I Thoroughly Tested CBD’s Effect on Workout Performance and Recovery. Here’s What Happened.

First things first, I’m not a weekend warrior, I’m a fucking weightlifter: a 6 days a week, balls-to-the-wall, push each set to failure, make the vein on my forehead pop out like a demented worm kinda weightlifter, and I’ve been doing it for about 4 years. And with that comes a few things, namely: extreme soreness, occasional injury, and a lot of stress on my joints. 

So, this makes me a sort of perfect guinea pig for a CBD + weightlifting experiment: I’ve got a lot of experience, and I’ve got a lot of afflictions that CBD is supposed to treat. And one affliction in particular: for years I’ve been battling psoriatic arthritis, in particular in my hands and my left elbow.

It was so bad that when I first started seriously weightlifting 4 years ago, by the time I was done in the gym my hands were so stiff they’d be kind of “stuck,” it would take 20 or 30 minutes for me to pry them open. Years of strict low-carb dieting and exercise have helped a good deal (along with heavy ass loaded carries that built up my forearm/hand strength), but my elbow and hand joints are still usually pretty stiff, so when I learned about CBD and it’s anti-inflammatory properties (especially regarding joint pain) I decided to initiate the experiment.

For good measure, why not test CBD’s effectiveness as a preworkout as well? 

This isn’t a half-assed “I tried CBD for my workouts, here’s how I felt” kind of thing, though: my aim was to be as methodical as possible, and to test CBD in various ways using a number of as-objective-as-possible metrics against a CBD-less control workout. In the experiment I tested: 

  • The effect of orally consumed CBD oil as a preworkout on workout performance: I documented a slight loss in explosiveness and power, but a slight improvement in stamina and endurance.
  • The effect of orally consumed CBD oil as a postworkout on muscle soreness and systemic recovery: I did not document a significant difference in muscle soreness or recovery.
  • The effect of CBD topical balm as a postworkout on localized joint/muscle recovery and soreness: I documented a clear improvement in joint stiffness and soreness after applying topical CBD postworkout.

Before I dive deep into the details of my experiment and the results, though, let’s briefly review CBD’s benefits and how it might be useful for weightlifting. 

CBD is a potent anti-inflammatory and painkiller, shouldn’t it help speed up recovery?

Inflammation is how the immune system responds to tissue damage, viruses, and bacteria. White blood cells are sent to the inflamed area, where they repair damage and repel foreign invaders. 

There are two types of inflammation: acute inflammation, which occurs when you incur muscle damage from weightlifting, and chronic or systemic inflammation, which is when the body habitually sends white blood cells to healthy tissues, where they can begin to attack organs, joints, and skin. Our concern here is with acute inflammation.

Is reducing acute inflammation after exercising actually a good thing?

Acute inflammation, in the context of weightlifting, is a natural response: it’s how your body repairs the damage you’ve done. This is why the question of CBD’s effectiveness in expediting workout recovery is a bit hazy. On the one hand, CBD has known anti-inflammatory properties:

  • This 2009 study found that cannabinoids, including CBD, can act as “anti-inflammatory agents against a number of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
  • This 2018 review of 32 studies, published in Frontiers of Neurology, also found that CBD had anti-inflammatory properties that improved mobility and reduced pain and fatigue in patients with multiple sclerosis. 
  • This 2015 study published in the journal of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry found that CBD reduced a number of inflammatory markers in patients with arthritis, brain inflammation, and colitis

Exercise causes inflammation which is part of the recovery process, and CBD reduces inflammation, so CBD must be good for speeding up recovery, right? Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Why? Because in the context of recovery from exercise, inflammation may actually be a good thing.

 In fact, one recent study published in the Journal of Physiology found that concentrated consumption of antioxidants, prized for their anti-inflammatory properties, AFTER a workout actually inhibited strength gains, because the antioxidants neutralized free radicals that are essential to muscle repair.  Might the same thing apply to CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties? 

Now, it’s beyond the scope of this experiment to determine whether long-term use of CBD has a positive or negative effect on strength and muscle gains.

But I still have questions that I can do my best to address: 

  • Can preworkout consumption help in any way with performance? 
  • Can postworkout consumption quicken recovery and reduce muscle soreness?
  • Can postworkout topical application quicken recovery and reduce joint stiffness?

Let’s get to the experiment.

