A gym goer’s guide to drinking alcohol without hurting your fitness success.
Wine and weight loss. Gin and gains. Lagers and lifting.
Is it possible to pair up alcohol and fitness or will that after-work drink really hurt my physique?
Let’s dive right into the big question.
Can I drink and still hit my fitness goals?
And keep in mind, if the answer is “no,” then let’s pretend I didn’t ask this question until after my work party this weekend (the one with the open bar…).
Now, if you aren’t 21… then this post isn’t for you. Instead, just check out these animals making funny noises and come back next week for some age appropriate info.
Now, if you don’t want to know the why behind drinking and fitness and just want to know what to do for your upcoming night out, check out this gym-goers guide to drinking for tips on how to drink without hurting your fitness success.
But for you legal party animals ready to understand, let’s get started.
Let’s see if drinking really will hurt your fitness goals or if you can still enjoy a brewskie without shrinking down your muscles.
How does alcohol even work?
Now, we could dive deep into how alcohol really works. But all those chemical reactions will turn this post in a thesis paper. So instead, we’re keeping it simple and summing up the processes in a quick and dirty form.
After you sip on that glass of wine or shotgun that beer, the contents all crash land into your stomach. The alcohol then gets absorbed through the stomach and small intestine and starts making its way down to your liver.
Now, most people know the liver does something when you drink because everyone knows that after a few nights of pounding them back, you need to give your liver a break. What your liver actually does is metabolize the alcohol. It breaks it down into smaller pieces and then discards them. Basically, your liver tries to sober you up.
And your liver does a pretty darn good job at this. But it’s not very fast at doing this.
Remember the last time you went to the DMV. And you waited all the live long day just to get your license renewed, only to get to the front of the line and the lady behind the counter tells you that you need some specific piece of mail, and no, you can’t keep your spot in line. Jump back 100 places and try again later.
Well it’s kind of the same with your liver. Your liver can only break down about 1 drink every 90 minutes. That means 1 beer, 1 glass of wine or 1 shot. Not all three, just one every hour and a half.
Your liver is great at its job, but it’s just about as slow as the DMV lady.
So just like you waited in line all day only to take the worst driver’s license picture in the history of ever, so does your alcohol.
When you take in more alcohol than you liver can process, the extra drinks sit and wait in your blood stream. And the more alcohol there is hanging out in the blood stream, the more you feel the effects of that drink (or two or three or dozen).
But before we jump into the effects, let me take a second to explain that not all drinks are created equal. Not every drink will impact you and your neighbor in the same way.
Joe next door might absorb and process his alcohol at a slower rate than you because his stomach was full of cheeseburgers and wings from his dinner. Or Jenny from work might metabolize alcohol slower than you because let’s face it, women are just slower at everything…. Kidding, women just absorb alcohol at a slower rate then guys. Or your friend Sam, the one who quit working out a few decades ago and has packed on a few extra pounds. Well he absorbs and processes his alcohol slower just because he has a higher body fat.
But your absorption and metabolizing rates depend on more than just your genetics.
First and most obviously, the more liquor you drink, the more that goes into your blood. Thank you Captain Obvious.
And whatever you choose to mix your drink with might change that absorption. If you use carbonation, it speeds up how fast you absorb it into your blood. That means if you’re ready to get chocolate wasted, start drinking Jack and Cokes.
Your genetics and drink preferences change how much alcohol you have waiting in the line for the liver. And the more alcohol you have, the more concentrated your blood alcohol levels, the more you notice the effects.
Just in case you have never witnessed someone who might be a little intoxicated, let’s review the 6 Stages of Alcohol.
Stage 1. The Jovial Stage
When you agree to go to happy hour with your coworkers or out for a few brewskies with your buddies, you might not be a ray of sunshine when you arrive. But that’s about to change. Even just half a serving of alcohol in one hour is enough to change the frontal lobes of your brain. That half a bottle of beer suppresses your inhibitions, self-control, will power and ability to judge. You know those folks that become super loud and annoying when they drink? It’s because that tiny bit of alcohol suppressed their frontal lobe and they become more daring with a boost in self-confidence. They talk more and they talk louder.
