The rules of staying in shape when intoxicated: ZeroBroScience edition

The rules of staying in shape when intoxicated: ZeroBroScience edition

The rules of staying in shape when intoxicated: ZeroBroScience edition


This is for all of the young YOLOs out there who enjoy a regular drink (once a week) but feel that their potentially destructive habit might be holding them back from achieving their goal physique. If, like me, you enjoy having a few drinks now and then and have a tendency, in rare instances, to get absolutely badgered, cabbaged, decimated, goosed, jeremied, kaned, lashed, mangled, Newcastled, off your trolley, pickled, spiffed, trousered or zombied, then do read on.

Hopefully after having studied this article, you will have the know-how to curb the side effects of the occasional bender. You may even come up with some of your own solutions – and if you do, we would love to hear about them on the forum. Welcome to the ZeroBroScience series.

Hippie, please!
The Hippies (or bodybuilding Nazis) will not be best pleased with the advice that I am about to impart. Before you read on, please understand that the purpose of this article is not to advocate drinking. This article is for those who already drink, who want to understand how alcohol really affects their bodies and want to optimise their progress in the gym. I assume this applies to most of us. Drinking is not optimal for bodybuilding. But if you make careful adjustments to your diet and training in the 12 hours leading up to your bender, then you can curtail almost all of the deleterious effects of alcohol. But for the Hippies, this is an unnecessary waste of time. You might miss your cross-fit class. Or forget to foam-roll your toes. Or choose what kind of spinach to garnish your quinoa salad with…

Alcohol’s potential to ruin your physique
As per the tradition of the ZeroBroScience series, here’s a little bit of science. To manipulate the way you react to alcohol, you must first understand what happens to it once it’s inside you. For the most part, your body breaks down alcohol in the liver to produce an intermediate product called acetaldehyde. This is short-lived, and is quite rapidly broken down to acetate, which is in turn converted into water and CO2 to be eliminated (Cederbaum, 2012). Acetaldehyde is toxic to your liver, pancreas and brain. It is one of the primary causes of hang-over symptoms (Zakhari, 2006). Which is why, in a desperate bid to get rid of it, your body’s metabolism becomes almost exclusively focused on breaking it down into acetate, which is not so toxic.

Fat storage
So your metabolism is pre-occupied. While it is frantically breaking down the toxic Acetaldehyde, it is not breaking down fats, or lipids for energy (Jéquier, 1999). Bingo! If your body cannot breakdown lipids, they remain stored in fat cells. That’s right: alcohol causes your body to favour fat storage at the molecular level. It’s not the calories from the alcohol itself that lead to weight gain; in fact, alcohol itself has a thermo-genic effect (the calories your body burns just by breaking it down) second only to protein (Suter et al., 1992). So, technically, if you were to replace some of your carbohydrate or fat calories with pure alcohol, you would actually burn more calories by the end of the day. So to conclude, to get shredded, go zero carb. and become an alcoholic. Just kidding. It’s not that straight forward. Typically we consume alcohol as an addition to our normal daily diets. Unlike the other macronutrients, it doesn’t leave you satiated (full up). Combined with the fact that, if taken in excess, it spikes insulin levels, your blood sugar drops temporarily. And that will leave you craving for carbohydrates, which is one of the reasons why we tend to pig out at dingy kebab shops following a night out (Suter et al., 1997)


The other reason is because you’re rat-legged and have no sense of inhibition, so anything and everything goes (Suter et al., 1997). Your gains become secondary to your uninhibited impulses. The truth hurts, Bro. So following alcohol consumption, in general, you are in a caloric surplus. Of course, this would normally lead to some fat storage – but with alcohol limiting your ability to breakdown lipids for energy, a much greater proportion of them are left stored in fat cells.

This won’t take long. Let me dispel a common hippie myth. Hippie: “Drinking alcohol will stop testosterone production and you will lose all of your gains!” ZeroBroScience: Shut up, hippie. Studies have shown that drinking the equivalent of 10 beers can reduce testosterone levels by just 20% for up to 16 hours afterwards (Valimaki et al., 1990). But that’s a significant proportion, right? Not when it comes to building and maintaining muscle - as long as testosterone levels remain in the physiological range (300-1000ng/dL), muscle mass is not affected (Storer et al., 2003). And if you’re in your twenties, your testosterone levels are likely to be towards the higher end of the spectrum. If my testosterone were measured at 800ng/dL, a 20% reduction would leave it at 640ng/d, which is well within the physiological range. Conclusion: alcohol’s suppressive effects on testosterone are minimal and will not hinder your gains.

Protein synthesis
Acute alcohol intoxication has been consistently shown to significantly reduce protein synthesis in rats (Vary et al., 2008; Vary and Lang, 2008). Rat studies can be a rough indicator as to how alcohol may affect protein synthesis in humans – the likelihood is that the results are transferable to some degree. How often have you made the mistake of destroying a particular muscle group before going out for a few drinks, only to be in excruciating pain the next morning? Are the Hippies right? Are you really significantly impairing protein synthesis? I’m skeptical. These rats are not providing their bodies with a stimulus to grow. They don’t spend hours curling in the squat rack, nor are they drip fed Cell Tech. In short, these rats don’t even lift. And if they don’t lift, their body’s signal to shed muscle in times of stress – or when the stress hormone cortisol is produced, as it is during alcohol intoxication – is quite strong (Frias et al., 2002). With all of this in mind, it is highly unlikely that alcohol can curb protein synthesis in somebody that regularly lifts heavy weights. However, there may be a small reduction in overall protein synthesis, likely compounded by the other factors outlined in the next section.

