I had quite a few people ask about more information on sleep after one of my articles mentioned benefits I had from getting more sleep during that 2 month stretch. Sleep is a topic that has fascinated me since I first started competing in bodybuilding shows. As the contest prep went on and I got leaner, it would seem that I needed less and less sleep and I was able to ‘pop’ out of bed in the mornings like someone shot adrenaline into my arm. This went on throughout the time period of 5 different contest preps and mind you, by the end of prep, I was getting up at 3:30 AM to enjoy a pot of coffee and listen to some music. The same thing happened last year when I played around with a cycle diet and took my body fat level down to 7%. There seemed to be something about being lean or maybe deprived that made it so I needed less sleep or couldn’t sleep as much. Anyhow, the curiosity switch was flipped and sleep still seems to be a wide open frontier. (There was also I believe a NY Times article this year about the Sleepless Elite, in which certain people, supposedly including Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison and others that only need about 2 hours of sleep per night. Scientists are actually studying the gene that allows this to happen. This is without detriment to performance either. Imagine!)
First, let’s get one thing straight, I am one of the biggest hypocrites when it comes to sleeping enough. I went for a two-month stretch last year in which I got 8 hours per night and I felt wonderful (I wrote about this in past articles). I normally average around 6 per night, the thinking being that I need to outwork others during those other two hours. Funny thing is, I have found that I get just as much done during the periods in which I am able to sleep eight hours a night for a few days straight.
Given the fact that I used to get ripped and maintain muscle, while getting stronger during my contest prep told me that sleep needs to be for more than just tissue repair. Doing contest prep is one of the most grueling physical things that you can put your body through and it should have required more sleep, not less sleep. (However, part of my prep plan was sleeping with 3 layers of sweats on to raise body temperature and to stay awake longer to make sure my metabolism would stay higher for longer, rather than slowing down during sleep. Maybe bogus, but you can’t blame me for experimenting.) Tim Ferriss talks about how there needs to be more of a reason than tissue regeneration for sleep. According the Sapolsky (2004), many scientists and doctors believe that the reason for sleep is for the brain to replenish its energy supplies. The brain weighs only about 3% of total body weight, yet it consumes 25% of the total body energy expenditure! Deep wave sleep is when energy restoration occurs (stages 3 and 4-REM). It cannot be overlooked that although the brain the main component that is restoring energy, this is still a very important point for student-athletes and athletes in general: for academic reasons as well as decision making during the game. You do not want your starting quarterback playing in the conference championship while working on 5 hours of sleep.
I remember to those days when I was competing and reading and listening to some Poliquin stuff about how your room should be like a bat cave, completely dark. He cited studies in which a light shined on the bottom of your foot could actually disturb the hormonal output during sleep. I also recall reading about how he mentioned something about wearing spandex and sleeping quality and recovery, so I went through a phase in which I wore my spandex pants and shirts to bed (kind of like a kid and his onesie).
It is very important that you do not watch television or do things right before bed that stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Once in a while, you might stay up for a late game, but you will have no shot at entering deep wave sleep while the SNS is cranking. I always have my athletes either stretch, meditate, go for a light walk or listen to some soothing music before bed. These types of activities help to activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). In order for recovery to take place, you must be in PNS dominance. (Note, you do not want to constantly be in a PNS state. Don’t read this and go over board). I remember hearing Buddy Morris say that the Russians used to have their athletes go to the beach and walk barefoot for 4 hours when they thought they might be getting over trained to stimulate the PNS and decrease the activity of the SNS. Before I turn this into two different articles, be sure to get into a PNS state before bed. To further show this point, one study took people to altitude without letting them acclimate, and of course, this put them into a SNS dominant state, which made it literally impossible for them to go to sleep. Imagine trying to sleep with your heart rate through the roof.
