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You also get faster, leaner and stronger while you recover, so it stands to reason that you should be making this a priority. But recovery isn’t simply a matter of post-workout protein and waxy maize – it’s a matter of rest. Or, more specifically, sleep.
While a great many of us build our schedules around workouts, fewer of us offer the same deference to our sleep, choosing instead to stay up late for zombies, or wake up at sunrise to catch some empty stomach cardio. But this lack of devotion to sleep might just be the missing element in your quest for a better body. Muscle-building, fat-burning and athletic performance are all diminished by sleep deprivation. You may not feel deprived but the pounds you’re lifting – or carrying around your waistline – may tell a different story.
Newborns sleep somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 hours per day but they’re not being lazy. They’re taking advantage of the wonders of growth hormone (GH). Babies are in a constant rebuilding phase as they grow and a cascade of hormones is governing this process. Without the proper amount of rest, they would not be able to secrete the right amount of GH, a critical hormone in building up tissues that peaks as you sleep.
So it makes sense that if you want to recover and grow, you also need to sleep to secrete enough GH. Sleep is – wait for it – the the most anabolic thing you can do for your muscles and if you’re not getting enough, you’re just not growing as fast as you can.
Folks who are underslept may think that they are more likely to burn fat than those who get more sleep, “If I’m up and about, I’ll be burning more calories,”. They’d be right…and wrong.
Better, more efficient fat-burning can be had by catching more z’s. Studies show that people that get less than six hours of sleep have poor insulin resistance. If you cannot control insulin, you will have a tough time losing fat, not to mention a much higher risk of developing Type II diabetes.
But there’s more. Lack of sleep also enhances your body’s production of the catabolic stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases as you become more sleep deprived, which intern can alter thyroid stimulating hormone, your key metabolic regulator. To reduce cortisol, you need to relax and sleep. Too much cortisol has been shown to increase belly fat in males.
GH is also influential on your body’s ability to fight fat and, as we discussed above, adequate sleep is imperative for gaining the full benefits of this wonder hormone.
Lack of sleep can also affect your hunger hormone, ghrelin, which can cause you to overeat. Insulin secretion and the ability to respond to insulin can decrease up to 30 percent. The better sleep you get, the better your growth hormone secretion, the less likely you are to store fat as you slumber.
You might not need to slap yourself in the face and grunt like a silverback before a big lift if you would just get enough sleep. Simply getting enough time on your pillow may be enough of a boost to your performance in the gym. Remember, heavy lifting is just as much cerebral as it is muscular. That is to say that your central nervous system plays a much larger part than you’d think when it comes to pushing through that new personal best on the bench.
There is a reason why your coach always told you to go to bed early before a game. With lousy sleep comes lousy focus, compromising your central nervous system’s clout. Your nervous system is responsible for power output, mental clarity, reaction and proprioception. If you find a decrease in any of these attributes, you lose the ability to perform at your optimal level and this applies whether you’re playing your favorite sport or you’re gearing up for a set of heavy deadlifts.
From a physiological standpoint, fatigue diminishes energy output, stifles concentration skills and enhances distractability, which makes it far easier to shirk on your workout responsibilities, especially towards the end of a workout as physical fatigue compounds mental fatigue. It is also not surprising that this lack of concentration can lead to a much greater risk of injury. The slightest fatigue-induced deviation in form or improper muscle recruitment can leave you more bedridden than you want to be.
If you’re not sleeping enough, not only will you be bummed out over how little progress you are making from your workouts and diet but you also run the risk of developing acute emotional abnormalities.
A lack of sleep contributes to a regular flow of stress hormones like cortisol, and this intensifies our emotional response. That is a likely reason why we get more testy, irritable, teary, or giggly when you are missing your winks.
Deep REM sleep is needed as it assists the brain in learning what it had acquired the day before and this includes movement patterns. Proper REM sleep aid in enhanced memory and more efficient learning and helps to resupply one’s system with neurotransmitters that were used up during the previous day.
Forgetful today? Without REM, memories may dissipate. If you learn a new athletic skill and fail to get a good night’s sleep then it’s as if you had never learned it. You may remember elements of the skill, but it won’t be converted into long-term memory. And this has huge implications for elite or hard-training athletes.
So now you see: not getting enough sleep can (and will) impair your body’s ability to gain muscle, burn fat, lift heavy weight or to do pretty much anything without being a zombie-eyed, emotional wreck that yells at guys who don’t want to let you work in.
There is no magic one-size-fits-all prescription for the amount of sleep needed to keep your body and brain performing at optimal levels. Some people can indeed get by with less sleep and some really need more in order to get by. But studies show that people who get between 7-9 hours of sleep a night have better moods, cognition and focus and may enjoy the many body-boosting benefits of GH, as compared to those who get less than seven hours of sleep
So take your sleep seriously. Be as territorial about it as you are with your time spent at the gym and you’ll likely see your results accelerate drastically.
Justin Grinnell, CSCS, is the owner of State of Fitness in East Lansing, Michigan. He is the author of The Grinnell Lifestyle: My Nutritional Doctrine, available on Amazon. For more from Justin, you can visit his gym’s website at www.mystateoffitness.com, his Facebook page, or check him out on Twitter or Instagram.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP, is a sport psychology consultant with Telos Sport Psychology Coaching (www.telos-spc.com).