Sleep is the foundation of a good bulking routine. It gives us the drive to challenge ourselves in the gym, the appetite to eat a big bulking diet, and the willpower to implement new habits. But for the sake of giving sleep the hype it deserves, let’s put aside that it improves our willpower, motivation, compliance, exertion, and all of the other (super important) secondary benefits. Here’s how sleep can directly improve your size and strength gains (study):
- More testosterone: getting enough sleep boosts our circulating levels of testosterone, improving our ability to gain muscle quickly and leanly.
- More insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1): getting enough sleep will also raise our IGF-1 levels, allowing us to better recruit satellite cells into our muscle fibres, which is critical for overcoming size and strength plateaus.
- Less cortisol: getting enough sleep reduces chronic cortisol levels, reducing muscle breakdown and increasing muscle growth
- Better nutrient partitioning: getting enough sleep makes our bodies prefer getting stored energy from fat instead of muscle, allowing for more muscle growth with less fat gain.
Given how powerful sleep is while bulking, it pays to approach our bedtime routines with the same fervour that we approach our lifting routines. If we give it a high priority in our lives, it won’t just improve our gains, it will improve everything.
This article is an excerpt from our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program.
No bodily process can evade the perilous effects of insufficient sleep.Greg Potter, PhD
According to the sleep scientist Dr Greg Potter, who holds a doctorate degree in sleep science, if you want to optimize your sleep for building muscle, gaining strength, and improving your general health, then your sleep hygiene checklist will look something like this:
- Get to bed early enough: make sure that you get to bed early enough that you can get up to eight hours of sleep before needing to wake up. Even better if you wake up before your alarm clock goes off.
- Reduce chronic stress: reduce your overall stress and anxiety levels, especially near your bedtime, and especially near your bedroom.
If you have a lot weighing on your mind, make a to-do list in the evening so that you won’t need to think about it at night. Save the hour or two before bed for relaxing activities that have nothing to do with work, social media, or phones. Save your bedroom for relaxing activities like sleep, sex, and reading novels.
- Get enough sun: spend some time outside in the sun during the day, and ideally for half an hour or more. Going outside first thing in the morning works well, as does going outside around lunchtime. This will help you fall and stay asleep more easily at night (because of increased melatonin production).
- No alcohol late at night: avoid drinking booze within four hours before your bedtime. Having a drink or two per day seems to be fine for general health, but you’ll want to keep those drinks well away from your bedtime, given that alcohol can interfere with the quality of your sleep.
- Keep your caffeine to the morning: avoid consuming caffeine within nine hours of your bedtime. There’s nothing unhealthy about having some daily coffee or tea; we just need to make sure that it isn’t interfering with your sleep. You may also want to limit your caffeine consumption to a milligram per pound body weight per day.
- Don’t eat right before bed: it’s usually best to avoid eating within two hours of going to bed. In the final meal of the day, though, research shows that having high-glycemic foods that are rich in carbohydrates helps people fall asleep more quickly (because of increased melatonin production).
- Eat a bigger breakfast: it’s often best if your final meal is proportionally small compared to your other meals. I ignore this one while bulking. It makes it too hard to get my calories in. I prefer to have a big meal right before bed. But it’s technically better to stack more of your calorie into your earlier meals.
- Dim the lights at night: dim the lights a couple of hours before going to bed, and ideally switch to warm amber-coloured tones. If you use screens before bed (such as using a phone, computer, or watching TV), then consider installing an app that changes the screen colour (such as f.lux) or getting blue-light blocking glasses. This will increase melatonin production.
- Have a hot shower at night: if you have trouble falling asleep quickly, have a hot shower 40 minutes before heading to bed. As your body cools down after the shower, it will prepare for sleep.
- Quiet your mind: in the final half-hour before bed, Dr Potter recommends meditation, but he points out that anything that quiets your mind can help. That might mean reading a good novel or listening to a relaxing podcast. Just remember that what you’re doing shouldn’t just be enjoyable, but it should also be relaxing. For example, if I read non-fiction books before bed, I have a perfectly nice time, but it gets my mind racing with ideas. So instead, I read fiction—often sci-fi or fantasy. As my mind gets lost in made-up worlds, I relax and drift off to sleep. (Here’s why fiction is good for improving sleep, and here are some of my favourite fantasy books.)
- Keep your bedroom cool: it’s easiest to fall asleep in a cool temperature (under 68°F, 20°C).
- Keep your bedroom dark: either darken your bedroom or wear a sleep mask. It’s nice to wake up to sunlight, but if you have to choose, it’s more important to sleep in darkness.
- Destroy or block noise: either quiet your room, use a white noise machine, or wear earplugs. If you’re using earplugs, Dr Potter says that silicon earplugs tend to work best.
- Create a consistent routine: Dr Potter doesn’t mention this, but consistency is also crucial. Try to eat and sleep at around the same time every day. You may even want to set alarm clocks to remind yourself that it’s snack time, that it’s time to turn off the TV, or that it’s time to head up to bed with your book. Nobody will accuse you of being exciting, but they may suspect rampant steroid abuse.
