesis is the process your body goes through to create muscle. Alcohol does have an effect on it but it’s a pretty reasonable compromise if you ask me. Multiple studies show that consuming alcohol post workout can decrease Muscle Protein Synthesis Rates by 20%. Those effects can last for up to 48hrs. So if you're really trying to maximize your MPS, alcohol will negatively affect your goals but assuming you take all the nutritional remedies to recover as best as possible, you still might be able to build muscle after a night out. Chances are, you don't drink every single day either, so subsequent workouts probably won't be hindered and you'll likely be able to make gains the rest of the week.
Alcohol negatively effects muscle in many ways but here are a few of the most important:
Decreases mTor Pathway - One of the most important pathways for MPS is called mTor and that may be slightly inhibited by alcohol consumption on its own. Alcohol is used as a preferential substrate by an enzyme that works with mTor. By decreasing its reaction with mTor, MPS may decrease.
Decreases Glycogen Resynthesis - Muscle glycogen is important to muscle growth. It’s a big fuel source for muscles, especially when working in the hypertrophy rep ranges (6-20). If your muscle glycogen levels are low, your performance will decrease and you probably won't be able to handle as much volume as usual.
Decreases IGF-1 and Insulin Signalling - Insulin and IGF-1 are very important hormones to the muscle building process. Insulin and IGF-1 have been shown in vitro to decrease MPS by 30% and 60% (cell studies) when combined with alcohol.
Although strength and muscle gains have their similarities, they’re two different qualities. Strength training relies more heavily on the CNS (central nervous system) demanding high-quality muscle contractions, cognitive function, coordination (inter and intra-muscular included) as well as the rate at which muscle fibers are fired. Your muscles and CNS function optimally when they have an adequate fluid and electrolyte balance. Alcohol can negatively affect the CNS by dehydrating the muscles, depleting crucial nutrients that play a role in muscle contractions, and interfering with neuromuscular signalling.
Sports Performance is usually some sort of mix between power, strength, endurance and other physio and psychological aspects, depends on the sport obviously. If you've ever played a high intensity sport hungover, you know your performance is low as hell compared to sober you. Lethargic, bad coordination, weak strength, poor endurance, poor reaction time, and not to mention the nausea that all come to mind. Typically, athletes won't go crazy with alcohol during the season. But if they win a big game you'll see them get pretty wasted to celebrate. So what do the studies show?
*****Let me point out that the effects of alcohol consumption before exercise or competition is well documented and not good at all. All these findings are on recovery post workout/competition*****
BUT HOW MUCH ALCOHOL CAN I DRINK BEFORE I SIGNIFICANTLY DECREASE STRENGTH, PERFORMANCE AND MPS???
Nutrition classes have taught me that depending on your size and tolerance levels, 2-4 drinks can be consumed before the negative effects start to set in. Thankfully its slightly different for muscle and performance:
A couple amazing studies were conducted that actually measured different amounts of alcohol and their effects on muscle and strength. One gave subjects 1g alcohol/kg bodyweight, and the others got equal amount of orange juice which was consumed 30mins after the workout. They performed a very damaging workout which included 300 eccentric reps for the quads! Their strength levels were tested 36hr and 60hr post workout and the results were in: the group that drank the alcohol showed up to a 22% loss in strength compared to the OJ group.
Here's the kicker study. The same scientists did a study with subjects who consumed 1g alcohol/kg bodyweight vs 0.5g alcohol/kg bodyweight. The best part is, the 0.5g group saw no significant effect compared to the 1g group. What that means is that consuming SOME alcohol doesn't seem to have any notable negative effects. Adverse effects are only noticeable when alcohol is over consumed, so don't be afraid to have a couple beers without worrying about your muscles shrivelling up while you're holding your bottle.
Another study, this time from The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (represent, chest pound, *ahem*) studied the effects of alcohol on rugby players. Let me add that this study was extremely well done. Players were monitored pre, during, and post game before consuming alcohol. They were kept overnight to continue accurate monitoring. They had all the bells and whistles from GPS monitoring to record distance and velocity, to feeding players the same meals. The players were given either 1g ALC/kg BW in the form of Smirnoff Vodka (oh man) and OJ, vs. OJ only. They even ensured the groups had matched energy values by equalizing amount of ALC + OJ vs OJ. Player measurements of Power, strength and cognitive function were conducted before the match, immediately post-match, 2hrs post-match, and 16hrs post. The results weren't exactly what I expected. Not everything decreased right after alcohol consumption. The muscular power test (Counter Movement Jump), and Maximum Voluntary Contraction didn't change much off the bat, but as the hangover kicked in 16hrs after, they saw a BIG decrease in CMJ. They also noticed a decrease in cognitive function including reaction time at the 16hr post-match measurements.
Research concludes that 1g ALC/kg BW is enough to have negative effects on Muscle Protein Synthesis. However, half of that, 0.5g ALC/kg BW, does not show any negative effects.
Now the question becomes: How much is 1g ALC / kg Bodyweight?
Take myself for example. I'm 176lbs (80kg). That means 1g ALC/kg BW = 80g alcohol.
The average drink is about 12-14g of alcohol. So let's do 80/12 = 5.7 drinks, or 80/14 - 6.6 drinks. That sounds about right, doesn't it? 6 beers is enough to get me drunk and hungover. Whereas 0.5g ALC/ kg BW would be about 3 drinks. Maybe enough for a buzz, not enough for a hangover, and according to the research, not enough to mess with my Muscle, Strength, or Performance Gains!
Keep that formula so you know what your upper limit is before you go drinking!
Part 2 will go over alcohol’s effect on Fat Loss, and Hormones. Don't miss a beat by subscribing to my newsletter below or on the home page.
Vella, L. D., & Cameron-Smith, D. (2010). Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery. Nutrients, 2(8), 781–789. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu2080781
Murphy, A. P., Snape, A. E., Minett, G. M., Skein, M., & Duffield, R. (2013). The effect of post-match alcohol ingestion on recovery from competitive Rugby League matches. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(5), 1304-1312.
Burke, L. M., Collier, G. R., Broad, E. M., Davis, P. G., Martin, D. T., Sanigorski, A. J., & Hargreaves, M. (2003). Effect of alcohol intake on muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 95(3), 983-990.
Bianco, A., Thomas, E., Pomara, F., Tabacchi, G., Karsten, B., Paoli, A., & Palma, A. (2014). Alcohol consumption and hormonal alterations related to muscle hypertrophy: a review. Nutrition & metabolism, 11(1), 26.
Barnes, M. J. (2014). Alcohol: impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(7), 909-919.
Barnes, M. J., Mündel, T., & Stannard, S. R. (2010). Acute alcohol consumption aggravates the decline in muscle performance following strenuous eccentric exercise. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 13(1), 189-193.