Picture the scene, you’ve worked out, you ate 5 nutritious meals (out of Tupperware containers of course) and you’ve climbed into bed at 10pm. But at 2am you are still awake. Why is that? Could it be that bodybuilding itself is responsible? Can bodybuilding affect sleep? Let’s find out.
Bodybuilding has a strong relationship with overtraining. Which could cause insomnia. However, there are many potential causes of insomnia that may have nothing to do with bodybuilding. If a bodybuilder focuses on recovery and avoids overtraining then their sleep quality may actually improve.
In this article, I will investigate whether bodybuilding can affect sleep, how insomnia can affect your health, and ways to combat insomnia so that you can get a good night’s sleep every night.
As always, I’ll start off this answer with the qualification that bodybuilding is just a form of diet and training. Two people could follow bodybuilding and get completely different results. However, the culture of bodybuilding certainly increases the likelihood of overtraining. Both in natural and in Pro bodybuilding.
Overtraining can lead to increases in blood pressure, anxiety, stress, and inflammation. It can also lead to insomnia. Sufferers of overtraining may find it takes them longer to fall asleep, which is known as sleep latency. Or they may fall asleep quickly but suffer from poor quality sleep during the night.
A well-known sign of overtraining is not waking up feeling refreshed in the morning.
Bodybuilding could well lead to poor sleep if you are not training or recovering properly. But this could also affect any other form of exercise. It can also affect sedentary people, particularly people who are overweight or obese.
This article is focused on bodybuilding, but bad sleep is not something that is exclusive to this form of training. So don’t think of this as a criticism, it’s just something that can occur when you follow the lifestyle.
Bodybuilding can actually lead to improved sleep when training load, recovery, and nutrition are taken into account. So it’s not all bad news. Hopefully, this article will help you to improve your own sleep.
Sleeping 8 hours per night is universally seen as the ideal amount for an adult. But this number is calibrated to regular people. A bodybuilder who wants to compete is an athlete and often trains at an even higher intensity.
This means that a bodybuilder requires more sleep to recover properly. A famous study in 2011 by Mah et al looked at the impact of sleep extension in Collegiate Basketball players. Subjects were allowed to sleep normally for 2-4 weeks to establish a baseline. They were then told to sleep for a minimum of 10 hours each night.
This led to significant improvements in their athletic ability, as well as in their cognitive ability, and their mood. They were better basketballers as a result of the extended sleep.
Now, 10 hours of sleep each night may be beneficial, but it certainly isn’t practical. Particularly if you have a busy job, a family, or a social life. But the study highlighted just how important sleep is to performance, brainpower, and mood.
Interestingly, the science behind sleep deprivation and its impact on exercise performance and recovery is not as watertight as you would expect. Sleep deprivation does appear to negatively affect endurance performance, but there is less evidence that it affects maximal strength.
Of course, a lot of these studies only look at the short-term effect of lost sleep on exercise and recovery. If you have insomnia, it can last for months or even years. The long-term effect of sleep deprivation on exercise and recovery is clearly not going to be good!
Bottom Line: 8-10 hours is ideal, 7-9 hours acceptable, the occasional bad night is not going to make much difference, but frequent nights with <7 hours sleep will affect performance and recovery.
There are many causes of insomnia, some of them can be dietary, some can be environmental (Hi next door’s new baby), and some of them can be physical. In this section, we will look at the most common causes of insomnia for bodybuilders.
I remember being on a Metropolitan line train coming back from working as a PT near Baker Street. I was sharing my personal space with two Gym Bros, prying into their conversation wasn’t much of an option when I was basically nose to chest! One guy was talking about how he would wake himself up twice in the night so that he could drink a protein shake.
I’d be lying if I said that this was the only time I heard something similar.
Somewhere along the line, many bodybuilders got it into their heads that constant eating throughout the day was the only way to ensure they had enough fuel to prevent muscle loss. This isn’t remotely true, but it has led to many a late-night high protein meal.
Obviously, if you are waking up at 3 am to drink a protein shake your sleep will be affected. But even a (comparably) sensible pre-bed protein meal could be causing bad sleep. This is because any meal is going to work your digestive system, and this can make sleep difficult. Having too large an evening meal can also affect sleep. Anyone who has had a gut-busting meal at an all you can eat buffet probably knows what I’m talking about.
But it’s not just overeating, undereating can also affect sleep. During a cut, bodybuilders can create huge calorie deficits in an effort to get completely ripped. This can lead to insomnia just as easily.
Caffeine is a great social drug, but it is also used in a lot of pre-workout formulas due to its incredible ability to banish fatigue, allow you to train harder, and to help with fat burning. Many bodybuilders swear by it. However, caffeine stays in your system for a long time, six to eight hours, sometimes longer! So a pre-workout taken before your 8pm workout could affect your sleep for many hours to come.
A good rule to follow is to have no caffeine after 3 pm. If you workout in the evening, then a non-stim pre-workout is a much better idea. This will make a huge difference to your sleep quality and duration.
