You work 12 hours a day. Then, you have to spend 1-hour cooking, 2 hours eating, and at least 30 minutes watching videos of CBum. Maybe you might get 6 hours of sleep – or 7 if you’re lucky.
The truth is, 6 hours will never be enough sleep to build muscle efficiently. It can be done, but it’s like baking a cake for 400 minutes at 80 degrees – it’s just plain stupid.
But let’s talk more about why it’s not enough!
What Is Recovery?
A term we throw around a lot in the fitness world is recovery – a broad term that includes literally everything you do from the moment you exit the gym or climb off the treadmill. Yes, everything you do, so even petting that puppy forms part of your recovery.
But before we delve into what counts as recovery, what is recovery?
Recovery is the adaptation that occurs from one training to another or the total adaptation across a week. This includes muscle growth, muscle soreness, connective tissue (cartilage, joints, etc.), mental clarity, and the central nervous system.
When we train or do anything really, the body undergoes a bit of stress. Let’s look at a normal day someone might have:
- 06:00: The person wakes up. Cortisol (a stress hormone) is high, and they have some coffee. Consuming caffeine (especially first thing in the morning) can raise cortisol even more.
- 06:30: The person goes for a 2-mile run along the beach. All exercise will place some strain on the muscles, joints, and central nervous system.
- 07:30: The person had a quick protein shake after showering and then got stuck in traffic on the way to work. This traffic jam will make the person stressed more and elevate cortisol even more.
- 08:30 – 12:00: The person is at work and sips coffee and water regularly.
- 12:15: The person has a meal from the cafeteria, which happens to be a bagel with smoked bacon, American cheese, and bagel seasoning. Processed foods could make digestion a bit harder, which would stress the body more. A lack of fiber could also lead to indigestion.
- 15:45: A particularly stressful meeting ends, and the person realizes they haven’t been drinking enough water. Dehydration will make the whole body run inefficiently, making recovery almost impossible.
- 17:50: The person walks into the gym and has a particularly hard resistance training session before heading home. Training, again, will place some strain on the muscles and joints. Heavy resistance training has a tendency to also lead to CNS fatigue.
- 20:00: After a long day, the person grabs a pizza for delivery and pours a glass of wine. Again, the food you eat will affect recovery. Alcohol is also known to be bad for muscle recovery.
- 23:45: Several hours of Netflix later, the person stumbles to bed, only to have 6 hours of sleep.
This is the everyday scenario for many people, and there are so many other factors that are also at play. In fact, recovery will depend on virtually every single factor of life. That said, we can usually summarize recovery into 5 main categories.
Here are the main categories of recovery:
This should really be no surprise to anyone. The food that you eat, the liquids that you drink, and everything you put into your body will influence how you are going to recover. Higher protein means more muscle growth. Less fiber means indigestion, etc.
The more work you do in the gym, the more likely you are to struggle when it comes to recovery. You can thus do less but harder work, but pushing that too far can also be pretty bad for you.
This includes traffic, fighting with your spouse, money stress, and anything in everyday life that stresses us out. If you can learn to control your stress, you’ll be able to recover better.
Only the latter is essential, but the former can certainly help. Making sure you control these are going to help you massively when it comes to recovery.
As the name of the article suggests, this is one of the biggest factors when it comes to muscle gain, fat loss, physical performance, and mental performance.
By now, we’ve established what recovery is, what in daily life increases stress and the main factors behind recovery.
Most people are fine with most of these, but why do we all struggle with sleep?
Sleeping for Recovery
Sleep is one of the hardest things to understand as human beings. It’s even so complicated that back when I was a child, “we didn’t know why humans sleep.” We know what happens when you don’t sleep, but apparently, we don’t know why we sleep in the first place.
This was, of course, true – scientists are simply not sure why we sleep. However, a 2015 BBC article about the importance of sleep had this to say:
“During the day brain, cells build connections with other parts of the brain as a result of new experiences. During sleep, it seems that important connections are strengthened and unimportant ones are pruned. Experiments with sleep-deprived rats have shown that this process of strengthening and pruning happens mostly while they sleep.”
It’s pretty clear that we need sleep – there’s zero debate about that. We’re just not quite sure why. But let’s look at what happens when we don’t sleep enough:
- Various studies have found that sleep deprivation can lead to impaired reaction time, working memory, vigilance, math skills, visuospatial attention (saccadic eye movements), auditory functioning, and overall cognitive function.
- Studies illustrate that there’s a clear link between sleep deprivation and poor long-term memory. Low sleep also leads to poor critical thinking, reasoning, and neural function.
It’s pretty obvious that missing out on sleep will lead to your brain running a bit wonky. This will – in turn – place more stress on you, as you won’t be able to perform your regular tasks efficiently.
But what about skeletal muscle, cardiovascular health, and the endocrine system?
- Firstly, sleep deprivation messes with your body’s homeostasis, which will make every single function of the body that much harder.
- Not sleeping enough will lead to physiological adaptations, such as reduced insulin sensitivity, fat gain, and impaired muscle function.
- It’s estimated that you increase your risk of diabetes and obesity by 15 – 30% by not sleeping enough.
- Even sleeping fewer than 8 hours for one day can shift an anabolic person to a catabolic state due to the effects of cortisol.
- Low sleep directly leads to impaired muscle protein synthesis, testosterone, and muscle gene expression.
There is no debate. 6 hours is not enough sleep to build muscle effectively.
Can it be done? Maybe, but you’re missing out on a lot.
Improving Your Sleep Hygiene
Now that we’ve looked at more than 10 studies to illustrate just how important sleep is, how do we get more of it?
We know that most researchers suggest more than 8 hours of rest per night, but does quality matter? What can you do besides drinking egg whites to gain more muscle?
