Can you drink alcohol and still make gains or is the casual glass of wine or pint of beer going to ruin your progress and leave you skinny fat? It’s a question as old as time that leaves most people praying for a yes but expecting a no. The truth is the answer is somewhere in between.
On the one hand, alcohol has some detrimental effects but on the other hand, these effects can be minimised to allow you to include alcohol in your diet without sabotaging your progress. Personally, I don’t drink too often but there are times I really look forward to a drink…
That first sip of an ice-cold beer at a summer BBQ or a couple of glasses of wine when catching up with friends. For so many of us, drinks like these are a ritual interwoven with the experience of relaxation and joy in the company of friends and family.
It’s heavily associated with connecting on an emotional level, being able to be yourself and let the stresses of the world melt away, even if just for a moment. It’s more than ‘just a drink’, it’s the bigger picture, the moment and the experience that accompanies it.
Understandably when you’re told that your new workout and diet plan involves cutting out all alcohol, you start to push back, and any chance of meaningful progress is lost there and then.
I’m not going to tell you that you have to be teetotal. Someone saying, “don’t drink” makes it seem so easy and in principle it is, but in life, things are rarely that cut and dry. Alcohol isn’t always binge-drinking and puking in a corner, for many people it’s a release or an escape enjoyed on occasion.
With this in mind let’s jump in.
Good news so far but this isn’t the full story, to get a full picture of how alcohol affects muscle building we need to look at the impact it has on testosterone, recovery, and performance. Let’s jump right in.
You’d be mistaken for thinking that a drop of alcohol will eliminate your testosterone, ruin any chances you have of building muscle and turn you back into a weak child. Alcohol is so often touted as a testosterone killer and a severe no-no in the fitness industry, but is it as bad as you’re led to believe?
One study (3) conducted a “randomized, diet-controlled, crossover study, [with] 10 middle-aged men and 9 postmenopausal women, all apparently healthy, non-smoking, and moderate alcohol drinkers. [They] consumed beer or no-alcohol beer with dinner during two successive periods of 3 weeks. During the beer period, alcohol intake equalled 40 and 30 g per day for men and women, respectively.”
At the conclusion of the study, researchers recorded that there was only a 6.8% decrease in testosterone for men and no reduction measured for women.
Let’s put this into perspective, one drink is considered to be about 15 g, that means these participants were drinking 2 – 3 drinks a day for at least 3 weeks and after all that alcohol testosterone levels decrease by 6.8% for guys and nothing at all for women.
Another study (4) gave 8 male volunteers alcohol to the amount of 1.5 g per kg of body weight, totalling an average of 120 g or 10 beers over a 3-hour period. This resulted in a drop in testosterone of 23% between 10 – 16 hours after the drinking had started.
What does this mean?
Well, I think we can quite safely say that unless you’re going binge drinking regularly or on some sort of 3-week alcohol retreat then the occasional after work drinks are not going to interfere with your muscle building.
The research here is pretty limited and the main study I found was conducted using rats (5).
This study found that alcohol reduced the rate of protein synthesis. However, it’s hard to say conclusively what this means for us humans as we do not necessarily react the same way as rats.
It could be an indication of alcohol’s ability to decrease protein synthesis but it could also be nothing. Upon further research, I found an additional study that measured the effect of a protein and alcohol mix on protein synthesis after working out (6).
The study got 8 males to perform the following workout:
Immediately after exercise and 4-hours after exercise they consumed one of the following at both periods:
In addition, the participants also ate a carbohydrate meal (1.5 g per kg of body weight) 2 hours after exercising. The results showed a decrease in protein synthesis for both the alcohol and protein group (24%) and the carbohydrate and alcohol group (37%).
However, it’s hard to know the extent to which protein synthesis will be affected when drinking something closer to a ‘normal’ amount instead of the excessive 12 drinks used in the study. One would imagine the degree to which protein synthesis rates are decreased would be less so but in any case, more research is needed.
At this juncture, a logical conclusion to draw would be that drinking post-workout is best avoided, but if you are going to drink post-workout then to keep the number of drinks to a minimum.
If you do this then it is likely the impact on protein synthesis rates will be small.
How does alcohol impair your performance and recovery?
Well, one study (7) showed a loss in force production and impaired recovery after consuming alcohol.
However, you can’t put much stock in this study and its relevance to yourself as the participants were performing “300 maximal eccentric contractions” which is a brutal and unlikely training routine for the average gym-goer.
It’s safe to say that volume that crazy, especially using eccentric reps is going to be hard to recover from regardless of alcohol intake.
Another study (8) found a reduction in glycogen storage with acute alcohol (1.5 g per kg for a total of 110 – 120g per participant) consumption after exercise.
However, again the participants were subjected to tough workouts consisting of 2 hours continuous cycling followed by 4 all-out sprints of 30 seconds with 2 minutes of recovery in between. Not only this but the alcohol intake was excessive, and 3 participants had to withdraw from the study due to vomiting as a result.
What does this mean for you?
Well unless you’re planning on smashing out a ridiculous number of eccentrics, perform long endurance feats and drink 10+ drinks it doesn’t really apply to you.
This doesn’t mean you have free reign to drink 6+ drinks and expect to be fresh and ready to go but relaxing with 1 – 3 drinks on occasion is ok and will have little to no impact on your recovery.
Whether or not alcohol will impact your ability to build muscle largely comes down to how much and how often you drink.
If you keep your drinking to a handful of times a month and don’t go beyond the point of enjoying yourself, you should be able to find you can include alcohol in your diet and still make the progress you want.