Marijuana's Effects on Your Weight Training Mission to Build More Muscle and Strength

Is marijuana the wonder drug your workouts have been missing? Or will smoking weed only send your fitness goals up in smoke?

Man Working Out With Dumbbells
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/MNPhotoStudios / Getty

People's perceptions of weed have changed drastically over the years. Once a ritual tied to flighty hippies and sloth-like stoners, marijuana has become an elixir for those suffering from insomnia, cancer, and chronic pain. 

For Kyle Kingsbury, a retired mixed martial artist, pot became the only reliable non-pill pain reliever. 

Kingsbury was a football player at Arizona State who eventually parlayed his athleticism into a career as an MMA fighter on the television show The Ultimate Fighter, then in the UFC. The rigors of his training weren't without their setbacks, though. Kingsbury was in so much pain at night he’d take four Advil to get to sleep, sometimes popping four more before training. So he circled back to pot as an alternative method of relief. 

But first he did his research. He read about cannabidiol (CBD)—a non-intoxicating ingredient in marijuana—which studies have shown has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and an ability to protect neurons in the brain, helping to stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. He learned that THC (tetrahydracannibinol)—the active ingredient in pot that actually gets you high—may also have similar neuroprotective effects. 

Kingsbury began experimenting with a combination of THC and CBD, knowing how many blows he was taking to the head. 

Kingbury found what a number of high-level athletes, from MMA fighters to bodybuilders, have also discovered: Marijuana works for their training and recovery.

It breaks up the tedium, it stills the brain, it relieves pain, and it helps them get a good night’s sleep. Anecdotally, some athletes claim it allows them to train longer and harder and lift heavier weights, says Sue Sisley, a physician who's heavily involved in medical marijuana research.

Studies on the benefits of marijuana for athletes are mostly non-existent because weed is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug on par with heroin. And with that fact unlikely to change anytime soon given the current political climate, many professional athletes are afraid to admit to using it for fear of punishment or condemnation, even as pot becomes legal for medical or recreational use in an increasing number of states. But others, especially retired athletes, like Kingsbury, are ready to come out and say they believe we’re only scratching the surface of the benefits between cannabis and human performance.

“It’s the pinnacle of the stigma that folks who use this plant are lazy stoners,” Sisley says. “Some of the people who are using cannabis throughout their training are often the picture of health.”

Increasingly, physicians like Sisley are beginning to see the same thing.

Perceptions are shifting so weed might someday become a workout accessory—like creatine or protein powder.

In a recent podcast with UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan (a one-time weed skeptic turned prominent marijuana advocate who’s helped lobby for the UFC to relax its policies toward cannabis), six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates spoke extensively about his use of weed. And bodybuilder Kris Gethin, who’s now on a “hybrid journey” combining bodybuilding and endurance events, tells M&F that he’s begun experimenting with CBD in the lead-up to running an ultra-marathon.

“A lot of the guys I talk to are nervous to be seen or speak out about it, because they think it might upset a sponsor,” Yates tells M&F. “One of the guys I was talking to said, ‘I can’t let anyone know because I’m involved in a charity with children.’ It’s ridiculous. Could you not be involved in that charity anymore if you had a glass of wine? Older generations have this view that’s been given to them by the media. Fuck it, man—I believe it’s a very beneficial medicinal plant.”

Every day, before he hits the gym, Paul Roney and his buddy spark up a joint and take a few puffs each. Roney admits he’s a regular smoker who enjoys the high, but as a competitive bodybuilder and personal trainer in London, Ontario, Roney has also found it makes his workouts more enjoyable. He’ll often refrain if he’s doing a muscle group that requires more cardiovascular effort—say, deadlifts or bentover rows on legs or back days—but if he’s doing a smaller muscle group, like arms or shoulders, that little bit of weed can make things better. “Sometimes you’ve got to increase the food you eat when you’re competing, and if you’re taking certain performance-enhancers, you’re just not hungry,” he says. “Well, you know, if you smoke a joint, then everyone’s hungry, right? I’ll be like, ‘This is the best oatmeal I’ve ever tasted.’”

It’s still not that easy to find bodybuilders like Roney who will admit to regularly smoking; if you do a search online, you’ll find some videos of bodybuilders who insist it can only have a negative effect. And that stigma isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, even though the association between weed and the gym dates back decades to that iconic moment in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron when Arnold Schwarzenegger chilled out with a fat joint.

It’s a moment that Jim McAlpine remembers well, since he, too, was both a workout enthusiast and a marijuana enthusiast when he first saw that scene. Look at that, he said to himself. Arnie’s smoking, just like me. At the time, he didn’t even realize the medicinal and performative effects it was having on him—at least, not until he took notice of the language he was using.

“When I got into college, I’d use the word ‘supplement’ as my code word for cannabis,” says Jim McAlpine, founder of the 420 Games, a series of family-friendly athletic events designed to alter the perception of cannabis and frame it as part of a healthy lifestyle. “And I used that word for a reason—it was a supplement to me. I would smoke sometimes when I went into the gym, and I became more focused. “Eye of the Tiger”-y. It got my mind into that zone.”

For a long time, Yates avoided weed because he thought the smoke would have a negative effect on his lungs. But after reading the results of a years-long UCLA study which showed that smoke from marijuana had none of the negative effects of cigarette smoke, he began to study it further. He says he’s talked to people who have spoken anecdotally of using cannabis to heal themselves from diseases as serious as cancer. So now, like McAlpine, he treats cannabis as another natural supplement in his arsenal.

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