For most people, alcohol is an unavoidable part of social life. Despite its popularity, the actual metabolic effects of alcohol are almost completely misunderstood.
Today, we’re taking a dive deep into what alcohol actually does to a strength training body – specifically, the negative headwinds that alcohol puts on body compositional progress. We’ll also give an explicit, actionable template for how to navigate still getting jacked while getting hammered (if you still insist on doing so).
Here’s the thing: the primary negative effects of alcohol are NOT CALORIC.
As professionals who design and advise on holistic strength, conditioning, and nutrition programs, we are constantly frustrated when the discussion around alcohol completely neglects the primary negative effects on alcohol consumption, focusing on its trivial amount of calories instead.
Like it or not, alcohol is hepatotoxic, which means it is literally toxic to the liver. In other words, once you’ve ingested alcohol, your body’s most immediately pressing metabolic priority becomes to get the alcohol out of your body as quickly as it can – whatever metabolic cost.
The body essentially has a certain number of processes that are considered non-negotiable (like breathing), as well as what it considers comparatively more optional processes (like digestion). Because the body perceives alcohol as dangerous, it will engage its emergency plan to excrete the alcohol ASAP.
What Alcohol Does To Your Body
This means that your body will downregulate all other less pressing metabolic processes until it has successfully purged the alcohol from your system.
In layman’s terms, that means pressing pause on AT LEAST the following:
- Muscle protein synthesis (restoring damaged tissue and rebuilding new tissue)
- Lipolysis (burning fat)
- Digestion (absorbing and partitioning nutrients for the aforementioned MPS and lipolysis)
- Hormone secretion (producing testosterones and growth hormones)
- Cardiac function
It’s worth repeating: during the period of time that your body processes alcohol, you are NOT building any muscle tissue, burning any fat, digesting any food, optimally secreting hormones that help do any of those things, or getting any restful sleep.
And that’s just the first tier of metabolic catastrophe alcohol causes.
Why The Munchies = A Metabolic Catastrophe
What do you think happens when your body stops its normal nutritional process for many hours at a time? Here’s a hint: ever heard of the munchies?
While the exact mechanisms of hunger up-regulation are still not fully known, we DO know that the body not digesting food seems to be a body that grows (and stays) hungry while under the influence.
Meaning now you’re eating more food, and all of it is entering a metabolic landscape inhospitable to the metabolic processes needed to build a lean body.
When the alcohol wears off, what do you think the body is going to do with all that new food? Something you’re not going to like.
Think back to Nutrition 101 in health class: when your body has excess nutrition, it stores what it doesn’t need. And when your body is in the hormonal disarray of drunkenness, a FAR greater percentage of calories will be assigned to adipose (fat) tissue storage.
So once you crash and try to sleep, your alcohol consumption has guaranteed that none of the machinery of gaining muscle, getting lean, and recovering from exercise will operate correctly, and your body’s nutritional process is now set to “fat building mode.” …Whoops.
The Calories In Alcohol Aren’t The True Enemy
This is why a caloric-focused discussion of alcohol completely misses the boat. The 200-500 calories of regular beer, lite beer, hard seltzer, or vodka soda are almost completely inconsequential in comparison to the irreversible disregulation of thousands of calories (and the lasting hormonal effects).
Changes in your body’s testosterone, growth hormone, insulin sensitivity, and so many other hormones that completely change the scale of muscle building and fat loss can be negatively impacted for days after drinking. Repeat after me: it’s not about the calories – it’s about screwing up DAYS of muscle building and fat loss.
How To Drink Without Ruining Your Gains
Obviously, the first priority for managing the negative effects of alcohol on body composition is to simply limit your consumption; our general recommendation is one time a week. By doing this, you minimize the amount of time that your body would undergo the aforementioned emergency shutdown of your metabolism.
Ideally, consumption should take place as long after an exercise session as possible to allow for some post-exercise, up-regulated MPS (muscle protein synthesis) to occur. This is because consumption would render the next day’s exercise the least consequential of the week anyway (as you can expect performance to be negatively impacted). Many people pursue punitive cardio the next day, but unless that is programmatically assigned, it almost certainly makes your under-recovery problem worse instead of better.
Simply put? Adjust, stick to the plan and get back on track.
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