Being a bodybuilder doesn’t mean you stop living other parts of your life. There are going to be some social situations where you want to drink beer or liquor with your friends. Should you be concerned about it affecting your gains in the gym?
To drink or not to drink? In theory, drinking in moderation will not ruin your body compositions goals. However, in practice, there are so many factors to execute this well that most people are better off abstaining from alcohol while they’re trying to make significant changes to their physique.
Let’s start off by looking at how your body uses alcohol.
What Alcohol Does To Your Body
Alcohol Digestion Takes Priority Over Your Macronutrients and Micronutrients
Alcohol goes first into your digestive system, and your body perceives alcohol as a toxin that it needs to get out. When you ingest alcohol, your body is going to attempt to get that substance out of your system as fast as possible. Even if you just ate some food, processing that alcohol becomes the number one priority of your digestive system ahead of all other functions.
Not only does alcohol inhibit the absorption of macronutrients and micronutrients in your body, but it also alters what happens to those nutrients.
Calories From Alcohol Are Very Hard To Be Used By Your Body
There are some conflicting opinions in the scientific community on whether or not calories from alcohol can be used by your body. The way the body metabolizes ethanol is complex, so it’s hard to get a definitive answer, and individual genetics and how much you drink are also determining factors.
However, much like protein, alcohol is metabolically expensive for the body to convert it into energy. This is why most scientists conclude that it’s not the calories from alcohol that makes you fat.
Alcohol Inhibits Your Body From Burning Fat
Most people tend to think that alcohol makes you fat. However, as noted above, it is tough for the body to use alcohol as energy and the body doesn’t store the calories from alcohol as fat. But alcohol can affect fat storage and fat burning because of how our bodies process it.
Your liver is responsible for the task of getting alcohol out your bloodstream. Your liver is also the primary organ involved in your fat burning processes. This means that while alcohol is in your system, your body has put fat burning on hold. This also means that any dietary fat that you consume during this period is more likely to be stored as fat since your liver doesn’t have the capacity to burn it at the time.
Too Much Alcohol Increases Appetite and Decreases Will Power
By now the picture of what alcohol does to your fat burning and storing capabilities should be a bit clearer. And you’re probably also thinking that you’ll just limit your food consumption when you’re having some drinks. And you’re absolutely right. But this is where things get tricky in terms of real-world application vs. theory.
Firstly, when having more than a few drinks, you’re obviously in an altered state of mind. During this time your inhibitions are lowered and your willpower to say no is compromised. This is part of the reason you end up binge eating at the Waffle House when you’ve been drinking.
Drinking in large amounts also seems to increase the appetite of most people. So now we have a situation that doesn’t set you up to make a good food choice: your diminished willpower and increased appetite usually end with you eating a meal that is high in overall calories and especially in carbs and fats.
A Word On Moderation
Before we get into the other effects of alcohol consumption on fitness, we need to define moderation. The majority of studies are basing their results on the “standard drink. ” And a standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. In my experience, except for beer, most people pour way more than the standard drink but still call it “one drink.” So while you may think you’re exercising moderation by only having two glasses of alcohol, by these standards you may have had seven or eight.
Moderation is also defined by how much you drink during the week as well. According to mayoclinic.org, more than 14 drinks a week is considered heavy drinking for anyone under the age of 65. And binge drinking is described as more than 4-5 drinks in two hours. So when we take into account that most people are over pouring their drinks, it’s not hard to end up being categorized as heavy or binge drinkers.
Now the alcohol effects for individual people is going to subjective. But know that when someone quotes a study about alcohol being good when consumed in moderation, that there are very defined rules for that and the average drinker does not apply.
What About The Effects Of Alcohol On Building Muscle?
Alcohol Inhibits Protein Synthesis
An especially bad effect of alcohol is that it inhibits protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is the conversion of protein from the food that you eat into muscle mass. The branched-chain amino acid known as Leucine is negatively affected by drinking alcohol. And alcohol can also adversely impact your recovery process as well.
However, we do need to look at this a little closer. Most of the studies that find a negative association between protein synthesis and alcohol are animal studies. Animal studies don’t also carry over well when finally studied in actual humans. In fact, these two studies find very little negative association between alcohol consumption and protein synthesis. But even these live human studies require further examination. Remember what we said about moderation. Most of the studies on alcohol consumption are based on the definition of a standard drink.
