“Women weaken legs.” — Micky, from the original Rocky movie
The above quote comes from the original Rocky movie. I was watching it last night, and it got me thinking: Is Micky right? Could sex impact my gains? And I’m not talking from a long-term point of view, but from a case by case basis, aka closely before or after lifting.
We know that sex can improve one’s confidence, naturally boost testosterone, and improve quality of life. So is it possible that for sexual activity to negatively impact gym performance? Let’s think about the Olympics, and a news report by USA Today that came out last year that highlighted the 450,000 condoms delivered to the athlete’s village (consisting of 10,000+ athletes, aka 42 condoms a day per athlete).
These athletes are at the peak of their career, and in possibly the most elite setting of competition, yet there’s a clear indication that competing isn’t the only thing going on. This makes me wonder, can sex really be considered bad for athletic performance?
A Review of the Research
Abstinence and Testosterone
Before diving into studies that have looked at how sex can impact an athlete’s performance, I want to cover the idea of abstinence and performance (aka Micky’s quote). The theory behind abstaining from sex before sport can be linked to the logic of the slight testosterone increase that comes with abstinence.
The two studies highlighted below focus on the effects abstaining from sex has on the male population’s testosterone.
One study from 2003 analyzed the relationship between masturbation induced ejaculation and serum testosterone in men. The authors had 28 volunteers abstain from sexual activity, and ejaculation for two periods of time. They noted that testosterone rose minimally from day two to day five, while hitting a peak of 145% at day seven. Following the seven day peak, the authors noted that testosterone didn’t increase any higher.
Then, a study from 2000 went a step further, and compared testosterone levels, along with endocrine responses over a 3-week abstinence period of masturbation-induced orgasm. Authors looked at multiple factors, which include: Adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, prolactin, luteinizing hormone and testosterone concentrations. Authors reported that there were no changes in the endocrine responses, but there was a slight elevation of testosterone.
But wait, it’s not that simple. Yes, these studies have suggested abstinence can increase testosterone levels slightly, but there’s no mention of other life factors at play. Plus, these studies don’t consider sports, lifting, and competition on one’s testosterone levels. They only look at relationship between abstaining from masturbation induced orgasm and testosterone levels/endocrine responses.
Sex and Sport
There have been a few studies that suggest sexual activity can influence sports performance for both men and women. In 2016, researchers performed a meta-analysis (research roundup) of the current research covering sex and sports. There are a few studies within the analysis that are more relevant to this article than others.
One of these studies comes from 1968 (very old), where study authors compared how sexual intercourse impacted their strength training in 14-healthy female athletes. They performed two different strength training sessions. One session was done the morning following a night of sexual intercourse, then the other session was six days after sexual intercourse. Authors noted no difference in strength levels or performance between the two sessions.
Another study from 2000 analyzed how sexual intercourse impacted a cycle ergometer stress tests and concentration levels in elite male athletes. Fifteen elite male athletes consisting of eight team players, five endurance athletes, and two weightlifters volunteered. There were two testing days (one with sex, the other without), and athletes performed a cycle ergometer test, followed by a one hour exercise stress test matched with a rhythmic concentration beep test.
Athletes performed these tests two hours and ten hours following sexual activity. The authors noted that the only significant difference found between the testing days was after the 2-hour test on the sexual activity day. Athletes had a higher post-effort heart rate up to ten minutes following the test (at ten hours there was no difference). This led authors to suggest that sexual activity doesn’t have detrimental impacts on performance, but may influence recovery rates for exercise bouts quickly following sexual activity.
Within the meta-analysis, researchers discuss the possible negatives that come with sexual activity and performance are more psychological. They discuss that some research indicated that sexual frustration provided athletes with an edge. Yet, other research indicated that sexual activity increases quality of life, which positive influence performance. In this scenario, it’s most going to come down to an individual, their sport, and mentality.
So Before Or After?
There’s limited research analyzing sexual activity in direct comparison with lifting, but we can draw a few tentative conclusions. And like most studies in this field of research, a lot is going to come down to an individual. If you find that sex drains you of concentration and energy before the gym, then it may be worth waiting until after. Conversely, if sex gives you energy, confidence, and improves the quality of your life, then it may be wise to do so before a lift.
Also, what you’re doing in the workout may play a role in this question. For example, if you’re doing a very heavy and intense workout, then you’ll have to gauge how sex impacts your energy and concentration levels. The goal should be to not have sex negatively impact performance.
Sexual activity pre- and post-lifting, or sport, will come down to the individual and how they respond to and view sex. From the research we reviewed, abstaining from orgasms may slightly increase testosterone, but there should also be the consideration of other life factors and stressors, which weren’t accounted for in the research. On that note, in most cases, sexual activity improves one’s quality of life and positively influence psychological aspects, which could also influence testosterone levels.
In reality, sex doesn’t appear to play a major role in performance in sport, or the gym independently by itself.