Marijuana is getting more popular and less stigmatized every day. But will smoking weed send your muscular gains up in smoke?
By Vince DelMonte
Spending a significant amount of time, energy, and money in the pursuit of muscle makes many of us acutely aware of the small details of our lives. Specifically, we give great consideration to how those nuances might influence our mass-building success.
If you scroll through any bodybuilding forum, you quickly realize the popularity of recreational marijuana use among fitness enthusiasts. This is a topic that I get asked about all the time. Guys want to know whether marijuana will stunt muscle growth. I have never used marijuana a day in my life, and I don’t advocate any illegal activities. However, it is hard to ignore the rising popularity of the drug and the dwindling evidence that it poses a significant heath or societal risk.
CHRONIC HORMONAL EFFECTS
The biggest fitness knock on marijuana is the long-standing idea that it squelches testosterone levels. Researchers have found that administration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects, at a dose of 210 milligrams per day for 14 days resulted in a nearly threefold decrease in growth hormone response. When we consider that people with a low to medium tolerance generally experience the effects of marijuana with a THC dose in the range of five to 25 milligrams, and those with a very high tolerance typically require 80 milligrams or more of THC, it becomes clear that these findings may not be applicable to the vast majority of users. Even Snoop Dogg would consider 210 milligrams to be a massive dose.
Another study showed that after using marijuana at least four days per week for six months, men exhibited testosterone levels that were 44 percent lower than a control group of men who had never used marijuana. While that seems like the nail in the coffin for marijuana and muscle growth, those findings have been challenged by a larger study of chronic marijuana users that found no effect on testosterone levels. Several other studies have also found marijuana users to have normal testosterone levels.
INSANE IN THE MEMBRANE
We have to consider other influences marijuana use might have besides hormonal ones, namely, behavior and cognition. After all, the things that we do (or don’t do) on a daily basis, and the way our brains process information, can certainly have a huge impact on our potential for success when it comes to building muscle.
From a behavioral perspective, marijuana seems to affect different people in a myriad of ways. While many people report a lack of motivation or energy (think: melting into the couch), others claim to be energized by the high. It should go without saying that if marijuana makes you lazy, then ingesting THC prior to a workout—or meal prep or any other important task—would be a bad idea.
On the other hand, if you feel like marijuana has no impact on your motivation, or even gives you a bit of an edge, then you may feel free toke it up. According to a recent interview, elite triathlete Clifford Drusinsky claims that he eats a marijuana energy bar containing 20 milligrams of THC prior to each workout, and says that it allows him to “go into a controlled, meditational place” where he can train smarter and focus on form.
Again, different people respond differently to marijuana, so if you’re thinking, “I can’t imagine getting high before I train,” you’re not alone. In fact, research suggests that marijuana impairs cognitive performance, including slowing reaction times. Further, impaired cognition can even be present the morning after use.
Given that having a strong mind-muscle connection is generally accepted as critical for serious training, impaired cognitive performance could be detrimental. In addition, the data suggest that smoking prior to a workout, even if the workout is later in the day or the next morning, has the potential to diminish the effectiveness. After all, if you’re not firing on all cylinders mentally, you may not be able to push yourself to the limit physically.
Any discussion of marijuana’s effects would be incomplete without mentioning the phenomenon known as “the munchies.” In essence, when you get high, many people become ravenously hungry and food just seems to taste better. And research confirms what virtually everyone familiar with marijuana already knows—marijuana does in fact stimulate appetite.
Depending on your current goal, the munchies could be good or bad. If you’re in a cutting phase, being ravenously hungry is far from ideal. On the other hand, during a mass-gaining phase, I’m sure we’ve all looked down at a plate of food in disgust at one time, wishing we didn’t have to take another bite. In circumstances like this, the munchies might be just what the doctor ordered.
Looking at all the information available to us, it’s difficult to say whether marijuana use, in and of itself, will significantly hinder muscle growth. The majority of the research suggests hormone levels are unaffected by even heavy, chronic use. Still, we must consider the potential behavioral and cognitive effects, which we know vary from person to person. As such, it’s each user’s responsibility to determine their specific response to the drug and make an informed decision.
We might reasonably assume that any psychoactive drug has definite potential to detract from performance. Under that assumption, we would conclude that total abstinence from such drugs produces the best results for achieving any goal, whether fitness, business, or relational. Alcohol—despite all its reputed heart-healthy benefits— is still a form of poison and most people (especially in the fitness community) would be better of without it. That being said, we’re all human. Total abstinence, for many, is unrealistic and unnecessary.
If you’re currently using marijuana regularly and you think it might be hurting your progress, test that theory. Record your progress for a month while you’re using, then abstain for a month and compare your results. Just make sure to maintain a similar training and nutrition program and sleep pattern to ensure you’re making a valid comparison. And if you find it difficult to abstain, the jury is in and it’s likely that marijuana is indeed affecting your bodybuilding progress.
Most importantly, use your own experiences and the information you have available that’s relevant to you to draw your own conclusions. While it’s tempting to look at information in isolation—like the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the documentary Pumping Iron, famously said, “Marijuana is not a drug … it’s a leaf,” then blazed up—that doesn’t facilitate the self-experimentation process that ultimately leads to discovery and growth. IM