While bodybuilders aren’t especially affected, this is a common cause of insomnia, which also happens to affect bodybuilders. Going to bed at different times each night, waking up at irregular times each morning. Staying up late staring at a computer monitor or your phone. Then there’s the stuff that is out of your control such as crying babies, barking dogs, early morning lawn mowing or building works.
We’ll talk more about improving your sleeping habits later in this article.
One of the biggest causes of insomnia for bodybuilders is overtraining. Check out my article on the subject to learn more. Exhausting yourself through exercise is often given as advice to improve your sleep, but it can actually worsen it. Overtraining can also lead to depression, anxiety, and stress, three of the biggest causes of insomnia.
I could easily have given mental health its own section, but it fits neatly under the umbrella of overtraining, so I won’t repeat myself.
Again, this was covered in my article on overtraining, but I can give a brief overview here. The first thing to do is to look at your current training program. If you are a natural bodybuilder and don’t use any form of performance-enhancing drugs, then you will need to avoid traditional bodybuilding programs.
These are too high in volume and have too much intensity. You will not be able to follow them indefinitely without suffering from the effects of overtraining. Four days on, three days off should be enough for most natural lifters, with more experienced ones being able to manage five days. But avoid six-day or seven days per week programs, even Pro Bodybuilders don’t train every day.
Getting your recovery strategies in place is also very important. Lots of protein, Epsom salt baths, yoga, foam rolling, meditation, creatine monohydrate, and good sleep habits (see next section). Finding ways to lower stress and anxiety can also be immensely beneficial.
While good sleep habits cannot guarantee a perfect night’s sleep, they can considerably improve your chances. Here are seven tips to improve your sleep quality.
Your body really enjoys a routine, particularly when it comes to falling asleep. Going to bed at different hours every night can really mess with your sleep quality and affect sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep). Giving yourself a proper bedtime will help your body get into a routine, and you will begin to fall asleep sooner each night, and wake up fresher. Aim for a time to be in bed which is about 30-60 minutes before you aim to fall asleep.
Caffeine is a fantastic supplement, and it is often used in pre-workouts. This can be a bit of a problem if you tend to train in the late afternoon or evening. This is because caffeine can stay in your system for several hours after ingestion, and can contribute to insomnia. Try and restrict your caffeine intake to before 3 pm, if you train in the evening then use a non-stimulatory pre-workout instead.
This technique is a lot easier than it sounds, and very effective if you have insomnia. No, you don’t have to get into the lotus position and light candles. All you have to do is start to focus on your breathing. Starting this 10 minutes or so before you are supposed to be falling asleep could make a huge difference.
Yes, I know how that sounds. But I’m not talking about sex or masturbation, I’m talking about the other thing you’re always holding when lying in bed. Your phone! While watching TV isn’t necessarily bad, just ensure that the shows/film you are watching isn’t going to keep your mind active. No tense thriller, no murder mystery. Watching shows like that will keep your brain active and you won’t find it easy to drift off. On a similar note, pre-bed is not the time to start a Facebook argument, nor is it a great time to read news that is going to infuriate you.
I’m starting to sound a little like your parents here, “Go to bed” and “Tidy your room” are standard parent sayings. But it really can help. A nicely made bed, a room that has the right temperature (just a little cold suits most people), and a tidy room can help to relax you. While an untidy room and an unmade bed can actually increase anxiety. Think of your bedroom as a room that is solely designed for sleep. A sanctuary.
Too often, people turn to medication or natural supplements before they’ve tried anything else. This is why I have given you five tips to try before this. But supplements can help. A supplement such as ZMA is not only effective at improving sleep quality but is also good for improving recovery from exercise. Melatonin is another excellent natural sleep supplement that may help insomnia. Even something as simple as casein protein powder can help with sleep.
L-Tryptophan is an amino acid that has been shown to improve sleep. It may also improve mood, and it may lower anxiety. You can supplement it, but it is found naturally in a number of foods. A banana, cheese, soy, chocolate, or even just a glass of milk. Having one of these as a small snack 30 minutes before bed could help. Just make sure that you don’t overeat, as too much food pre-bed can keep you up at night.
If you can avoid overtraining, then there is no reason why bodybuilding cannot be beneficial for sleep. Regular exercise, a sensible diet, and low (but not too low) body fat levels are often associated with high testosterone levels in men, which is a good way to improve your sleep quality.
Make sure that you keep stress to a minimum, and that your recovery (as mentioned above) is on point. Follow the 7 tips for better sleep and you’ll be sleeping better than 90% of the population.
Following a bodybuilding program sensibly should see an improvement in your sleep quality, as you are leading a healthier lifestyle. However, it doesn’t take much for bodybuilding to negatively affect sleep. Training too hard, not enough time for recovery, excessive calorie deficits. All of these can have a negative impact.
The trick is to treat sleep with the same respect as you treat diet and training. Yes, really. There is no point in creating the perfect bench press routine if you’re sleeping just 5 hours per night. There is no point hitting your protein goals if you’re up gaming at 4 am. Follow the 7 tips I’ve mentioned above, and you will have an advantage over most of the competition.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.