Sleep: One of the Most Commonly Neglected Ways to Improve Your Physique

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by Mike Arnold

Of all the sports in the world today, bodybuilding is certainly one of the most complex. While other athletic outlets might be more elaborate in terms of competitive application (posing on a bodybuilding stage vs. olympic diving, for instance), none involve a potentially greater amount of learning over such a broad range of subjects. With direct links to over a dozen different sciences, including kinesiology, physiology, pharmacology, anatomy, and nutrition, just to name a few, a bodybuilder’s education never ends.

With a near endless number of potential factors affecting our ability to build muscle and lose fat, it can be difficult enough, especially if we’ve been involved in the sport for a while, just to remember everything we’ve learned, let alone apply all this information effectively. Fortunately, we don’t need a PhD in bodybuilding in order to possess a solid grasp of its basic concepts and start making progress towards our goals. In most cases, even a partial understanding of the principles that drive muscle growth/fat loss will get the job done. However, for those who are already heavily invested in the sport and desire to take things to the next level, even minor alterations in one’s program can often make the difference between stagnation and an acceptable rate of progress.

Still, as much as we might like to perfect every aspect of our program, it’s just not practical; not from an educational standpoint, nor in terms of time or finances (for most). Furthermore, many bodybuilders tend to focus on details of relatively little importance, while neglecting the core components that make everything work. Often, this is done unknowingly, either as a result of ignorance or an aversion to the mundane/favoritism of the novel. In most cases it costs little to nothing to address these issues, making them viable areas of improvement for the majority.
One of the most important and certainly one of the most neglected aspects of bodybuilding is sleep. When I say sleep I am not referring only to the number of hours clocked per night, but also sleep quality, which is dependent on several factors and influences just about every aspect of our being. But before we talk about how to improve the body’s ability to benefit from this daily downtime, let’s look at what sleep actually is and why it is so important to our overall bodybuilding progress.

As bodybuilders, we have been told from day one that sleep is one of the three foundational pillars (training and nutrition being the other two) of bodybuilding success. Given its profound influence in this area , one might expect to see plenty of discussion surrounding this topic, yet the amount of attention it receives is usually miniscule, even in comparison to topics of comparatively little importance. A big reason for this is the lack of conscious involvement while sleeping. Rather than requiring forethought and intentional action like most daytime activities, sleep requires us to do basically nothing. Despite its unconscious nature, failing to get enough quality sleep has a barrage of detrimental effects on the body, including reduced IGF-1, growth hormone, and testosterone levels, increased cortisol production, impaired immune response, insulin resistance, elevated blood pressure, cognitive dysfunction, cardiovascular decay, and of course, a reduced rate of cellular repair. Even then, we are still just scratching the surface. A sleep deficiency disturbs/impairs literally 1000’s of functions to one degree or another, adversely affecting every single cell/system in the body, including those which influence muscle growth.

Basically, sleep is the designated time period for the body to analyze its environment, recalibrate its internal set-point, and correct/repair/maintain the entirety of our being. As an involuntary activity, the brain initiates these functions without our permission, leaving us with no way of monitoring or adjusting them according to our needs. For the most part, we remain completely unaware, snoring away until we wake up the following morning. Despite its self-governed nature, getting the generally recommended number of hours per night is not guaranteed to make us feel or perform at our best. This is a sign of poor sleep quality; a regular occurrence in today’s society and just as common as a lack of sleep. Regardless of the cause, if you wake up feeling tired, either physically or mentally, your body is trying to tell you something. You should start your day wanting to get out of bed and full of energy. Anything less is a sign that your body is not recovering from the stress being placed upon it.

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Under such circumstances muscle growth is one of the first things to be compromised. Even under ideal circumstances, the body’s capacity for recovery is limited, so what do you think is going to happen when this limited ability is further hampered by inadequate/poor quality rest? I’ll tell you what is going to happen. Less of your body’s resources are going to be devoted to muscle growth. That’s just a fact. As bodybuilders, we already acknowledge the importance of recovery in building bigger muscles, as demonstrated by our rigid adherence to specific dietary principles and training frequencies. Being that we are already willing to go to such extraordinary lengths in these areas, why on Earth should we neglect the one thing that affects recovery more than anything else?

Getting enough sleep speaks for itself, as the ill effects of a sleep deficit are readily apparent the following day. However, we can’t use a clock to diagnose problems associated with sleep quality, as it is determined not by how long we sleep, but by the number of sleep cycles we complete each night (as well as other factors). With each sleep cycle lasting about 90 minutes, a typical 8 hour night will allow us to complete roughly 5 cycles, assuming they proceed uninterrupted. Each of these cycles is comprised of 4 phases, with each phase (particularly the latter phases) playing a crucial role in the body’s ability to recover and adapt to stress (training or otherwise). The body must spend enough time in each of these phases before being able to move onto the next. If we wake up even one time, the current cycle re-sets itself and we must start again from the beginning. With many of us waking up 2, 3, 4 or even more times per night, it is easy to see how completing enough sleep cycles can become a real problem. While staying asleep is a major factor in improving sleep quality, it is just one of many, the rest of which we will address momentarily. By implementing the recommendations below, you will both quicken your recovery rate and enhance the body’s hypertrophic response to training.