Stage 2. The Slurring Stage
After the alcohol suppresses your frontal lobes, it moves on to suppress the parietal lobes. The ones on the side and top of you brain. You get to this point after about 2 or 3 drinks within an hour. And those parietal lobes control your motor skills and speech. You get a little wobbly and slurry, but funny enough, you don’t always seem to notice this. Now Sober Sally next to you notices, but you’re still flying high on your boost in confidence that you pay it no mind.
Stage 3. The Blurring Stage
Next, alcohol hits the back of your head. The occipital lobe. After 4 or 5 drinks within an hour, you start to see double. The occipital lobe controls your vision, so when this part of your brain is hit by those Gin and Tonics, you start to have trouble seeing clearly and judging distances.
Stage 4. The Falling Stage
Alcohol is now crashing over your cerebellum. It knocks you over like a tidal wave after 5 or 6 drinks. It becomes hard to stand and walk and the sidewalks feel like they start moving on their own.
Stage 5. The Legless Stage
If you’re not in bed by now, you definitely need to be. The alcohol has hit your midbrain and your reflexes no longer seem to work. You might be jittery and incredibly nauseous, but feel paralyzed to whatever bed, bench or sidewalk you are about to pass out on.
Stage 6. The Dark Stage
If you pass Stage 5 with a few more drinks, the alcohol concentration in your blood is so high that it becomes deadly. That alcohol reaches the medulla oblongata, the part of the brain that controls your breathing and blood circulation. And if that gets suppressed, then you’re a goner.
A few of you may have experienced this magical journey first hand. But I know what you’re thinking. Get to the point.
Just tell me: does drinking affect my fitness goals?
Yes. Alcohol can impact your fitness goals. And there are plenty of downsides. But they might not be all bad.
The Downside of Drinking
• As much as I wish beer had just as many nutrients as spinach, it does not. Really, alcohol has no nutritional content and sadly, it’s just a bunch of empty calories. It might not be nutritional for your body, but it does seem to be nutritional for your soul.
• When you drink, alcohol is the first thing to be used as energy. Cool, so if you chug that beer, you burn it quickly! Why this made the Negative Nancy list is because that means anything you eat (like that Taco Bell at 2AM) will go straight into fat storage.
• Alcohol, even one drink, makes your hormones whacky. It elevates your cortisol and estrogen levels. It also can decrease your cognitive function.
• Having a drink (or a few) before bed can actually screw with your sleep. I know it feels like you sleep better after having that bottle of wine, but it actually causes issues to make your sleep quality worse.
• Alcohol dehydrates your body. If you weighed yourself the morning after drinking, you might be a few pounds lighter! But that’s all just water weight. It usually takes a couple of days to rehydrate yourself properly (and no, that doesn’t mean with vodka waters). Being dehydrated also doesn’t make your hormones very happy.
• Alcohol is just like a chocolate and strawberry topped cheesecake. It raises your insulin levels that lead to more fat storage.
• And for most people, alcohol is very vocal about food. It tells you that 15 tacos at 3am is a super awesome idea. And then maybe go home and order a pizza. So even if the alcohol you drink wasn’t that bad, the food it convinced you to eat definitely doesn’t help with your fitness goals.
So no, alcohol is not great for your fitness.
But having a drink or two doesn’t mean you can’t still hit your fitness goals. Here are a few nerdy and booze-loving researchers that explain it. These studies don’t replace our negative downsides, but they are interesting to consider (or to carry with you if you want to justify your night of drinking).
Can you replace exercise with wine?
Remember that study that came out awhile ago that said a glass of red wine was equal to 1 hour of working out? [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120619225941.htm]
Well I don’t really think they meant that a glass of Merlot is just as good as building muscles as those butt shaping squats.
But red wine does have a compound called resveratrol that scientists think may help enhance your athletic performance. Not replace it, but enhance it. And in that study, they predicted that in older folks who are unable to workout, this compound may produce similar results that a workout could.
Now, I’m guessing that you’re not old and that you don’t have the excuse that you can’t workout. So I wouldn’t sign up for a wine of the month club and try to get your insurance’s flex spending plan to cover it.
But that glass of wine may enhance the killer workouts you already do. Just maybe don’t drink until after the workout.
