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Dieting and working out are usually emphasized as the two major components of successful weight loss and accelerated muscle growth, and rightly so. You can’t achieve your goals without making adjustments in your eating habits and without continuously putting effort in at the gym. However, one basic yet crucial aspect of finding success in the gym that is often overlooked is sleep. Believe it or not, sleep may be the exact reason why others seem to progress at a much faster pace than you are. Or why you simply aren’t seeing the results you were hoping for despite putting in the work.

Sleep helps you build muscle through the release of growth hormone during the deepest stage of sleep. That is how sleep helps you build muscle. When humans are deprived of enough sleep, the normal sleep cycle is disrupted, which negatively affects growth hormone release. You may think that sleeping for just five hours is fine, but it will cause a severe decline in growth hormone secretion. A growth hormone deficiency, in turn, may result in the loss of muscle mass and have a negative impact on your ability to exercise. After all, it is really hard to have a great workout and stay focused when you’re completely exhausted. 

A recent study showed that a week of sleep deprivation in otherwise healthy young men resulted in decreased testosterone levels and significantly increased spikes of cortisol, a stress hormone which is linked to abdominal obesity. Given that testosterone is an anabolic hormone that is crucial for muscle growth, and elevated cortisol can lead to fat storage and weight gain, lack of sleep is shown to negatively affect your performance in one more way.

Furthermore, it’s not only that getting enough sleep helps your muscles grow. Without adequate sleep, muscle mass in fact decreases. A study in 2010 examined how sleep deprivation affected muscle growth and recovery. The researchers studied individuals who were on a strict sleep schedule for 14 days. During this time, one group was allowed just 5 and a half hours of sleep per night, while another was allowed 8 and a half hours per night. All participants followed a calorie-regulated diet during the 14 day period and maintained a calorie deficit. All participants lost the same amount of pounds of body weight, but the individuals who slept only 5 and a half hours lost 55% less fat and 60% more muscle at the end of the study, compared to those who slept 8 and a half hours. 

A 2018 paper found similar results analyzing the effects of just one night without sleep on 15 young men. The muscles in their bodies showed signs of elevated protein breakdown, while their fat tissue displayed increased levels of proteins and metabolites that are involved in promoting fat storage. Sleep has a striking effect not only on muscle growth but on fat loss and fat accumulation. 

How to improve sleep quality

Increase bright light exposure during the day

Daily sunlight and artificial bright light can improve both sleep quality and duration, particularly if you’ve got sleep issues or insomnia. In one study, two hours of bright light exposure throughout the day reduced waking time within sleep by two hours and improved sleep efficiency. 

Reduce blue light exposure in the evening

Electronic devices such as smartphones and computers emit blue light in large quantities, which disrupts circadian rhythm, tricking your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. This delays the brain’s release of melatonin, which lowers your chances of adequate sleep. Of course, it is better to avoid using your smartphone for at least half an hour before getting to sleep, but if it is too much for you, just turn on the blocker of blue light in the settings of your device. 

No caffeine late in the day

A rather obvious suggestion, but you should avoid consuming caffeine for 6 hours before sleep to ensure sleep quality and easy falling asleep.

To conclude, poor sleep hinders your athletic performance and worsens your health condition in multiple ways. This often neglected factor turns out to be crucial in determining your muscle gains and you should try as hard as possible to provide between 7 and 9 hours of sleep for your body, even if you have the busiest schedule in the world. Remember, your success in the gym is directly related to your ability to recover from your training, not how hard you’re able to train.