The CBD + Weightlifting Experiment

Daily routine during the experiment

For each day of the experiment I ate the same thing (note: I also intermittent fast and usually don’t eat until about 4PM). I also don’t consume any supplements (no protein shakes, no amino acids, no creatine, and no gear). 

For lunch (about 3 hours before workout) I ate:

  • 6 eggs
  • 1 avocado

For dinner (about 2 hours postworkout) I ate: 

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 large purple sweet potato
  • 1 cup broccoli
  • 1 cup brussels sprouts
  • 2 avocado
  • 5 tbsp. Olive oil
  • 4 tbsp. Coconut butter
  • Half bar of dark chocolate
  • 1 cup raspberry

Total: ~3300-3500 k/cal

I went to bed at about 1 AM and woke up at about 9 AM, so my sleep was consistent as well. I also didn’t consume any CBD in the run-up to the experiment. 

Part 1: CBD as a preworkout

Intro: After toying with a few different ideas, I decided the best way to test CBD as a preworkout was to

  •  a) test the maximum number of reps I could do at a specific weight without CBD and see if I can do more with CBD,
  • And, b) to separately grade my energy levels, stamina, and explosiveness to determine whether I noticed any improvement (or decline) in performance.

So, I did heavy compound movements (weighted pullups, deadlifts, and flat bench dumbbell press) and high-intensity sets either at max weight (w/ the pullups and bench press) or very high-rep (for the deadlifts, aka “widowmakers:” 20 rep sets at a high weight, 305 lbs in this case). I figured this would test both my strength/explosiveness and my endurance, both at near-max intensity.

I consumed 50mg of organic full-spectrum CBD oil sublingually (brand: NuLeaf Naturals) 40 minutes before the workout. 

Summary/Conclusion: I experienced a slight decrease in strength and explosiveness, but a slight increase in stamina. Specifically, when I went for an extra rep or two more than I’d ever done at near-max weight, I was NOT able to do it. BUT, when I went for more reps than I’d ever done at about 75% of my 1RM, I WAS able to do it. 

Perhaps this isn’t surprising: CBD has sedative effects, but it’s also an effective painkiller, and high rep sets at lower weight are more about pain tolerance, whereas high-weight low-rep sets are more about power and explosiveness. 

Still, it’s an interesting result: perhaps CBD’s analgesic effects make it useful for low-weight, high-rep work because it enhances pain tolerance, but at the cost of some power and explosiveness? 

In other words, maybe CBD is good for slow-twitch work and bad for fast-twitch work. 

Workout:

I tested all these maxes about one week before the experiment.

  • Weighted pullups: 100 lbs
    • Previous max at this weight (tested : 3 pullups w/ strict form (dead hang to chin over the bar, no exceptions!!!)
    • Goal: 4 pullups w/ strict form
    • Actual: 3 reps
  • Trap-bar deadlifts: 305 lbs
    • Previous max at this weight: 17 reps
    • Goal: 20 reps
    • Actual: 20 reps
  • Dumbbell bench press: 100 lb DBs
    • Previous max at this weight: 4 reps
    • Goal: 5 reps
    • Actual: 3 reps

Breakdown: 

  • Strength & explosiveness: Slightly below average

CBD is known for its calming and relaxing properties, yet it’s also considered a mild stimulant at smaller doses (in fact, CBD acts on the same cannabinoid receptors as coffee), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it kicked in I definitely felt a little bit sluggish and spaced out, though. 

Perhaps predictably, I found that the CBD diminished my strength and explosiveness a bit. My muscles didn’t quite fire as hard as they normally do, and my reaction times were sluggish (compared to when I tested these maxes the week previously). This wasn’t noticeable for the deadlifts since I was nowhere near max weight for them, but for the DB press and weighted pullups, where I was pretty close to my max, I fell short of my previous maxes. 

  • Stamina: Slight improvement

It wasn’t just that I was able to top my max reps w/ trap bar deadlifts @ 305 lbs : I actually experienced noticeably less pain and discomfort for the 20 rep set, especially for the last 5 reps, compared to the previous time I maxed out at 17 reps. These reps just went smoother, my form felt crisper. 

Part 2: CBD for localized recovery (joint pain/stiffness)

Intro: This is one of CBD’s best known uses: as an anti-inflammatory for joint pain and stiffness, and I also have a longstanding and particularly bad case of hand and elbow stiffness/inflammation (left elbow, specifically), so I’m a prime subject for this test. 

