Recently I heard that sleep is often referred to as the third pillar of successful bodybuilding, the other two pillars being training and diet. I’ve always believed that sleep is important, but never really bothered to learn exactly how important it is.
On this website there’s a ton of information surrounding both training and diet for muscle growth. But so far sleep has not been covered in much depth at all. So, I decided to do some research to find out just how important sleep is and here’s what I learned:
How important is sleep for muscle growth? Sleep is very important for muscle growth. It’s during sleep that the majority of recovery from hard training takes place. In fact, research has shown that when someone is sleeping enough it promotes muscle growth, but when someone is sleeping too little it actually causes muscle loss.
In this post I’ll cover why sleep is important and how much it affects muscle growth. I’ll also cover how much sleep that’s enough and finally provide some tips on how you can get adequate sleep.
Why is Sleep Important For Muscle Growth?
Sleep is very important for muscle growth as it promotes both recovery and mental alertness, two things that are of outmost importance for a lifter. Without enough sleep, the time you spend in the gym could be more or less wasted.
One big reason why sleep is important for muscle growth is because of Glycogen storage. Glucose is the simplest type of sugar, and the only type that the body and muscles can use as energy. All kind of carbs that we eat first has to be broken down into glucose by the body before it can be used or stored.
In order to build muscle effectively we want out glycogen stores in both our muscles and in our liver to be topped off as often as it’s possible. Stored glycogen acts as a buffer of glucose and topped off stores signals the muscles that there are enough energy available to provide good recovery and muscle growth.
Okay cool, but where does sleep come in?
Well, sleep is the most powerful glycogen storage factor of all. During a good nights sleep your glycogen stores will become topped off which effectively promotes recovery.
Another huge reason why sleep is important is because it releases a lot of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) into the bloodstream. HGH is one of the primary compounds that allows muscles to recover and grow. Among other functions, our bodies need HGH available to be able to utilize the amino acids present in the protein we eat, and sleep help with this more than anything else.
Furthermore, this study showed that good sleep results in increased levels of testosterone and reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Other research has even seen that cortisol levels may stay elevated until the following evening when you don’t get enough sleep.
Not only that, it’s been shown that people who sleep less have a much higher risk of ending up overweight and obese. This means that even if you’re healthy now, as you age, not getting enough sleep can lead to potential ill-health.
Finally, because of all the factors mentioned so far, research on sleep and muscle growth has shown that if you eat an excess of calories, i.e bulking, a larger portion of the calories you eat will go towards fat gain and not muscle growth if you’re sleep deprived.
Poor Sleep Decreases Muscle Mass
It’s not only true that getting enough sleep aids muscle growth. Without adequate sleep muscle mass actually decreases!
A 2011 study looked at how sleep deprivation affected muscle growth and recovery. In the study researchers followed individuals who were on a strict sleep schedule for 72 hours. The individuals was split up in two groups; where group one was allowed to sleep 5.5 hours per night, and group two was allowed to sleep 8.5 hours per night. All individuals followed a calorie-regualted diet as well.
The results of this study showed that the individuals who slept only 5.5 hours had 60% less muscle mass at the end of the study, while those who slept 8.5 hours had 40% more muscle mass at the end of the study.
Poor Sleep, Poor Training Performance
In a 2008 study Dr. Bert Jacobson found out that lack of sleep will reduce energy levels and leave us susceptible to mood swings. Now, you might think that mood swings are nothing to be concerned about. But there’s actually research conducted showing that our emotional state can directly affect our athletic performance.
In other words, proper sleep is extremely important for optimal performance during training sessions.
Not only that, it’s been shown that injury risk increases exponentially when you’re sleep deprived. This is because your nervous system doesn’t function well when you haven’t slept well, making a heavy back squat or bench press that you’re normally used to handle, a much more insecure task.
The Four Stages of Sleep
During your sleep the brain are in several different cycles which lasts around 90 to 100 minutes each, these cycles are called the non-REM and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep cycles. Within these cycles there are four stages of sleep.
