Sleep Better to Lose Fat and Get Stronger!

Sleep Better to Lose Fat and Get Stronger!

Reading Time: ~5 minutes

If you are an absolute beginner to fitness, this concept might sound weird.

“What do you mean? Sleeping will make me stronger? I can sleep when I’m dead! I gotta workout 24 hours a day, baby! Fight the power! I’ve got to shed this weight for beach season, and get totally jacked!”.

Especially if you have a busy work or school schedule, and on top of that you are also finding time to work out, you might find the compulsion to miss out a couple hours of sleep to be able to fit it all in. After all, it’s just sleep, the worst that will happen is you’ll just feel a little bit tired all the time, right? Nope, wrong. On top of that, you are probably doing many things that reduces the quality of your already diminished sleep. In this article I’ll be talking about why sleep affects your training and give a few little pieces of advice to help you with your sleep quality.

How it works:

Without even going into the massive problems caused in normal life from not getting enough quality sleep, the effect that a lack of sleep has on your training, is pretty huge. Sleeping is incredibly important for regenerating your energy (Glycogen) stores, so you can actually do stuff. Sleeping helps keep your immune system strong and working well, so you don’t have to take time off from illness. Sleeping also helps with motor learning and memory. That’s very important for calisthenics and many sports because of the degree of complexity of movements trained. Finally, sleeping is incredibly important for building muscle and losing fat.

When you are sleeping, your body is increasing the production of ‘anabolic’ (read: Building muscle) hormones like testosterone and HGH (Human Growth Hormone). At the same time, it is decreasing the amount of ‘catabolic’ (read: Eating away at/or stopping the production of muscle) hormones like myostatin and cortisol.

"I can literally FEEL my muscles growing!"
Lil’ Jimmy over here can literally FEEL his muscles growing as he sleeps

Cortisol is your ‘stress’ hormone. It’s perfectly normal to have a lot of cortisol in your body if you are training regularly and at a high intensity. However, it’s only normal if your body has a mechanism to regulate it from getting too high. Sleeping is the main way your body does this, so if you don’t sleep well enough then cortisol can get too high. Naturally, this is bad, considering cortisol activates pathways in your body that cause muscle breakdown and inhibit the pathways that build muscle.

If you are trying to lose weight, studies have shown that less sleep equals more weight lost being lean mass rather than fat. In one study in particular, those who didn’t get enough sleep (about 5 hours) lost weight with a ratio of 20/80 fat to lean mass, where those who did get enough sleep (about 8 hours) lost a weight with a ratio of 50/50 fat to lean mass.

If that were a universally accurate ratio every time you lost weight, if you lost 5kg but only slept 5 hours a night, that means you lost 4kg of lean mass and only 1kg of fat! This is pretty good at demonstrating how if you really want to lose FAT, you will need to get high quality sleep, for a sufficient amount of time. (If the 50/50 ratio for sleeping enough still troubles you, read this article by strengththeory.com that explains in a little more detail).

If you are already not sleeping enough, getting better gains could be as simple as getting a bit more sleep. 8 hours is usually a good minimum guideline if you are training regularly but it really depends on your age. Teenagers probably need closer to 9 or even 10 hours of sleep a night. If you really think you are too busy to get a higher quantity of sleep, your solution might be a matter of getting a higher quality of sleep, and it might not be as hard as you think.

Avoid Blue Light Before Bed

Did you know this sneaky device is stealing your gains?
Did you know this sneaky device is stealing your gains at night?

Nowadays, it seems like a given to be working or playing or aimlessly entertaining yourself on a variety of light emitting devices like your phone, your TV, your Laptop or iPad. It may seem harmless to do, but watching a quick episode of Game of Thrones just before going to bed can actually be a lot more detrimental for your sleep quality than you’d expect.

Melatonin is a hormone in your body that is a major player in the entrainment/synchronization of the Circadian Rhythms of lots of important physiological functions in your body, but most relevant in terms of this article, your sleep cycle. Melatonin is secreted at night, or more specifically, when it is dark. In diurnal (Basically the opposite of nocturnal. Means active in the day time) animals, this causes you to feel sleepy and go to bed.

Notice the important distinction I made above; Melatonin doesn’t just magically secrete itself at night. This is because your body can’t always sense when it is night time. The only way it can sense whether it is night time is whether your environment is light or dark.  This means if your face is awash with dazzling computer screen light up until the minute you choose to go to bed, your body will not have started producing melatonin to help you get to sleep and it will be upsetting the circadian rhythm for your sleep cycle to make it continually harder to get to bed early and wake up at a good time feeling rested.

Of course you might be thinking as you are reading, ‘So what, do you just expect me to turn off all my lights once the sun goes down and sit in a corner like a potato in a cupboard all evening just to sleep better?!’. Well the answer to that is no, however it would be funny to see someone pretending to be a potato because I don’t really know what that would look like.

Because we all have busy lives with lots of work and television to be getting on with, we need to reach a good compromise. We want to have light at night, while also not doing horrendous damage to our sleep. Light exposure itself suppresses melatonin secretion, but different colours/wavelengths of light have different effects.

Of all the light bombarding your face and eyes, short wavelengths of light (read: blue) like those coming from a computer screen are the worst culprits for melatonin suppression, so one of the things you can do is to avoid blue light atleast an hour before bed. Things like warm lighted night table lamps are totally fine, but your phone isn’t.

If you really can’t live without your phone before bed for whatever reason, try downloading an app like f.lux which will reduce the output of blue light from your screen to make it a bit better for your ability to sleep.

Wake up at the same time every day

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This helps you entrain your sleep cycle and if you force yourself to wake up at the same time every day no matter how much sleep you get, it will always be easier to wake up and you’ll just make up for lost sleep the next night until you find a happy equilibrium and your body naturally finds a good time to fall asleep in anticipation of waking up at that exact time.

Many people probably already do this because they have jobs, so during the week, they are totally on point. However, the problem they create for themselves is in continually wreaking havoc on their circadian rhythms by sleeping in at the weekend. This stops you from ever being able to stabilise your internal clock and is stopping you from being able to get the most out of your sleep.

Increase your exposure to natural light in the day time

Consider having breakfast outside if its warm enough, or perhaps just by a window facing the sun
Consider having breakfast outside if its warm enough, or perhaps just by a window facing the sun

In the same way that you should minimise light in the evening to let your brain know its time to be asleep and that it is night time, you also need to inform your brain when it’s day time and you should be up and alert!

If you keep blinds open, spend good amounts of time outside whenever it’s sunny, and avoid spending long periods of time in dark or dimly and warmly lamp lit rooms you will feel more awake in the day, which may also help by giving you more energy to do stuff so you are actually tired enough to get to sleep at a reasonable hour.

If you work in an office or school without a lot of windows or natural light, try to spend your breaks outside.

If this isn’t possible because you live in somewhere that isn’t very sunny or if its winter so the days are short, you could get a light box or a full spectrum lamp and use it after waking up and throughout the day when you are at home.

Now go get some good sleep!

In order to keep it brief, I’ve not gone into detail about everything you could possibly do to improve your sleep. However, the things I have mentioned have all been instrumental for me personally improving my sleep. I find when I stick to them my sleep is awesome and I’m always well rested.

If you have any other suggestions or things you have done to help improve the quality of your sleep, comment below!

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