I did a bunch of heavy work but emphasized the two exercises that are hardest on my elbow and hand joints: weight pullups (really hard on my elbows) and loaded carries (REALLY hard on my hand/finger joints). 

For this experiment I did a control stage where I closely monitored my joint pain and stiffness for 24-hours post-workout, and then replicated the exact workout + applied Charlotte’s Web CBD-infused balm (w/ 450 mg of CBD) to my hands and elbow immediately after. 

Results summary: I noticed an immediate difference in joint stiffness after postworkout application, and the CBD allowed me to return to baseline much quicker than normal. However, it didn’t lower my baseline. In other words: the CBD helped me recover faster, but it didn’t seem to reduce my joint stiffness to below my normal baseline. My hands and elbow just felt normal quicker. 

I would grade topical CBD as moderately effective for lifting-related localized joint pain/stiffness. I suspect the worse your symptoms are, the more effective it might be. 

Workout

  • Loaded carries w/ trap bar: 3 x 305 lbs for 30 seconds
  • One-armed carries: 3 x 105 lbs for 30 seconds (each side back-to-back)
  • Weighted pullups: 90 lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps
  • EZ-bar bicep curls: 110 lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Cable rows: 195 lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps

Breakdown: 

Immediately after workout2 hours postworkout4 hours postworkout6 hours postworkoutNext morning24 hours later
Stiffness + joint pain w/out CBD8/10: I have that “my hands are stuck” level of pretty extreme stiffness7/10: Stiffness has diminished a little.7/10: More or less the same as 2 hours ago: I still can’t quite fully extend my fingers7/10: Still the same6/10: Diminished since last night, my hand no longer feels stuck in a clenched position5/10: More or less back to normal
Stiffness + joint pain w/ CBD6/10: Immediately felt a difference, my joints loosened up a little, I can extend my fingers more easily than normal postworkout and my hands were less stuck in the clenched position.5/10: My hands feel more or less back to my normal baseline already (much faster than usual).5/10: Still at baseline.5/10: Still at baseline.5/10: Still at baseline.5/10: Still at baseline.

 

Part 3: CBD for systemic recovery and muscle soreness

Intro: For this part, I did a similar setup as the joint stiffness part, only for overall soreness instead and with oral CBD: I closely monitored soreness levels over 24 hours and then replicated my exact workout plus a 50mg dose of CBD oil after the workout to determine if CBD sped up my recovery or reduced soreness over a period of 24 hours.

Results summary: While the CBD did help me feel more relaxed, I didn’t experience a noticeable decrease in soreness. I did my best to grade my level of soreness on a scale from 1 to 10, and while my perceived soreness was slightly lower with the CBD, it wasn’t quite enough to honestly say it made a real difference. When I extended my arms and flexed my triceps, I felt about the same degree of soreness, though maybe a bit less with the CBD.

Workout

  • Dumbbell incline bench press: 90 lbs for 3 sets of 5
  • Dumbbell flat bench press: 95 lbs for 5 sets of 3
  • Overhead dumbbell military press: 70 lbs for 3 sets of 3
  • Cable overhead tricep extensions: 135 lbs for 5 sets of 3

Breakdown:

Immediately after workout4 hours postworkoutNext morning24 hours postworkout36 hours later48 hours later
Soreness w/out CBD5/10: Not quite sore yet.5/10: Not quite sore yet.8/10: Moderate soreness8/10: Soreness definitely picked up a bit from this morning7/10: More or less the same.5/10: Back to baseline.
Soreness w/ CBD5/10: Not quite sore yet.5/10: Not quite sore yet.7/10: Mild-moderate soreness7/10: Mild-moderate soreness7/10: Mild-moderate.5/10: Back to baseline. 

 

Conclusion

If I’m going for big heavy lifts or PRs, then I’ll leave the CBD at home. But I like to mix up my volume, and after this experiment I’m considering using CBD as a preworkout on high volume days to maybe squeeze an extra few reps out. 

For days when I’m doing certain exercises that aggravate my hand or elbow joints, then I definitely plan on applying topical CBD in the future. Anyone suffering from chronic joint inflammation can likely benefit from topical CBD, especially if they’re a weightlifter. But for overall soreness and recovery, I don’t see CBD as being a game changer. 

Sources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493173/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2828614/
  3. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2018.00183/full
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/bioorganic-and-medicinal-chemistry
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/jphysiol.2014.279950/abstract