It’s a pretty common myth, surprisingly – the worry among male athletes that being with a woman might pull the strength out of their legs, and the belief among many men that avoiding sexual activity (and that not masturbating) is the key to a strength and serenity. For Samson, it was his hair. For the modern man, it’s his spunk. The idea is that by bottling your “essence” up and keeping it inside you, you grow stronger, calmer, and less focused on sex while being more focused on success. Or something.
But what’s the truth? The truth is that sexual activity does not positively or negatively affect strength, aerobic capacity, or mental performance. Sex has no effect on male grip strength, and in a study testing heart rate and aerobic capacity, sex decreased performance two hours after coitus, but after ten hours, said decrease in performance vanished. In other words, sex the night before training doesn’t affect said training. Sex right before training is a bad idea, specifically for men. Women don’t seem to have the same issue. Another study suggested that some coaches encourage healthy sexual activity, as it improves coordination and “peak athletic performance”. Let’s go over all that, shall we?
Sexual Activity and Testosterone
Higher testosterone means more strength over a period of time. There are many factors that affect strength, as I’ve mentioned before. Muscle mass, movement familiarity, coordination, leverages, and tendon insertions are a couple big factors. The two factors you can control the most are your familiarity with an exercise, and your muscle mass. The more squats you do, the better you get at doing squats. High-quality reps at a higher weight are going to teach you how to move big weight, and that in turn is going to get you a little bigger. As you build more fat-free mass (lean mass), your potential strength increases. And testosterone increases the rate at which you’re building lean mass.
Unless you’re supplementing with vitamin S, you’re generally going to build lean mass at a diminishing rate until you fill out your frame (which is based largely on your bones, with a maximum bone-to-muscle mass ratio of about 1:5, in most cases).
Abstinence and Serum Testosterone
Now, what does have to do with sex? Well, the idea is that abstinence increases serum testosterone – if you don’t ejaculate, your T goes up. Only a single study seems to support this claim, from what I’ve found. And in that study, serum testosterone fluctuated randomly over 2-5 days of abstinence, and finally peaked at 7 days.
While superstitions hold that ejaculating rids you of your valuable testosterone, sex and ejaculation actually temporarily boosts your serum T, in both men and women. Kissing, sex, orgasm, exercise, a good diet, staying away from alcohol and nicotine and somehow finding the secret to never aging all increase testosterone, and the only significant factors to affect your testosterone outside of treatment with the male hormone are disease, aging, plastic, fatherhood, and your natural genetic T levels.
Your testosterone has a “normal level” that it sticks to, fluctuating at times based on countless outside factors including stress (which negatively impacts T), and it spikes after a workout and during any intimate moment, including self-gratification. In other words, as long as you eat healthy, stay away from drugs, and workout several times a week, your muscle building capacity isn’t going to be hindered by your testosterone levels, and sex won’t negatively impact your gains. In fact, it’s going to increase them. Frequent sexual activity not only cuts down on stress and makes for a happier, easier relationship with your partner (if you do it right), but it makes for higher testosterone. Between hitting the gym, losing the cigar and booze, and getting it on with your woman or man, you’ll have no problem making gains.
Sexual Activity Has No Discernible Effect on Performance
Now that we’ve established that sex won’t mess with your ability to build muscle, it’s important to consider how sex might affect performance at the gym and on the meet floor.
The answer is: not at all. Several different studies approach the question of sex, testosterone, and lifting – and one comprehensive review goes into pre-competition sex even more strenuously, eventually concluding that sex and sports performance is a pretty understudied field, but what’s there heavily implies that sex itself won’t do any harm to an athlete’s performance, provided they aren’t thinking it will.
Sore After Sex?
One thing you might want to consider is how you’re having sex. Most people get pretty physical about it, and if you’re a powerlifter who regularly trains, chances are that a round of the hanky panky is unlikely to tax you. Unless, of course, you’re tight.
Women are going to be a little more susceptible to this than men, depending on your level of flexibility and the kind of stuff you get into. Work on opening your hips and keeping your legs stretched and foam rolled to prevent feeling too sore after both exercise and sex.
Sexual Activity and Competition
Common sense will tell you that you lift better when you’re ‘hyped’, or more scientifically, when you’re positively aroused. You don’t go into a meet thinking of flowers and the calm flowing of a river – you go in with tunnel-vision, ready to attack the bar, summoning every ounce of your will to produce the biggest and best total you can possibly produce. Powerlifting is entirely a mental sport – while the muscle-building aspect is important, what actually counts is how well you’ve trained your mind and body to connect and listen to you. Powerlifting is about internally shouting “up!” for years and years, until you hit your ultimate strength potential.
It only makes sense, then, that mental arousal is key. Not too much, mind you, and not negative arousal either. While “anger” helps with the output of strength, it’s highly context based. Significant stress is more likely to leave you being anxious, depressed, and neurotic – even when combined with a form of frustrated fury, these emotions directly correlate with less strength, in fact making you weaker. All this to say that you shouldn’t lift in frustration, but in excitement, filled with the motivation to lift the bar up, the fire and the optimism needed to make it move, not the anxious frustration that accompanies excessive stress.
Sexual Activity and Anxiety
Preparing for a meet often means relaxing and staying calm over the course of the final week. That can be difficult, especially when the nerves start to set in.
Sex helps calm us through released endorphins and oxytocin, and the spike in testosterone may have an antidepressant effect. Sometimes, getting a night’s sleep becomes difficult, especially if it’s your first time going to a meet to make an impression and leave an official mark in the log books. Both science and common sense tells us that it’s times like that when you need to calm down and get some rest – and sex may be the perfect thing, for both male and female lifters. While women physically rebound much faster after an orgasm than men, men get the added benefit of instantaneously feeling drowsy during the refractory period, making a solid nap or REM sleep much easier.
On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to calm your nerves and enjoy a little sexual activity on the day of the competition if you’re a woman. The flood of endorphins and oxytocin that follows coitus is likely going to help you as well. Being confident and in a good mood usually leads to better lifts.
It’s Probably Placebo
The idea that sexual activity or masturbation cuts into your strength gains or your CNS’ ability to lift heavy weight is basically just in your head. As is the idea that staying “filled up”, in a manner of speaking, leads to better concentration and greater strength. There’s nothing factually wrong with an orgasm, and the science seems to suggest that as long as you’re having sex as often as you want to, you’re probably going to be in a better headspace in general than if you’re forcefully abstaining.
I get that a lot of people get into the NoFap movement because they genuinely feel they’re struggling with a porn addiction, or a sex addiction. First, I would suggest getting a professional diagnosis and thinking honestly and pragmatically about your behavior, without any subjective influence from those around you.
Plenty people have been called nymphomaniacs for having a high libido, although their sexual activity never actually put them in harm’s way. After that, consider how you truly feel. Regardless of what the science says, if you think you’re stronger when you abstain, then that’s just as powerful as anything else. As I wrote earlier, lifting is a mental sport, and if your mind is convinced that you don’t perform as well as you could after having sex, that’s something you’ll have to examine and explore for yourself.