This is the ultimate guide to mixing alcohol and bodybuilding.
If you’re interested in learning about:
- Alcohol calories and its impact on appetite
- How alcohol affects testosterone and muscle gain
- How alcohol impacts our fat-burning efforts
- How to drink and make progress in the gym
Then you’ll love this guide. Without further ado, let’s dive into it.
Thermodynamics, Alcohol Effects on Hunger, Fat Storage, and Alcohol Calories
We often hear statements like:
“Drinking alcohol causes weight gain.”
“Beer goes directly to the gut.”
And because such statements get thrown around, there’s a common agreement among people that alcohol is bad and causes fat gain.
But is this true? Well, not really.
We know that weight gain and weight loss both come down to energy balance. If you eat more food (and create a caloric surplus), you gain weight. If you eat less food (and create a caloric deficit), you lose weight. A calorie truly is a calorie in that regard.
Body composition, on the other hand, is more complex and more factors go into it. For example, if you set a goal to lose fat instead of just weight, you’d have to take other factors in mind, not just the caloric deficit.
Just to name two. Other factors come into play here, but you get my point.
But how does alcohol work?
When we consume alcohol, it gets absorbed from the stomach and intestines. It then passes through the liver on its way to your blood. As it circulates, it keeps passing through the liver and every time it does, the liver breaks down some of the alcohol into acetate.
Acetate is the real issue here because once it enters the blood, it inhibits fat-burning and causes most of the fatty acids in your blood to be stored instead of spent.
But since we know that the number one requirement for weight (or fat) gain is a caloric surplus, the mere consumption of alcohol won’t make you store fat when you control your nutrition.
As long as you’re in a caloric deficit or maintenance, this shouldn’t concern you. If you are eating in a surplus, I’ll give you some recommendations on drinking alcohol below, so stay tuned.
Now, there is some evidence to suggest that alcohol may stimulate appetite and cause overconsumption of food. Couple that with the loss of impulse control when intoxicated (Ever eaten a big, sloppy burger at 3 AM after drinking?) and you can do some serious damage to your caloric intake.
Also, there has been some debate on whether alcohol calories count or not. This study set out to answer this very question. It had a few interesting points:
1) Epidemiologic data showed a positive, negative, or no relationship between alcohol intake and body weight.
2) Moderate amounts of alcohol enhance energy intake due to the caloric content of the alcohol as well as its appetite-enhancing effects.
3) Experimental evidence from several metabolic studies showed a suppression of lipid oxidation by alcohol and thus the enhancement of a positive fat balance. The nonoxidized fat is preferentially deposited in the abdominal area. The experimental metabolic evidence suggests that the consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol has to be accounted for in the energy-balance equation and may represent a risk factor for the development of a positive energy balance and thus weight gain.
4) Experimental data in combination with epidemiologic findings suggest that alcohol energy counts more in moderate nondaily alcohol consumers than in some moderate daily and all heavy consumers. Accordingly the question is not "Whether alcohol calories do count" but "How much do alcohol calories count?". There seems to be a large individual variability according to the absolute amount of alcohol consumed, the drinking frequency as well as genetic factors. Presently it can be said that alcohol calories count more in moderate nondaily consumers than in daily (heavy) consumers. Further, they count more in combination with a high-fat diet and in overweight and obese subjects.
So, in short: it depends. But, to be on the safer side, it's smart to account for the calories you get from alcohol.
Alcohol, the macronutrient, stands at 7.1 calories per gram, making it only second in energy density to fats. If you take the thermic effect of food (TEF) in consideration, which is 20 percent of ethanol calories, alcohol comes to about 5.7 calories per gram.
But since we count protein, carbs, and fats calories as they are, I don’t see a reason to treat alcohol differently.
Alcohol, Insulin Sensitivity, and Longevity
Alcohol appears to improve insulin sensitivity and lower triglyceride concentrations in healthy folks. The exact mechanisms behind this are unclear, but one plausible explanation is that ethanol consumption promotes insulin sensitivity and leanness by stimulating AMP-activated protein kinase.