A few drinks probably won’t wreck your muscles gains. However, drinking excessively over time probably will.
Alcohol Messes With Your Hormones
Alcohol causes a lowering of testosterone levels and a rise in estrogen levels. An optimal testosterone level is what’s needed to pack on lean muscle mass. Testosterone is responsible for building muscle strength and increasing bone density. Coupled with the fact that your estrogen levels go up when you drink, you can probably kiss those ripped abs goodbye if you start regularly imbibing alcohol. Fat gain from elevated estrogen levels is especially pronounced around the waistline.
Alcohol also lowers your growth hormone levels. To be honest, most people will not experience much of a reduction of testosterone if they drink unless they’re heavy drinkers. But your muscles will be much more sensitive to a decrease in the growth hormone in your body. Growth hormone is released at night when you sleep. Night time happens to be the time that your body is most active in repairing your muscles. A lack of growth hormone when it’s needed means you won’t be able to train effectively as many days every week.
Too Much Alcohol Can Negatively Impact Exercise Performance
A lot of the effects you experience during a hangover is due to dehydrating effects of alcohol. And these effects carry over to exercise performance. If you’re drinking in excess the night before your workout, most fitness experts agree that it will have a negative impact on your workout performance.
So while dehydration from alcohol may not directly harm your muscles, much like fat oxidation, the indirect effect of less effective training sessions can eventually hurt muscle growth.
How To Still Enjoy The Occasional Drink(s) And Still Be In Top Shape
Ok so we’ve gone through all the effects of alcohol and newsflash: drinking too much of it can be harmful to your health. However, many people want to be able to enjoy life being able to have some drinks and also have abs too.
Personally, I try to abstain from alcohol when I’m trying to lose fat. My body just reacts better with doing no alcohol for periods at a time. But, some people can do just fine as long as they’re able to drink moderately. It also helps if you’re already lean and muscular, then a couple drinks here or there won’t kill your gains.
But, depending on how long I have to cut for, there are going to be certain social commitments that I’ll inevitably end up having to drink. So what can you do when this happens?
Pre-plan your drinking events
The first thing I like too during a cut cycle is to schedule out my “bad” events. After approximating how long I think it’ll take to reach my body composition goal I then look for work events, friends birthdays, vacation trips, etc. Then I’ll choose which ones I know I’ll be drinking more than a few and employ some of the strategies that follow.
It is crucial that you look at these events and choose though, and once you do be discipline and stick to your plan. For instance, my wife and I had to cancel Cinco De Mayo which is one of her favorite holidays. But we had just come off two straight weekends of weddings and had another vacation planned for the week after. So we looked at the calendar, and it just didn’t fit with our goals of wanting to get to certain physique by a specific time.
So once you have your schedule to stick to, here are a few things to do on an actual day(s) of drinking.
Eat only lean protein that day
We know that excessive alcohol can hinder protein synthesis, so we want to give it all the raw materials it could use to limit those effects possibly.
Lean protein is also very satiating, and it could make you eat less that day, and avoid some of the fat gains you may experience.
Avoid fatty and high carb foods
Aside from eating mainly lean proteins, you want to avoid fatty and high carb foods. Because of your body putting fat burning on hold to filter the alcohol out of your system, any dietary fat and carbs that you eat are likely to be stored as body fat.
Favor dry wines and spirits
In the same way, we avoid high carb foods, sugary (high carb) drinks have the same effect. Instead, you want to favor dry wines (which have less sugar) or spirits. Your body has a hard time using the actual calories from alcohol so sticking to things like vodka sodas instead of a frozen daiquiri will help minimize the adverse effects.
We all don’t live in the gym 24/7. Most of us have social lives that include occasionally having a drink now and then. Employing some the methods above will allow you to enjoy some drinks and still stay on track with your goals.
Most bodybuilders are healthy enough to drink in moderation without having to worry about ruining their gym gains, but moderation is key. And if you’re trying to achieve sub ten percent body fat, then it’s time to put the drinks down for a while.
It’s also good to remember that your body image goals shouldn’t wreck your entire social life to achieve them. Enjoy your vacation or your best friends birthday. You can always make up for that in the gym later. However, don’t use those times to do it every week or every day and you’ll be fine.