Smoking anything before hitting the gym might seem like a bad choice, but a new California gym is betting on marijuana as a performance enhancer for its members.
San Francisco-based trainer Jim McAlpine is set to open Power Plant Fitness this fall, a gym that will allow people to consume cannabis before or after a workout. His hope is to change the stereotype of marijuana users from “heavy-lidded couch-bound” — McAlpine’s words — to active, healthy gymgoers.
“If you use it right,” he told Outside Online earlier this year, “cannabis takes the things you love and lets you love them more. With fitness, that can help get you into the zone, into eye-of-the-tiger mode.”
But “technically, it doesn’t enhance performance,” says Jordan Tishler, M.D., a Massachusetts-based doctor and owner of Inhale MD, a practice that focuses on medical marijuana therapeutics. “Objective tests of speed and strength show that cannabis doesn’t enhance those aspects and may even [decrease] performance to some extent.”
Instead, the chemical compounds found in marijuana, called cannabinoids, bind with the brain receptors that regulate pain in order to decrease it, “or more properly the displeasure of pain, by increasing sensory awareness, and increasing focus,” he says. “This allows the exerciser to enjoy their efforts more and get more out of the workout.”
Marijuana also has an anti-inflammatory effect, according to one study, and can create the same sort of endorphin rush that happens post-workout, “allowing someone to go longer, put more heart into it and enjoy it more,” says Dr. Tishler.
Cannabis has been a staple recovery tool for bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts for decades, according to Mike Clancy, a New York-based personal trainer and owner of MikeClancyTraining, because he says it allows for quicker recovery from exercise-induced soreness.
“If my clients are open to the idea, I fully support responsible usage of cannabis within their health routines,” says Clancy, adding that his clients work in high-stress jobs that leave little time for relaxation. “Cannabis is a great, natural way to decompress and clear the static in their heads while promoting more relaxed muscles and movements.”
Entrepreneur Nicholas Donnelly started using marijuana as a part of his gym routine after a motorbike accident left him with a herniated spine and a slipped disc.
“The pain was, and still is, a constant thing, yet if I let this stop me from working out, then I would be a lot heavier than I am and a lot more unhappy,” he says. “I turned to cannabis as my pre-workout to reduce pain, and it’s worked very well for me now for over two years.”
But not everyone in the fitness industry is convinced.
“I would never recommend cannabis to a client and can’t think of a reason why anyone interested in fitness would want to smoke marijuana,” says Robert Herbst, a NYC-based personal trainer who supervised drug testing at the 2016 Rio Olympics, adding that the compounds found in marijuana are shown to lower testosterone. “Lower testosterone means less muscle growth and, or, slower muscle repair and recovery after training.”
One study conducted by the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation and the Missouri Clinical and Biochemical Laboratory did find a connection between marijuana and male sexual function; it was most noticeable among heavy users, not recreational ones.
There’s that whole legality thing, too. Twenty-six states (and Washington, D.C.) have legalized marijuana, either outright or for medicinal purposes only, but people in the remaining 24 states can’t legally use marijuana unless their states allow possession for special circumstances.
There is one thing that both sides agree on.
“Marijuana also slows the reflexes and dulls the wits so smoking it before training will lower intensity and focus and could lead to injury, as the person will be impaired,” says Herbst.
Dr. Tishler agrees. “Timing and spatial judgement can be altered by cannabis, so I don’t recommend exercise that is inherently dangerous like rock climbing, skydiving, skiing or road cycling,” he says.
And less is more if you decide to work it into your workout routine, according to Dr. Tishler.
“If you’re new to Cannabis, I’d start low with one to two puffs or 5 mg orally,” says Dr. Tishler. The most effective ways to get it isn’t via smoking it, but by “inhaling via a vaporizer, or taking it orally via edible — food with cannabis in it — or capsules.”
“Also, don’t take more if you’re not getting anything from the oral stuff, it probably just hasn’t kicked in yet, and taking more is a great way to overdo it and feel lousy,” he adds. “Wait for the next day to take a slightly larger dose.”