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Sleep – Your Hidden Bodybuilding Asset

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Bodybuilding is a lifestyle. One of the most important aspects of that lifestyle is getting a great sleep routine established.

As the bedrock of all recovery, sleep is one of the things that underpins your progress both in and out of the gym. In this article we’re going to take a deep dive into sleep. We’ll look at the research around bodybuilder sleep and the impact sleep (or a lack of it) has on health and performance.

A bodybuilder takes a sleep after its workout
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We’ll round off with an evidence-based guide to improving your sleep and therefore, your physical and mental condition.

Why bodybuilder sleep matters more than most

The demands placed on a bodybuilder are greater than most. The training frequency, the weights lifted, the variation of movements and the regular extreme fatigue in the gym take their toll. You’ve then got the dieting aspect of the sport. It’s year-round intensity.

Extreme weight gain and loss during the bulking and cutting phases take their toll physically and mentally.

All this adds up to explain why bodybuilders need the best quality sleep they can get. We’re going to look at the research around sleep and how lifestyle choices affect it. We’ll link it directly to how great sleep will help you as a bodybuilder. 

Lack of sleep impact on exercise performance

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Unsurprisingly, there is a huge amount of research showing how a lack of sleep impacts exercise performance across the board. In 2022, a review titled ‘Effects of Acute Sleep Loss on Physical Performance: A Systematic and Meta-Analytical Review‘ was published. 

In the review researchers assessed the impact a lack of sleep had on…

  • Anaerobic power
  • Speed/power endurance
  • Strength
  • Endurance
  • Strength-endurance
  • Skill 

The researchers reported that ‘effects of sleep loss were significant for all exercise categories‘. It’s a pretty damning statement regarding the impact a lack of sleep has on our physical capabilities.

If you want to be able to maintain workout performance, you should be getting plenty of adequate sleep every night. 

Anabolic sleep

Muscle mass and bodybuilding are a match made in heaven. There’s essentially one goal to bodybuilding resistance training – muscle growth.

Once the intense training and eating has been done, the next part of the plan kicks in. You must get sufficient sleep to let every anabolic hormone in your body get to work. High quality sleep isn’t just about letting your body rest, it’s also the time your endocrine system ramps up and does its job.

The impact a lack of sleep has on muscle growth and your hormone profile is dramatic.

In 2021, Lamon et al published a study titled ‘The effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment‘. Their findings were shocking, with the stand outs being…

Acute sleep deprivation reduced muscle protein synthesis by 18%. In addition, sleep deprivation increased plasma cortisol by 21% and decreased plasma testosterone by 24%. A single night of total sleep deprivation is sufficient to induce anabolic resistance and a procatabolic environment.

This is huge. What the researchers are saying here is that sleep deprivation not only makes it more difficult to build muscle, it also creates the conditions for muscle loss, making it a double-whammy for improving body composition.

Sleep and injury risk

When we train hard we create micro tears in the muscle and connective tissues. These heal bigger and stronger, which is a very simple explanation of tissue growth.

In the interim, these tissues are more vulnerable to injury. Add a lack of sleep (less than 7 hours per night) into the mix and the risk increases by around 1.7 times, according to a study by Kevin Huang and Joseph Ihm published in 2021. Their research concluded…

‘Recent research has found evidence relating chronic suboptimal sleep with the risk of musculoskeletal pain and sports injury. The amount of sleep that consistently has been found to be associated with increased risk of injury is ≤7 h of sleep, which has been associated with 1.7 times greater risk of musculoskeletal injury.’

Ensuring a high quality of sleep might be the single most effective weapon bodybuilders have against musculoskeletal injuries.

Sleep and appetite control

Ask any bodybuilder what the toughest part of the sport is and you’ll get the same answer… the cut. Dieting down to low single-digit body fat is an exercise in dedication and willpower. It’s a necessary evil to the physique athlete.

We know dieting isn’t easy. Being sleep deprived makes it so much worse.

The extent to which appetite control is affected by sleep deprivation was studied by Greer et al in 2014. In their study titled ‘The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain’ they concluded that…

‘A change in the profile of brain activity is further associated with a significant increase in the desire for weight-gain promoting high-calorie foods following sleep deprivation, the extent of which is predicted by the subjective severity of sleep loss across participants.’

The conclusion you can draw from this is that the more sleep deprived you are, the more you’ll crave the higher calorie foods that make dieting less effective and harder to do.

Sleep and mental health

There’s a ball of issues around bodybuilding and mental health problems. A combination of absolute focus to a singular goal, regular denial of food and drink pleasures, high incidence of body dysmorphia… it adds up to bodybuilding and mental health often being bedfellows.

