The internet too is sprawled with a huge number of articles and forum posts all offering the latest training & diet guidance, advice & tips. Not so much info on the sleep front, specifically how it relates to growth and performance.
The irony is that inadequate sleep will not only affect your bodybuilding progress, it also has a negative impact on pretty much every aspect of your life.
Sleep is important for almost every area of our lives – it directly affects our health and well-being, and can mean the difference between waking up and feeling a million dollars, or waking up and having the whole world feel like it’s against you.
I don’t think we need to go over the negative effects of a lack of sleep, we’ve all been there and we’re all well aware of it. Just one bad night’s sleep can make the next day fell like a long and dreary drudge, with every hour passing slowly and every task a chore.
Instead, let’s look at why sleep is so important to you as a bodybuilder, the effects of not getting enough and what you can do about improving your sleep.
Time to Grow
The most important aspect of sleep to the bodybuilder is all about growth.
Sleep is the time when most of the repair and growth stimulated from earlier training sessions takes place. This is due mainly to your body’s increased release of growth hormone (GH). In fact, 50-70% of men’s growth hormone is secreted during a good night’s sleep. 
Let me repeat that, 50-70% of your growth hormone is secreted during sleep.
So just a small reduction in your sleep can result in notable effects on your GH release levels – that’s gonna have a significant impact on your muscle building progress.
A lack of sufficient sleep will mean you’re body simply won’t have the time to repair and grow from the battering it took in the gym. Progress will slow, halt or even regress if your ‘sleep debt’ is big enough.
Remember, you actually break down muscle in the gym, your diet provides the building blocks to repair and over compensate, and sleep provides the time for this repair and growth to occur.
You’re not maximizing all the hard graft and sweat you put into your training if you don’t allow your system time to repair and grow – sleep is where this happens. You’re not reaping the rewards of your dietary sacrifices and dedication if you have a sleep deficit.
This brings us onto the second aspect of sleep of particular importance to the bodybuilder – performance.
Can’t Train Won’t Train
As mentioned earlier, the effects of a bad night’s sleep are immediately apparent the following day. When you feel tired everything seems that much more difficult, physically and emotional. If you’ve had a particularly bad night’s sleep then the next day can feel impossible and all you want to do is go home and collapse into bed.
Lifting weights when you’re feeling at your best can be a joy (admit it, us bodybuilders actually enjoy shifting heavy iron!), lifting weights when you’re tired is hard going to say the least. Your normal weights will seem heavier and you’ll generally lack enthusiasm. Every rep of every set will feel like lifting lead and you’ll be constantly fighting a mental battle to continue or call it a day.
Research has shown that a lack of sleep can reduce the ability to cope with emotional stress. Of particular interest is the increase in perceived exertion and fatigue. In other words, when you’re sleep deprived, you feel you’re exerting more effort than you actually are as well as feeling more fatigued than you actually are.
In fact, researchers believe that psychological factors, such as perceived exertion, perceived fatigue, and mood, may have more impact on performance than physiological factors such as heart rate, respiration and blood lactate.
If your goals are to add muscle and/or increase strength, it’s well known that the best way to achieve this is via progressive poundage, i.e. constantly increasing the amount of weight you lift. There are many other factors that influence muscle and/or strength gains such as rep count, cadence and rest but progressive poundage is universally acknowledged as the biggest factor to size strength increases.
So to progress, you need to be lifting more weight than you did last time either by increasing the weight used or increasing the number of reps (note, increasing the weight is the better approach as this allows you to make micro increments of say, 1lb. Even increasing by 1 rep is a significant leap).
If you’re sleep deprived, you’re gonna find it difficult to maintain the weight you’re lifting yet alone progress. The effort you put in will feel the same (and even possible more!, according to research) but in reality you’ll simply be spinning your wheels. If your sleep debt is large enough then the poundage you can handle will actually begin to regress, despite you’re perceived best efforts and determination.
Bad Form = Injuries
The last major effect of insufficient sleep I want to talk about is concerned with injuries.
As we’ve discussed above, training when you’re sleep deprived is a hard slog. But not only will you struggle with your usual poundage, your form is gonna suffer. Sticking to good form requires focus and discipline, both which diminish when you’re tired.
All exercises should be performed with good form to avoid unnecessary joint-ligaments stress. Compound exercise especially, such as squatting and deadlifting, require perfect form (that suits the unique biomechanics of your body) to minimize the risk of injury.
Poor form is the # 1 cause of injuries, especially so when it comes to the compound exercises where the poundage can be significant. Losing your form mid-exercise, even momentarily, can result in an injury, whether it be trivial, mild or enough to keep you out of the gym for several weeks.
Remember, one of the biggest factors that determines your progress in the gym is the ability to minimize your time off through injuries.
How Much Do You Need?
A study performed in 2008 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, found that more than a quarter of American adults were getting six hours of sleep a night or less, which is considered unhealthy. The study went on to conclude that, nationwide, an estimated 50 to 70 million adults suffer from chronic sleep loss and sleep disorders.