Now, some of these factors are more important than others. Some of these factors may or may not help, whereas others are absolutely essential.
For sleep quantity, if you don’t set aside enough time for sleep, then no matter how good your sleep hygiene is, you still won’t be able to get enough sleep. Don’t just set an alarm clock for when you need to wake up, set one for when you need to start gearing down for bed (e.g. turning off electronics and settling down to read on the couch), and then another one for when you should be heading to bed.
When it comes to sleep quality, it seems that stress is the master factor, so anything you can do to reduce your overall stress levels, and especially your stress levels as you’re getting ready to fall asleep, will have a massive impact on your ability to fall into a deep, restful sleep.
If you can’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes of going to bed, get up and do a low-key activity (like reading) in dim light until you start to feel drowsy.The Sleep Foundation
For me, reading fiction before bed helped me relax, allowing me to fall asleep more quickly and wake up feeling more rested. This mirrors the advice of the Sleep Foundation. Your mileage may vary, but if you’re having trouble relaxing before bed, or if it takes you a while to fall asleep, I highly recommend giving it a try.
As Dr Potter notes, though, improving any of the above factors can help. If you can’t make a significant change, then at least make an easy change. Start as small as you need to and build from there.
Finally, don’t nocebo yourself. There was one neat study where they randomly split the participants into two groups, telling half of them—at random—that they’d gotten a good night’s sleep and the other half that they hadn’t. The group that believed they’d slept well significantly outlifted the group that believed they hadn’t.
Remember that you can build muscle even if your sleep isn’t perfect, and sometimes you might have to. Plenty of busy people wake up extra early to sneak in a workout, and plenty of people get great results from doing that. Even so, improving your sleep is one of the most powerful ways to improve your hormones, health, size, and strength, so take advantage of that opportunity whenever you can.
Protein, Whey, & Sleep
Eating higher-protein diets tends to improve sleep quality because protein contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor to melatonin. Therefore, the more protein we eat, the more melatonin we produce, and the better we sleep (study).
However, there’s an exception to this rule. If you’ve ever had a whey protein shake on an empty stomach right before bed, you may have noticed that it was harder to fall asleep, harder to stay asleep, or even that it gave you nightmares. What’s happening here is that protein contains other amino acids, too, some of which can compete with tryptophan. So if we’re eating large amounts of rapidly-digesting protein right before bed, it could interfere with our ability to produce melatonin and thus harm our sleep.
If you want to eat protein before bed—which is perfectly fine—then it’s better to choose a more slowly digested protein source, such as meat, cottage cheese, greek yogurt (often with berries), or even casein protein powder. Because those sources of protein will be digested more gradually, it won’t interfere with our ability to produce melatonin, and so it won’t harm our sleep. In fact, having slowly-digested protein right before bed tends to improve our sleep.
Eating a high-protein diet tends to improve sleep, and eating protein before bed shouldn’t be a problem, but you’ll probably want to avoid having whey protein shakes right before bed, especially on an empty stomach. In that case, the protein can be digested so quickly that it interferes with our ability to produce melatonin.
Eating a Big Meal Before Bed
It can be hard to eat enough calories while bulking—so hard that we’ve written entire guides about how to eat more calories. For me, it’s always been the hardest part of bulking. One solution I found was to eat a fairly normal amount during the day, have a regular dinner with my family, and then sneak in a large meal while relaxing before bed.
Eating large meals tends to make people feel sleepy, and so what better time to have a large meal than right before bed, right? Better to have a big meal late at night and then drift off to sleep than to eat a big breakfast and then need a siesta.
The problem with eating big meals late at night—especially those rich in fats and carbs—is that they can interfere with our sleep quality. Yes, we might feel tired and fall asleep more easily, but we might not sleep as deeply, we could run into issues with acid reflux, and large meals before bed have been linked to higher body-fat percentages (study). Anecdotally, having smaller night-time meals can also save us from waking up thirsty or having to tinkle in the middle of the night.
Nowadays, I do still have a meal before bed, but I try to pack more of my calories into my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then before bed, I stick to higher-protein meals, such as cottage cheese or Greek yogurt with berries.
Getting enough quality sleep each night will improve your motivation, willpower, and workout performance. Separate from that, it will also speed up your muscle growth and reduce fat gain.
To make sure that you get enough quality sleep each night:
- Get into a routine of relaxing in the late evening, an hour or two before you need to head to bed. This might mean reading or having a warm shower. Everyone is different, but most people will benefit from minimizing electronics and bright, blue lights.
- Set aside at least eight hours to be in bed, and set an alarm clock to make sure that you get to bed on time. Even if you don’t need to be up at a specific hour, it’s still usually best to go to bed at a similar time every night.
- Find a relaxing bedtime activity that helps you drift off to sleep. I enjoy reading fiction, but some people prefer podcasts, meditation, or prayer.
This article is an excerpt from our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.