2 May 2020
The cognitive dissonance of alcohol consumption in the fitness industry.
There aren’t many things that physique athletes consciously do to impair their progress. After all, they invest substantial time (upwards of 15 hours of training per week), money (gym membership, supplements, equipment, food) while exerting considerable restraint (restricting calories, avoiding social eating occasions, not missing sessions when tired or unmotivated). Moreover, such athletes – particularly…
There aren’t many things that physique athletes consciously do to impair their progress. After all, they invest substantial time (upwards of 15 hours of training per week), money (gym membership, supplements, equipment, food) while exerting considerable restraint (restricting calories, avoiding social eating occasions, not missing sessions when tired or unmotivated). Moreover, such athletes – particularly those in the realm of evidence-based fitness – go to many lengths in search of a 1-2% performance edge, whether that be intricate supplement protocols, reaching macronutrient targets to the exact gram, or manipulating training frequency and volume with complex periodisation schemes. Thus, it would not make logical sense – when the investment made by the athlete is so significant – to engage in behaviours that might compromise the return.
It is common for these athletes to engage in debates such as, whether a training frequency of 2x per week trumps 3x, or whether muscle growth will be superior with 20% of calories coming from fat or 30%. For those seeking a 1-2% edge, these may be valuable discussions to have, but it must be acknowledged that such considerations have a minuscule influence on overall physique progress. To explain it otherwise, one will achieve the vast majority of their potential physique gains with regular progressively-overloaded weight training (lift more over time), a reasonable amount of protein in their diet, and eating enough so that energy intake is adequate to allow muscle repair and adaptive process to take place. Despite this reality, physique athletes will toil over the “one percenters”.
Why is it that the same athletes I see arguing over whether to use 2-day refeeds or 7-day diet breaks, or whether to consume intra workout carbs or not, are the same athletes that are consuming alcohol on a regular basis? It is a cognitive dissonance to engage in behaviours to potentially maximise physique advancement (behaviours that require substantial effort and planning at that) while engaging in another behaviour that has been shown time and time again in research to compromise one’s physique efforts. The irony of the issue is that often the strategies discussed and implemented by these athletes (refeeds, supplements, periodisation etc) have relatively little consensus from the literature (and may not even provide any benefits at all), yet the evidence for the negative impacts of alcohol consumption is extensive.
Now this is of course not a piece to suggest that everyone in the evidence-based fitness community is consuming weekly/fortnightly alcohol, but many are. I dare say the prevalence has increased in recent years as a consequence of regular alcohol consumption (and at times glorification) by the “higher ups” and influencers in the fitness industry. You might say, “a few drinks each month isn’t going to hurt my progress that much”. That may very well be true, but stepping back to the point on cognitive dissonance, why then would you invest your finite resources ontraining and nutrition tactics that may not provide any benefits, and if they do, likely explain a fragment of your progress. It seems to me that some athletes have their priorities in disarray, instead of focusing on things they can do, that may or may not advance their physique, why not avoid a behaviour that is dam-near certain to compromise progression to some degree. If you were of the perspective that alcohol really doesn’t hurt the physique notably (or dare I say that downsides are avoided when “tracking” calories from alcohol), I hope my short summary of the existing literature on alcohol consumption relevant to athletes provides some value.
Alcohol reduces muscle protein synthesis
Alcohol consumption is thought to suppress protein synthesis via inhibition of mTOR, an important cellular component in the anabolic signalling cascade. In one study, consuming a 600-calorie meal with a standard drink of alcohol reduced protein synthesis by 30% over 4 hours. In another study, 9 standard drinks consumed post-workout decreased muscle protein synthesis by 24%. As explained previously by Menno Henselmans, adopting a 40% calorie deficit and reducing protein intake has been found to cause a decrease in muscle protein synthesis of 36%. Thus, if you are consuming large amounts of alcohol on one occasion, the catabolic effects are substantial.