When it comes to sleep duration, most of us have been taught that 8 hours is ideal, but between work schedules, family obligations, and other life responsibilities, meeting this quota can be difficult even under the best circumstances. Unfortunately, despite the increased demands placed upon them, most hard-training bodybuilders get considerably less. For those of you who have the advantage of making your own schedule, getting a full night’s rest (8 hours) plus a mid-day nap is ideal. While this may seem like very basic advice—and it is—it bears repeating due to the fact that most bodybuilders don’t get anywhere close. More and more often, I am seeing serious lifters log a pathetic about 5-6 hour per night; hardly adequate for someone desiring the best possible outcome from their training investment.

When it comes to extracting maximum benefit from the hours we put in each night, improving sleep quality is critical. Of all the things we can do to make this happen, one of the most important, if not the most important, is to comply with the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Frequently referred to as the body’s internal clock, the circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that regulates sleeping patterns and a multitude of other important physiological processes. By failing to co-ordinate our sleep schedule with our inborn circadian rhythm, these processes are disrupted, resulting in endocrine, nervous, muscular, digestive, immune, and cardiovascular system disturbances/damage. Numerous serious health problems, such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and certain neurological conditions, have all been clinically linked to a disruption of the circadian rhythm.

There are several steps we can take to stay in harmony with the body’s pre-programmed internal clock, the most important of which is to sleep “at night”, but not just anytime at night. The body’s circadian rhythm is patterned after our natural environment, with factors such as sunlight and temperature acting as external cues for the body’s wake/sleep cycle. When exposed to darkness and cooler temperatures, the body begins preparing for sleep by initiating a cascade of hormonal and neural shifts conducive to sleep. While this shift can be artificially induced during sunlight hours by placing oneself in a cool, dark room, the shift is only partial. Even in instances of total seclusion, where humans have not been exposed to any sunlight for months at a time, the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) continues to fluctuate with the ebb and flow of the sun. Regardless of whether you believe this inborn wake-sleep system was put in place by a creator or gradually developed over millions of years of evolution, the fact remains that the body’s circadian rhythm follows the rising and setting of the sun.

While patterning our sleeping habits after the sun is unrealistic for most, especially in the winter months when the sun sets rather early, we should do our best to get to bed at least a few hours before midnight. Studies have shown that those who go to bed before midnight have lower levels of cortisol, lower blood pressure, and a reduced likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease—all indicators of being in sync with our circadian rhythm. For those who are unable to do so, or find themselves sleeping after the sun has already risen, the use of an eye mask/patch is a great idea. Even if you do sleep according to the body’s circadian rhythm, the near continual presence of artificial light (both inside and outside the house) can interfere with the sleep process. For this reason, unless you sleep in complete/near complete darkness, the use of an eye mask/patch makes logical sense. While they can take some getting used to at first, the benefits are well worth the temporary annoyance.

The body is a creature of habit and when it comes to sleep, it is no different. Abnormal sleeping patterns, even if kept during nighttime hours, are confusing to the body, preventing it from receiving optimal benefit from our sleep. I am not referring to the maintenance of circadian rhythms here, but to following a set schedule. For this reason, we should attempt to abide by a regular routine, in which we lay down and wake up at the same time each day.

As mentioned previously, certain hormones play a big role in the sleep-wake cycle, two of which are cortisol and melatonin. When we sleep, cortisol levels are low and melatonin levels are high, which is the exact opposite of what happens during the day. As you’ve probably figured out, melatonin is a sleep hormone secreted by the pineal gland, and is involved in myriad functions within the body. On the flipside, cortisol plays an active role in helping us wake up, so naturally, levels begin to peak in the morning hours (6-10 am). Fortunately, we can help optimize our sleep cycle through supplementation. Melatonin, despite being a hormone, is available OTC just about everywhere supplements are sold, while phosphatidylserine, which is great at lowering cortisol levels in the body, is also widely available through the OTC market.

Other supplements with clinical validation include magnesium and tryptophan (particularly in combination with Vitamin B6), as well as prescription medications such as Gabapentin. While effective, I recommend abstaining from prescription medication when possible, due to undesirable side effects. One exception would be growth hormone/growth hormone secretagogues. When used responsibly, not only does GH greatly enhance our bodybuilding progress, but it can increase sleep quality considerably, especially when administered pre-bed. In terms of diet, carbohydrates, particularly sugar, can have a negative effect on sleep quality. While I am not necessarily recommending one forego carbohydrates around bedtime (especially for growing bodybuilders with fast metabolisms), if one is in a position where the pre-bed consumptions of carbs is of no benefit, you will might as well skip them.

By adhering to the recommendations listed above, you will not only recover and grow at a more rapid rate, but you will feel and function better all the way around. Virtually every area of your health will benefit; both through improved physiological function and a reduced likelihood of developing degenerative disease. Even if you implement only a few of these suggestions, it’s better than nothing.

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