Does Drinking Alcohol Limit Muscle Growth Potential?
This story first appeared on Muscle and Strength
Demmy James - Over the past decade rumors about alcohol consumption post-workout being beneficial due to the carbohydrates beer contains have spread. But how does alcohol really affect muscle growth?
The average can of beer has around 14 grams of carbs per serving, which is not significant enough to drink for carb reloading following a workout.
When we look at muscle growth, the primary factor that is looked at is protein synthesis. Several studies have been performed to examine the effects of alcohol on protein synthesis, and most came to different conclusions.
Why is it so difficult to figure out whether or not alcohol consumption is alright when trying to build muscles?
In the words to follow, you will learn what numerous studies and 21 fitness experts had to say about this topic. The results you read may actually come as a surprise to you, but they are all scientific conclusions based on the factual evidence provided.
The focus of this topic was not specifically about drinking beer to initiate protein synthesis for muscle growth, but rather the quick carb reloading which alcohol provides.
The issue arose when researchers started to question whether or not these carbs from alcohol consumption are worth it if muscle growth is affected.
Let’s take a look at all the evidence, claims, and the advice that our experts have to give.
WHAT IS PROTEIN SYNTHESIS EXACTLY?
In order to understand what the studies and experts are talking about, we must first understand what the process of protein synthesis is. You probably hear this term being used far too many times when it comes to topics on muscle growth, but most don’t know what it actually is.
Muscular protein synthesis is when your body develops protein cells from the foods you consumed containing protein. These newly developed cells are created after your body signals for their needs to assist with muscle repair and recovery, which is generally after a workout.
When you perform resistance based exercise, your muscle fibers actually develop microscopic tears in them that need to be repaired. These tears are the reason why you experience soreness hours after training since the muscle fibers are inflamed.
The new protein cells, which have been created from adequate protein consumption, are sent into the muscle fibers to replace or repair the damaged protein cells. The after effects are stronger and denser protein cells, thus the reason over time your muscles appear larger.
Science still debates whether or not the damaged protein cells are replaced or simply repaired to grow larger. Regardless, the end result is muscle growth once recovery has completed.
ALCOHOL AND PROTEIN SYNTHESIS - WHAT STUDIES SHOW?
When it comes to scientific studies we cannot just look at the conclusion of the research. We have to take into account all of the factors such as what kind of test group the study was conducted on. Was it on rats? In vitro? Or were they actually conducted with humans?
When it comes to research, rat based evidence can be a bit misleading. The anatomy of the rat has been stated to resemble that of a human’s by around 90%, but this resemblance does not necessarily mean our body’s metabolism reacts the same way.
For example, one major study took rats and injected them with ethanol (alcohol). After waiting 2.5 hours, the researchers measured protein synthesis from two different muscle regions. The end result was a reduction in protein synthesis by 25% under normal conditions.
Vitro studies are similar as well. They can help determine if something is worth examining further following a study, but just like with rat studies, they are not always 100% reliable. In vitro means they took the cells away from the body.
One in vitro study shows that a cell being given 80mM of ethanol will reduce protein synthesis by 15-20% after 24 hours of the cell being introduced to the alcohol.
However, a different study by TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute shows that drinking 30-40 grams of alcohol (2-3 beers) per day did not affect protein synthesis levels significantly.
This shows that the rat and vitro studies don’t really help much with comparison to the human anatomy. If we want to know more about how protein synthesis is affected by the alcohol we consume, then human subjects are needed to get a more definite idea.
ALCOHOL AND TESTOSTERONE PRODUCTION - WHAT STUDIES SHOW?
Testosterone is the primary sex hormone for men, but women still produce small amounts of this hormone as well. People with high testosterone levels have shown to have increases in lean muscle growth, sexual health, and energy for daily movement.
When testosterone levels dropped, researchers started to notice the benefits were no longer present for muscle growth. Instead, low test levels now showed that lean muscle growth had significantly decreased.
So knowing that testosterone is important for muscle growth, we can now assume that muscle hypertrophy is not very heightened when our testosterone levels begin to drop. Let’s look at the previous research where protein synthesis was not necessarily affected.
The study conducted was with 10 men and 9 women who consumed 30-40 grams of alcohol after a workout. Results showed that after 3 weeks of consuming alcohol in this manner, the overall test levels dropped by 7%, which is not very significant.
