Bodybuilding and Sleep: Are You Resting Enough?

Updated June 11, 2020

Naturally the strength pyramid has three sides – training, nutrition and rest. Many athletes, even those who are incredibly focused on growing and developing muscle, focus very clearly on the first two of those sides and forget about the third one. As you can probably guess – this isn’t a smart idea.

Rest isn’t an optional extra of a training plan, it is absolutely compulsory. In the short term sleep loss can result in forgetting a few things here, being grumpy and even depression. If you go longer without sleep you can begin to suffer from a variety of side effects from memory loss to hallucinations and imagining things. If that doesn’t convince you of how important it is – health bodies now think that people can survive longer without nutrition than without sleep.

All that is bad enough if you’re not trying to build muscle but if you’re in training, sleep becomes so much more important as it is the time during which your body has the chance to recover and prepare for the next workout.

Sleeping is essentially turn-off time for the body, the nervous system partially shuts down and your muscular system obviously rests. At the same time though your digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems keep working to repair tissue damaged and destroyed in training. More important even that though is that it is only during sleep that your body releases the growth hormones which are actually the thing which triggers the maintenance of tonus in muscles and storing of fat in cells. With sleep being so crucial to training, the question often becomes, how do we get to this level of sleep?

Well from being a little kid we remember being told to count sheep or listening to some nursery story on a tape. But rather than sleep being a binary on or off state, it actually comes in stages. The first stage is the “threshold of sleep” where you are only lightly unconscious and are prone to waking and drifting off uite a lot.

After this starting portion, your body sort of gets the hang of sleeping and you move into stage one, two and three sleep. Through these stages your heart begins to slow down, your core temp falls and you really start to relax. In terms of mental activity you are in a rather disconnected place with scattered short dreams rather than more developed ones.

Ninety minutes or so in your body goes into stage 4 sleep, otherwise known as deep sleep. Now you’re very settled and hard to wake up. But you don’t stay there, you move back to stage 3, then 2 and then 1. But this stage 1 isn’t the same are you entered when you began trying to sleep.

Instead now your eyes begin to flicker around very quickly and you’re hard to wake up. The rapid eye movement gives rise to a term we are all very aware of – REM or rapid eye movement. The term though is to a degree inaccurate as not only your eyes but your whole body can begin to move around rather violently. As a result your heart rate and blood pressure may begin to increase again but that doesn’t mean that you’re close to waking up or that you’re having a bad dream. Movement is common in all REM states regardless of dream type.

Once in this REM state you don’t stay here until you wake up however. Ten minutes or so after entering it, you move back into the four stage sleep cycle for another hour and a half until re-entering REM again. Now of course the 90 minute measurement isn’t accurate for everyone and some people are either side of that number but it is a good starting point.

This cycling continues for the entire sleep period but as the body prepares to wake up the heart rate and blood pressure begin to move back towards ‘awake’ levels and you progress through stages 3, 2 and then 1 and eventually re-awake.

Whilst we split the sleeping cycle into 4, there is really only a two way separation, REM and non-REM sleep. Whilst in the former, your brain activity increases and the body moves around as a result. During non-REM your body is far closer to true unconsciousness, you don’t have any random thoughts, your brain shifts down into the delta-wave level and increased amounts of oxygen get pumped around your body. Through the night you spend longer and longer periods in REM and less in the unconscious state.

Now whilst scientists know that sleep is needed for the body to repair, it isn’t known exactly how or when that restoration occurs. The best guess is that it occurs during the deepest sleep (stages 3 and 4) because during REM your body is processing experiences and mentally active.

Yet whilst there is some ambiguity as regards how sleep actually works, scientists have a lot of knowledge of the effect of a lack of sleep. Studies revealed that even one night of missed sleep can lead the immune system to drop by between 20 and 30 per cent. The story gets increasingly bad the more missed nights of sleep you have in a row but for those of you getting worried because the last week hasn’t been great for sleeping, don’t worry because one night of solid sleep will boost your immune system right back up.

That begs the question of how long is a solid night’s sleep? Well as you might have guessed that really depends on the people. The notion of eight hours being what we need comes from way back in the middle of the last millennium but is bizarrely accurate. For the majority of people exercise fairly often, eat the right things and doesn’t work ridiculously long hours then 7 or 8 hours is the perfect amount. Others though sleep a lot less, often due to the time requirements of their jobs and some need a lot more. It all depends on physical activity and the amount of recovery required.

Personally I’ve found that my sleeping requirements really fluctuated with the amount of training I was doing and it became fundamental to my development for my body to get enough sleep – more important even then ensuring I ate enough.

If you compare this to the population at large, people just don’t adjust their sleep enough. The majority of us work over 150 hours more per year than two generations ago but get only 80% of the sleep. Not surprising is it then that work-related stress is so common. Yet the relationship is not so straight forward and is instead fairly cyclical with stress impeding sleeping and this being triggered by a need to complete high school work, or continue training – both of which are made harder by stress.

