Evenings in my apartment’s gym tend to end with me sweating like a pig, flat on my back, dumbbells parallel above my chest, while a glistening no-ice Gin and Tonic waits on the spongy floorboards a few feet away. My body is not as limber as it used to be, and I’ll be the first to admit that my weightlifting regimen has grown elliptical and flummoxed as I wash ashore in my turgid Ben Affleck era. I rarely manifest the white-hot single-guy fervor that pushed me to my physical limits during my most chaotic fitness periods, and at 32, I constantly lose track of what I’m supposed to be doing, what muscles I want to target, and, more spiritually, how working out is supposed to feel. The best way to stay on target, I’ve found, is to get a little bit drunk.
Yeah, a little bit drunk. My sweet spot is about a shot and a half, particularly in that 20-minute glossy narcosis that occurs after you break the seal on an evening. I am all-powerful within that wondrous stupor. I can pump out bicep curls with vulgar, pre-first-date intensity; I can make loud, obnoxious Rafael Nadal grunts as I rut through sad, back-buckling squats; I can snarl at myself in the mirror and turn up the gym playlist that’s gone more or less unchanged in a decade. I can scream “LET’S FUCKING GO” after flexing out the mildest definition in my shoulders. When I’m a little bit drunk, all the damp humiliations of home exercise are sanded away. For a few moments of inebriated valor, I finally become a Chad.
This is my wellness process, and I can safely say that I’m not alone. There are boozy marathons where racers mark their miles with foamy IPAs. In New York City, you can attend a groundbreaking bar/gym concept destination called GRIT BXNG that allows patrons to bleed through high-intensity cardio regimens before popping a bottle of champagne. There are even a few beer brands on the market that promise to refresh your system with a Gatorade-sized injection of electrolytes, though their efficacy is dubious at best. Meanwhile, TikTok is filled with the lowlights of 2 a.m. post-bar gym trips, and on YouTube, you can find three bodybuilders crushing a handle of Svedka while rampaging through a Los Angeles gym.
Many experts, who we will hear from shortly, are not so sure about this, for safety and other reasons. But some Americans have clearly heard the call, and they have started putting a sedative spin on their workouts. The people I spoke to each expressed a blend of shame and pride about this—by and large, nobody intended to start drinking and working out. But as they moved their training indoors and away from public arenas, especially during the pandemic, their domestic permissiveness merged with the chores of self-improvement. Suddenly, drinking at the home gym was as natural and instinctive as reading on the train. It just sort of … happened.
“I always felt like it was a bad idea until I actually tried it,” said Chris O’Connell, a dad in Austin, Texas, who told me he frequently finds himself in an exercise rotation with a glass of wine, taking a break in the middle of a Sopranos binge. Like me, it’s a habit he picked up during lockdown. “I’ve turned to doing burpees and a circuit of pushups, crunches, and air squats, and the latter is easiest to do while drinking.”
“Also,” he added, “it makes me feel like I’m earning my drink.”
For others who drink before exercise, it’s become a natural appendage to the awkwardness of a home workout. Cian Maher, a game developer who currently lives in Poland, told me that it never feels right to be in the middle of a triceps extension in a tiny bedroom while your girlfriend pretends she doesn’t see you from behind her laptop. It’s perhaps easier to stoke his inner beasts—to achieve beatific, caveman ego-death—while he’s a little tipsy.
“When you have a couple of drinks, it’s easier to laugh at the inherent madness of exercising in environments that are usually not only detached but entirely mutually exclusive from anything with a remote semblance of a gym,” Maher explained. After all, a stringent routine is difficult if you don’t have the requisite equipment, and it’s not easy to zap your brain or body into the roiling Weightlifting Mindset without the mewling whirr of a 24 Hour Fitness StairMaster nearby.
Dr. Anthony Balduzzi, a personal trainer who operates the Fit Father Project workout program, knows where Maher is coming from. People usually don’t work out nearly as intensely at home as they do at the gym, he said, and this is compounded by the proximity of a home’s many comforts: TV, fridge food, and for some of us, booze. In that sense, Balduzzi said, drinking before a workout is understandable—it might help us tune out our living rooms and focus on the task at hand.
“Exercise, for most people in life, is therapy; it’s medicine,” Balduzzi told me. “It increases all those endorphins, those feel-good neurotransmitters. But so does alcohol. It causes very quick changes in brain chemistry—it’s stress relief.” One study showed that the mere taste of beer spiked anxiety-relieving dopamine in human brains at a much higher rate than, say, a Powerade. And seeing as how dopamine is heavily involved in the brain’s reward system, a little feel-good hit of it before exercise may motivate us to get moving (exercise also increases dopamine, enhancing this effect). This would obviously be problematic if a person were drinking maximally, but Balduzzi doesn’t think a drink or two will hurt—if a small amount of alcohol motivates you toward healthy behavior, so be it. “In moderation, it’s not going to make or break your game,” he said.
Still, it should go without saying that there’s no scientific evidence that a dousing of alcohol will help anyone enrich their musculature (or anything at all, for that matter). Yes, as noted online, there’s a longstanding urban legend that a mild blood alcohol content might unlock some sort of Matrix-like precision during darts or cornhole, and if you were eternally, hopelessly optimistic, you could claim that a pre-workout toast should allow you to attack the rack with meditative gusto. (The science behind this theory is dubious at best, but at least one researcher speculates that a beer or two could chip away at our inhibitive performance anxiety.) However, by all other estimations, drinking before a workout is not a good idea.
Ian Douglass, a fitness expert, ex-personal trainer, and all-around jacked guy, told me that aside from alcohol making workouts more dangerous, anyone imbibing before the gym will be unable to achieve peak performance. “Alcohol reduces the production of ATP [adenosine triphosphate], which is the primary energy source of your muscles, so you’re definitely handicapping yourself if your intent is to sling around some heavy iron that day,” he said. Chemically speaking, human bodies prioritize breaking down alcohol before they convert other, better caloric sources into efficient energy, meaning a Vodka Soda simply isn’t going to give you much fuel. Likewise, Douglass warned, alcohol can dehydrate you and decrease your blood sugar, which can impair your physiological functioning and make it harder to exercise. Moderate alcohol consumption can also reduce muscle growth by up to 37 percent, so even if you feel more Tarzan-like while you’re drunkenly squatting, you’re probably squatting for naught.
In fact, alcohol’s only real blessing is actually a curse when it comes to exercise. “If the alcohol makes you fearless while you’re in a weakened state, you might be tempted to take some rather unwise risks and lift heavier weights than usual while your body is least suited to accommodate heavy loads,” Douglass said. This, researchers note, can often lead to injury.
That’s why for workout drinkers like myself and Shannon Sassone, a 33-year-old podcast producer, moderation is key. She has exactly one glass of rosé in the free hour between work and her spin class, and arrives on time feeling pretty much sober. A touch of alcohol brings Sassone back to her glacial life in Denver—before she moved to New York—when every 12-mile hike was accompanied by copious craft brews. “Maybe a rosé before working out gives me that little sunshine feeling I used to get when sitting outside with a beer in hand, satisfied with my efforts,” she told me.
All this is neither an endorsement of nor a flat-out restriction on drinking before a workout, but if you’re of that persuasion and can do it safely, Douglass has a better suggestion than rosé: “If you enjoy a little alcohol before hitting the gym and you absolutely must get some sort of pre-workout chemical in your body, I would recommend that you drop the Gin and Tonic [or rosé] and replace it with something that has some caffeine in it,” he said. Four Loko, as it turns out, was way ahead of the curve.