Other effects
The remaining effects of alcohol are easily understood, which I why I left them until last. Dehydration is a result of alcohol’s diuretic properties (diuresis = losing water through urine). Fatigue is a result of low blood sugar (as alcohol triggers an insulin spike). Disrupted sleep is a result of many factors. Perhaps in the case of Bros, nightmares about the ZeroBroScience series… Banter.

Optimising your gains when drinking

Finally, we come to the meat of this article. Now you know how alcohol may affect your bodybuilding goals, you can manipulate each process to greatly diminish the negative effects.

In summary, when intoxicated, we want to:

  • Reduce our body’s increased propensity to store fat
  • Temporarily spike our metabolism
  • Minimise cortisol levels
  • Maintain steady blood sugar levels
  • Enjoy good quality sleep

What you need to do?

The following guide is to be applied on the day of your planned binge.

1. Diet Before you start drinking, you want to be in a caloric deficit. Remember that alcohol’s fat storage effect is only evident in a caloric surplus. The size of the deficit depends on what you will be drinking. If you stick to gin (with a calorie free mixer, if you like), 8 shots contain 448 calories. As a deficit, that’s not bad. But 8 pints of Fosters contain 1816 calories. I’ll let you work that one out.

  • Aim for a total fat intake of 20-25g (low), a total carbohydrate intake of 175-200g (moderate) and a total protein intake of 190-230g (high). These values give an approximate daily caloric intake of 1800 calories. For most guys, that leaves you more than enough calories to play with when you begin drinking.
  • The fat is low because of its low thermic effect and high caloric density. Conversely, the protein is high to keep your amino acid pool saturated in preparation for reduced protein synthesis. Additionally, of every 100 calories of protein consumed, 30 calories are expended by just digesting it – it’s thermic effect is greatest of all macronutrients (Westerterp, 2004). Carbohydrates are moderate to stabilise blood sugar in preparation for tonight’s insulin storm, whilst providing enough energy for daytime activity.
  • When (or if) you arrive home, be sure to have a high protein, low fat and low carbohydrate meal waiting for you. Quark mixed with a scoop of whey is ideal to provide your body with a steady supply of protein throughout the nigh

2. Training
The young YOLOs are going to love this. If you read my first article about building muscle, you will know that recovery from training small muscle groups is far, far quicker and easier on your CNS than recovery from training large, complex muscle groups. So? Make today arm day. That’s right, Bros. Your calls have been answered. Never again will you feel guilty about getting that pre-lash arm pump. Because every Bro knows that the size of his arms is proportional to the likelihood of spreading little Bro seeds.

Fact. I know leg day is a myth. But seriously, today, do not train legs. As long as you follow the advice given here, training small muscle groups with moderate intensity will not significantly hinder recovery.

  • Upon waking (on an empty stomach), perform HIIT cardio for 10 minutes. Not only will your metabolism be elevated for several hours afterwards, but the way your body uses fuel throughout the rest of the day will maximise the breakdown of lipids for energy – curtailing alcohol’s propensity to minimise lipid breakdown (Zuhl and Kravitz, 2012).

 3. Hydration and sleep

  • Drink a full glass of water between every second or third alcoholic drink.
  • Along with your high protein meal, prepare an electrolyte solution that will rapidly rehydrate you. A fantastic option is GO Electrolyte by Science In Sport nutrition.
  • Good quality sleep will depend on how much alcohol you can rid your system of before you hit the sack. Keeping yourself well hydrated throughout the night will substantially improve sleep quality (Wiese et al., 2000).

4. Take a proven cortisol blocker (OPTIONAL)
Although I don’t generally give supplement advice when talking about lifestyle change, a solid cortisol blocker such as Lean Xtreme will only serve to reduce your body’s stress response. Reduced stress response = less fat deposition and reduced protein catabolism. By following the advice given above, you will be able to manipulate your body’s chemistry to minimise both fat storage and muscle tissue breakdown.

So there it is. I hope you’ve picked up some useful information about the physiological effects of alcohol and why the methods above can help to diminish them substantially. Fitness is an important part of our lives. But it is exactly that – a part. Maintenance of a balanced lifestyle is extremely difficult, and this difficulty is often compounded by scores of conflicting evidence that impose impractical and unsociable restrictions. The ZeroBroScience series is all about shunning media scaremongering, educating the masses and embracing the real evidence. Until next time!

Samandip Dhesi  

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Other articles in this series:

3 tips on maximising your muscle gains: Zero bro-science edition

More articles you might be interested in:

How much protein should you eat? The truth about carbohydrates Most common bodybuilding mistakes     


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