“It′s important to better understand how sleep impacts people′s overall health and the need to take steps to improve the sufficiency of their sleep,” said Lela R. McKnight-Eily, Ph.D., the study′s lead author and a behavioural scientist in CDC′s Division of Adult and Community Health
The study recommend 7-9 hours of sleep a night for adults, time enough to allow your body to cycle through all the different stages of sleep, giving you maximum recovery and rest.
Now exactly how much you need is largely determined by your genetics. However, heavy exercise will mean you’ll probably need more sleep than Joe average. Your body has a lot more repairing (and growing) to do than most so you need more time to do it
The only true way of determining how much sleep your body needs is to first pay off any sleep debt then spend at least a week waking naturally in the mornings. You’ll probably need to go to bed earlier than normal if you tend to wake via an alarm clock (only the lucky few don’t!).
At the end of this week, your average nightly sleeping hours will be a good indicator of your genetic sleep needs. Once you’ve determined your sleep requirements, you can then adjust when you sleep to suit your schedule – but do this slowly, adjusting by no more than 30 minutes per night to allow your biological clock to adjust.
This all seems simple enough, but how do you go about paying off your sleep debt, well the answer is obviously simple – get more sleep!
There are two approaches you can take to getting more sleep:
1) Improve the quality of your sleep
2) Got to bed earlier and/or get up later
The former is by far the more productive and more achievable approach and is something that everyone can accomplish with a little concerted effort.
Let’s look at both of these approaches in detail and discuss how you can go about applying either (or preferably) both to help meet your sleep requirements.
Improving the Quality of Your Sleep
According to a study performed by the National Sleep Foundation, 48% of Americans report insomnia occasionally, while 22 % experience insomnia almost every night. Going on these stats alone show us that almost halve of Americans have ample room for improving their sleep quality.
Getting a better night’s sleep is something that we can all do relatively easily and can pay dividend in your training efforts as well as generally improve your well being.
Six tips for getting a better night’s sleep
Here’s some simple, effective and practical tips that can help improve a night’s sleep. Don’t take any of them as gospel, as always, try for yourself and see what works for you.
#1 Keep a Regular Schedule
Go to bed and get up the same time every day. Try and stick to this schedule at weekends and avoid the temptation to stay up late. This will help you get back into sync with your natural wake cycle (circadian rhythm) and is one of the most effective strategies for achieving good sleep.
#2 Create The Right Environment
- Ensure your bedroom is dark. Seems obvious but even a small amount of light can disturb your sleep, especially in the summer mornings. We have got ‘blackout’ curtains in all our bedrooms and I tell you, they make a big difference in keep the rooms nice & dark. You could even try investing in a ‘sleeping mask’ – shouldn’t set you back more than $20 and can be surprisingly effective for some.
- Ensure your bedroom is as quiet as can be. ‘Blackout’ curtains mentioned above can go some way in helping to eliminating outside noise. If you’re unable to eliminate outside noise you can try masking it with a fan or static noise from an un-tuned radio. If you find them comfortable then earplugs are a good option.
#3 Get more daylight
Here’s one that threw me when I was researching for this article. We all remember as kids that spending the day playing outside always helped us get a good’s night sleep. Never really appreciated the science behind it, till now.
It turns out that the production of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, is affected by light exposure. In the day, secretion of melatonin is low to help keep you awake and alert. In the darker evenings, melatonin production rises making you sleepy.
However, the modern workplace can disrupt your body’s natural production of melatonin and with it, your sleep-wake cycle. Spending your day indoors, hidden from natural light can increase melatonin production, thus reducing wakefulness and make your brain ‘sleepy’.
You can easily take steps to help decrease your melatonin secretion during the day by simply spending a bit more time outside.
- If practicable, walk to and from work to help soak up some extra time in the daylight.
- Plan a walk outside on your lunch break or simply steps outside (weather permitting) during your breaks. Walking itself will also reap many other health benefits so it’s win-win.
- If you have a dog then plan their daily walk in daylight (morning or early evening) instead of at night.
Closely related to getting more daylight during the day is my next tip below:
#4 Turn it off
Following on from the tip above, spending the hour or so before bedtime watching television, using your computer, smart phone or tablet could disrupt your melatonin production and inhibit your ability to fall asleep, according to a study carried out a the National Sleep Foundation.
“Artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour-making it more difficult to fall asleep,” says Charles Czeisler, PhD, MD, Harvard Medical School.
Try spending your last hour before bed reading a book (not via a backlit device) or just relaxing.
#5 Watch What You Eat
What you eat and how much you eat prior to calling it a night can have a big impact on your ability to fall asleep. Here’s a few pointers on what to avoid:
Heavy, rich, spicy or fatty foods within two hours going of bed. Such foods can lie on your stomach and can cause heartburn.
