One of the most important shifts in thinking that will ever happen in your training is when you realise that you don’t improve your body composition while you are in the gym. You improve by RECOVERING from what you do in the gym.
In fact, all you do in the gym is create micro-level damage and break down muscle tissue. Training makes you temporarily weaker and less fit!
A workout that is hard enough to provide an adaptive stress will make your body sit up and say “Whoa! That seemed important. We’d better be ready for that if it ever happens again”. During recovery, it repairs, rebuilds and compensates for whatever stress you applied to it. This makes you better able to deal with the same stress if it’s applied again in the future. In your following training sessions, you’ll then be able to do even more work, create an even larger stress on yourself and continue adapting and improving.
You can have the best workout on the planet. The finest facilities, the best training partners and the most knowledgeable, Yoda-like coach…but none of them are worth a damn if you don’t have the recovery to back it up.
Firstly, you need the raw materials. If your diet does not have enough protein and enough total calories to fuel repair, you probably won’t get any stronger, or improve your fitness or do much of anything other than get progressively more tired and beaten up the longer you train.
The second thing you need is time to rest. At the very least this means taking a few rest days in the week, but the most restful thing you can do is, of course, go to sleep.
Most of your body’s repair processes happen while you’re asleep. The longer you sleep for, and the higher the quality of that sleep is, the better you’ll recover.
This is also when your hormone levels normalise. From a body composition and exercise perspective, we’re VERY interested in having regular levels of growth hormone, testosterone (which both men AND women produce and need), cortisol and ghrelin.
(If you haven’t heard of ghrelin before – it’s a hormone that regulates your appetite, and it gets messed up by not sleeping enough)
There is a MASSIVE link between sleep deprivation and obesity. When these things are studied, you see an almost perfect correlation between less sleep and higher BMI.
In fact, you can even use sleep deprivation to induce obesity in lab animals. Set up a control group who eat as much they want then sleep when it gets dark, and keep another group awake all night with bright lights and you get a bunch of unhappy, obese lab mice in the sleep-deprived group.
Think about it for a minute. One those days when you make your least favourable food choices, do you tend to be happy, well-rested and feeling good beforehand? Or are you so tired and worn out that the thought of chopping and eating a bunch of vegetables sounds like more than you can deal with, and ordering a pizza sounds like a really good idea?
Messed up sleep and hormone levels will make you crave highly processed, easily available calories.
Most people see a fairly linear return on investment with more sleep. If you currently sleep 6 hours per night and you upgrade to 7, you’ll see big improvements to your body. If you clock that up again to 8, things get even better. It’s pretty tough to argue a case for more than 10 hours, although plenty of professional athletes prioritise getting up to this kind of territory.
The sweet spot seems to be about 8 hours for most people. It’s enough to get 90% of the recovery benefits of sleep, but not so much that you’re going to throw your hands up in the air and declare it impossible.
You can of course “get by” with less. The human body is an amazingly adaptable, durable and resilient system. We are the ultimate compensators, and it takes decades upon decades before the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation become severe enough to produce serious complications…it’ll just make you fat, weak and unhappy in the meantime.
Live with it for long enough and you can get used to it, and even convince yourself it’s just normal for you…but there are literally free results waiting to be had here folks – no exercising, dieting or lifting a finger required to make it happen. Just lie down and close your eyes.
If you want to lose fat, go to bed earlier. If you want to build muscle, that only happens when you’re asleep. If you want to heal your aching joints/injuries, go to sleep and normalise your cortisol levels. If you want to get more done in your workouts, come in to them better rested.
So why doesn’t everyone sleep enough already? It’s a vicious cycle of bright lights, stress and addiction.
In the past, people more or less went to bed when it got dark (the average person got close to 9 hours sleep per night 100 years ago). Then some genius came up with the idea of staying up all night staring at boxes with bright lights, and things got worse. Things got even worse when the boxes got cheap enough that we could afford to put a second one right at the end of our beds and spend even longer staring at them. Then things got REALLY bad about 10 years ago when someone invented an even smaller handheld box with even brighter lights, and even more addictive content that we could bring into bed with us, and hold DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF OUR EYES from 8 inches away when we were supposed to be sleeping.
Bright light (and in particular blue light) stimulates your brain and tells you it’s daytime. During the day you’re supposed to be out foraging for food and keeping watch for predators (as far as your body knows). For this, your cortisol levels should be elevated to keep you alert and sharp, and your melatonin levels should be suppressed to stop you getting drowsy.
Of course, that’s not what’s going on. It’s actually night time, you’re tired and you should be sleeping, but your brain doesn’t know what the hell is going on here. Those elevated cortisol levels are now keeping you awake, and that melatonin you’re supposed to be producing to achieve deep, restful sleep is being seriously impacted.
So what’s the easiest thing you can do to move closer to your fitness goals? Just turn the damn things off.
Set an alarm for 60minutes before bedtime, dim the lights and turn off the phone, TV, tablet, computer and anything else that’s keeping you awake. Do something relaxing instead. Read a book, listen to music, have a hot bath, mediate, stretch…it doesn’t really matter what it is. Create some kind of relaxing, familiar pre-bed routine for yourself that doesn’t involve screens.
This won’t be easy at first, as this stuff is really habit-forming and addictive. You can install a blue light filter on your devices to help wean yourself off them if necessary (or if you absolutely HAVE to work late at night). There’s loads of these out there: f.lux for PCs, Twilight for iOS and Android etc. Google “blue light filter” and you’ll find something for any device.
It also helps to keep your bed and wake times pretty consistent throughout the week. It’s tough to constantly transition from getting up at 7am during the week to staying up until 5am at the weekends…
Knock the caffeine and other stimulants off after a certain point in the day (12pm is probably a good cut off).
Keep your bedroom slightly cool, very dark and very quiet. If it’s bright/noisy, get yourself some nice blackout curtains and/or earplugs as appropriate.
And of course, like everything else, if you’ve got a lot of work to do here, break it down. If you sleep 5 hours per night right now you’re not going to be able to go straight to 8. So set a mini-goal of getting to 5.5, then to 6 etc
This will probably make you stronger, leaner and improve your energy levels more than any other thing you can possibly do with a gym or a nutrition programme. And the kicker? It’s free, and it requires the least effort of anything you can possibly do.
So many people are willing to do endless burpees, run up and down a room with heavy sleds up and do thrusters til they vomit to get results, but they overlook just lying down and closing their eyes for an extra 30mins every night. It’s the old “stepping over 100 dollar bills to chase 50 cents down the road” phenomenon. Don’t be that guy.