Another study from the University of Helsinki tested subjects similarly, but went to greater extremes with the tools used to perform the study. There were 8 male subjects that had been dosed with 1.5 grams of ethanol per kilogram of body weight.
This dosing would mean at every 100kg’s of body weight had received 150 grams of ethanol! No wonder the end results showed a severe 23% average decrease in testosterone levels around 10 and 16 hours following consumption. The amount of ethanol the men were given would surely be classified as alcoholism if this were routinely consumed.
A third study, which was not very big, also agrees that high alcoholic consumption post workout drops testosterone levels and negatively affects other hormones as well. However, the thing to note from all of this is that these studies went beyond the “one can of beer after workout” theory.
They used above average alcohol doses just to push the body and see how it reacts in regards to its effects on protein synthesis and testosterone levels. Obviously muscle growth will falter if the body is being abused with an intoxicating substance. But what do our experts have to say about alcohol and muscle growth?
EXPERT FITNESS AND NUTRITION OPINIONS ON ALCOHOL AND MUSCLE GROWTH
Now let’s see what experts are saying about this matter and the studies that have been performed.
Mike Matthews states: “Rats and humans have major metabolic differences, and in vitro findings don’t always pan out in vivo.” This basically shows that even experts agree that rat and vitro studies just don’t offer a “clear cut” answer.
He further states “In live humans, muscle-wasting effects of alcohol have only been seen in chronic alcoholics.” In one of the studies presented earlier, the researchers used 1.5 grams of ethanol per kg of body weight to dose. Frequent consumption such as this is considered chronic alcoholism.
When asked what he thinks about muscle growth and alcohol consumption, Mike stated “…all things considered, if you have a few drinks here and there, you probably have nothing to worry about in terms ofbuilding muscle.”
Mike Matthews is a bestselling author and creator of MuscleForLife.com
Mark Behnken shares a similar stance in moderate alcohol consumption not being bad for muscle growth, but also had some of his own insight on the effects of alcohol. He says:
“Alcohol provides 7 calories per gram and it’s easily metabolized as body fat. While the energy it provides is not nearly as useful to your body as the energy provided by carbohydrates, fats and proteins, it does not mean you must completely abstain from drinking alcohol if your fitness goal is muscle growth.”
It’s beginning to become quite clear that even experts think it’s okay to have one or two beers a night, but keep in mind nobody has said that consuming alcohol immediately following your workout is okay.
Mark also had something to say about drinking alcohol while trying to build muscle “Alcohol on the other hand offers no muscle building benefits; however, there is no reason to completely refrain from moderate alcohol consumption if that is something you enjoy.”
Mark Behnken, Personal Trainer at Ask The Trainer
Expert Mike Samuels gives his opinion on if it’s okay for alcohol consumption while trying to build muscle: “Yes. But stay moderate, keep it to under 5% of your calories each week and don't get hammered.”
Mike Samuels runs Healthy Living Heavy Lifting - he helps people get lean eating ice cream and cake.
Mike was pretty clear and straight to the point. But Ryan Douglas clarifies this nutritional concept a bit further in depth by stating “Let’s also not forget about the fact that once you have had a few brewskies you tend to make really bad decisions.”
“Once those munchies kick in you start chowing on anything in site and 9 times out of 10 you end up eating unhealthy crap and way too much of it. Frequent boozing is a really easy way to blow your whole diet and leave your body looking like less than you had hoped.”
We can now piece together what these experts have already said by acknowledging that alcohol consumption may lead to fat gains, which of course is the opposite of muscle gains.
Ryan Douglas, owner and founder of TheAthleticBuild.com. A former college wrestler who has been killing it in the weight for 27 years now.
“Drinking alcohol from time to time can be compatible with a healthy lifestyle, and you can still gain muscle even if you drink.” says nutrition advisor Kris Gunner who also agrees that obviously too much alcohol consumption is bad for muscle growth, but a little bit is not going to hurt anybody.
Kris Gunners, CEO, Authority Nutrition
Even the well-known natural bodybuilder Dr. Layne Norton had something to say about whether or not alcohol will affect muscle growth. “You can drink alcohol and definitely still build muscle. The degree to which you can do it depends on the frequency of alcohol consumption and the dosage of alcohol consumption.”
