The Bitter Cocktail of Exercise and Alcohol


The effects of alcohol and muscle gain

I’d like to formally dedicate this article to my client, Shane :)


Alcohol and athleticism have been at odds my entire career. An inevitable topic for me to tiptoe around because no one really wants to hear the truths.


I had to navigate it as a personal trainer, it was inescapable with college athletes and I might as well forget any negative effects of alcohol exist in pro sports because hardly anyone cares.


However, if you’re trying to gain muscle, lose fat, optimize your performance, or all of the above while boozing it up, you’re going to want to pay close attention.


Before I continue, I want to emphasize that I can knock back some brews myself and feel no guilt about it.


I’m talking ZERO.


So, this article is purely informational and not intended to shame those who drink.


I’ll provide the facts and you decide what you wish to do with them. No more no less. With that disclaimer aside, let’s get into it.

 

How is Alcohol Different from Other Macros?


Alcohol contributes calories just like carbs, protein, and fat (which contribute 4, 4, and 9 calories per gram respectively) at about 7 calories per gram. However, alcohol is more complex than the calories it contains. That’s because calories are only a small part of the story.


Get this. The definition of an alcoholic drink is a 1 ounce shot of liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.


How can this be? Same amount of alcohol, but way different amounts of liquid?


That’s because things that are added in the production of beer and wine also contribute calories and, since alcohol companies aren’t required to include nutrition facts labels like the ones you see on food and other drinks, it’s almost impossible to figure out what calories are coming from where.


This makes alcohol virtually untrackable like your three macros. Since the fastest way to change body composition is to implement some precision in your macros, this makes both fitting alcohol into your meal plan and meeting your goals quite difficult.


Finally, alcohol isn’t classified as a macronutrient -- it’s classified as a toxin, not a nutrient. It just happens to be a toxin that contributes calories, but no other nutrition.

 

What Are the Effects of Alcohol on Performance and Weight?


Before we get into effects let me clarify that these apply to people who are heavy drinkers or who engage in binge drinking.


Heavy drinking is defined by more than 14 drinks per week for men (a “drink” being what I described above) or more than 7 drinks per week for women.


Binge drinking is the one I’m sure we all covered in the awkward weeks of high school health class, but still engage in anyway. By definition, binge drinking is 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women in under 2 hours.


So, now that our Saturday night flashbacks are out of our system, what are the effects of a night of binge drinking?


Short Term Effects of Alcohol on Performance and Weight


Dehydration is the most obvious one for anyone that’s woken up with the dry throat of hungover death. However, we all know the detrimental effects dehydration has on performance. To combat it, you need to drink twice the volume of water as whatever drink you’re having.


So, say you have two, 12-ounce beers, you need 48 ounces of water to rehydrate. This is about 3 standard-sized water bottles. If you can manage to balance your alcohol intake this way before you pass out next to the open pizza box on your friend’s couch, you’re in the clear!


If you attempt to perform after a night of drinking, know you’ll have decreased jump height and decreased speed. Alcohol also causes slower reaction time, impaired balance and decreased hand-eye coordination. All bad news for athletes.


Now for you weight lifters and cardio bunnies. Studies show that, after a night of drinking, you will fatigue faster, require more lung strain to meet your oxygen demands (basically breathe harder than normal) and get sore faster. Soreness is a big one because the acids that build up in your muscles to cause soreness are normally cleared by the liver.


However, if the liver just did an overnight shift processing all those shots, the muscles get left behind.


Finally, you experience impaired sleep after drinking. Ever slept for 12 hours straight after a rager, woke up and still felt like you could sleep another 12? That’s because too much alcohol doesn’t allow your brain to get into REM sleep, which you need for your body and brain to truly recover from your day or, in the case of an athlete, recover from your training/competition.


Long Term Effects of Alcohol on Performance and Weight


So now, what are the effects if you are a heavy drinker or binge drink regularly?


Let’s talk about the biggest one.


AHEM. WEIGHT GAIN.


I don’t like the commonly used adage that “alcohol is stored directly as fat” because it’s only partially true and misrepresents the science.


The truth is that the body stores alcohol as fat if you’re in a calorie surplus. Meaning this only happens if you’re taking in more calories than you are burning.


This is important, though, for those going through a bulking cycle, because you need to be in a calorie surplus by default to gain muscle. What we are trying to gain though is MUSCLE, not fat.


It should also be noted that, if you eat during a night of drinking, your metabolism does change tracks and store more of that food as fat than it would if you were not drinking. That’s because processing alcohol puts a tremendous strain on the liver, leaving it to panic and go “screw putting all of the macros from this taco bell in the right places, I’m still dealing with this bottle of wine – fat storage it is!” It’s just the easiest thing for the liver to do with its workload.


That said, think about the type of food you end up going for when you’re drunk and keep your liver in mind.


Regular drinking also decreases vitamin and mineral absorption, especially of B vitamins. So, when you do go to eat healthy to balance out the drinking, your body has trouble absorbing the nutrients from that meal.


Another effect is a less effective immune system and increased risk of injury. Studies show the injury rate of drinkers is 55% compared to 29% of non-drinkers and the most popular day for injuries is Monday.


You can probably guess why that is.


Finally, regular drinking cancels out your muscle gains. It does this by decreasing human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone. Basically, it prevents you from gaining new muscle and the muscles you break down during exercise stay broken down without a sufficient level of these hormones.

 

But…But…What About My Social Life?


Worried about temptation or turning into a square when you go out with friends?


Trust me I get it. Totally abstaining from alcohol is wAYayAYYay easier said than done. So, here’s a list of things you can do to minimize the negative effects:


  • Stay hydrated the day before a night of drinking, alternate each of your drinks with 1-2 glasses of water and consume plenty of water before bed. Also, no, it won’t work to drink all of your water at the end of the night. Chugging is not hydrating.

  • You can also ask to get plenty of ice in your drink for more water and less alcohol. Especially if you’re hanging out with “those friends” who pressure you to drink a certain amount.

  • Choose drinks that have SOME nutrients like red wine, cocktails with tomato juice or fruit ingredients rather than those loaded with syrups, sugars and energy drinks.

  • Have a healthful, high-protein meal before your night out.

  • Stop drinking when it gets close to bedtime and have a reasonable meal to lower the possibility of disrupting your sleep.

The bottom line?


Alcohol is a tricky and awkward subject to bring up when talking about body composition and athletic performance. Most of us are going to do it anyway…and that’s okay! However, it’s my job to keep you informed. The brutal truth is, though, if you’re trying to gain muscle and lose fat without wasting time or taking two steps back, abstaining until your goals are met is the best way.


If you’re looking for some recipes and meal plans to do just that, check out my resources here!