Alcohol is the crown jewel of human achievement. People have been getting smashed since at least 10,000 BC, making boozing one of the only universally enjoyed pastimes.
Unfortunately, heavy drinking is also fitness suicide. Alcohol robs your body of the hormones and water it needs to grow muscle, and keeps your body from burning fat.
As someone deeply familiar with binge weekends and their short and long-term effects, I’ve broken down the three key ways in which alcohol trashes your fitness.
As a bonus, I’ve also called out some of the bullshit bro-science you’ll hear from the “freelance personal trainer” at your gym.
1. Alcohol Destroys Your Growth Hormone
Growth hormone does what the name suggests. It triggers a growth response in your muscles.
Eating a protein-rich diet and sticking to your lifting schedule will naturally boost your growth hormone level, but drinking alcohol will cause it to temporarily plummet.
Alcohol messes with your growth hormone in two ways:
- Alcohol triggers the production of cortisol in your body, which is a stress hormone that destroys growth hormone.
- Alcohol disrupts normal sleep. Even if you don’t wake up, two drinks can decrease your nocturnal growth hormone production by 83%.
Without normal growth hormone levels, you’re never going to see the results you want. That means drinking after a workout pretty much negates all your work.
What About Testosterone?
A lot of fitness enthusiasts don’t drink because it lowers their testosterone levels. While they’re right not to drink, they’re dead wrong about how important testosterone is to growth.
Insanely dramatic boosts in testosterone—the kind you’d get from steroids—increases muscle growth. Normal fluctuations of testosterone don’t.
Drinking alters your testosterone levels, but doesn’t move the needle enough to really have an effect on your growth.
2. Alcohol Dehydrates You
Your muscles need water for recovery and in order to perform at their maximum.
In one study, lifters who drank just 1.5% less water than they needed were able to perform one full rep less than usual on their max bench.
If you’re not lifting at your maximum, it goes without saying that you aren’t going to grow as quickly. But alcohol exacerbates this by denying your body the water it needs to recover.
Protein synthesis is the process by which your body builds new muscles, and it takes a lot of water. When you drink, your kidneys steal that water to process alcohol.
How much of an effect does this have? One study found that athletes who drank after a workout reduced their recovery by as much as 37%.
But I’m Okay If I Drink Water Between Shots, Right?
Drinking makes you pee, like a lot. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it keeps your body from absorbing water and instead flushes it out of your body.
So no, you can’t just pour water into your body to replace the water you lose to metabolizing alcohol, because alcohol actually prevents you from absorbing new water.
3. Alcohol Can Make You Fat
But not for the reasons you think. You see, your body can’t store alcohol like it can fat. Your body has to process alcohol before anything else, meaning your body stops burning fat until it’s finished metabolizing the alcohol.
Instead of waiting around for the alcohol to finish metabolizing, your body will directly deposit dietary fats as body fats. So all the nice fatty foods you eat while drunk goes straight to body fat.
Drinking doesn’t just give your body more calories to digest, it makes it harder for your body to process food at all.
But If I Stick To Liquor, I Can Cut Out Calories, Right?
It’s true that hard liquor generally has way fewer calories than other drinks, and you’re (hopefully) not drinking it by the bottle like beer or wine.
However, alcohol offers calories and no nutritional value. The average American consumes enough calories from alcohol to gain 10 pounds of fat every year.
Alcohol has almost the caloric value of pure fat, and offers you no nutrients. On top of that, resisting fatty foods is so much harder when you’re hammered.
Good luck losing any weight if you’re drinking.
So Can I Drink At All?
Absolutely, but it’s a question of when and how much.
It’s okay to let loose every once in awhile, but there are two key things to keep in mind:
- You need to be at a level of fitness where you can take a night off and return to your workout schedule without missing a beat. I do not recommended doing this more than once a week.
- You cannot try to casually drink on days (or nights) before you’re training. Drinking days are never training days, and you can’t train hungover.
Mike Matthews, training guru and blogger, offers these tips for having a successful day of drinking without ruining your physique:
- “Restrict your dietary fat intake that day, and don’t eat any fatty foods while you’re drinking.”
- “Get the vast majority of your calories from protein and carbs that day (with most coming from protein).”
- “Stay away from carb-laden drinks like beer and fruity stuff. Dry wines are a good choice, as well as spirits.”
Drinking is awesome. There’s no way around it. But seeing the results you want is a bit more satisfying than falling off a barstool.