The Alcohol Regimen: Part 3 – The Effect of Drinking on Muscle Gain
Posted by Michael Vacanti
Part I : Intro
Part II : Strategies to drink heavy without ruining your fat loss progress.
Here, in part III, we will discuss the effect of alcohol on muscle growth. Discussion will revolve around the timing of alcohol consumption relative to your training.
You may currently find yourself settling for the lesser of two evils:
- Train, drink, then sleep –> your recovery from training is inhibited
- Drink, sleep, then train –> your performance in the gym is inhibited
Does alcohol hurt recovery from training? Why is training hungover so damn brutal? Which is worse?
Normally, it is rare to have back-to-back days off from the gym to sandwich a night of drinking between. So, if you have to pick between the two, which is best, or less bad?
Let’s dive in…
Train, Drink, then Sleep
When we go out drinking shortly after a workout, we may be impairing recovery. Lifting weights breaks down our muscles; food and rest rebuild the muscles.
Drinking alcohol may inhibit protein synthesis.
Protein Synthesis: Individual amino acids are arranged into proteins.
Read: your muscles are rebuilt.
There’s a lot of brotalk out there about alcohol and protein synthesis. Alcohol inhibiting protein synthesis is pretty universally accepted.
Truth or Myth?
Here are the facts:
- Alcohol does inhibit the rate of protein synthesis in rats 
- Moderate alcohol consumption (5-7 beers) did not impair recovery, impact strength or accelerate exercise-induced muscle damage in a double blind study of male and female non-alcoholics .
- Moderate alcohol consumption (1g/kg of bodyweight: 7 ounces of vodka via vodka+OJ for a 175lb male) ingested immediately after eccentric training magnified the loss of force after 300 reps of single leg quad movements .
- Chronic alcoholics have reduced rates of protein synthesis , but if this applies to you, you should seek help on more important matters than muscle optimization.
Fact summary: the science isn’t super conclusive on the subject of alcohol and recovery.
A couple observations:
- Personally, I gained muscle faster during a three month period where I infrequently drank heavy (once/month) compared to all other time periods since age 18.
- Clients I have trained, competitive powerlifters and bodybuilders I follow, and your average forum posters generally experience the same.
- Drinking alcohol hurts sleep quality, an important component for recovery and muscle growth.
I take all observations with a huge grain of salt as there are countless variables left uncontrolled, but they can still be somewhat useful.
Conclusion: Heavy drinking after training probably impairs recovery.
Drink, Sleep, then Train
Training hungover sucks. You’re dehydrated. You’re testosterone levels, which are probably already low as a result of today’s society, are zapped.
Here are the Facts:
- Ten healthy males drank 1.5g alcohol/1kilo bw (10 beers for a 175 lb male) and averaged a 23% decrease in testosterone 16 hours after their first drink .
- Heavy drinkers have significantly lower sperm counts, sperm motility and free testosterone levels than the population at large .
- Eight healthy men drank 1.75g/1kilo bw (12 beers for 175 lb man) and had decreased free testosterone levels 24 hours after their first drink .
- Training hungover is absolutely miserable, like, duh, obviously.
Conclusion: Training after a night of heavy drinking certainly impairs performance.
How Can I Apply This To My Training Routine?
Now, no one schedules their hard nights out. But, you probably have a pretty good idea of which night(s) of the week you usually go out. Using this information, set up your training as follows:
- Take a rest day from training on the day you’ll be drinking
This is pretty straight forward. If heavy drinking after training impairs recovery, let’s avoid training right before we go out.
- If you train hungover, do it late day / evening
Go about your day the best you can, get re-hydrated, take a little nap, and workout as late in the day as your schedule allows. This will let your testosterone levels climb a bit (though maybe not back to normal) and give you a good chance at a productive training session.
- Train the body part you MOST want to improve furthest from drinking
If are going to drink on Saturday, and your main training goal is chest development, obviously you shouldn’t do 12 sets of bench press before going out. You probably shouldn’t train chest on Saturday, or even Friday.
Training Split: 4 sessions per week, 2 days upper body, 2 days lower body.
Training Priority: Upper body
Heavy Drinking: Saturday
You are fully recovered by Monday for a productive training session – optimal training performance, check.
Your second upper body workout is two days before drinking, as far from Saturday as makes sense, optimal recovery before drinking, check.
Conversely, if you were more concerned with the development of your legs, you could do this:
In the example above, we scheduled training to:
- Allow our priority muscle group the most recovery before drinking
- Maximize training performance by scheduling our session well after our night out
What if I don’t drink heavy? What’s the impact of a drink or two?
Look, we aren’t even positive that heavy drinking inhibits protein synthesis. Casual drinking certainly has a lesser effect.
While casual drinking may slightly impair recovery, it does not to an extent that should change your training schedule. Abstinence from alcohol is only necessary for brief periods of time in people who train for a serious purpose – bodybuilding show, model shoot, etc.
An interesting study out of the Netherlands had 19 men and women split into “regular beer” and “zero-alcohol beer” groups, drinking three beers per night over a three week period. The results: the regular beer group experienced just a 6.8% decrease in testosterone levels . This means casual drinking fits well with our drink, sleep, then train model.
Conclusion: Casual drinking will not negatively effect your training.
I’m sorry if I led you to believe I have a foolproof hangover remedy; I don’t. I have yet to see a strategy produce consistent, physiological results – not hangover pills, not greasy meals, not even gallons of water.
The only hangover fix I know came from Pat Tillman (left), a great man and someone on my short list of heroes.
“One of the sacred tenets of Pat’s moral code was that it’s unacceptable to let a hangover interfere with one’s duties and commitments.”
–Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
Basically, man the F up. You can use your mind to control your body; it’s called willpower. If you woke up with a hangover and were told that you had 24 hours left to live, would you mope around, whine and nap?
Of course not.
And if you really can’t get over it, just say you got food poisoning.
Here are three effective strategies for the day after drinking:
- Jump back on your program
Tillman-style. Like nothing happened. Mind over matter, willpower, get back on that pony and go.
I had a reader email me after Part II,
“You left out the tip where you drink so much that you’re too hungover the next day to eat. Boom – calorie neutral.”
I love it, but someone beat you there 🙁 John Romaniello, of Roman Fitness Systems, introduced the feast/fast strategy to me. Basically, after a cheat day or hard night of drinking, he fasts the following day. That’s right, zero calories the entire day.
Personally, I’ve never had success with the feast/fast, but it does work. And no, your muscles won’t fall off.
- Half-day Fast
The thought of food might sound gross – a stomach hangover, which is much worse than the headache variety, in my opinion. Fast about half the day. Drink as much water as you can, be active, move around. Then eat whenever you get around to it.
Again, meal timing is largely irrelevant, your metabolism won’t stop if you fast for half a day.
Hopefully you can implement some of these strategies to your training/drinking regimen to optimize fun nights out with muscle gains. We will try to wrap things up in part 4 – drinking rules for the non-calorie counter and calorie content of popular drinks – then put a bow on the series so you can apply it.
Continued in Part 4
Reference 1) Pacy, P. J., et al. The effect of chronic alcohol ingestion on whole body and muscle protein synthesis—a stable isotope study. Alcohol and Alcoholism 1991;26(5-6):505-513. 2) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17717682 3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20012446 4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11418224 5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2128439 6) Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Res, 1997, 21(1):128-133, "Testicular function in asymptomatic chronic alcoholics : Relation to ethanol intake" 7) Alcohol, Jan-Feb 1984, 1(1):89-93, "Sex hormones and adrenocortical steroids in men acutely intoxicated with ethanol" 8) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15166654