Dr. Layne Norton of BioLayne LLC is a renowned prep/physique coach and pro natural bodybuilder/powerlifter with a PhD in Nutritional Sciences.
Will Brink actually gave a different response than most other experts when asked. “What we don't have is data examining whether those who drink moderately are hindering their progress compared to those who don't.” This is a major reason why alcohol is not going to affect muscle growth when consumed in moderation. The only studies we have are those with extreme consumption.
Will Brink of BrinkZone.com is an author, researcher, and trainer of high levels athletes, police, and military personnel.
Nick Cheadle wanted to point out that “If building muscle is your absolute number one priority, should you really be considering drinking alcohol?” But he continues to note that if you want to enjoy your life like he does, then you’ll end up having a drink socially and not affect protein synthesis at all.
NICK CHEADLE | Owner & Head Personal Trainer -Nick Cheadle Fitness
Brian Pankau also agrees that competitively speaking, you shouldn’t drink alcohol if you wish to gain muscle. But also says “There’s no evidence that supports the disruption of protein synthesis when a person moderately consumes alcohol hours after training. Enjoy your life and have a drink or two. Just don’t get carried away and get drunk.”
Brian Pankau – Owner and Trainer – Strong Fit Living
Bryce Lewis kept the answer short and sweet. “Alcohol intake needs to reflect the goals of the individual. A casual weekend warrior’s goals are far different from an Olympic hopeful.”
Basically he also believes you don’t need alcohol consumption for competitive purposes, but also states that “it is a matter of how much alcohol and how much muscle” when it came to his position on alcohol and muscle growth.
Bryce Lewis, Strength Coach and Founder at The Strength Athlete
Zach Moore had to say that “Yes, it is possible to build muscle while enjoying an occasional drink of alcohol. The key word is occasional because alcohol has been shown to impair gains in muscle.” But he notes that if you want the best optimal body for muscle gains, you would need to drop the alcohol for the sake of your goals.
Zach Moore, full-time strength and conditioning coach with Precision Nutrition and owner at Zach Moore Fitness
Our next expert Joy Victoria was happy to help out and say: “There is no reason for alcohol consumption to impede training or muscle development, if it doesn't also interfere with your caloric balance, sleep, stress management and self-worth.
From a nutrition standpoint, alcohol can often interfere with nutrient absorption, caloric balance and sleep. But alcohol is also yummy, enjoyable, and has its place in life.”
Joy Victoria is a strength coach and nutrition coach based out of Toronto, ON. Owner at fitnessbaddies.com
Max Shank had a unique personal reference for us to know about “I've seen a few people who are borderline alcoholics make great gains in the gym--I don't know how they do it. Building muscle takes long term consistency and dedication to your training AND recovery. The more alcohol you consume, the worse your recovery will be.”
This gives us something to think about because each person’s body is different and muscle gains will not be the same always. Seeing that he personally knows people who drink excessively but still make gains, we can start to question if moderate consumption truly is okay for everyone, or a percentage will still suffer in gaining muscle mass.
Industry expert, Dan John added some important information to consider by stating, "Well, it is an issue that seems pretty simple: the research from Germany years ago teaches us that alcohol lowers T levels. So, for optimal performance....if T levels are the key...then drinking booze is bad. But that is just part of the story.
I am a big fan of drinking and socializing. Part of the process of success is enjoying the journey. So, drink away. When I was in college, I was struggling with keeping my bodyweight up and our assistant coach took me aside and told me to start drinking beer every night. I was struggling with all the throwing and lifting and general stress of training. Beer saved my career.
So, yes, we might lose some T but the tradeoffs seem worth it."
Dan John has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.
Even a USA Triathlon coach, Alex Viada, stated “Absolutely. As mentioned, the dose is what matters. The body will not shut down any and all positive adaptations to training because of alcohol. The response may be slowed or stunted somewhat, but unless an individual is binge drinking with minimal quality nutrients, SOME muscle growth will still be observed.”
Alex Viada, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and USA Triathlon Coach, is the founder and co-owner of Complete Human Performance
Another expert, Mike Israetel, said “Alcohol almost certainly interferes with muscle growth and can contribute to muscle loss. BUT, it's a dose-response relationship. The more alcohol you have, the higher the risk of muscle loss becomes.”
