Alcohol, and its effects on building muscle is a topic that I hear about again and again. If I drink tonight, is the heavy lifting I did at the gym today wasted? Will it inhibit my ability to gain muscle? Will it turn me catabolic and eat up all my muscle? Will it all turn to fat?  As someone who loves to go out and enjoy some quality spirits, these questions have always interested me. I decided to sift through a number of scientific journals in search of the answer, this is what I found:

The Facts

1. Alcohol is effectively a fourth macronutrient, coming in at 7 calories per gram (1).

2. Unfortunately, unlike the other 3 macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and protein) your body is not capable of efficiently deriving energy from it – hence the popular term empty calories. This is misleading, however, because some energy is, in fact, derived. Just a smaller percentage.

Furthermore this percentage decreases with subsequent drinks. This means that your body actually utilizes a substantial percentage of the calories consumed from the first couple of drinks for energy (2).

3. It inhibits protein synthesis. New muscle tissue develops when the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown (i.e., in a positive muscle protein balance). It is important to note that the studies that confirm this notion have been performed on rats and alcoholics (3).

The Implications

These facts have a couple of key implications.

1. In terms of weight or fat gain, energy balance is still king. If you consume more calories than you expend (eat more than you burn) you will gain weight—regardless if alcohol was or was not included in said calories.

2. Heavy alcohol consumption will affect your progress in the gym. Big surprise, right? Heavy drinking leads to less energy being derived from the beverages and suppresses the rate at which your body can synthesize muscle protein. Not to mention that your performance will suffer if you lift with a hangover.

The Conclusion

As long as you limit alcohol consumption to a moderate amount (roughly two drinks per day) there will be little to no negative side effects in the quest to gain muscle and improve your physique. Then again, if you are not concerned with deriving the absolute maximal benefits out of your training, going hard every once in a while is unlikely to seriously hinder your gains.

References:
1. Suter PM, Jéquier E, Schutz Y. Effect of ethanol on energy expenditure. American Journal of Physiology 1994;266(4 Pt 2):R1204-12.
2. Lieber CS. Perspectives: do alcohol calories count? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991;54(6):976-982.
3. Pacy, P. J., et al. The effect of chronic alcohol ingestion on whole body and muscle protein synthesis—a stable isotope study. Alcohol and Alcoholism 1991;26(5-6):505-513.

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