Most professional sports will test athletes and penalize them for testing positive for having marijuana in their system, perhaps going as far as to suggest that the cannabis in their system is performance enhancing. More stories are also popping up about exercise enthusiasts going to the gym while they are under the influence of marijuana. Do you think people are working out high because they think it is performance enhancing, or is there another reason?
Editor’s Note: This article is intended to provide an objective view behind using cannabis and lifting weights. We’re not endorsing the use or promoting marijuana’s use, especially since it’s still illegal in many countries globally and in many states across the U.S. Please abide by all local and federal laws, as well as the rules of any sporting bodies where you compete.
There are currently twenty nine states that have legalized marijuana, or cannabis use in some form, whether it be medically or recreationally. Of these twenty nine, eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. In 2016, it was reported that the number of adults who say they regularly use marijuana has doubled since 2013. Gallup News illustrated this stat in their 2016 survey that showed 13% of adults admitting to regular marijuana use.
The use of marijuana — or at least the discussion surrounding it — is becoming less of a taboo topic across the U.S. We’re seeing states become much more liberal with how they view the use of cannabis. In addition, we’re seeing more athletes admitting to anecdotally using marijuana to improve performance, support recovery, and even help consume their goal calories.
This got us thinking, does marijuana help in the way some athletes have purported? This article will dive into what cannabis actually is and how it effects the body, where it currently stands with the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), and what science says about its use and lifting weights.
Cannabis, also known as marijuana (among other names), is a psychoactive drug, which comes from the cannabis plant. There are three types of cannabis plants, which include: Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. Each of these plants are grown and used for different purposes, which we won’t dive into for this article.
This psychoactive parts of cannabis variations produce both mental and physical effects on the body, often known as the feelings of being high or stoned. After the use of marijuana, many report feeling an altered perception, heightened mood, increased appetite, and sometimes a euphoric feeling. Remember, these will vary pending on the marijuana strand, and type.
The cannabis plant originates from Central and South Asia, and its first use dates way before Western Society began using this psychoactive drug. To provide a brief history of cannabis, its first documented use was in 2727 B.C. with Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. Since then, there have been multiple accounts and suggestions of Egyptian mummies having cannabis fragments buried with them. In addition, some historians believe that the ancient drug ‘soma’ was actually cannabis as we know it today.
It wasn’t until the mid 1500’s when cannabis made its way to Western Society as the Spanish began to import hemp from Chile. Hemp is a variation of the cannabis sativa plant and is often used for commercial industrial purposes. At the time, hemp was used to create rope and fiber.
The feeling of being high or stoned, along with their secondary attributes mentioned above, can be contributed to a few different factors. Marijuana contains multiple active compounds, but one of the major compounds is what we know as THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol. This compound is the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, and what we’ve come to know as the ingredient to make us feel ‘high’.
Cannabinoids, in short, are chemical compounds that interact with our body’s cannabinoid receptors. These cannabinoid receptors are located throughout our body along the central nervous system, and are heavily located in the brain. Along with the receptors, come their respective ligands, which function as triggering molecules for protein binding. Together, these make the Endocannabinoid System. The Endocannabinoid System plays a role in our brain’s reward system that is linked to drug use. Additionally, this system is often linked to causing psychiatric disorders, but also improving them with carefully planned manipulation.
Long story short, THC plays a role in our body by interacting with our Endocannabinoid System and producing various effects (feeling high). It’s hard to provide a definitive description of what feeling high is. Different strands of marijuana will produce different effects on the body, along with nervous system responses varying. This is why research has difficulty providing a consistent description.
Another factor that can contribute to the “high” feeling that comes with cannabis use is dopamine. This neurotransmitter plays a role in our body’s reward system, which cannabis has been seen to influence to an extent. Cannabinoids have been suggested to increase dopamine concentrations in the body, and varies depending on strand and one’s nervous system.
These are only two pieces of the puzzle of what marijuana does to the body. There are many other factors that have a role in this drug’s use and our body’s response, but for the most part, these two are among the most commonly known.