We can also consider the possibility that alcohol might have favorable effects on nutrient partitioning in the long term.
Moderate alcohol consumption has also been shown to improve heart function and increase lifespan.
But it doesn’t stop there. Moderate consumption of alcohol can also protect against dementia, some cancers, depression, and even the common cold.
It would seem that alcohol is not the boogeyman, and moderate consumption of it is healthier than complete abstinence. But how does alcohol affect muscle growth, athletic performance, and recovery?
Let’s find out.
Alcohol and Testosterone Levels
It is common knowledge that testosterone is a major player in muscle growth and athletic performance. We all want to get it to optimal levels and keep it there. So you can see where one of the issues with alcohol consumption arises.
You’ve probably heard that alcohol consumption lowers testosterone. And that’s true, but it’s not as bad as you might think.
This study had men and women consume 30 to 40 grams of alcohol daily for 3 weeks. At the end of it, testosterone levels had dropped by 6.8% for men and stayed the same for women. I would say that this drop is pretty insignificant.
For alcohol to truly do some damage to testosterone levels, you’d need to drink much larger amounts.
In this study, 8 healthy young guys drank 1.5 g ethanol per kg of body weight over the course of 3 hours. They found that 10 to 16 hours post-drinking, serum testosterone levels had dropped by about 23%.
There are also a few studies that looked at alcohol consumption in the post-training period. This study had participants take 70-80 grams of alcohol after training to measure its effects on testosterone and found no significant decline.
But, another study with the same goal in mind had participants take 1.5g of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. They found that physical stress right before alcohol consumption prolonged the negative effects on testosterone secretion.
The research is a bit mixed on this, but it’s fair to say that alcohol won’t affect testosterone levels when consumed in small to moderate doses.
Alcohol, Recovery, Muscle Mass, and Athletic Performance
The research here is also mixed, so let’s dig into it and come up with a reasonable conclusion.
First off, moderate amounts of alcohol do not accelerate exercise-induced muscle damage. This study also confirms that, but it also concludes that a single night of drinking doesn’t negatively impact strength.
From my experience, I can say this is spot on. I’ve hit personal records on many occasions in the past, a day or two after drinking. It’s worth noting that I’m still young and this helps.
In this next study, the researchers found a correlation between alcohol consumption right after training and loss of performance in the following days.
It’s worth mentioning that the exercise regimen was brutal and participants had to complete 300 maximal eccentric contractions on one quadricep. Even without consuming any alcohol, it would take days to recover from such crazy type of training.
Sadly, there are no real studies on alcohol and its effect on protein synthesis among normal, healthy people. The only relevant studies were made on rats.
This study showed a negative correlation between alcohol consumption and protein synthesis, but since it was done on rats, I wouldn’t put too much weight on it. Although there are some physiological similarities between us and rodents, there are also some profound differences in how the human body reacts to macronutrients.
The only real negative effects of alcohol on muscle mass have been examined in alcoholics. And while I hate to be “that guy,” it’s worth noting that if you’re getting hammered every day, optimizing muscle growth won’t and shouldn’t be your biggest concern in life.
There’s one more study worth mentioning for the sake of completeness. In it, the researchers sought to examine the effects of post-match alcohol ingestion on recovery from competitive rugby league matches. They found that alcohol consumption can impede different markers of recovery and slow down cognitive reactions.
Below, we’ll go over some tips on drinking and not compromising your progress in the gym.
6 Tactics to Drink And Make Progress In The Gym
Now that we’ve gone over alcohol and its effects, it’s time to go over the six practical tips you can follow to drink (somewhat) freely and not worry about your fitness progress.
1. Minimize fat intake on the day you go drinking. Instead, go for high protein and fiber consumption.
Once alcohol enters the liver, it is broken down into acetate. As we already covered, acetate inhibits fat-burning and causes most of the fatty acids in your blood to be stored instead of spent.
