Spoiler alert: Yes, it can. Follow a few simple guidelines to help minimize the impact.
It’s pretty common to bond with your workout buddies over a few beers or follow up a particularly tough workout with a margarita (or two). In fact, research confirms that adults with a higher level of cardiovascular fitness tend to drink more alcohol than their less-fit peers. After pushing yourself physically, it can feel natural—refreshing, even—to kick back and relax with a drink.
But how does alcohol affect your strength gains?
Obviously, drinking alcohol isn’t going to improve any health-related outcomes. (Even the long-held belief that a moderate amount of red wine has cardiovascular benefits has been challenged by the World Heart Federation.) But the degree to which drinking can negatively impact muscle growth and body composition is less straightforward. To get some clarity on the subject and practical advice on how to drink alcohol while having the least amount of impact on your strength gains, we consulted the experts.
Understanding Alcohol and Body Fat
Downing a couple of glasses of wine is the caloric equivalent of snacking on a candy bar. But that’s just part of the story.
“Alcohol is empty calories. You’re not getting any vitamins or nutrients or fiber from it. But it’s not just about the sugar. It’s also about the metabolic process,” explains Kim Trudel, RD, LDN, Certified Sports Nutritionist & Nutrition Director at Weymouth Club in Weymouth, Massachusetts.
The body treats alcohol as a toxic substance that must be immediately metabolized or broken down into energy and waste products. “Most people assume that we pee out alcohol after we drink it,” she says. “But your body has to get rid of what we call acetate. That’s the byproduct of alcohol, and the way the body gets rid of that acetate is by using it as a form of energy.”
Here’s the problem: When the body prioritizes the metabolization of alcohol, it creates a sort of “backlog” of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Any macronutrients that aren’t used for energy are stored as fat. So if you’re looking to improve your body composition by reducing body fat, alcohol is a “double whammy,” says Trudel. “Not only are you trying to burn off the alcohol, but now there are more calories from the cranberry juice or the simple sugars in your drinks.”
Research Suggests Alcohol Can Stunt Your Strength Gains
Human studies on alcohol consumption are tricky to fund, but there is some research on the impact of alcohol on myofibrillar protein synthesis (MPS), the biological process that leads to hypertrophy, or muscle growth.
One study compared muscle biopsies of eight physically-active men after they consumed post-workout drinks both with and without alcohol. The study found that alcohol reduced MPS, even when it was consumed alongside protein. The study further concluded that alcohol suppressed the muscle-building response in skeletal muscle, suggesting that alcohol “may therefore impair recovery and adaptation to training and/or subsequent performance.”
More specifically, the authors of the study discovered that alcohol inhibited the mTOR protein, which is critical to building muscle.
“Strength training increases the protein mTOR, which increases MPS. Increased MPS leads to muscle hypertrophy and, in turn, increased muscle strength,” explains Todd Buckingham, PhD, Chief Exercise Physiologist at The Bucking Fit Life. By decreasing mTOR, alcohol stops strength gains by decreasing the MPS that leads to hypertrophy. If you think of the process of gaining strength as flowing water, alcohol is a “kink in the hose,” Buckingham says.
Alcohol Can Mess With Your Hormones
Alcohol also impacts body composition, muscle building, and strength gains by interfering with hormone production, says Jacqueline Kaminski, RD, LDN, owner of The Fight Nutritionist.
“Alcohol suppresses growth hormone, which plays a role in blood sugar maintenance and muscle building,” Kaminski says. “It decreases testosterone, a potent regulator and signal for muscle growth, and increases cortisol.” Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol plays a critical role in controlling blood pressure, managing inflammation, and triggering the “fight or flight” response. At appropriate levels, cortisol is necessary. But when cortisol is too high, it can work in opposition to your strength goals.
Elevated cortisone levels promote the breakdown of muscle protein, Buckingham explains. “The body breaks down these proteins (known as proteolysis) into amino acids, which are then used by the liver to create glucose—a process known as gluconeogenesis. Obviously, if you are aiming for strength gains from a workout, using protein for fuel instead of having protein available for muscle repair and rebuilding is not ideal.”
If You’re Going to Drink, Here’s How to Do It
While experts generally agree that eliminating alcohol is the best course of action for anyone who wants to build muscle or improve their body composition, most understand that abstinence may be unrealistic for some people. For better or worse, alcohol is a common aspect of the way we socialize, and many otherwise health-conscious people simply enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine from time to time.
If you’re going to drink alcohol, keep these guidelines in mind:
Limit your intake (probably by more than you think). “Having a drink or two once in a while probably won’t have that big of an effect on MPS,” Buckingham says. “However, if you’re having a drink or two every night or several times a week, those small changes will add up.” It can be helpful to plan your drinks in advance, saving them for special events.
Opt for recovery fuel post-workout. Before raising a glass, make sure you’re hydrating and refueling with a healthy snack or meal containing protein and carbohydrates. Then wait at least 60 to 90 minutes, Trudel recommends. “The body considers alcohol a toxin, so the liver gives the process of breaking down alcohol priority over fat and protein metabolism. Also, alcohol promotes dehydration,” she says.
Skip the nightcap. “While alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it actually interferes with sleep and causes lower sleep quality and shorter sleep duration. Sleep is when the body releases hormones that aid in muscle repair, along with immune-boosting hormones,” Buckingham says. Avoid drinking right before heading to bed, and drink plenty of water before settling in for the night.
Don’t drink on an empty stomach. “Having food in your stomach before drinking will slow the rate of alcohol absorption,” Buckingham says. “It doesn’t matter what you eat—carbs, fat, or protein—as long as you have something in your stomach, the rate of alcohol absorption will be lower.”