There have been many suggested side effects of both short-term and long-term cannabis use. Granted, keep in mind that like all side effects, they’re completely dependent on an individual, and may not ring true for every single person. A few of the short-term effects listed in the above literature are: Import short-term memory, altered judgement, and impaired motor functions. Some of the long-term potential effects include: Addiction, altering of the brain’s make-up, and a decrease in learning capabilities.
If you compete in drug tested strength sports, then chances are you’re well aware of WADA and their policies. This is the organization that creates the standards for fair play rules, and coordinates guidelines for athlete’s and banned substance use.
In the recent past, WADA actually loosened up the threshold for cannabis use pre-competition. WADA changed the threshold of a positive cannabis tests from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 150ng/ml. These new limits are designed to only catch athletes who are using during the time of competition, and testing positive at this threshold would suggest that the athlete is a fairly heavy consumer.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been a ton of studies done on cannabis and its direct effects on exercise. This is partly due to how the drug is still listed as an illegal substance in many states, so funding and studies become increasingly more tough to perform. Although there have been a few studies that have provided some insight into cannabis/THC’s effects on sport performance.
Many study have addressed that there hasn’t been enough research to claim any performance enhancing effects cannabis may have. In fact, of the few studies done, they usually result in slightly decreased performance, or no effect whatsoever. For example, this older study from 1986 looked at marijuana’s effects on subjects who performed maximal exercise testing to exhaustion on an ergocycle. Researchers had 12-healthy individuals split into two groups: Non-smoking, then a group that performed 10-minutes after smoking a marijuana cigarette.
Researchers found that the group who smoked the marijuana cigarette experienced a slight decrease in performance duration. The marijuana group had a cumulative performance time of 15-minute, while the non-smoking group had 16-minutes. But at peak performance, researchers found no significant differences between the VO2 (oxygen uptake), VCO2 (carbon dioxide output), heart rate, and VE (minute ventilation).
Possibly the best review published on the topic of cannabis and sports performance was released in September 2017. This review analyzed 15 studies published.
In terms of strength, one study from 1979 had six males ages 21-27 partake in a sub-maximal biking and grip strength test. They were split into two groups: THC and placebo. The authors found that there was no effect on a subject’s grip strength, but there was a slight decrease in peak work capacity.
Another study that looked at THC and strength was performed in 1968. This study looked at 16 males aged 21-44. They performed 6-10 minute bouts on the treadmill and finger ergograph (a tool to assess a muscle’s work output). The authors didn’t publish the finger ergograph’s results, but noted within their study that, “Weakness was clearly demonstrated on the finger ergograph”.
The final study worth mentioning from the review followed 10-healthy males who were split into a control group and THC cigarette group. Subjects performed a bicycle ergometer test that started at 150 kg/min and increased by 150 kg/min on 5 min intervals until exhaustion. Researchers recorded multiple attributes including heart rate, VO2, VCO2, blood pressure, tidal volume, and a few other factors. The authors noted that the THC group all had their total work output decreased in comparison to the control group (who averaged 29.9-minutes), and one subject in the THC group became “stoned” and dropped out at 9.9 minutes.
Of the studies and reviews analyzed for this article, we couldn’t find one that conclusively suggested cannabis could be a performance enhancing drug. In fact, from what we analyzed, there was a consistent slight decrease in a subject’s total work output from the use of cannabis. Yet, it’s still nearly impossible to make any definitive claims on cannabis’s impacts on strength training and sport performance for a few reasons.
First, all of the studies were slightly older, so their methods for conducting research may differ from what researchers may currently use. Second, all of the studies had VERY small populations, which could create a bias in their results. Thirdly, none of the studies compared cannabis use with strength training programs. Fourth and lastly, of the studies in the review, none of them looked at a prolonged use of cannabis and strength training.
The use of cannabis in 41 states is still listed as illegal for recreational use. For athletes who regularly partake in tested strength sports and use marijuana regularly, then they should take the WADA’s thresholds into special consideration. It’s difficult to definitely say what marijuana will do to strength training and sports performance due to limited research.