One way to counter that effect is to control your caloric intake for that day. Since we know that the number one requirement for weight or fat gain is a caloric surplus, the mere consumption of alcohol won’t make you store fat when you control your calories.
Keep your calories at or below maintenance and you’ll ensure no fat gets stored. You might actually wake up leaner the next day.
But, if you’re bulking, limit your fat intake to about 0.3g per kilogram of body weight. If you’re not tracking macros, eat foods like veggies, fruits, lean meats, low-fat cottage cheese, protein powder, and egg whites.
To be on the safe side, lower your caloric intake a bit and eat at maintenance on that day.
2. Leave some calories for the alcohol.
This tip goes hand-in-hand with the first one and it’s one of the most effective ways to enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol without “breaking” your diet.
If you regularly go out for drinks, you probably have a good idea of what and how much you’re going to drink. That makes it easy to track the calories. Say you enjoy having 2 beers after a long day. The average beer has about ~43 calories per 100 grams and it usually comes in a 330ml, 375ml, or 500ml bottle.
For the sake of this example, say your usual choice comes in a 500ml bottle. Two beers are 1000ml, at about 430 calories. Leave yourself about 450 calories for them and you’re in the clear.
I prefer to drink every once in awhile and it’s less hustle for me to track alcohol calories. But if you prefer to have a drink or two daily, there’s no problem in doing it with the above method.
3. Go for lower-calorie drinks.
If you limit your drinks to one or two and want to go for some beer or cocktails, go ahead. But keep in mind that a 500ml beer has about 215 calories, and some cocktails go up to as many as 500 calories per glass.
If you drink more than two, the calories can add up.
Because of that, if you’d like to enjoy yourself and have 3-5 drinks over the course of a night out, go for lower calorie options and/or mix them with diet sodas or sparkling water. Some good lower-calorie drinks are:
Don’t get too uptight about your choice of drinks. Just realize that some options might be better than others.
4. Don’t go overboard with the drinking.
I’m all for moderation and alcohol is no different. While there are people out there who think that alcohol consumption is only “effective” if it gets them completely smashed, I don’t agree.
As we already discussed above, alcohol provides many short and long-term benefits, when consumed moderately. It also provides immediate benefits:
The full review.
Being able to enjoy things in moderation is important and helps build discipline and self-control. Drinking in moderation provides these benefits with little to no drawbacks.
Overdo it and things can get messy.
5. Don’t go out eating after having a few drinks.
If you decide to eat 1000-1500 calories after drinking, you might gain weight. That’s not because “alcohol is fattening," but because you’ve made a poor choice.
And speaking of poor choices, if you take my previous tip seriously, you probably won’t find yourself in a situation where you’re working on a greasy burger at 3 AM.
But, in any case, I recommend to avoid eating after drinks. If you want to eat, go for lower calorie options like lean meats, veggies, and protein powder. Some rice cakes are also a good option because they take a while to eat and can fill you up.
6. Plan for a rest day the day after, or deal with a sub-par workout.
This tip doesn’t apply to everyone and it’s more dependant on the individual and their situation.
The potential “reduction” in muscle protein synthesis and testosterone levels over the following 24-48 hours after moderate drinking won’t be noticeable and won’t disrupt your performance in the gym. But, if you drink more and wake up dehydrated and with a bad hangover, you should skip the workout that day and instead focus on recovery.
Eat enough calories, drink water, let your body recover and get back to the gym the following day. Or, you can go in and do a lighter workout by scaling the weights back by 5-10% or reducing the total sets you do.
In my experience, it is better to spend the day after drinking outside the gym and recover well. There’s no real need to pile on more stress on your body and harm your workouts over the following days.
Before I wrap this guide up, I’d like to share the most common alcohol-related questions I’ve gotten in the past.
Alcohol and Bodybuilding: 10 Common Questions I’ve Been Asked
#1: How do I avoid binge-eating the day after drinking? I always seem to be making the worst choices when it comes to food when I’m hung-over.
It seems like being hungover is causing your issue. When you’re hungover, you’re much more likely to make stupid choices, feel unmotivated and sabotage yourself.