Knowing about sleeps stages are important if you’re looking to build muscle and strength as the stages typically follow a set pattern, and to adequately recover (get a good night of sleep, and grow) your brain must experience all of these stages.
Stage 1 – The awake/light sleep stage
This is the stage where you doze off but are still easily woken. In this stage your brain works with muscle memory and are “logging” movements learned during the day.
Stage 2 – The light sleep stage
In this stage you move into a light sleep where your brain activity slows down. The body relaxes in preparation for the deep sleep stage and starts to produce Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which as you know by now increases the growth of muscle tissue and regulates the body’s metabolism.
Stage 3 – The deep sleep stage
Following the light sleep stage comes the deep sleep stage. This is the deepest most restorative part of the sleep cycle. Blood supply to the muscles increases, more HGH is released and most of your physical recovery occurs in this period.
The human growth hormone flooding the body helps your muscles recover and rejuvenate as well as support improved immune function and metabolism.
An anti-inflammatory hormone called prolactin is also released which are important for joint recover.
Stage 4 – The REM sleep stage
This is the phase when your brain activity ramps up again and this stage is associated with vivid dreams.
During this phase your muscles are supplied with extra oxygen to breakdown lactic acid. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you get painful and potentially-problematic muscle knots called “trigger points”.
Minor tears in the muscle are also repaired during this phase.
Usually, you go throught all these stages and then the cycle repeats until it’s time to wake up.
Recently I’ve been using the FitBit wristband and app to track my sleep. Here’s how much sleep I should have in each stage compared to other men in my age (25-30), and also how much sleep I actually get on average during a week:
As you can see, my time in light sleep is a bit high while my time in REM and Deep sleep is a bit low. I’m still within the ranges though, which is what matters most.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
The threshold of enough sleep for muscle building purposes lies between 7-9 hours. In athletes it’s been shown that up to 10 hours of sleep per night helps improve performance. However, you don’t need to sleep for 10 hours per night to see improvements. Getting those 7-9 hours is what’s most important.
Now, during those weeks where you just won’t get in 7+ hours of sleep becuase of life’s circumstances, according to research there are two things you can do:
- Take a nap: In this study, they found that athletes who suffer from small degrees of sleep loss may benefit from a short nap, which can decrease your likelihood of muscle loss.
- Ingest some protein before bed: Researchers has also seen that eating protein before bed may help yourbody recover from a workout faster.
How to Get Adequate Sleep
Okay, so no post is complete unless it also provides some value on how to actually do the things and not just understand them. So, when it comes to sleep here’s a list of 11 things you can do to enhance both your sleep quality and quantity:
1. Avoid High-Intensity Activity 3-4 Hours Before Bed
Even though high-intensity activity is good for you if done during the day, it could backfire on you if done during the evening.
Performing high-intensity activities is very stressful and will place your body in a more awakened state a few hours post exercise. Therefore, it is important that these kinds of activities are completed no later than three hours before bedtime. Otherwise, this awakened state is likely to get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
2. Follow a Good Sleep Schedule
Did you know that the body have a natural 24-hour cycle called the circadian rythm?
Well, the circadian rythm follows the light and dark cycles of day and night. Which means that as the sun goes down at night this biological rythm signals tiredness and when the sun goes up in the morning, the rythm signals awakeness.
It’s been shown that the most optimal way to sleep is to try and synchronize your sleep pattern with available sunlight by developing the habit of going to bed when the sun sets and waking near the time when it rises.
Now, this is often not possible for most people, after all, in some countries the sun goes down at 4 PM during the winter and never during the summer. But, what everyone can do is to develop a habit of going to sleep at the same time every night and to wake up at the same time every morning. Doing this is MUCH better for healthy sleep than what having a irregular sleeping patterns is.
Finally, you can try to reinforce your biological sleep cycles (circadian rhythms) by providing a dark and quiet environment for sleep.
