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Some athletes were once advised to refrain from intercourse before a game for fear that “sex will take the legs out from under you,” says Tommy Boone, author of the new book “Sex Before Athletic Competition.”
updated 7/9/2008 9:09:18 AM ET 2008-07-09T13:09:18

Can sex impair athletic performance? And are forced repetitions really necessary? Smart Fitness answers your workout questions.

Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here . We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: I am a 30-year-old man who’s trying to gain weight and bulk up. I have been eating a high-calorie diet and drinking protein shakes, along with hitting the gym four days a week. My question is: Can having sex too much lower my testosterone, which I need to gain muscle? Or can it benefit me?

A: Making whoopee won’t impair your body’s muscle-building ability, assures Dr. Irwin Goldstein, director of the San Diego Sexual Medicine clinic at Alvarado Hospital.

“There is no evidence to support [the notion] that frequent sexual activity lowers testosterone,” he says.

Actually, men with a strong sex drive usually have high levels of testosterone that fuel it, says Goldstein. So it sounds like you’re probably in good shape in the testosterone department.

Your concern likely stems from a long-standing belief in the sports world that sex before physical exertion and competition can impede athletic performance. The theory dates back decades with boxers who were advised to abstain from intercourse for as long as several weeks before a match out of fear that “sex will take the legs out from under you,” says Tommy Boone, author of the new book “Sex Before Athletic Competition” and chair of the department of exercise physiology at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn.

The belief continues today, and it’s not uncommon for athletes from high school on up to the pros to be encouraged to abstain the night before a big game, Boone says. Some of the Olympic athletes likely will be following this advice next month in Beijing.

But there’s no apparent reason to, he says. “There are no distinct physiological reasons for avoiding sex in any kind of athletic contest,” says Boone.

As might be expected, there isn’t a wealth of research on this subject. But Boone and a handful of others have studied the impact of sex on athletic performance and found no reason to abstain.

Boone’s published a small study in 1995 showing that men performed just as well on a treadmill test after they had sex as when they abstained. A 2000 study by researchers in Switzerland found similar results with stationary bikes.

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As far as concerns about sex zapping energy, he says, intercourse really doesn’t require all that many calories — especially considering that many bouts only last about 5 minutes. That burns about 20 to 30 calories, he says, and is about as strenuous as playing table tennis, gardening or pulling a golf cart. Obviously, longer love-making sessions would burn more calories, but it’s still unlikely to add up to anything overly taxing.

Research also hasn’t shown any distinct performance benefit from sex, but Boone believes sex might help athletes psychologically, by promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

So, sorry, reader, there’s no evidence that sex will help you build muscle — unless it puts you in a better mood and motivates you to hit the weights harder the next day.

As for that high-calorie diet you’re following, you may want to check with a dietitian. Too many calories won’t promote muscle — they’ll promote fat.

Q: Are forced repetitions really helpful when strength-training?

A: While forced repetitions are a common strategy used by weight-lifters, one study suggests they may be a waste of time.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a forced repetition is one that occurs with assistance after a lifter, say on the bench press, has reached “repetition failure” and therefore can’t do one more lift alone. So a spotter helps the lifter do additional lifts, which are called forced repetitions. The thinking is that this extra effort — while assisted — further helps to build strength.

“My research indicates that this is actually not the case,” says Eric Drinkwater, an exercise researcher at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia. “Once a person reaches repetition failure, any additional work does not contribute to strength development.”

In a study published last year in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Drinkwater’s team examined the effects of forced repetitions on 22 male athletes over a 6-week period and found no benefit.

A better strategy for building strength is to increase the workload you can manage on your own, says Drinkwater. “Focus on putting more weight on the bar rather than performing more repetitions.”

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