Yet even the athletes who are completely devoted to their training can miss a few nights sleep here and there, be it due to an external concern in a relationship or an upcoming performance review at work. Yet what this shouldn’t do is stop you training. Instead you should think about how you can adapt your training pattern.

Some guys decide to take a quick sleep (thirty or so minutes) before a session to let their body get some more recovery in and then get on with the session. Now for some this isn’t the easiest thing to do, so for some people taking a supplement of caffeine or B-complex vitamins, or both, is a better solution. Either way, it is far better to do the workout with a few tweaks than to drop the session all together. If you skip a session, it will be easier to do the same again in the future and that isn’t the way to get bigger.

So, be flexible. If you were going to up the weights today, don’t bother, stay with what you were working on and wait until a day you get more sleep to change the weights. By doing this you stop yourself running your body into a rut and slowing down your progress. For me it hasn’t actually been my max levels that sleep affects but rather my ability to do a lot of low-rep weights, i.e. my endurance. So something I like to do when I’m on a low is to get through my training plan quickly meaning that my body doesn’t really have the time to get too fatigued and I can still get my set work done.

After getting through that painful session the last thing I want to do is to make the enxt one as painful as that and so that night I make sure I get caught on my sleep. This stops a one-night slightly shortened sleep turning into a systemic problem which would infect and attack my training program and stifle progress on top of bringing on health issues.

To give my body a bit of a helping hand during this period I also tend to boost up the supplements, particularly vitamins C, E, A and D which I often take in double dose to ensure that I keep my bases covered.

That sort of covers those nights when you just know you haven’t had a good night’s sleep and that is in fact something that is relatively easy to tell. But there are plenty of nights when you just don’t know if you slept well or not, nights which are really sort of non descript. How can you find out which of these nights were good or bad? Well the main thing is just pay very close attention to how you feel when you wake up to get out of bed. If you have to drag your legs out of bed then you’re probably didn’t get a good night sleep. On the other hand if you wake up with a lot of energy then you more than likely slept well and you’re good to go for the day!

If you’re not sleeping well though, don’t think you’re alone, recent Gallup polling data has shown that half the population experiences insomnia at some time. Obviously for the majority of us the insomnia is short-term, induced by stress in some form, and lifts after a few days. But even this short period of sleeplessness can cause a lot of harm to your training program. To counter this I have a few suggestions that might just help you get to sleep and be ready to keep on performing. Don’t expect anything completely ground breaking but these tricks might just help that little bit you need!

Top of my list if I can’t get to sleep is an old remedy I discovered in school. Just about half an hour before you want to hit the hay try taking a couple of calcium-and-magnesium tablets with milk. Now the trouble is often finding the two elements in an effective tablet form because most of the time you can only find magnesium combined with calcium. When combined this remedy is often not all that effective as for it to be effective you want there to be roughly double the amount of calcium as there is magnesium. And when in the combined tablet form the mixture is often a little bit off these proportions. But if you can find the substances separately then you should be on the road to the land of nod pretty rapidly.

Whilst you’re waiting for the cal-mag combination to kick in you should try and do the normal sleep things of listening to some relaxing music, lie down and all that so that your body is in its normal sleep ritual and will more easily fall asleep when the time comes! What I like to do is to take a short bath and let my muscles relax, get the work thoughts out of my head, have some lemonade and have a flick through a few pages of a novel.

One of my gym buddies does something really different, he tends to snack on something to put himself to sleep, normally something like milk or a bit of fish. The reason for this is that those two foods (along with yogurt and turkey) contain tryptophan which converts to serotonin in the brain which will send you to sleep. Not that weird after all I suppose.

There are however a few major no-no’s if you’re trying to drop off and get a long resting sleep. Don’t drink too much beer, wine, vodka or whatever you young things drink these days. They interfere with the REM sleep which is the really refreshing section of your sleep and as a result you’ll wake up not feeling on top form. The same is true with food – if you cram yourself full just before bed then you’re body will actually be stimulated to deal with it and keep you awake. Plus if you’re unlucky your bowels might get upset by what you eat and keep you up even more.

It also stands to reason that you should avoid chemical stimulants such as caffeine or even nicotine. And don’t just avoid normal trigger foods or drinks like Red Bull or coffee, loads of other soft drinks and medicines have these stimulants and others in.

On top of that don’t take your work to bed with you. Just like chemical stimulants trigger your brain via elemental interaction, the work will trigger responses by making the brain work. Treat your bedroom like a sanctum, work doesn’t enter it – you go there to sleep.

But, after excluding all of those if you still can’t sleep, then you might want to try a short piece of easy exercise, for example a light stroll might be the perfect thing to help you drop off before bed time. Watch out for doing too much though, if you do too much exercise your body will begin to be stimulated again and it will find it hard to settle down and sleep.

Balancing these different factors isn’t easy if you’re finding it hard to sleep and you have to do is just experiment with different tactics of getting to sleep. If however your problems sleeping are stretching out over a long period of time, take a bit of a longer look at your sleeping profile  and get that final third side to your training pyramid in place.

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