Sleep hygiene is a term that really doesn’t sound like it belongs.
What am I supposed to do? Cuddle a bar of soap?
Sleep hygiene is described as “behaviors that one can do to help promote good sleep using behavioral interventions.” This, essentially, means everything you do that could potentially influence the quality and duration of your sleep – as well as how easy it is for you to fall asleep.
When it comes to improving sleep hygiene, there are a few main factors we can look at:
- Have a schedule: This means that you should aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day of the week. Sure, weekends might be a bit social, and you could miss an hour or two, but you should be aiming to be as consistent as possible. By doing so, your circadian rhythm will adjust to this schedule.
- Exercise: Exercise is one of the best methods to improve health as well as improve sleep. There’s also some evidence that folks who exercise daily are more likely to sleep better.
- Avoid Nicotine: Nicotine is known to disturb sleep and even those who are looking to stop suffering as well.
- Sunshine: Exposing your body to regular sunlight will not only increase vitamin D levels but it’ll also help with circadian rhythms.
- Avoid stimulants: Caffeine and other stimulants will make sleep a lot harder – logically.
- Avoid Alcohol before bed: While alcohol can make falling asleep a lot easier, it’s known for leading to worse-quality sleep.
- Test your foods: Certain foods will make it harder for certain individuals to sleep. For instance, some prefer higher fat, whilst others seem to prefer higher-carb meals before bed.
- Relaxation: Trying to unwind and destress before getting into the bedroom will allow for far greater rest.
- Avoid the screen(s): Blue light from phones and laptops is notorious for making sleep far worse. While creating a rule of “no screens in the bedroom” might seem excessive, it can help.
- Temperature: The body seems to prefer falling asleep in a cooler environment compared to a warmer one. Thus, aim to cool the bedroom slightly.
These are the biggest changes you can make to improve your sleep hygiene. By sleeping more, we can see greater hormone levels, more strength in training, and better muscle gain as a result of the previous two.
If you still struggle with sleep after maximizing all these factors, go have a sleep test done.
They’ll test your sleeping and breathing patterns to make sure you’re healthy and don’t suffer from any underlying issues. If you do, like sleep apnea, you might need medication or a CPAP machine.
Other Methods to Improve Recovery
We’ve established sleep is vital, 6 hours of sleep is not enough, and the biggest factor behind building muscle is recovery. That’s a lot to cover in one article – I hope you’re keeping up.
Now, let’s delve into the other, more creative ways we can improve recovery. The person who recovers better from one session to the next will always perform better than the person who’s struggling to even stay awake.
So, how can we improve recovery?
There are three main schools of thought here: training, nutrition, and stress. So we’d look to control the variables in those areas to improve recovery as best we can.
Training is something that seems to go directly against recovery. However, have you ever noticed that after a heavy day of deadlifts, you feel like sh*t for a few days, whereas after training arms, you might go out and party?
The type of training you do influences recovery. The number of sets, the intensity of the sets, the rest time, your training age, and even the level of enjoyment will influence how you recover.
First off, for almost 80% of people, lower your volume.
We live in a world where more is always better, but this isn’t always true with training volume. If you’re doing 30 sets for your chest in one session, that’s way too much. Hell, 30 sets for your chest in one week is too much!
Don’t always lift to failure. Training to fail is fun and engaging, and it does work very well. But if you’re inexperienced, you won’t know what failure actually feels like, and that style of training will obliterate your recovery capabilities.
If your goal is muscle gain above all else, rest longer. This will allow for your cardio system (lungs) to recover before the next set, meaning your muscles are the only limiting factor when training.
Lastly, doing too much cardio will kill the recovery. Yes, cardio is good for health and fat loss. However, a little goes a long way. Too much, and you’ll burn out as your cortisol skyrockets.
Nutrition is the next factor. There’s one secret weapon you can use to improve recovery- carbohydrates. In order to grow muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus, meaning you either need more carbs or more fat.
There are studies that show a higher carbohydrate meal and diet will decrease cortisol acutely and overall! Compared to fats, carbs seem to be better for growth. Carbs also seem to lower stress more, and carbs are better for nutrient partitioning.
Basically, eating more carbs is better for muscle growth and recovery than fats.
There’s even some evidence supporting nutrient partitioning… Intra-workout refers to the period of your workout, and Intra-workout carbs have become quite popular. There are studies showing that these could lead to decreased cortisol levels, which, in turn, lead to more muscle gain.
You should also be eating foods that digest well. If you’re gluten or lactose intolerant, you should probably avoid those foods. Indigestion will make your life a lot more stressful and could even lead to poor absorption of other nutrients.
Other than these, the basic one is just to eat more protein. We know that protein is the only nutrient that will turn into muscle mass. So undereating protein will surely lead to impaired recovery. If you’re training often, aim for at least 1 gram per pound of body weight.
Lastly, there’s stress. Lowering your stress levels would help with recovery. Meditation, calm thoughts, and even supplements like Ashwagandha could help decrease cortisol levels.
You can even spend more time trying to calm down before bed, listening to relaxing music, and even just breathing work could help.
Removing yourself from stressful environments could also do wonders. This means avoiding loud bars and clubs and opting for a lovely dinner for date night.
And, of course, sleep more, please. If you’re struggling with sleep, make sure your sleep hygiene is on point. Then, try to add in a few naps if you can – just not after 3 pm, as those seem to mess with normal sleep.
How Much Should I Sleep to Gain Muscle?
Sleep is still misunderstood. We don’t know why we even need to sleep. But we do know what happens when we don’t sleep – sh*t hits the fan.
When you’re in the process of building muscle, you’re probably taking every measure you can to do so. You probably eat healthily, you train hard, and you probably spend money on supplements as well.
The least you can do is make sure you sleep for more than 7 hours per night, preferably more than 8 hours.