Lifting & Alcohol – It's Not So Bad A Meta-Study Shows Surprising Results

Weight training and drinking have always been uncomfortable companions. Those of us who lift think that alcohol can impede our strength and performance gains, or at least give us a belly that serves as a living memorial to all the finely aged hops, sour mash, Agave leaves, and fermented grapes we've decanted into ourselves over the years.

But most of us aren't monks. Even though we spend our lives avoiding anything that tastes good – turning down life's s'mores as they're passed around the campfire and instead chewing miserably on a piece of beef jerky as the fat bastards around us enjoy themselves – many of us still like to tip a glass of whisky or a bottle of beer.

Alcohol is, after all, often what lubes the wheels of human relationships, particularly those that are fostered when the sun goes down and the techno, hip hop, or country music starts to play. Plus, it can taste pretty damn good, particularly when you choose something that sat in a barrel for years and years, waiting first for the angels to kiss it and then for you to drink it.

But just how badly does alcohol really affect biological or physical measures in lifters?

You better hold onto your tumbler of Maker's Mark because, shockingly, at least to me, the bulk of the studies don't show alcohol making that much of a difference in a lot of these biological or physical measures.

And even in the areas where alcohol did have a detrimental effect, it seems that it might be restricted to drinking alcohol (moderate amounts, mind you) immediately after a workout and not so much at other times and, oddly enough, only in men and not women.

Lots of Drinking and Lots of Tests
We first need to tip a glass to Nemanja Lakicevic of the University of Palermo for doing a literature search of all pertinent studies and compiling them into a single scholarly paper. (2) Thanks to her efforts, we're able to easily scan the effects of post-exercise alcohol consumption on multiple physiological categories, the most important or relevant of which I've listed and explained below:

Blood Glucose
Only one study bothered to consider blood glucose levels. In it, participants were given ALC (alcohol) plus protein or ALC plus carbohydrates. Blood glucose increased a half hour and 4.5 hours after intervention, but only in the ALC-Carb group, proving that blood glucose is affected by carbs but not alcohol during post-exercise recovery.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Cortisol
Four studies considered cortisol levels. Barnes, et al. found that cortisol increased 12 hours after training but returned to normal after 24 hours in both the ALC and NO-ALC conditions.

Haugvard et al. found no differences in cortisol between ALC and NO-ALC at any point in the 24-hour period following training, but when his group combined all results and averaged them out, the ALC group did indeed have slightly higher cortisol levels.

Murphy, et al. found no difference between the two groups, but did notice a large "effect size" (a statistics term used to define the difference between two numbers) between the percentage change from 2 hours to 16 hours post-exercise in the ALC group.

Finally, Vingren et al. found no difference between the two groups.

Verdict: While not definitive, ALC seemed to have a slight effect on cortisol in two of the four studies.

Testosterone
The same four studies that analyzed cortisol levels also analyzed testosterone levels. Barnes et al. found no difference between the two conditions.

Haugvard et al. found no initial differences, but similar to what their group did when examining cortisol levels, they combined all results in a 24-hour period and averaged them out to find that the ALC group had lower testosterone levels after 24 hours.

Murphy et al. found no differences between the groups, but Vingren et al. found that the ALC condition actually resulted in an increase in testosterone levels.

Verdict: A wash. Two studies that found no difference between the testosterone levels of ALC and NO-ALC, one that found that ALC lowered testosterone, and one found that ALC raised testosterone.

Estradiol
Regrettably, only one study bothered to look at estradiol levels after ALC and it didn't seem to have an effect.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG)
This protein limits the availability of sex hormones, so lifters in particular don't want elevated levels. Lakicevic found two studies, but neither showed an increase in SHBG after exercise.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Muscle Protein Synthesis
This is where the issue of ALC and resistance training gets a little murky. Only one study that fit Lakicevic's search criteria addressed muscle protein synthesis, but it did show that mTOR phosphorylation was higher in the NO-ALC group at 2 hours and 8 hours post-exercise.

(mTOR is a protein that helps control several cellular functions, including muscle growth. When you phosphorylate mTOR, you more or less kick it into gear.)

