The Great Importance of Sleep for More Muscle and Strength Gains, and Better Health: Part 2
Mark Houghton (above), one of HARDGAINER 2.0's every-issue authors and a lifetime drug-free bodybuilder. Between 2007 and 2009, he was competing in bodybuilding shows whilst working shifts. His impaired sleep had a negative effect on his training and physique. By 2010, he was back on a regular work and sleep pattern. He believes his much-improved sleep contributed to his improved physique shown here, at age 47, in Manchester, England, 2012, at the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation’s British Championships, where he won the Overall Masters’ Champion.
Here’s Part 2 of my sleep guide for bodybuilders and strength trainees.
Improve your sleep, and in turn you’ll improve your health, workouts, and recovery ability. Then, provided you’re truly on a good training program, you’ll improve your progress with building muscle and strength.
This sleep guide is also applicable to anyone else who wants to improve their health, vitality, and physical performance.
Please read Part 1 of this article first, though. There, you’ll learn how sustained poor sleeping hinders the secretion of the four key anabolic hormones. Part 1 also has five recommendations for how you can improve your sleep. This part has thirteen more recommendations.
To be effective, a sleep guide must be thorough.
#6: Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
Alcohol has a sedative effect but is detrimental to sleep quality. It leads to periods of light sleep interrupted by small awakenings that are usually not remembered. Such disturbed sleep contributes to hangover symptoms the next day.
If alcohol is consumed around the same time as a caffeinated product, the caffeine’s effect is increased.
Alcohol can also suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that signals sleep. A deficiency of it can cause problems with falling asleep and then staying asleep.
Furthermore, alcohol disrupts the circadian rhythms and the ability to respond normally to darkness and light. And because it relaxes the muscles of the jaw and throat, it can exacerbate snoring.
Alcohol is a diuretic. It can dry out the throat and mouth, which can also exacerbate snoring. The diuretic effect of alcohol may also mean more bathroom visits at night and thus more sleep disruption.
To avoid alcohol impairing your slumber, don’t have any in the evening, and drink little or none of it during the rest of the day.
I have just one alcoholic drink each day, with my lunch.
#7: Control your stress
Stress from the common struggles and challenges of life is one of the primary causes of insomnia and sleep deprivation. Stress comes in degrees of severity and from many sources—including financial difficulties, work-related problems, serious injury or illness, parenting difficulties, relationship struggles, and toxic people.
Get help on stress management and coping strategies from an expert counsellor or therapist. Trying to cope alone isn’t a good strategy. And find practical solutions to problems rather than simply battle on with them.
#8: Avoid emotionally highly charged states from elective activities
For at least two hours before bedtime, avoid all conflict and other stressful situations, be they in person or through a screen. Switch off from work, and turn off your email, social media, and phone. And avoid playing stirring video games, having stressful discussions, and watching thrilling movies, distressing news broadcasts, or disturbing documentaries.
Highly charged states at or near bedtime delay sleep and may lead to fragmented sleep.
For the two hours prior to your bedtime, choose activities that wind you down, not stir you up.
#9: Avoid exposure to blue light from electronic devices during the hours before bedtime
At night, the artificial blue light from screens of computers, tablets, televisions, and smartphones, and from LED light sources, can interfere with your circadian rhythm. Other than for the special use of an e-book reader that I’ll explain later, remove all those electronic devices from your bedroom, and use light bulbs there that don’t emit blue light.
If you use a computer in the late afternoon or the evening, change the screen’s settings so that “Night light” is on. That will filter out the blue light, or at least most of it. And if you watch television shortly before bedtime (but not in your bedroom) and have trouble falling asleep on time, you can keep watching it, but while wearing blue light filter glasses.
#10: Avoid late-night eating
Late-night eating is associated with difficulties falling asleep and also with digestive-tract problems, especially acid reflux, which can disrupt sleep.
Make your last “feed” of the day a snack of around 350 calories of easily digested protein-rich food about two hours before bedtime—just sufficient food so that you don’t go to bed hungry. (Spread the “lost” calories from that meal over your other feeds.)
Then don’t eat or drink again until breakfast. At night time, give total priority to your sleep.
11: Minimize late-night liquid intake
Try to eliminate bathroom visits disturbing your sleep, or limit them to just one per night. To do that, eliminate or keep to the absolute minimum your liquid intake during the three hours prior to bedtime. That includes avoiding foods that have a lot of liquid in them, such as fruit and vegetables.
But drink plenty of liquids during mornings and afternoons.
#12: Sleep on a comfortable mattress and use “breathable” bedding
There’s more to mattress suitability than its ranking on a scale of soft-to-firm. Especially if you sleep on your side, a firm mattress is unlikely to provide sufficient yielding for comfort. But a properly constructed soft mattress can provide excellent support.
A mattress that’s comfortable for one person may not be for another. Before you buy one, find a supplier that offers an at-home sleep trial so you can test a mattress before making your final decision.
Your mattress should also be constructed for temperature regulation.
It’s not the “breathability” of just your mattress that’s critical. “Breathable” sheets, blankets, bed covers, and pyjamas are also essential for heat management. Choose breathable fibers such as cotton and linen.
#13: Sleep in a dark, quiet, and cool room
A steady daytime and bedtime temperature doesn’t trigger the physiological changes conducive to getting to sleep easily and then staying asleep.
At bedtime, the temperature in your bedroom should be lower than during daytime, to send a signal to your brain that the time to go to sleep is imminent. In locations with high temperatures, to achieve that temperature difference requires air conditioning.