Alcohol reduces anabolic hormones, and increases catabolic hormones
We know that testosterone is an important hormonal regulator of fat free mass. In one study where participants consumed a small amount (30-40g) of alcohol daily for 3 weeks, circulating testosterone levels fell by ~7%. In other studies, high doses of alcohol (1.5g per kg) have been shown to decrease testosterone acutely by 23%, 10-16 hours after ingestion. Other research has suggested 4-8 drinks on one occasion will reduce testosterone by 18-40%. If you’re getting even crazier, consuming greater than 9 drinks on any one occasion has been shown to cause a reduction in testosterone by 45%! Comparable to testosterone crashes seen with male bodybuilding contest prep. Some evidence also suggests that chronic alcohol consumption can lead to testicular shrinkage, and reduced capacity to produce testosterone, as well as decrease the strength of the brain’s signal for testosterone production. If you are performing exercise before your drinking episode, there is also evidence that the reduction in testosterone will increase in duration. Interestingly, another study observed a drop-in growth hormone pulse frequency from 4.7 to 3.8, 20 hours after consumption of a large dose of alcohol. Alcohol was also shown to increase cortisol levels (a hormone implicated with fat gain and fat free mass loss) by 152%, 4 hours after consumption. Finally, alcohol may increase the conversion of testosterone to estrogen in the liver, leaving less testosterone in circulation.
Alcohol may cause strength loss
In one study, 6 standard drinks caused 11-19% strength loss compared with drinking orange juice.
This short piece was not designed to discourage alcohol consumption as much as it was to restate the notable downsides of alcohol that could compromise physique development, and to recognise the cognitive dissonance in the fitness industry right now. In my opinion, as coaches, influencers, content providers and educators, we should not be glorifying alcohol consumption. As a community we go to exorbitant lengths to communicate advanced novel training and dietary strategies that may, and at times may not, improve our physique efforts. If we have the best interests of the fitness community at heart, we should exert equal, if not more effort communicating the downsides of alcohol consumption, and not encouraging an activity that is in fact guaranteed to compromise physique development if performed regularly. I am fearful that if this new-age drinking culture continues to grow in the fitness community, not only will it be more normalised and accepted by all, but soon will be portrayed as customary behaviour.
Now to end a little controversially.
If you are 1) training twice a day to improve recovery and intensity of your sessions, 2) consuming intra-workout carbs in an attempt to reduce protein breakdown, 3) calorie cycling, 4) insert any strategy likely to impart minimal benefit to the grand scheme, yet you are consuming alcohol regularly, I believe you are an evidence-based hypocrite. I do so hope you aren’t influencing others to engage in the same behaviour as yourself.
I am pro-choice. So, drink alcohol if you want to, just don’t act like it is inconsequential to one’s physique, or that it should be habitual behaviour for every aspiring physique athlete.
The effect of chronic alcohol abuse on sexual function.
Alcohol-induced testicular atrophy. An experimental model for hypogonadism occurring in chronic alcoholic men.
Alcohol abuse-duration dependent decrease in plasma testosterone and antioxidants in males.
Effects of chronic ethanol intake on aromatization of androgens and concentration of estrogen and androgen receptors in rat liver.
Effects of acute alcohol intake on pituitary-gonadal hormones in normal human males.
The pulsatile secretion of gonadotropins and growth hormone, and the biological activity of luteinizing hormone in men acutely intoxicated with ethanol.
Effects of acute alcohol intoxication on pituitary-gonadal axis hormones, pituitary-adrenal axis hormones, beta-endorphin and prolactin in human adults of both sexes.
The combined effect of alcohol and physical exercise on serum testosterone, luteinizing hormone, and cortisol in males.
Alcohol impairs leucine-mediated phosphorylation of 4E-BP1, S6K1, eIF4G, and mTOR in skeletal muscle.
Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training
Post-exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric-exercise induced losses in performance.