Wake Up Buff! (Sorta)

It sounds like one of those annoying spam e-mails:

"Lose fat while you sleep! Build muscle overnight!"

But the truth is, you can get bigger, get stronger, and enhance athletic performance with the right amount and right kind of sleep. To those trying to improve their body or performance, sleep is just as important as the right diet and training program, maybe even more so!

How important is it? Scientists estimate a human would die within ten days if continuously deprived of sleep. You can go that long without any food or training, maybe even nookie, but not sleep.

No one brags about how little they train or about how little protein they eat, yet if I had a nickel for every time someone proudly told me they can get by on minimal sleep, well, I'd have a serious problem finding a place to store all those nickels! Invariably, these are the guys (and girls) who look the same year after year, seemingly stuck in that forsaken zone where no one can tell with any degree of certainty whether or not they even work out.

"I get plenty of sleep," they say, swishing their third can of Mountain Dew through a dilapidated fence of cavity-filled teeth. "Six hours is plenty for me; besides, it's all I can get!" I've got news for you caffeine junkies: in all likelihood six hours isn't enough. If that's all you're getting, you may soon find yourself stuck in some sort of strength or body comp plateau.

In one study, people restricted to four, six, or eight hours of nightly sleep or time in bed (TIB) for two weeks had their cognitive performance measured on a variety of tests. By the sixth day, 46% of the four-hour TIB group and 23% of the six-hour TIB group were unable to stay awake during the tests. That's not unwilling, that's unable!

Performance was shown to degrade in a dose-response manner, yet amazingly, their self-reports indicated they thought they'd adapted to this chronic sleep deprivation and mounting sleep deficit! Most of the time they didn't even realize they were falling asleep! The only adaptation that had occurred was the stabilization of performance at a reduced level. (1) In contrast, the eight-hour TIB folks generally showed improvement on the tests and never fell asleep while being tested. (2) These unintentional forays into dreamland are referred to as "microsleeps."

Sounds kind of insidious, huh? It is. In a 42-hour experiment, researchers found that beginning at 18 hours of total sleep deprivation, subjects started to not respond to a simple visual test. (3) Eighteen hours of sleep deprivation is just staying up late for many of us! A non-response would be like blowing past a broken down bus filled with fitness models hanging out the windows desperately trying to flag you down with bits of lingerie–and not even having it register!

Maybe it's a football you don't see, or a stop sign, or a terrorist drawing a bead on your head. Navy Seals deprived of sleep took significantly more time to sight targets. In fact, all marksmanship accuracy measures were markedly degraded. (4)

Maybe the closest you've been to a seal is at the circus, but how about delayed response times? (5) Do you need quick responses on the road? Drowsiness is starting to be viewed by some researchers as a bigger traffic hazard than alcohol! (6) And do you really want a guy who swears he can get by on only five hours of sleep a night spotting you on a big lift?

Push deeper into the sleep deprivation zone and you get hallucinations. Hallucinations are thought to occur in conjunction with microsleeps when the mind has trouble distinguishing between dreams and wakefulness. In addition to increased response times, sleep deprivation results in unpredictable responses to stimuli–no good for athletes. Reviewing the literature, there's no question sleep deprivation will degrade your performance on the field or in the gym.

Snooze or Lose

"Well whoopdie-freakin'-doo," you might say. "I haven't nodded off in the gym yet! And as long as I don't push the envelope so far that I fall asleep during a set of heavy bench presses and crush my chest flatter than a tin can in a trash compactor, who cares? After all, I have to get up early, not to mention watching Letterman every night and..." Excuses, excuses. You should care about this issue. I'll give you a few more reasons why.

People shorted just one night of sleep are less willing to work at tasks they'd ordinarily tackle after a full night's rest. (7) Translated into gym-speak, that means you'll feel like using less weight and performing fewer reps. Even if by some heroic act of will you force yourself to not back off on weights, reps, or sets, time needed to exhaust muscles is shortened during sleep deprivation. (8) You just can't win without sleep!

Okay, maybe I'm stretching it. If you're on the biceps-only plan you'll be fine, but performance on "real" compound lifts like bench press, squats, and deadlifts will decrease. It's been studied and proven! (9)

Sure, you can find questionable studies saying sleep deprivation won't effect some of these variables, but such studies are by far in the minority. It should also be noted that some of the negative effects of sleep deprivation can be overcome on a short-term basis through various methods (caffeine, mind games etc.), but left to their own devices most people find their mood and attitude is poor. (10) And besides, you can't rely on drugs and mind games every day you train!