As a result of the diminished phosphorylation of mTOR in the ALC group, this one study found impaired muscle protein synthesis. However, this may not be as bad as it looks, as I'll explain later.

Verdict: ALC impaired muscle protein synthesis.

Force Production
Force is the maximum amount of energy you can direct towards a weight or object, and nine studies addressed how alcohol can affect it.

Only two of them, performed by the same team, showed any ill effects from alcohol. In their first study on the topic, Barnes et al. found a decrease in isometric and eccentric force production at 36 hours post-ALC consumption, but not between 36 and 60 hours.

In their second study, Barnes et al. found that the NO-ALC group suffered decreases in peak torque at 36 hours with losses of 12%, 28%, and 19% for isometric, concentric, and eccentric contractions respectively, while the ALC group suffered decreases of 34%, 40%, and 34% in those same parameters.

And lest you think Barnes et al. took all their athletes to happy hour at Buffalo Wild Wings and let them cut loose, each athlete was given 1 gram of alcohol per kilogram of bodyweight, which was neither the minimum nor maximum given across the studies. That's about 3.2 ounces for a 200-pound man.

Verdict: Seven out of nine studies found no difference between ALC and NO-ALC, while two found a significant difference.

Power
Power is the measure of the rate at which someone can perform work. Four studies considered this aspect of performance and none found any effect from ALC, at least in the 48-hour period following consumption.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Creatine Kinase (CK)
CK is an enzyme found in the heart, brain, and, most pertinent to our discussion, skeletal muscle. A sudden spike (as measured by a blood test) indicates muscle damage.

Lakicevic found 8 studies that addressed CK and in each of them, levels of the enzyme rose after resistance training in both alcohol (ALC) groups and non-alcohol (NO-ALC) groups. However, there was no difference in the levels of CK between the groups, meaning that lifters who had a couple/few drinks after working out didn't seem to be any worse off regarding muscle damage.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Heart Rate
Two studies examined post-exercise heart rate. Both of them showed an increase in heart rate, but it was pretty much equal between the ALC groups and the NO-ALC groups.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Lactate
If you exercise really hard, you often get to the point where there's not enough oxygen in your blood to complete the task, so your body produces lactate, which it can convert to energy. Two studies found that while blood levels of lactate increased after resistance training, alcohol didn't seem to play a role in the amount of increase.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Muscular Endurance
Only one study addressed ALC and muscular endurance. Poulsen et al. calculated maximal isokinetic muscular endurance in the dominant knee extensors and non-dominant wrist flexors and then had the subjects perform 30 maximal reciprocal movements at 4, 24, and 48 hours after imbibing. They detected no difference between the two groups.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Soreness
Five studies examined post-exercise soreness. The ALC group proved no worse off after working out than the NON-ALC group.

Verdict: No difference between ALC and NO-ALC.

Cognitive Function
Only one study addressed post-ALC consumption cognitive function. ALC and NON-ALC participants were required to react to repeated color and word stimuli. The ALC group didn't perform as well as the NON-ALC group.

Verdict: ALC seems to impair cognitive function post workout, which may be a factor in sports where thinking, speed, and quality of responses to visual stimuli are important.

Lets Discuss the Results Over a Pitcher of Beer
Okay, so moderate post-exercise alcohol consumption doesn't seem to affect the majority of biological and physiological measures. It did seem to affect how well your brain functions, though, but that probably wasn't much of a surprise. As far as other measures, cortisol did go up slightly in the ALC groups, whereas muscle protein synthesis decreased slightly.

Testosterone may have also gone down, but the results weren't conclusive.

All of that is that's potentially worrisome...until you start to pick it apart a bit. Another study, albeit with mice, found confounding but illuminating results.

Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine removed a section of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles from one leg of adult male mice (which forced hypertrophy of the plantaris muscle to occur). (5)

They then gave the mice in the ALC group the frat boy equivalent of 10 drinks a day. After 14 days, muscle protein synthesis in the ALC group was slightly less than control, but regardless, there was no difference in how much the plantaris muscle grew between the groups.