Alcohol. A nightcap before bed may help you initially fall asleep but alcohol actually disrupts your sleep cycles, reducing your sleep quality.
Caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate, etc). Caffeine is a stimulant and amongst its many effects on the body, its ability to increase alertness and cause insomnia is reason alone to avoid before bed.
#6 Train Earlier
We all know that a session in the gym will go some way in helping you get a good’s night sleep (providing you’re not overtraining of course). However, for some, training late in the day can actually make it more difficult to fall asleep
If possible, try training in the afternoon or early evening at the latest and see how this affects your sleep. Altering when you train may or may not have an effect on your ability to fall asleep but it’s worth trying.
For several years, work commitments meant I wouldn’t get to the gym till gone 7pm and my sleep never suffered. These days I tend to train around 4pm and my time to fall asleep has remained unchanged – so training time doesn’t appear to have affected my sleep quality. But give it a go, you may be one of those that late training affects.
OK, so hopefully now you’ve picked up a few tips you can apply to help improve the quality of your sleep. This should be your first plan of attack given that for many, sleep quality is a significant problem and so presents ample room for improvement.
Improving you sleep quality alone however, may not be enough.
Although maximising the quality of your sleep is a good first step, if you’re simply not sleeping enough hours then this is something that you also need to address.
Finding Time to Sleep
As simple as it sounds and effective as it can be, actually getting more sleep is not so straightforward in the modern world. We all live an ever increasing, fast paced life, rushing around in a continuous mad dash. We’re always in a hurry, rushing to finish whatever we’re doing as we need to be somewhere else next.
Modern day living has seen the clock become our biggest enemy and sleep is the major casualty.
Well, I’m sorry to say there’s no silver bullet I can offer for getting more sleep. There’s no new ground breaking supplement that will magically make six hours sleep fell like eight.
To get more sleep, go to bed earlier and/or get up later, it’s as simple as that.
Even the busiest of us usually find time to sit for a few hours watching TV before hitting the sack. Besides the negative effect this can have on your ability to fall asleep (see Tip 4, Turn If Off), why not trade in some of this TV time for sleep. Going to bed just 30 minutes earlier can, over time, make all the difference to repaying your sleep debt.
However, for those that simply find it unpractical to squeeze more hours sleep into the night, there is something you can try. Something that can help shave off some if your accrued sleep debt, something that can have a profound effect on your training results.
That something is the power nap.
Power Nap – The Bodybuilder’s Secret Weapon
A ‘power nap’ is a short sleep which terminates before the occurrence of deep sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS), intended to quickly revitalize the subject. The expression was coined by James Maas, social psychologist of Cornell University.
There have been many studies conducted over the last decade to scientifically confirm the effectiveness of the power nap. Such studies have been carried out by some pretty big players including NASA, the University of California at Berkeley and National Institute of Mental Health- power naps are a pretty hot topic.
One conclusion all these tests come to is that power naps can be a very efficient way of helping to take the edge of short term sleep deprivation you may have built up lately.
But lets’ by clear here, the power nap is not a substitute for a getting a good’s night sleep each and every night – that should be your prime focus if you’re serious about your training.
But if you’ve done all you can to improve the quality of your sleep and made every effort to increasing your sleeping time then the power nap is your final weapon in the war against sleep deprivation.
A power nap is usually taken late in the morning or early afternoon and lasts around 20-30 minutes. Depending on your lifestyle, some take power naps daily, others can manage only the weekends.
Personally, my current lifestyle makes it impracticable to take an afternoon nap during the week. Occasionally I may finish work early, about 2:00pm, and on such occasions I try to squeeze in a 30 minute sleep.
I am however regularly taking a late morning early afternoon power nap most weekends and I can’t tell you how much better I feel. I’m finding I have more energy and rigour for the gym on Monday.
To make your naps as effective as possible, you should first establish a few simple rules:
- The tip ‘Create The Right Environment’ mentioned earlier applies equally to power naps. You need a dark, quiet place to sleep.
- Don’t nap too late in the day – typically not past 3 p.m. if your bedtime is around 10 p.m.
- Keep your nap short, only about 20 or 30 minutes, to avoid feeling groggy when you wake up.
Getting enough sleep is something we all struggle with but I hope this article has gone some way in showing you just how much of an impact this could be having on your gym efforts.
Work on improving the quality of your sleep first and foremost. Set aside some time to pay off your sleep debt and then work out your specific sleep requirements. Ensure you’re getting the required hours of solid sleep each and every night.
If you simply cannot squeeze any more sleep into your nights then give power naps a go (even if only at the weekends). You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the effect of sleeping 20-30 minutes during the day can have on your training.
Remember, you can train like Ronnie Coleman, have the cleanest of diets but unless you’re getting enough sleep, your progress will be hindered.
 Copinschi, G. V. (1998). Interrelations between sleep and the somatotropic axis. Sleep 21, 553-566.