Now, before you start patting yourself on the back for getting eight hours of sleep every night, let me add that your eight hours has to be quality, sound sleep. If you're awakening every hour or two throughout the night, the anabolic value of your sleep is greatly diminished. Your perceived effort the next day will increase and your stamina will decrease. (11, 12, 13, 14)

No doubt about it, lack of sleep will hurt your progress solely for reasons related to stamina and motivation. Yet people will argue nonstop when sleep is thrown into the equation – usually the people trying to convince me how optimally they function on minimal sleep, like it makes them "tougher" if they're able to do so. If they could stop dozing off during their arguments I might be more inclined to listen!

Sleep Deprivation Nightmares

Okay, so we've talked about the effects of sleep deprivation on workout intensity. Still not convinced sleep is important? Fine. Have your mediocre workout. But insufficient sleep can also slow muscle recovery, increase insulin resistance, and elevate levels of the muscle-gobbling hormone cortisol! (16, 17, 18)

Sleep deprivation can also lower your serum levels of Testosterone and reduce your natural levels of growth hormone. (15, 19, 20) Does the phrase "catabolic tag team" mean anything to you?

While those so-called HGH boosting supplements are pretty worthless, your natural growth hormone levels are important. In very broad terms, GH regenerates your body and certainly isn't something weight-training athletes want to be short on. Don't confuse bogus supplements with the real thing.

In children, low GH levels caused by chronic sleep deprivation results in stunted growth! Granted, healthy children have much higher levels than adults, but regular low-dose, high frequency injections of GH in deficient adults result in lean body mass gain and fat loss, even without the added kicker of exercise. (21, 22, 23) So if you're shorting yourself on sleep, you're shorting yourself on growth hormone, which translates into more fat and less muscle over time.

In short, if you can't gain muscle or lose fat, and everything else seems to be in order, you need to take a look at your sleep patterns. Remember, diet, exercise, and recovery are equally important. Stop treating recovery like it doesn't matter!

Snore for More

Have I finally gotten your attention? Good, let's get a basic understanding of how sleep does all this cool stuff for our bodies.

When your tired head hits the pillow, a few sheep jump over the fence, then you begin to transition from wakefulness to sleep. This transition (sometimes called the "twilight state") takes just a few minutes and you're off into stage one sleep. You've got to motor through stages one and two to get to stages three and four where you're in what's called "slow wave sleep." This is where the vast majority of GH is released. (24)

During the slow wave stages you're flitting in and out of the really good stuff: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Throughout the night you progress through the various stages of sleep and into REM four to six times. The time spent in REM grows during each successive wave starting at about ten minutes and lasting up to about thirty. So the sleep towards the end of the night is more valuable than what you get after first falling asleep.

Each time you make it into the REM phase it's like passing "Go" in Monopoly: you basically get a shot of GH, lowered cortisol levels, and a happy endocrine system that squirts out more Testosterone. (17, 19, 25) I don't know about you, but that's the sort of Monopoly I'd like to play! If you only sleep long enough to get through four cycles instead of six, you miss two cycles' worth of GH and other muscle building goodies.

The REM stage is also characterized by increased brain temperature and metabolic rate–a rate equal to or higher than while awake. This is sometimes referred to as "paradoxical sleep" since the brain is more "awake" during the REM stage than when you're awake during the day.

During REM sleep your body also shuts down skeletal muscle through active inhibition of motoneurons, resulting in a state called "atonia." This means that except for the eyes, ears and diaphragm, you're effectively paralyzed. (26) Sleep researchers (who, taken as a group, apparently detest cats) did some experiments shutting down this protective mechanism in cats' brains. These cats would be sleeping peacefully until they hit REM, then, still asleep, they'd pop up and start walking around yowling and growling and engaging in all sorts of disturbing behavior while actively dreaming! (27) Forced paralyzation is your body's way of forcing the muscles to take a break and make repairs. No REM sleep, no atonia, no muscle repairs!

By the way, this is also the time your mind learns. Stage two sleep is required for simple motor tasks (tying your shoes), while REM sleep is necessary when more challenging conceptual components are added (unlacing her corset in the dark with your teeth while in a zero gravity simulator). (28, 29)

If the statistics are correct, nearly a third of you are getting less than six hours of sleep. To recap, that means you'll have less stamina and less motivation. You'll also miss out on those natural "stacks" of Testosterone and GH produced during sleep. And when you cut sleep time short, you can't make it through the multiple, progressively intense REM cycles necessary for health and repair. Proper amounts of rest likewise result in lowered overall cortisol levels.

Wrap it all up and you get this conclusion: sleep builds muscle, at least when you get enough of it and it's high quality sleep (not that discount kind you get at Wal-Mart). For those of you who are sleep deprived and fighting to stay awake and comprehend what you're reading, I offer this simplified summary: sleep = good.

So what's the proper amount of sleep for you as an individual and how can you ensure getting it? What roadblocks stand in the way of good sleep and how can you make the most of your time in bed? I'll cover those issues in Part II! Until then, get some sleep!

References Cited

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