The study actually found that resistance training can counter or nullify the effects of alcohol on muscle. But, then again, this was an experiment involving mice and there's currently no way to know if the results would correlate perfectly with humans.

The ALC-induced drop in testosterone and rise in cortisol seen in human studies could also use some analysis as the relationship isn't as straightforward as we like to think it is. Back in 2005, Brownlee et al. were able to demonstrate that, sure, there's a drop in total testosterone after resistance training, but it goes hand in hand with SHBG "letting go" of some of its bound-up testosterone, which causes an increase in free testosterone. (1)

But get this, the disassociation of T from SHBG occurs in conjunction with an increase in cortisol. So sure, maybe ALC caused cortisol to rise and total T to drop, but cortisol caused an increase in free T, which would more than make-up for the drop in total T.

Yeah, I know. It's confusing and maddening.

Here's something else that muddies the picture. Duplanty, et al. also did a study on the post-training effects of alcohol. They found that drinking a body-weight specific alcoholic drink over 10 minutes after a workout reduced the activation of mTOR, a chemical signaling pathway that stimulates muscle growth and recovery.

The perplexing thing is, this ALC-induced reduction of mTOR occurred in men but not women! Why it would only occur in men is a mystery, but is the post-training increase in mTOR normally enough to offset the supposed reduction in mTOR caused by ALC?

Those are tough questions and nobody seems to know the answers.

So, What Should I Do With This Info?
Let's get this straight, lest any heavy drinkers out there fall victim to confirmation bias and use the info here to feel justified in boozing it up with impunity: anything more than a small amount of alcohol probably isn't good for your long-term health.

Neither can any lifter deny that alcohol is an enemy to your waistline, but let's get back to the subject at hand, which is the relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and resistance training.

While most studies show no real adverse effects of post-workout drinking, alcohol did seem to affect cortisol, testosterone, mTOR, and muscle protein synthesis in general, but as I attempted to explain above, it's not cut and dried.

We also have to take into consideration that the disparity seen between some of the studies might have to do with them using different amounts of booze, or the fact that some individuals or populations metabolize liquor more efficiently than others.

Then you have the finding that drinking affects post-workout mTOR levels in men, but not women, but that might have something to do with the fact that women generally have higher amounts of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which allows them to metabolize alcohol more quickly and efficiently than men.

Here's my best advice: If you're a man and you don't always drink beer, you should prefer Dos Equis when you do. No, no. I would refrain from drinking alcohol in the post-workout window, which I define as any time from immediately after racking your last plate and four or five hours later.

That means not hitting the lounge in your fancy gym for a post-workout beer or appletini. That means not heading to the bar after working out. And it definitely means not having more than a few ounces of alcohol.

Of course, there's always a chance that ingesting alcohol at a later time – past the post-workout window – could ultimately interfere with recovery, but as Lakicevic's paper shows, the effects of modest alcohol consumption aren't that impactful on most biologic and physical measures.

So if you work out in the morning or early afternoon, having a couple of drinks in the evening might not have any negative effects; same if you choose to drink on your day off.

However, if you work out in the late afternoon or early evening, you might want to reconsider your post-workout refreshments, but even if you slip up and have a drink or two, it's probably nothing to fret about, muscle-wise.

References:
Kaye Brownlee et al. "Relationship Between Circulating Cortisol and Testosterone: Influence of Physical Exercise," J Sports Sci Med. 2005 Mar 1;4(1):76-83.
Anthony A. Duplanty, et al. "Effect of Acute Alcohol Ingestion on Resistance Exercise–Induced mTORC1 Signaling in Human Muscle," Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, January 2017, Volume 31, Issue 1, p. 54-61.
Nemanja Kakicevic, "The Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Recovery Following Resistance Exercise: A Systematic Review," Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 26 June 2019.
Danielle E. Levitt, et al. "Alcohol After Resistance Exercise Does Not Affect Muscle Power Recovery," J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Jan 29.
Steiner et al. "Moderate Alcohol Consumption does not impair overload-induced muscle hypertrophy and protein synthesis," Physiological Reports 3.3 (2015).