There’s evidence to support a link between mental health disorder frequency and bodybuilders. In this case however, we’re more interested in how sleep deprivation makes mental health worse. 

In 2021, Blackwelder et al undertook a study titled Effect of Inadequate Sleep on Frequent Mental Distress’. They concluded that…

‘Participants who averaged 6 hours or less of sleep per night were about 2.5 times more likely to have frequent mental distress.

If you are a bodybuilder vulnerable to periods of poor mental health, you really need to be getting a full night’s sleep. This deep sleep will help you to maintain your mental health, as well as your physical health. Aim for 8-10 hours of sleep per night.

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Caffeine and sleep

In my experience working with and knowing plenty of bodybuilders, I know how much they love a pre workout drink

There’s a potential problem here though… caffeine is a potent stimulant that can have a huge impact on quality of sleep later on that night. Whilst it might be a useful way to temporarily boost energy levels for a training session, it can jeopardise sleep later on.

How much can caffeine impact sleep? Is the question you’ve probably got…

In 2013 Drake et al investigated Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed. The dose of caffeine administered to the participants was a fixed 400mg, and the results were as follows…

‘Caffeine taken 6 hours before bedtime has important disruptive effects on sleep and provides empirical support for sleep hygiene recommendations to refrain from substantial caffeine use for a minimum of 6 hours prior to bedtime.

You might think 400mg of caffeine is a lot, but given I’ve seen plenty of guys double-dose a 300mg caffeine pre workout shake, it’s easily done!

Factor in coffee, chocolate, other sodas etc… 400mg isn’t hard to hit.

The takeaway here is clear and obvious… Keep a lid on your caffeine intake and you’ll enjoy more sleep time.

Food and sleep – timings, full stomach at night and the impact

This one is a tricky one, because there’s research saying it’s good, and research saying it’s not so good. It’s time to act like a judge then and assess the evidence…

The evidence that suggests it’s a good thing reasons that ‘In recent years, data from healthy men has shown that consuming small ~150 kcal protein-rich beverages appears to improve overnight muscle protein synthesis, morning metabolism and satiety.’

On the other hand, some research shows that night time eating causes disrupted sleep and waking in the night… ‘analyses showed that eating within 3 h of bedtime was positively associated with nocturnal awakening.’

My take on this is simple – try not to eat too close to going to sleep. If you are going to do so, try to make it a small, high protein meal. At least that means you’ll benefit from muscle synthesis.

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Sleep recommendations

When we look over all of the research around sleep and athletic performance, the same figures keep appearing. The recommendations of sleep time are 8-10 hours of sleep per night. 

As with anything regarding human physiology, there’s a little bit of licence to move here. You might be just fine with 7 hours of sleep. Other people might like a nap in the day, then 8 at night. 

Ultimately, your body and performance will tell you how much sleep you need. 

One thing is certain though, any less than 6 hours of sleep on a long term basis will have a significant impact on your bodybuilding. It’ll impact your training performance, muscle recovery, injury risk, hormonal levels, mental health etc. The list goes on. 

As long as you create a good sleep environment, you should get a good night of sleep every night. That’ll help you be the best bodybuilder you can be.

Sleep hygiene tips

By this point, we’ve painted a clear picture that sleep quality is vital to maintaining athletic performance, hormone levels and tissue recovery. It’s also a fickle beast, and sensitive to disruption if you eat or drink the wrong things at the wrong time.

Now we know that, how can we create the best conditions for sleep? 

Here’s the expert recommendations for giving you the best possible sleep…

  1. Make your evenings relaxed. Wind down for an hour or two before bed. Try to relax ahead of bed time, giving your brain and body time to settle.
  2. Reduce the amount of artificial light in your house. Reduce screen time for an hour before bed ideally. If possible, turn off bright and artificial lights.
  3. No large meals, caffeine or alcohol before bed. Give it at least 3 hours – or more if you’ve consumed a lot of caffeine.
  4. Don’t train just before bed. Try to finish your workout a minimum of 3 hours before sleep.
  5. Stick to a similar bedtime. Try to stick to a regular bedtime, not adjusting it much. Get your body into a rhythm.
  6. Keep your bedroom dark. Screens (laptop, TV and phone) can impact brain chemistry and sleep. Reading by bright light has a similar impact, so keep any reading lights low.
  7. Get comfortable in bed. Sounds obvious, but it’s true. You want a nice comfortable mattress and pillows. Keep the room at a comfortable, slightly cool temperature. 

Follow these tips to have a great night’s sleep, every night. It’ll make you a happier and healthier person too. Finally, it’ll help you on your bodybuilding mission, creating optimal muscle building conditions and helping you to cut your body fat.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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