Some sleep scientists believe that around 20°C (68°F) is the best room temperature for healthy sleep. But some people prefer their rooms a little cooler or warmer. There’s individual variation.
Use multiple thin blankets rather than fewer heavy blankets or a thick duvet. Then you have fine control over your temperature under the bedding. Remove or add a thin blanket, as required.
The hum of a working air-conditioning machine masks low-to-moderate external noise. Alternatively, a white-noise device (or even a fan) can block out low- or medium-level external noise.
#14: Don’t sleep with someone who snores
The noise from a snorer will disturb your slumber. Sleep in a different room than the snorer. And urge the snorer to seek help from a sleep doctor.
#15: Avoid injuries
If you’re in discomfort from an injury, especially one to your neck, shoulders, back, or hips, you’ll have trouble finding a comfortable position for sleeping. And you’ll have to keep changing position each night time, which would wreck your sleep even if you do well on all the other recommendations.
Train safely so that you don’t get any serious injuries that would disrupt your sleep!
#16: Accept two-stage sleeping
Sleeping in one uninterrupted stretch is the ideal, but not possible for most adults.
Some research has shown that, even before the electric light bulb, many people slept in two parts, separated by a period of relaxing activity (but without any eating). That pattern may be your “normal.” (It’s long been my normal.) If so, accept it, like I have. But learn how to spend the period of interruption so that you can dependably return to sleep quickly. More on that shortly.
#17: Give yourself a sufficient sleep opportunity
Give or take 30 minutes, have a fixed bedtime. But it must be a time when your sleep drive has kicked in and you’re ready to fall asleep. A fixed bedtime should correspond with a fixed time of waking to start your day, give or take 30 minutes.
Give yourself the opportunity for eight to nine hours of slumber every night. For example, 11 pm until 7 or 8 am, or 10 pm until 6 or 7 am, or 9 pm until 5 or 6 am. Then, allowing for disturbances, you should be able to sleep seven to eight hours each time. But an additional hour would be better if you’re training hard.
Fix the time slot that works best for you, and then keep regular hours.
If your current hours are irregular, fix your waking time first. When your body has adapted to a consistent waking time, you’ll develop a corresponding bedtime. Avoid daytime napping because it will reduce your sleep drive and hinder falling asleep each night at around the same time. But when you already have a consistent sleep pattern, perhaps you could integrate a short nap during the day provided it doesn’t interfere with your normal bedtime. But avoid napping after 3 pm, and nap for only 20 to 25 minutes. Any longer would mean falling into a deeper sleep cycle that leads to grogginess upon waking and difficulties getting to sleep at bedtime.
Personally, though, I never nap.
#18: Learn how to get to sleep readily and return to sleep readily
Unless you find at least one dependable way to quieten your mind at bedtime, and during the night when you wake, you’ll not be able to sleep well on a consistent basis.
You need non-stimulating methods of occupying your mind, so there’s insufficient “room” for worries and other distracting thoughts to get in. Reading is probably the most popular method, although some people find mindfulness, mantra chanting (in one’s head), or counting exercises to work for them. Find what works for you.
I always read at bedtime. My sleep drive is very strong at my bedtime—because I apply all the recommendations in this article—so I almost always fall asleep within 10 minutes. But if I go to bed before my usual bedtime, I can read for longer before I fall asleep.
I usually also read to help me return to sleep when I wake during the night.
But I don’t read physical books at night time. I read under my bed coverings using an e-book reader on at the minimum light setting and that has a blue light filter. I read undemanding, non-stimulating content I enjoy.
Before I got an e-book reader, my sleep suffered a great deal because I didn’t have another effective way of quietening my mind.
If you sleep alone, reading a physical book will be an option, but for the light to read it by, avoid light bulbs that emit blue light.
If you have an e-book reader that emits blue light but doesn’t have a filter setting, apply a blue light screen protector to it, or get a better device.
Putting the guidance in this sleep guide into consistent practice will greatly improve if not fix most people’s sleeping problems. But to get the full benefits, you must apply all 17 sleep tips or recommendations.
And that will require changes in your sleep-related behaviors, but there’s no other way if you’re serious about sleeping better and improving your workouts, recovery ability, and progress with building muscle and strength.
If, however, the changes don’t improve your slumber much, you may have underlying health problems that also need to be addressed, such as sleep apnea. In which case, consult a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders.
About the author
Stuart McRobert has been a voice of reason in the training world for 41 years and counting. He was first published in 1981, in IRON MAN magazine, when he was 22 years old, and has had over 1,000 articles published in US and European bodybuilding print magazines other than his own, including IRON MAN, FLEX, MUSCLE & FITNESS, and MUSCLEMAG INTERNATIONAL. He also published HARDGAINER print magazine for 15 years—from 1989 to 2004—and is the author of BRAWN, BEYOND BRAWN, BUILD MUSCLE LOSE FAT LOOK GREAT, and several other books.
But Stuart’s not an armchair coach. Drug-free, he built himself up from a skinny youth to 195 pounds and deadlifted 400 pounds for a set of 20 reps. And he still trains seriously today, at age 64.
Success stories from those who also use hard-gainer-style methods for their training and coaching include Marty Gallagher and Chuck Miller.
Stuart currently publishes HARDGAINER 2.0 digital magazine. Visit his website to get your FREE sampler issue: www.hardgainer.com