In Defense of Lifting Just a Little Bit Drunk

Science says it's a pretty terrible idea. But hear us out.

April 29, 2021 9:35 am
Martini and a Barbell
Is this ever okay?
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The drunkest I’ve ever been while exercising was at an intramural softball game.

It wasn’t explicitly a beer league, but we were seniors in college, so functionally it was, and we were in the semi-finals against the club hockey team. We had faced them in a series of tense battles for years — the spring before, we’d won the championship on a play to the plate; a slide into the turf took the skin off our second baseman’s right leg — and they were the league’s most notorious ball-busters. They’d lounge on the bleachers, waiting for their turn to bat and razz us with personal nicknames. I was “Neymar” (pronounced NEYYY-MAHR, over and over again) because I’d deigned to wear the Brazilian’s World Cup jersey once during a game three years earlier.

Anyway: I drank heavily before the game because it was a warm Saturday and I was 20 years old. But I also drank because I knew it would help me find the plate. I was our pitcher, and a lager or 12 had a habit of taking me out of my head. While claims that drinking makes players more accurate during darts or corn hole have been overblown (according to a Johns Hopkins experiment, a 0.02 BAC will help, but anywhere beyond that is a crapshoot), the placebo effect for me was very real. Pre-gaming the game gave me a boost of confidence on the bump.

We ended up losing. Not on account of the boozing — the hockey team was unsurprisingly in lockstep with us on that front. We just didn’t hit when we needed to. I mainly remember that game now for the unique collision of alcohol and activity. It’s a fascinating concept; softball isn’t strenuous, obviously, but what about pursuits that are? Is it ever safe, or even smart, to knock back a few before getting more serious exercise in? Don’t worry — I’m not looking to live out the plot of Another Round, Thomas Vinterberg’s Academy Award-winning film where four middle-aged male friends resolve to start drinking throughout the day as a social experiment.

But I have had a bit to drink before a very specific activity: lifting. Despite common-sense science that suggests that’s a horrible idea, I think there are certain situations where doing so actually makes sense, and certain precautions you can take to make sure you don’t experience an untimely death by squat rack.

gym dumbbells
Careful around the heavy stuff — your lift should be quick and feature light weights.
kundoy/Getty Images

When you drink alcohol, it heads straight to the stomach, where it’s absorbed into the small intestine. If there’s food in your stomach, it’ll sponge up some of the alcohol before it’s absorbed into the bloodstream. But if your stomach’s empty, it’s a remarkably quick process. The alcohol goes everywhere, including the brain, where its effects can be felt as quickly as five minutes after initial ingestion. Its impact peaks over an hour later, which is about the amount of time it takes the liver to break down one standard drink (adjusting for how quickly the alcohol was consumed, its strength, your body type, your gender and your age).

You know what happens next: impaired judgment, flushed cheeks, gastrointestinal issues. And depending on how much you drink, weakened motor functions and big-time dehydration. Alcohol assaults the cerebellum, which controls balance, and it’s a diuretic, which means it increases your need to urinate. The body is competing with the liver for glucose energy; alcohol slows down the nerve pathways, making it difficult to execute snap movements; and muscle fatigue will likely set in quicker than you’re used to.

Given all that information, why the hell would anyone want to throw weights around after drinking? Well, think back to the world we lived in before March of last year — the one that’s about to make a comeback — when our days were overflowing with engagements that occurred outside of the house. I can hardly believe it sometimes, but there was a time where I was leaving my apartment around seven in the morning in order to hit the gym, work out, shower and then commute to work. On days when that ambitious morning routine didn’t quite materialize, I left my gym trip to the mercy of my post-work evening. In a city like New York, that’s a dangerous game. Friends could send an “I’m in town” text whenever, concerts and ballgames were a thing, and my colleagues in the newsroom really like hard seltzer.

Which is to say, I constantly found myself heading to the gym after a couple drinks. And, frankly, I didn’t mind it one bit. In fact, I often felt kind of jazzed about it. A couple years ago, a commenter posted the question “Is it ok to lift weights drunk” in the subreddit r/NoStupidQuestions. They explained actually having an urge to lift after drinking. I can identify. Studies have shown that even light alcohol consumption releases the beta-endorphin in the ventral tegmental area of the brain. That’s biochemical for “it makes you feel good.” This process can lower anxiety, while conveying confidence, well-being and motivation.

It’s extremely anecdotal and relative, but I never had any issues during those lifts. On a broader scale, research suggests that a 160-pound man would need to drink four or five drinks (a BAC of 0.08) before exercise would make him feel dizzy or out of control. Setting and strain undoubtedly play a role — if you’re drinking a few beers then running three miles in the sun, it’s going to end badly. A HIIT class, CrossFit or a climb on the Peloton are also all poor moves here. But standing in front of a mirror curling an EZ-bar? Or getting in some tricep rope pull-downs on the cable machine? That’s reasonable. The gym is air-conditioned. It’s boring-predictable.

This isn’t to say alcohol should be used as pre-workout. Far from it. A good night’s sleep will convey confidence, well-being and motivation before a workout way better than two White Claws. But if you’re in a pinch, it’s absolutely doable. Make sure your stomach’s full, drink water alongside the drinks (and during your workout!) and don’t do burpees or go for a max on the bench press. Know yourself, too — if you’d rather exercise another day, just rain-check the whole affair. Personally, I don’t like to deviate from my weekly exercise schedule if I don’t have to. The knowledge that I got my lift in — even if it was for 25 minutes, and I didn’t touch any of the heavy stuff — is a mental victory.

As always, moderation matters. It’s possible to abuse exercise, believe it or not (athlete burnout can occur when trainees subscribe to the idea of “perfectionism” — i.e., workouts must be fit into a schedule at all costs). And we all know it’s possible to abuse alcohol. Mixing the two can be fraught, and all it takes is to abuse one of the two. But lifting just a little bit drunk can be done. It’s a nice tool to have in your back pocket once you re-enter the vortex of a social life, or have a lunch beer or aperitif with a client or coworker. In fact, the experience might even feel kind of ordinary, though it certainly won’t be as good a story as housing a dozen Natties before striking out the side in slow-pitch.

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