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Sleep and Recovery for Strength

By Richard Killian, SSC, CPT, LMT

What if I told you that you could become stronger and develop more muscle by taking a nap every day, rather than spending more time slaving in the gym? It sounds too good to be true, right? I am here to tell you it’s not. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about weight training is that results are obtained by working out. One would logically think the more time spent lifting weights, the stronger and more muscular you would become.

However, the reality is that strength and muscular hypertrophy (growth) are obtained by recovering from workouts, not by the workouts themselves. Workouts are a stressor that disrupts our body’s homeostasis: the stable and balanced state of our body. If recovery factors are optimized, our body will repair itself to a more resilient state after training, so that it is capable of handling higher levels of the specific stress imposed on it in the future. For the strength trainee, this will usually mean more weight on the bar for a given exercise.

Proper programming is vital. You must challenge yourself with increasingly more intense workouts over time as adaptation occurs, to continue the process of getting stronger. But, if you’re a novice lifter, you will obtain better results training three hours a week and devoting the rest of the time to recovery—rather than training ten hours a week, which would be too taxing to recover from. While proper nutrition is critical, sleep is the single most effective aid in recovering from intense training. It costs nothing, and only requires time and a little effort. Let us explore why else we should be concerned about our sleep, how much we really need, and what we can do to improve the quality of our sleep to maximize our health and progress in the gym.

According to the Centers for Disease Control: “Insufficient sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression, which threaten our nation’s health.” Inadequate sleep reduces exercise performance, decreases competitive ability and determination, and can lead to a lack of training intensity. It can put our bodies in a catabolic state, potentially leading to muscle loss. If you are looking to get stronger and put on muscle, sleep may be the most anabolic factor in your control. While you sleep, your body releases anabolic (muscle building) hormones, such as testosterone and HGH, while limiting the levels of catabolic (muscle wasting) hormones. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting about 7-9 hours of sleep for young adults, and 7-8 hours for older adults. Strength training, yoga, and massage therapy can all improve the quality of our sleep and can also aid in recovery and fatigue reduction in athletes by promoting relaxation.

Besides managing stress, there are a couple of ‘hacks’ we can use to ensure we drift into and sustain a deep restful slumber. Consistent sleep patterns are paramount, white noise machines can block out background noise, and blackout shades can prevent the sun from waking you up too early. Naps are an excellent supplement to sleep, although not a replacement. Keeping naps to about 20-30 minutes will leave you feeling revitalized and not groggy. In closing, if you are already training rigorously and intelligently in the gym a few days a week, and you are thinking about upping the ante by increasing the volume, frequency, or intensity of your workouts, consider just going to bed earlier instead.


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