Many adults love to enjoy a few alcoholic drinks with friends on the weekend or throw back a beer or glass of wine with dinner.
However, if you’re working hard in the gym to build muscle or push your body in your workouts to get stronger, are your drinking habits sabotaging your fitness gains?
Does alcohol affect muscle growth? Does alcohol limit strength gains?
In this guide, we will discuss the metabolic effects of alcohol and answer the burning question, does alcohol affect muscle growth?
We will look at:
- Calories In Alcohol
- Alcohol and Weight Gain
- Does Alcohol Affect Muscle Growth?
- Tips for Minimizing the Negative Impact of Alcohol On Muscle Growth
Let’s get started!
Calories In Alcohol
As a quick review, the foods and drinks we consume contain calories, which are determined by the specific macronutrients in food or beverage.
- Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram
- Protein contains just over 4 calories per gram
- Fat contains 9 calories per gram
Alcohol is not a macronutrient, nor does straight alcohol contain macronutrients or micronutrients.
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However, alcohol itself contains 7 calories per gram. For this reason, alcohol is appropriately considered “empty calories,” as it provides calories without providing any other nutrients.
Alcoholic drinks may provide calories from carbohydrates as well, depending on the type of alcoholic beverage and other ingredients added to make the drink.
Alcohol and Weight Gain
As mentioned, alcohol contains 7 cal per gram, and alcoholic beverages can be packed with calories, depending on the type of drink and what kind of mixers are used.
Although the specific caloric content varies, the following averages can be used as a ballpark for the number of calories in one serving of common alcoholic beverages:
- Beer (12oz): 150 calories
- Wine (5oz): 100 calories
- Distilled spirits (1.5oz): 100 calories
Any time you are in a caloric surplus, meaning that you are consuming more calories than you are burning, you will gain weight.
Therefore, alcohol has the potential to cause weight gain, since it contains a denser amount of calories and no nutrients.
Moreover, alcohol consumption can lead to reduced inhibitions or overindulging and poor food choices, which in turn can lead to a more significant caloric surplus.
Perhaps most importantly, evidence has shown that alcohol adversely affects the levels of certain hormones involved in fat burning and fat storage, and slows your metabolic rate.
Together, these effects can lead to fat gain.
The body perceives alcohol as a toxin because the toxins acetate and acetaldehyde are produced as the body starts to metabolize alcohol.
Because the body does whatever it can to minimize toxins in the body, when you consume alcohol with food, your body preferentially burns the alcohol for fuel first, rather than fat or carbohydrates as a way to get rid of it.
As a result, any calories you consume in the foods you eat alongside your beverage are more likely to be stored as fat rather than burned for fuel, and any other fat burning from stored body fat will come to a halt since your body has the alcohol to metabolize first.
Does Alcohol Affect Muscle Growth?
So, it’s relatively well established that alcohol can potentially lead to weight gain or fat storage, but does alcohol affect muscle growth? How does drinking alcoholic beverages impact muscle gains?
We all want our hard work in the gym to pay off as much as possible, which is why you might want to reconsider throwing back a few beers after pushing through your leg day workout.
Research has demonstrated that consuming alcohol can impede your muscle gains and affect muscle growth.
For example, evidence suggests that alcohol impedes muscle protein synthesis—technically called myofibrillar protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is the physiological process by which protein is synthesized in the body to repair and rebuild muscles.
Muscle protein synthesis can be thought of as the opposite of muscle protein breakdown. When you exercise, particularly when resistance training with heavy loads, your muscles experience microscopic damage or breakdown of the protein and structural muscle fibers.
As long as you eat enough calories and protein and take adequate recovery between workouts, your body repairs this damage and rebuilds the muscles back even stronger in a process called muscle protein synthesis.
In this way, muscle protein synthesis is associated with muscle growth or “muscle gains” in strength and size.
However, the relative ratio of muscle protein synthesis to muscle protein breakdown is what determines whether you lose or gain muscle mass.
When the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceeds that of muscle protein breakdown, you’ll build muscle, whereas when muscle protein breakdown exceeds muscle protein synthesis, you’ll lose muscle mass.
Consuming protein immediately after a workout has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis, while consuming alcohol can impair muscle protein synthesis following a workout.
If you impede muscle protein synthesis too much, you can potentially shift the ratio of muscle protein synthesis to muscle protein breakdown to either put yourself into protein balance—wherein the rates of both are equal and you are in a state of muscular homeostasis—or you can move into a muscle protein breakdown dominant state and lose muscle mass.
So, does alcohol affect muscle growth?
Either way, alcohol can limit your potential for muscle growth by interfering with the metabolic processes involved in making new protein after exercise to repair and build muscle tissue.
One final note when answering the question does alcohol affect muscle growth: consuming alcohol in large quantities may inhibit testosterone production, which, in turn, can impede muscle gains.
Tips for Minimizing the Negative Impact of Alcohol On Muscle Growth
Let’s not completely demonize alcohol. There are plenty of studies that show that when alcohol is consumed in moderation, it can improve HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels and reduce stress.
For some people, unwinding with a glass or wine or cold beer is enough to calm and relax your mind and body after a difficult day. If alcohol reduces your stress, it can lower your cortisol levels and potentially reduce emotional overeating or poor dietary choices brought on by stress.
Thus, it’s possible that some people can actually lose or maintain weight by consuming 1-2 drinks.
Additionally, there are a few ways you can limit the potential deleterious effects alcohol has on muscle growth and strength gains.
Here are a few tips:
- Don’t drink right after your workout. Focus on recovery and get in a good post-workout meal or snack with at least 20-30 grams of protein right after your workout. You can enjoy an alcoholic beverage a couple of hours later, once your body has had a chance to metabolize the protein you ate.
- Don’t drink alcohol every day of the week. Instead, opt for more occasional drinking, such as 1-2 nights per week.
- Drink in moderation when you do choose to imbibe. Limit yourself to 1-2 alcoholic drinks rather than binge drinking.
- Consume enough protein and calories throughout the day to support muscle protein synthesis.
- Try to eat sensibly when you drink alcohol.
- Get enough sleep at night.
Whether or not you choose to enjoy an alcoholic beverage or two after a hard workout in the gym is entirely up to you, but just remember that habitual drinking after exercise can really cut into your potential muscle growth.
For help sticking to a nutritious diet, check out our Best Popular Diets For Runners guide.