3. Have a Protein Shake Before Bed
It’s been shown that the body has a harder time controlling the breakdown of protein during sleep. This can be bad for muscle growth because our bodies must break down proteins into amino acids before they can recombine them to make new muscle tissue.
Protein shakes usually contains protein in forms that are easily and quickly broken down, so having a shake before bed can make this process a whole lot easier for the body.
4. Don’t Oversleep
This is related to the circadian rythm mentioned earlier. If you decide to sleep in during the weekends you may set your body’s biological clock to a different cycle. This will make trying to fall asleep much harder during the upcoming days, causing a constant flux in your circadian rythm.
So, try your best to stay within both the same number of hours of sleep and at the same time during the night at all times. Staying within plus/minus 1-2 hours is likely fine, but more than that can become problematic.
5. Take a Warm Bath
A warm bath is soothing and relaxing, and can hence that help improve your sleep. However, a shower, especially if it’s a cold one, will have the opposite effect, so try your best to avoid those.
6. Implement Some Aerobic Exercise in Your Training Routine
Most of us fitness people love lifting heavy weights and doing high-intensity training. But it’s been shown that implementing some aerobic exercise, especially low to moderate intensity such as a power walk or light jog, can help a lot with sleep quality and overall mood.
One study even found that a bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise reduced the time it took to fall asleep and increased the length of sleep of people with chronic insomnia compared to a night when they did not exercise beforehand. But in the same study, they saw that high-intensity exercise did not improve sleep.
7. Avoid Caffeine And Alcohol At Night
As we know caffeine is a stimulant that promotes hyperactivity and wakefulness. This can obviously make it harder to fall asleep and also reduce the amount of deep sleep that you enjoy. One study found that caffeine can delay the timing of your body clock (circadian rythm).
Alcohol on the other hand is often believed to help people fall asleep. Even though it’s true that alcohol can provide a relaxed and tired mood, also why a drink is referred to as a nightcap. The truth is that alcohol significantly disrupts sleep by interfering with the sleep stages. So, even though you might fall asleep more easily, the actual sleep you get will be of lesser quality.
8. Avoid Sleeping Pills
These may work in the short-term but in the long-term they will cause disturbed sleep patterns.
9. Set Up a Good Sleeping Environment
Having a good sleeping environment is extremelly valuable. The things you can do to promote a good sleeping environment are the following:
- Keep your room dark. (And preferably spend an hours or two in the dark before going to bed.)
- Keep your room reasonably cool (about 60 degrees).
- Keep humidity low as high humidity may cause disrupted sleep.
- Try having a fan running or soft background music playing as this may help to relax and encourage sleep. (Doesn’t work for everyone though.)
10. Make Evenings Relaxing
Avoiding stressful affairs in the evening is important for sleep. The more you can wind down before going to bed, the better.
11. Avoid TV, Computer & Mobile Screens Before Going to Bed
It’s been shown that using electronic devices before bedtime can be physiologically and psychologically stimulating in ways that can negatively affect your sleep.
Research has shown that using TVs, smartphones, tablets, laptops, or other electronic devices before going to sleep delays your circadian rythm, suppresses the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to fall asleep because of mental activity.
These effects take place mostly because of the short-wavelength, artificial blue light that these devices display. There are apps such as Twilight, and some smartphones/tablets even comes with a built in night mode that removes much of the blue light. Even though this blue light blocker makes it easier to fall asleep, there’s still the problem of increased mental activity that takes place from consuming information from electronical devices.
Does sleeping late affect muscle growth?
As long as you’re not constantly shifting between sleeping late and sleeping early, in other words, if you stick to the same sleeping habits, then when you go to sleep doesn’t seem to affect muscle growth negatively. What do seem to affect muscle growth negatively is;
- Having screwed up sleeping habits, where for example one night you sleep from 10 pm to 6 am and the next night from 2 am to 10 am, and
- Not getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night.