When You Drink Up Before Your Warm Up

The breakdown: what happens inside your body when you mix booze and brawn

Hitting up happy hour before you hit the gym? You’re not alone. With so many people stretched too-thin for time, knocking back a brew (or three) with friends then knocking out a workout might seem like the best way to fit everything in the day.

And if it’s a once-in-a-while phenomenon, no biggie, right? Wrong. It turns out that shots and squats can be a dangerous cocktail. To find out exactly what happens to your body, we turned to researcher Matthew Barnes at New Zealand’s Massey University, the School of Sports and Exercise.

Missing Mental Skills: You might feel like a million bucks heading into the gym, with your inhibitions quickly fading and confidence boosted. But beer goggles can’t change the fact that your coordination and motor skills are less than great—and won’t help your endurance, even if you think it might. “Historically, alcohol was used prior to and during athletic events in the belief that it would make you perform better," he says. Ultimately though, Barnes relates your mental state to that feeling that you can hit a homerun with that cute girl after your buddy has decided to buy a few rounds: “Your performance isn’t better, just like you’re no more attractive or charming when you're under the influence, alcohol simply alters your perception of reality.” 

Parched: Alcohol dehydrates. Exercise dehydrates. The two together makes for a disastrously draining combination. Not getting enough H2O affects more than your thirst. It can put serious strain on your kidneys, and it can dry out your skin, making you look aged.

Brain Drain: You know when you’re drunk, take a nasty spill and then hop up, slurring remarking that it didn’t hurt at all, only to discover a monster bruise in the AM? Well that same thing can happen at the gym with regards to your muscles. “Basically, the organization within the brain becomes scrambled so that signals don’t go where they should, when they should,” Barnes says. So even if your body is screaming that it’s time to stop, your brain might not get the message—which puts you at serious risk for injuries. Plus, who needs an extra impairment? As it is, those treadmill consoles are pretty mind-boggling in sobriety.  

Heart Matters: Drinking then exercising is particularly dangerous for your heart. When you drink, alcohol can cause the left ventricle of your heart to lose some of its pumping power. To make up for this, other parts of your heart have to work double time, says Barnes. Add that to your high-octane interval routine, and your ticker could be in trouble. But the real problem occurs if you have a cardiac event during your workout. You might not be able to pinpoint the warning signs of a heart attack or stroke, such as discomfort in the chest, when you’re tipsy, says cardiologist Arthur Klatsky, MD.

Gender Bender: If you think routinely drinking someone under the table makes you a true man, listen up: “At high dose, alcohol impacts testosterone production and leads to feminization and shrinking of testes in males.” Think that’s bad as is? It gets worse for your workout. “Those changes in testosterone are likely to impact any adaptation that you would normally expect from exercise—in particular resistance,” says Barnes. This means that while racking up your bar tab and hitting the weight room might just seem like the most macho combo in the world, turns out it’ll take a serious hit to your goal of bulking up...and to the boys in general.

And don’t think that just simply reversing the “bar then gym” scenario will fix things. Here’s why sweating then boozing might not be such a great idea either.

Gut Check: No matter how long you hold your planks, making a habit of bellying up to the bar can add unwanted insulation to your midsection. That’s because of the way your body digests that vodka tonic. “Alcohol is metabolized preferentially when consumed and impairs fat metabolism so that fat is stored rather than used as energy,” Barnes says. Not only do the calories in your drink add to your day’s calories, but you’re also storing fat more easily...a.k.a. feeding that beer belly.

Recovery Plan: If you’ve just undergone a particularly strenuous workout or tried a new routine, going out for a few post-sweat beers might not be the best decision. Barnes has extensively studied what drinking does to your post-workout recovery and the results aren’t pretty. “I have repeatedly shown that a dose of 1g of alcohol per kg body weight increases the loss of muscle function that typically accompanies exercise,” says Barnes. Translation: If you’re a 175lb male and you knock back about 6 drinks in one sitting, you’ve just derailed your chance at building muscle.