Is Lack of Sleep Hurting Your Gains?

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Sleep Gets a Pretty Bad Rap

People love to brag about how little sleep they get. Our culture thrives on the no-sleep hustle. You see it in tabloids and overhear it at the office: ‘I just don’t need that much sleep’ or ‘Sleep is such a waste of your day’. The super-human sleep habits of successful people are too often glorified, looked up to, and imitated. But, there’s a reason these habits feel unnatural. In fact, lack of sleep could be the reason you’re not seeing the results you want in the gym. So, let’s take a moment to put these sleep myths to bed.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 35% of people are sleep deprived, and I would hazard to guess that most people who exercise on a daily basis fall into this category. I know I sure do. But if you’re always running on fumes, you might be better off hitting the hay than hitting the gym.

Sleep is Good For You

There's no shortage of articles on the benefits of sleep. With 5 minutes and an internet connection you can become an expert on sleep’s anti-ageing prowess or its effect on blood sugar regulation. But, you don’t need a degree in neuroscience to understand that getting adequate sleep will help you feel better. Sleep is good for you, and like exercise, getting enough is important for your physical and emotional well-being.

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How Sleep Affects Your Brain

I never make important decisions after 11 p.m.., partly because all of the decisions that I do make after 11 p.m. are terrible ones, but according to science, that may not be my fault! A Nature Communications study found that sleep deprivation can impair your brain’s ability to process information and make rational decisions. Because of this, you may find yourself lacking impulse control or making poor dietary choices when you’re tired. This is why unhealthy snacking is so common in the evenings.

How Sleep Affects Your Body

Early in my fitness journey, I made the mistake of thinking that muscles were built in the gym. I would sacrifice sleep to squeeze in an extra lift, even if it meant dragging myself out of bed and fighting off a serious case of DOMS. The truth is, this was doing more harm than good. Muscle growth and cell repair happen while you sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body will not be able to properly recover and your muscles will not grow - despite your best efforts in the gym.

Human growth hormone (HGH) is responsible for all of the growth that our bodies undergo, and it’s produced during sleep. When you’re a kid, it’s growth hormone (not finishing all your veggies) that makes you grow up to be big and strong. As an adult, this same hormone is responsible for muscle growth and recovery. So, think of HGH like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, because if you want it to come, you have to be asleep.

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Sleep Helps You Exercise Better

It doesn’t take a personal trainer to tell you that rested muscles are stronger than tired ones. If your body hasn’t fully recovered, you will not be able to perform as well in the gym. I find that regular muscle soreness lasts for up to 2 days longer if I do not get an adequate amount of sleep. And while you can definitely still hit the gym if you’re still a little sore, you’ll be more likely to damage your joints or experience a fatigue-related injury if you do not give your body enough time to recover. Think about it - when you’ve got a serious case of post-leg-day DOMS, you have a hard-enough time bending over to tie your shoelaces, let alone performing a set of deadlifts with proper form.

In addition to sleep’s physical benefits, it also assists with concentration and focus, which can help you power through that last rep. It sounds counterintuitive, but the hours you spend in bed could be more important than the hours you spend in the gym. 

Exercise Helps You Sleep Better

There’s a reason you feel wiped after a long run or a heavy lift. Post-workout fatigue is your body’s way of telling you that it needs rest. This is great if you have trouble sleeping because exercise is the best natural sleep aid. In addition to muscular exhaustion, your body produces sleep-triggering hormones in the hours after physical exertion. The chemical that’s released is called Adenosine, which, interestingly, is the hormone gets blocked when you consume caffeine. If you struggle with falling asleep, add some more physical activity to your day. But be careful not to do anything overly strenuous right before bed, because you might just find yourself competing with an adrenaline rush. 

We all have a lot going on and balancing the trade-off between sleep and exercise can be quite tricky. Most people require 7 to 8 hours of seep each night, if you’re getting substantially less than this, it may be time to rethink your training schedule. If you’re interested in exploring other recovery techniques, check out our post on active recovery.