By: Barbell Logic Team
Building Better Practices — Sleep for Better Recovery
Training with weights is about much more than what you do in the gym. In the gym, the grinding set of five or the new PR are like set pieces of a long epic. You build up to them over time and they tend to be the events you remember and talk about later. What we tend to ignore are the important other practices that helped you get there. These are things that mostly occur outside of the gym, sacrifices you’ve made to help your training or improvements you’ve made to how you eat or how well you sleep at night. They are not nearly as Instagram-worthy but are equally as important as what you did in the gym today. Still, most people will want to mark their first big-plate PR of a deadlift but few people brag about crushing their sleep last night. But, they really should.
We’ve written a lot about goal-setting the past few weeks at Barbell Logic. The gist of setting goals is that you should have small, daily, weekly, and monthly goals that add up to your big long-term goals. Whether your goals are strength-related, concern your health, or are focused on personal development in other ways, the small daily practices are what makes them possible. And it is by helping you change your daily practices that goals “organize your resources toward meeting your goal, and maximize your commitment.” (from “How to Set Goals: Goal Characteristics”) Many of these basic goals come down to forming good habits through practice and deciding on some best practices and most of those practices are centered around recovery.
“[Y]ou don’t get strong by lifting weights. You get strong by recovering from lifting weights.” -Mark Rippetoe, “Practical Programming for Strength Training” (3rd Ed. 2013) (also “Recovery and Growth” (Aasgaard 2013)
Strength training is essentially an anabolic process, one in which you grow tissue—muscles and bone—that helps you support increasingly heavier weights and move them through specific ranges of motion. This process makes you able to squat, press, bench press, and deadlift more weight than you could previously, translating to a greater capacity to produce force generally, or what we simply call “strength.” This process has two main components that are under your direct control: What you do in the gym and what you do outside the gym. Or what we usually think of as inducing a specific kind of stress and recovering from that stress.
The stress part of this is relatively simple. If you have a good plan and the right equipment, each workout is a well-defined event with clear objectives. Lift some amount of weight for a specified number of sets and reps. Add weight next time. Rinse and repeat. This isn’t easy, certainly—in fact, it may be one of the most difficult things you ever do—but it’s not particularly complicated.
Recovery, on the other hand, is much less simple. You are a person with habits, a background, and practices that may or may not mesh well with your decision to get stronger. One of the best things you can do is to take stock of your daily resources and begin to make some decisions about how to organize your resources to help you meet your goals.
Time to Sleep
Time is perhaps the most precious and immutable resources and sleep the biggest time-sponge of your day. Not everyone is too busy to simply add strength training to their day, but most of us are. We tend to use up all our time each day, leaving little extra for adding new things. Some of us use our time well, accomplishing more and being more productive. Regardless of how well you use your time, everyone has a hard time adding new time-dependent projects to their waking hours. When we do, often, instead of reorganizing our days, we tend to sacrifice sleep first.
Sometimes you have no choice. You either get up at 5:00 am to train or you don’t train at all. But planning to sacrifice sleep is counterproductive to training. Remember how we said training is an anabolic (building) process? This is a hormonal response to training that triggers metabolic pathways to build molecules from smaller units, signaled by the stress of lifting weights. When you don’t sleep enough, however, you tend to trigger the opposite hormonal response—a catabolic response: “In humans, total sleep deprivation is associated with two distinct outcomes: increases in the secretion of catabolic hormones, such as cortisol, and changes in the pattern of rhythmic secretion of anabolic hormones, such as testosterone.”  So, in addition to time to train, you need time to recover, and this starts with sleep.
It’s hard to overstate the value of sleep for recovery (and health in general). Chronically poor sleep, such as in those with sleep apnea, comes with an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke independent of obesity, age, and gender, as well as fatigue and sleepiness and the downstream effects they have on your daily life. Less extreme cases of poor sleep, such as the build-up of “sleep debt,” can result in impaired cognitive, immunological, metabolic, and hormonal functions. And, that is for people who aren’t trying to build new muscle and recovery from strenuous training at night. Perhaps most telling is the simple fact that the circadian cycle of sleep and wakefulness is as necessary to the survival and function or the human organism as food and water.
If we are honest with ourselves we already know this. And we even know how much sleep we need per night: “An average of eight hours of sleep, especially during very rigorous training, will aid in recovery. After all, the purpose of sleep is to induce a state of recovery in the body. The longer the period of sleep, the better the quality of recovery.” The good news is that exercise also helps you sleep better. Now if you could only find the time.
 M. Dattilo, H.K.M. Antunes, A. Medeiros, M. Mônico Neto, H.S. Souza, S. Tufik, M.T. de Mello, “Sleep and muscle recovery: Endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis” (Medical Hypotheses 77 (2011) 220–222).
Patric J. Strollo, JR. M.D. and Robert M. Rogers, M.D, “Obstructive Sleep Apnea” (New England Journal of Medicine Vol 334, No. 2)
Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker, Practical Programming for Strength Training (3rd Ed. 2013)