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How to Work Out Effectively Without Completely Giving Up Alcohol

There are a few tricks to minimizing the effects drinking can have on your gym progress.

by Casey Johnston
20 February 2020, 1:47pm

Illustration by Elnora Turner

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Dear Ask a Swole Woman,

First of all, thank you for your column, in all its various forms and locales. I had been lifting before you started writing, but you inspired me to take it more seriously and also just generally validated my experiences and made me feel less alone.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about alcohol and training—both how it affects training/macros from a scientific/nutrition standpoint, and also how (if?) you have found balance between building strength but also going out with friends for a few drinks?

Ok, that’s it! Thanks again!

LC

I did not know roughly until I started lifting weights that alcohol is actually a fourth kind of calorie—it is not carb, nor fat, nor protein, technically speaking. (Further technically speaking, it is not really a calorie, just “poison” to your body, but we must die a little to stay alive somehow.) This means drinking, and when you drink, and how much you drink, has implications for your training, but even if you know these implications, it’s hard to know how concerned to be about them. I'm going to talk about all of the relevant data and then make a judgment call about what is best, based on the evidence and my experience as both an enthusiastic lifter and drinker.

First of all, these are two very good videos on alcohol as it relates to lifting/strength training created by Jeff Nippard (the second one is more concerned with how alcohol affects your body fat percentage than I think really matters here, but the rest is interesting) with breakdowns of relevant scientific research:

So the first question is: can you drink and still train and make progress? Yes, of course. Maybe if you were a professional athlete where your body and health are your life, you might consider cutting back, but there is plenty of room for booze in the life of a normal person who simply works out.

But research we’ll talk about here has shown that there are longer-term effects that are not detectable by the average human; that research has its own shortcomings, but it’s the best we’ve got. A normal person who works out at least three-ish times per week, meaning they have a mix of nights where they have to train the next day, and nights when they don’t have to train the next day (but you don’t have to train the next day, because you just trained that day). So we can contend with this in two parts: how drinking affects you immediately after a workout, and how drinking affects you the day before a workout. If you’re trying to plan out your week, is it better to schedule getting wasted for a day that you went to the gym, at the risk of undermining your workout? Or the night before, at the risk of undermining the workout yet to come?

If you get home from the gym and have a few beers, research suggests that alcohol (which jumps the digestive queue inside your body, meaning real food gets stored as fat while your body is breaking down your drinks) slows down your body’s ability to use protein to repair the muscles torn up by your recent training. In one study on actual humans, consuming a 25 gram dose of protein right after a workout and then again four hours later, mitigated this problem a little bit, but not completely. However, in this study, the subjects were getting absolutely wasted, taking in 12 drinks (plus or minus two drinks, per the authors) in the hours after their training. I am guessing you are not trying to get absolutely trashed, so we can reasonably assume the effect on your muscles will be less for a more modest number of drinks, and possibly even negligible for your purposes as a non-pro athlete, if you make sure to eat your food.

But what about drinking the night before a training? Obviously, as with the above, the effect will vary if you’re having three drinks and are in bed by 10 p.m. versus going on a bender and going to bed at 5 a.m. If you’re hungover, you’re not going to want to work out, and even if you do, you won’t be able to do all that you could if you were not hungover. According to a different study, alcohol lowers testosterone in men, but increases it in women (the study did not measure how much each person drank, but authors determined the subjects were sufficiently drunk according to their “slurred speech [and] unstable gait”). This matters because testosterone is an “anabolic” hormone, meaning it helps you build muscle.

This seems like a pretty wild finding, implying that drinking may even help women actually build muscle, but it’s a one-off, and it’s small, and no one has followed up on it; probably the safest thing to conclude is that drinking is maybe somewhat less bad for women’s overall progress than men’s, but it definitely doesn’t mean to start supplementing your protein shakes with whiskey, because alcohol has many effects beyond what it does to your hormones: it’s dehydrating, it’s taxing on your digestive system, etc., etc.

As far as how to integrate alcohol calorie/energy-intake-wise, Nippard above suggests carving space in your diet for alcohol from your fat macros, because your body processes fat less well than carbs or protein while it’s processing alcohol. You can see the obvious shortcoming here: taking caloric space away from real food and giving it to alcohol, which is a not-super-efficient source of energy and a great struggle for your body to process, is overall worse than just eating food, but that’s the compromise we’re making in order to drink.

An interesting thing about scientific literature around drinking and strength training, particularly as it relates to women, is that it is not super comprehensive; the studies are either small with only a dozen-ish subjects (or sometimes even mice) and without a lot of control for training background, intensity of training programs, or overall diet/sleep/other recovery elements. It’s a lot of having people do leg presses and then get very drunk, or having them get very drunk and then do leg presses. This is not a knock on the scientific establishment as a whole; it’s hard to get funding for this kind of stuff, even as it affects so much of our lives. (I want to be able to drink but in a way that minimally impacts other areas of my life, and, like you, I feel sure it is possible but slightly unsure how to go about it.) I wish there were better data, but there is not.

Taking all this together, it is my opinion (and experience) that the best time to drink is on a day when you’ve JUST trained earlier that day, and do not plan on training the next day. This leaves you at least three, if not four, days each week when you can pretty safely drink a little and not ruin your own life too badly. It also means you don't drink many days in a row, which, to me, produces the absolute worst results. This does involve some planning, but, you work! You train! Treat yourself to scheduling your evenings of drinking, and saving some other evenings for not drinking.

Would it be better to not drink at all, in a strict health sense? Probably. While I cannot legally personally attest to the superiority of weed, I can point to the literature suggesting it harmonizes beautifully with many aspects of strength training: it stimulates appetite, reduces inflammation, helps some people with sleep, and the hangover stakes are not nearly as high (though you can be cannabis-hungover). Obviously, there are events where you might be drinking, like an after-work happy hour, where weed might not be as acceptable. But as a wind-down, it sure seems to me, academically and theoretically speaking, weed has a lot going for it over booze.

But hopefully you see here that, thankfully, there is plenty of room for life balance (drinking) even if you are trying to go to the gym regularly. While it’s not the best thing in a strict biological sense, I return often to the research that suggests light-to-moderate drinkers “live longer", as researchers speculate that moderate drinking is closely linked with other demographic markers of health that don’t have anything to do with alcohol intake. While no one needs to drink to have friends, there is surely more to it than intake in grams-per-kilocalorie, and you should find your balance.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.
You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com .