First, avoid drinking past a point where you know you’ll have a hangover the following day. And second, re-hydrate yourself as soon as you wake up. We often mistake thirst for hunger and this could also contribute to your issue.
#2: Should I train before going out drinking or will it screw with my recovery too much?
I’d say go for it. The research is a bit mixed on the topic but as long as you drink within moderation, you shouldn’t experience any negative effects on recovery.
#3: Should I reduce fat intake on days I go drinking from all sources or just junk like nachos, pizza, fries, etc.?
The fat sources are irrelevant. Whether it’s an avocado or fries, it won’t matter. Keep the intake lower on that day.
#4: Should I count all calories that come from a drink or subtract the alcohol ones?
Studies show that the body is very inefficient at using alcohol calories productively or storing them as fat. But, I’d say you should count all the calories as they are.
If a drink comes at 200 calories, count it as 200. Don’t subtract the alcohol calories.
#5: How often can I drink alcohol without it negatively impacting my life and training?
This depends. As I stated above, you can drink daily without it impacting you, as long as you keep it moderate (one to two drinks).
Contrary, you can drink just once a month and do more damage to yourself and performance over the following days.
#6: Can I get lean (10% and below) while drinking or should I cut it out?
Interestingly enough, this is the most common alcohol-related question I’ve received so far.
Yes, you can get lean and stay lean while enjoying alcohol in moderate doses. Just make sure to account for the calories and don’t go overboard.
Now, if you’re preparing for a bodybuilding show and need to get down to 5-7% body fat, you’ll probably have to cut alcohol during the few final weeks of fat loss. The reason being, getting that lean is going to take its toll on your hormones and hunger. Drinking alcohol during that period won’t be optimal.
#7: I always wake up a few pounds lighter the day after drinking? What is that about?
Alcohol is a diuretic and consuming it makes you pee more often, even if you don’t drink much water. That’s why you’re likely to wake up dehydrated after a night of drinking and a few pounds lighter.
You can drink some water with the alcohol to counter that. Also, I recommend at least a liter (~34fl oz.) of water in the morning.
If you’ve been in a weight loss plateau and your weight hasn’t budged for over a week, waking up a few pounds lighter can really increase your motivation to keep going.
#8: I got completely smashed last Friday night and ate twice that night. Is my progress ruined?
I don’t condone “getting completely smashed,” but it happened and it’s in the past. You can dwell on it and accept it as a free pass to ruin your diet completely, or recognize it as a mistake that did some damage and move on.
We are human and sometimes we fall off the wagon. Accept it and move on without beating yourself up. And no, you didn’t completely ruin your progress.
#9: Is having small amounts of hard liquor every night going to affect me negatively or am I overthinking it?
I would personally limit hard liquor to two times per week. But if you feel the need to drink it every night, keep it to one 35-50ml drink.
In any case, you should listen to your body, because we are all different. If you start noticing negative effects of nightly drinking, cut back a bit.
Also, keep in mind that I'm considering this from the perspective of fitness. I'm not a doctor, so you should ask a medical professional if you have alcohol-related health concerns.
#10: I know that I should keep fat intake low on days I go drinking. But what about the day after? Can I eat normally then?
This a tricky subject and it depends on how much alcohol you drank the night before. This is going to influence how long it would take your body to completely flush out the acetate from your blood.
Depending on how much you drink, you can keep fat intake moderate on the following day or eat as usual (if you’ve only had 2-3 drinks). Alternatively, you can eat in a slight deficit and not worry about your fat intake for that day.
Now It's Your Turn
You don’t need to be a social outcast to build an impressive physique, especially if you enjoy alcohol.
Drinking too much is not healthy and it will harm your performance in the gym, sure. But doing it moderately can provide many benefits.
Now I want to turn back to you: Which of these tips are you going to test out?
Are you going to resist the sweet temptation of fast food at 2 AM? Or maybe save up some calories for the night?
Either way, leave a quick comment below and let me know.
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