Mike Israetel, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Kinesiology, Temple University
DR. SCOTT STEVENSON
And Dr. Scott Stevenson sums up this matter with “anything more than small or infrequent alcohol consumption may (eventually) run counter to the goal of achieving one’s maximum muscular potential.”
Dr. Scott W. Stevenson, PhD, is an applied exercise physiologist and competitive bodybuilder
MIKE T. NELSON
Clearly each one of these experts agree that alcohol consumption in moderation is fine for muscle growth. But Mike T. Nelson is the only expert that answers these questions with an ending that says “If you are going to drink post training, keep to a dull roar and include some protein.”
Mike T Nelson, CSCS, MSME, PhD, is a university instructor and owner of Extreme Human Performance, LLC.
Greg Nuckols says there are two big issues with being able to build muscle if consuming alcohol:
1. “The biggest issue is that calories from alcohol will be replacing calories you'd otherwise get from protein, fat, or carbs (and generally you don't tend to make the best food choices when you're drinking).”
2. “The second biggest issue is that you're not going to feel like training when you're hungover.”
Basically we have another expert that agrees alcohol consumption is fine for muscle gains if you’re trying not to get drunk and hungover often.
Greg Nuckols, Drug free powerlifter and Owner at Strengtheory
Douglas Kalman agrees as well by saying “Alcohol does not need to be avoided when one wants to gain strength,size or both. Even when one is looking to improve muscle tone of just normal functional abilities, alcohol is no kryptonite.”
People do tend to get carried away with thinking it is the end of the world for their diet by consuming a beer, which is quite similar to how people react to carbs. Kalman further explains this idea with “Sometimes what sabotages people who are into training, then have a drink, is the acute food choices or urges that some experience.”
Dr Douglas Kalman has been involved in in over 200 clinical trials and projects within the pharmaceutical, medical and exercise - nutrition fields. He is a co-founder of The International Society of Sports Nutrition and Co-Editor of its journal, JISSN.
Josh Anderson's opinion on the matter is very simple, "It all depends on your definition of drinking and moderation. Of course, no one should be pounding down Bud Lights after a workout or anytime and hope to gain muscle. As with most things nutrition, if you focus on your workouts and nutrition, a beer or two now and then aren’t going to totally ruin your gains. Could it affect protein synthesis? Yes obviously, but if you don’t get carried away with it, you can still live how you want and get the results you want."
Josh Anderson (M.S., PT) is the founder and editor of your source for at home fitness at DIY Active: Fit.Food.Life.
Finally, we have expert Cole Matthews giving us first-hand experience on developing muscle while still drinking alcohol on occasion:
“For the last few years I’ve been on a muscle-building frenzy. I built over 50 lbs of lean muscle while steadily maintaining around 6% body fat the entire time.
Did I stop all alcohol consumption while I was doing this and stay on some ridiculously strict diet? Absolutely not. I certainly didn't eat like a pig, but I’m 24 and have been around more college parties than I knew what to do with; there was no way I wasn’t going to have a little fun with my friends.”
He ends with a note that he didn’t get wasted or anything. Just a few drinks with his friends.
Cole Matthews with nearly 10 years of experience with exercise and nutrition, is the founder of HomeGymr.
FINAL THOUGHTS: IS IT OKAY TO DRINK ALCOHOL FOR MUSCLE GAINS?
Given the responses from our experts and the details we examined in the given studies, yes alcohol is okay to consume while seeking muscle gains to an extent. When consumed in moderation, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about it’s effect on muscle gains and hormone production.
When alcohol is consumed at higher frequencies too often, then you have to start worrying about testosterone levels being altered and protein synthesis not taking place when it should. These two factors will not only prevent muscle gains, but may also elicit other health concerns such as liver damage.
But then you also have to think about what your goals are. The average person seeking muscle gains will most likely not be affected by alcohol consumption in moderation. But those seeking to compete in sports such as men’s physique and bodybuilding do need to re-think their choices.
Every calorie counts during prep season for contest, and we noted that alcohol doesn’t really contain nutritious calories for our body to use.
Take a second and just think about what you want, and if alcohol is really that important for you to consume. Remember, all the evidence presented in this comprehensive guide that stated alcohol consumption was fine is meant for those drinking hours after training. Post workout use of alcohol really has no useful benefits.
Now you can go out and have fun with your friends and drink a little. Just don’t get drunk and consume excessive amounts of alcohol which will prevent protein synthesis from doing its miracles.