Marijuana and Lifting Weights: What the Science Suggests

Marijuana won't enhance your performance, but could help manage pain.

As of June 30, 2021, there are 19 states in the US where recreational marijuana, aka cannabis, is legal. Medicinal marijuana or CBD oil is legal in an additional 28 states. According to a 2019 National Survey on Drug Use by the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, 46 percent of adults in the USA have used marijuana. Although more research is needed, there is some link between adolescent use of marijuana and poorer academic and vocational outcomes. (1) But what about adults? More specifically, what about athletes?

Long story short, cannabis “does not enhance aerobic exercise or strength,” according to a systematic review of 15 studies in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. (2) However, there are some nuances worth discussing marijuana’s relationship to athletes’ recovery, mindset for training, and dietary implications.

Marijuana
Image via Shutterstock/Jono Erasmus

Editor’s Note: This article is intended to provide an objective view of 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 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.

What is Marijuana?

Cannabis, also known as marijuana (among other names), is a “psychoactive plant that contains more than 500 components.” Two of the 104 of those which have been identified are Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). (3) There are three types of cannabis plants: Cannabis Sativa, Cannabis Indica, and Cannabis Ruderalis. However, Sativa-dominant (light green tall plant with thin leaves) and Indica-dominant (dark green short plant with broad leaves) are the two main subspecies — the former has tighter THC content, while the latter has higher cannabidiol content. (4)

Benefits for Athletes?

Although there is no known evidence that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug, some research suggests it could help with chronic pain management (5). Again, that does not mean that cannabis has any positive effect on athletic performance. A systemic review in Sports Health deemed a need for additional research on cannabis’s impact in specific sports rather than general performance as regulations currently vary between sports. (6) However, in general, “cannabis should be avoided in order to maximize performance.” (7) In particular, THC can actually decrease strength output up to 24 hours after use. (8)

Sleep Quality and Pain Management

Outside of actual athletic performance, there is some argument to be made for the use of CBD, which can improve sleep quality and temporarily ease pain caused by physical activity. This information should be taken with a grain of salt, figuratively speaking, as the research in this area is young as of 2021 and needs further study. (9) A 202o study in Sports Medicine-Open, revealed preliminary evidence that suggests CBD’s potential positive effect on pain reduction may be linked to decreasing inflammation and anxiety. (10) Unfortunately, there simply isn’t robust enough evidence to support if it should be added to an athlete’s supplement regimen. For those who struggle with anxiety disorders, CBD seems promising at reducing stress, but the jury that is the scientific community is still out on it. (11)

Calorie Control

When it comes to caloric intake, there seems to be a paradoxical relationship between the use of THC and obesity. (12) THC exposure has shown to increase appetite in a way colloquially known as the “munchies.” (13) For reference, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the adult obesity rate in the USA in 2018 was 42.7 percent — an increase of 30.5 percent since 1999.

However, the prevalence of obesity is “much lower in cannabis users as compared to non-users.” (12) This is not to say that people aiming to lose weight should use cannabis, as the studies on the topic have not detailed the macronutrient composition of a diet affected by it. If the goal is strictly to maintain a calorie deficit, there may be some benefit to using cannabis despite its promotion of hunger shortly after use. For athletes, it is likely better to seek the help of a nutritionist rather than reaching for a joint or dripping CBD oil.

Pulling Weeds

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that marijuana is actually beneficial to athletic performance. It seems clear that it offers no strength or aerobic gains whatsoever, but perhaps in time that could change with more robust studies, as unlikely as that may seem now. There are some ancillary benefits to marijuana like potentially lowering anxiety and improving sleep quality, but it certainly shouldn’t be used as a go-to supplement for those purposes.

The dietary effects are interesting as paradoxical hypotheses tend to be — the THC in marijuana is likely to increase appetite in the short-term after use, but is less likely to lead to obesity. That said, for athletes who need to maintain a certain weight or reach a specific bodyweight for competition, a balanced diet of whole foods with a target caloric goal and proper macronutrient intake is better set up to help you achieve those goals than the use of weed is. 

References

  1. Hammond, C. J., Chaney, A., Hendrickson, B., & Sharma, P. (2020). Cannabis use among U.S. adolescents in the era of marijuana legalization: a review of changing use patterns, comorbidity, and health correlates. International review of psychiatry (Abingdon, England)32(3), 221–234. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540261.2020.1713056
  2. Kennedy M. C. (2017). Cannabis: Exercise performance and sport. A systematic review. Journal of science and medicine in sport20(9), 825–829. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2017.03.012
  3. Lafaye, G., Karila, L., Blecha, L., & Benyamina, A. (2017). Cannabis, cannabinoids, and health. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience19(3), 309–316. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.3/glafaye
  4. Atakan Z. (2012). Cannabis, a complex plant: different compounds and different effects on individuals. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology2(6), 241–254. https://doi.org/10.1177/2045125312457586
  5. Ware, M. A., Jensen, D., Barrette, A., Vernec, A., & Derman, W. (2018). Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete. Clinical journal of sport medicine : official journal of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine28(5), 480–484. https://doi.org/10.1097/JSM.0000000000000650
  6. Docter, S., Khan, M., Gohal, C., Ravi, B., Bhandari, M., Gandhi, R., & Leroux, T. (2020). Cannabis Use and Sport: A Systematic Review. Sports health12(2), 189–199. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738120901670
  7. Charron, J., Carey, V., Marcotte L’heureux, V., Roy, P., Comtois, A. S., & Ferland, P. M. (2021). Acute effects of cannabis consumption on exercise performance: a systematic and umbrella review. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness61(4), 551–561. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.20.11003-X
  8. Isenmann, E., Veit, S., Starke, L., Flenker, U., & Diel, P. (2021). Effects of Cannabidiol Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle Regeneration after Intensive Resistance Training. Nutrients13(9), 3028. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13093028
  9. Burr, J. F., Cheung, C. P., Kasper, A. M., Gillham, S. H., & Close, G. L. (2021). Cannabis and Athletic Performance. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 10.1007/s40279-021-01505-x. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01505-x
  10. McCartney, D., Benson, M. J., Desbrow, B., Irwin, C., Suraev, A., & McGregor, I. S. (2020). Cannabidiol and Sports Performance: a Narrative Review of Relevant Evidence and Recommendations for Future Research. Sports medicine – open6(1), 27. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-020-00251-0
  11. McCartney, D., Benson, M. J., Desbrow, B., Irwin, C., Suraev, A., & McGregor, I. S. (2020). Cannabidiol and Sports Performance: a Narrative Review of Relevant Evidence and Recommendations for Future Research. Sports medicine – open6(1), 27. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-020-00251-0
  12. Le Foll, B., Trigo, J. M., Sharkey, K. A., & Le Strat, Y. (2013). Cannabis and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for weight loss?. Medical hypotheses80(5), 564–567. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2013.01.019
  13. Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2014). Marijuana and body weight. Innovations in clinical neuroscience11(7-8), 50–54.