If you or your athletes are depriving themselves of sleep, then a decrease in stress hormones doesn’t occur, instead, they increase. And to make matters worse, a lack of sleep will cause both growth hormone and sex hormones to decrease! The worst kind of sleep to get is too little sleep that is unpredictably fragmented. The best kind of sleep to get is in a dark room, 67-70° and to wake up naturally, without an alarm clock. Waking up without an alarm clock is not practical for most people, so you can look into something called a Natural Clock, which gradually produces more light as the morning nears. Another interesting thing to note is that whether you are waking up naturally or you have to get up earlier than you would like, about an hour before you rise, your body somehow knows it and stress hormones will begin to rise. A magnesium deficiency can also cause poor sleep. It is good practice to supplement with magnesium as most people are deficient and it will improve performance in the gym.
I know I put a lot of information in here, but you can pick and choose what interests you and what you can put to practice. You and your athletes should aim for 8-10 hours per night of quality sleep (this means not leaving the tv on or getting hammered and passing out). Do yourself the favor and stop reading this, get to sleep!
If only I had known these essential ingredients for getting stronger, leaner and more energetic when I was competing in bodybuilding, I would have made things a whole lot easier. On second thought, I did know these things and many of you will know them too, it is only a matter of putting them into practice. If you are neurotic about your strength training and body, you will more than likely be of the mindset that more is better and sleep is for sissy’s. I have been fighting that problem all my life, but then something changed.
I was at a seminar in which I got the chance to see elite strength coach, Martin Rooney, speak. I actually saw him a few times and each time he talked about the importance of sleep. The first time, it kind of stuck, the second time, I listened and dug deeper. I made a promise to myself that for two months I would get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. This would be two more than my usual 6. At this time, I also started to supplement more with fish oils, taking in 12-20 grams per day. Without changing anything else, I lost ten pounds of body fat and had the best strength producing workouts of my life. Notice- I did not change anything with my nutrition, yet lost 10 pounds. I did not add in any extra conditioning either. My energy throughout the day was also superb. And, I was getting just as much stuff accomplished every day on my daily to do list. I did not get sick during the winter for the first time in the five years that I have been teaching phys. Ed.
I read the book, Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers by Sapolsky and that shed some more light on the issue. Sleep is critical. If you aren’t sleeping enough, you are never fully entering a parasympathetic state, the state in which you recover and make your best gains. This is the state after the stress is applied and the tissue must adapt. Also, lack of sleep will lead to raised cortisol levels, some cortisol is okay, too much is the strength athlete’s enemy! The double whammy of fish oil and sleep with be the best ‘upper’ medicine you could ever find. I can’t emphasize enough to my students, athletes and clients how much sleep will aide in their growth, fat loss, muscle gain, cognitive function and everything else in between. Something simple, something overlooked too often, turn off the tv and sleep! And don’t forget the fish oil…
I am in the process of writing an interesting article about how many similarities there are between gaining muscle and losing body fat and I think you will be suprised to see that there are a lot more similarities than differences. I will highlight a few here:
- More of a Paleo diet should be followed for both purposes. Save insulin spikes for post-workout as insulin accelerates aging and raises cortisol, the last thing you want if you are trying to gain muscle or lose fat.
- With that said, belly fat around the belly button is a sure sign that somebody’s cortisol levels are too high, meaning they are stressed and in a constant state of fight or flight, sympathetic nervous system dominance.
- If magnesium is deficient, you will not gain much muscle or lose any body fat. And in fact, most people are deficient in magensium. Taken towards the second half of the day, it will also aid in relaxation and better sleep.
- Sleep is critical if you are to achieve muscle gain or fat loss. Too little sleep means too much cortisol production.
- Teenagers produce much of their seratonit around mid-night, different than an adult. This is why they want to go to sleep later. If this is the case, let them sleep and have them take naps, especially if they are trying to gain muscle.
Got to run and teach now, sorry for being cryptic more and more, but time is of the essence and I am trying to command my time and maximize it. Got a lot of things in the works and living the life of my dreams…stay tuned! -K