Does alcohol hurt your muscle recovery?
This beer loving researcher, Mr. Barnes, wanted to see what alcohol did to your muscle recovery post workout.
He did a study were he had a group of men finish a really intense, 300 rep workout of eccentric quad exercises.
Right after the workout, all the men got 1g/1kg of liquid. That means they got different amount depending on their weights.
Half got alcohol post workout and the other guys had OJ. Then they measured to see what happened to muscle recovery.
When you do the calculations, a 180-pound man in the alcohol group would get about six alcoholic drinks post workout.
What the researchers found was that at 36 and 60 hours later, the alcohol-drinking subjects had muscles with severe hangovers! And the OJ drinkers were still in tiptop shape.
But here’s where it gets cool.
Barnes then repeated this study but instead of OJ, he gave the second half of the group alcohol, just less of it. They got about the half the amount of alcohol as the first drinkers.
And he found that those that drank less alcohol really had no different effect on their muscle recovery than the OJ drinkers. So 6 drinks is probably too many, but 2 or 3 might be just fine for your muscle recovery.
Okay but what about alcohol and performance?
That boozy researcher Barnes did it again.
This time he took Rugby players. And he got them trashed after a game. Wasted. They each had about 3g/kg of alcohol, which is 3 times more than the heavy drinkers in the first study! So about 18 beers later, they each were gone.
Guess what happened when they showed up for practice 2 days later?
Nothing. They were in their normal shape and function. Their performance was the exact same.
So even if you get trashed, it might not impact your performance for your workouts if you give yourself a few days to recover to get back to your normal functioning.
Does that mean alcohol can help increase muscles?
Sadly no. Alcohol doesn’t seem to have an impact on testosterone levels, but it does shortchange your production of growth hormone. That means you won’t be building any massive guns if you’re always pounding beers. It also slows down your protein synthesis, the change needed to bulk up your muscles.
Alright, but what about alcohol and fat loss?
Here is where Negative Nancy rears her ugly head again. It looks like drinking may hurt your fat loss goals.
That alcohol is full of empty calories and has no nutritional value. So it gets burned for energy rather than burning your fat stores.
And if you eat tons of food while you drink, then that’s not helping your fat loss either. But how much you eat may depend on what your drink of choice is. And how many empty calories are mixed in with that beverage.
Beer has a compound called GLP-1 which may actually work as an appetite suppressant. While red wine has a histamine compound that actually raises cortisol and increases fat storage.
But don’t start drinking beer as a fat loss tool. One study found that men and women who drank one beer per day had a significantly higher rate of belly fat than their non-drinking counterparts. And the beer drinkers had even higher rates of belly fat than the one-glass per day wine drinkers.
Regardless, all alcohol impacts your sleep. And we all know that when we’re tired, we store fat and crave more food. No bueno for fat loss.
The other aspect that we have to consider is hormones, because our hormones regulate our fat stores. Most studies show that drinking alcohol increases your estrogen stores which leads to storing fat.
So the take away point: alcohol isn’t going to be great for fat loss. It can impact your hormones and tempt you to eat foods that contradict your fat loss goals. The alcohol itself might not get stored as fat, but it increases other fat stores and stops your fat burn from happening.
To make a long story short: drinking isn’t healthy for you. But neither is staying up late watching TV, being extra stressed at work or staring at a computer screen all day.
Everyone makes choices that can hurt or help your fitness goals. You just have to choose your priority. Now I am not suggesting that you drink every night. Because that means you’re filling your body with empty calories and affecting your sleep and hormones big time. But having a drink might not be any worse than having that double chocolate chunk brownie. Neither are going to catapult you to your fitness goals. But they probably aren’t going to stop your from achieving those goals eventually.
You just have to pick your battles. Or your splurges.
If you want to nix drinking and stay committed to your fitness goals, then more power to you. You will get to those goals faster and more efficiently. But if you want to have an occasional drink, go for it. Just don’t drink yourself silly night after night, because daily hangovers will stop you from making it to the gym, and that will hurt your fitness success.
Before you dive into the party punch bowl or shotgun a few beers, check out these tips and tricks to drink successfully without hurting your fitness goals.
Now I’m off to make a beer run… That counts as exercise, right?