The Major Key to Building Muscle You’re Probably Overlooking

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Sleep and muscle growth go hand in hand, and not getting enough shut-eye can sabotage your workouts.
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You hit the gym and eat well during the day. Then at night, there's so much else to do — everything except sleep. But just like you need to invest in your fitness and food intake, you also need to catch the right amount of zzzs, especially if you're trying to build muscle.

"Diet, exercise and sleep are the pillars of health and the key to building muscle," Kasey Nichols, NMD, a doctor of naturopathic medicine who specializes in sleep disorders, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Without one of these pillars, your muscle-building routine will be suboptimal at best and permanently damaging at worst."

Why Sleep Is Key to Muscle Growth

After a strenuous strength-training session, your muscles are in need of repair. When we sleep, our bodies are flooded with muscle-building, or anabolic, hormones including insulin-like growth factor (IGF) and testosterone, which help build and repair the damage, Nichols says.

"Missing sleep or not getting enough disrupts the amount and timing of anabolic hormone secretion, which means that you will not get the growth and strength increases you work so hard for at the gym," Nichols says.

Read more: 10 Habits That Are Ruining Your Sleep (and How to Fix Them)

A December 2017 study of over 10,000 people in the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions found that good sleep quality is associated with greater muscle strength, while sleeping fewer than six hours a night may be a risk factor for decreased muscle strength. The authors point out that the number of hours you sleep is important, but the quality of sleep you're getting each night matters just as much.

"Each phase of our sleep cycle contributes to muscular repair and growth in different ways. This is why it is important to not just sleep enough but to sleep well," says Sarah Ray, a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified trainer and head of business at Volt Athletics. "If you are breezing through or missing stages of sleep due to poor sleep environments, you're not optimizing the recovery window."

Are you on track to achieve your fitness goals? Download the MyPlate app to keep tabs on the number of calories you burn during your workouts and stay motivated.

Too-Little Sleep Can Sabotage Your Workouts

How much sleep is enough? The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends adults get seven or more hours of sleep per night. If you happen to have a spare hour in the day and the choice between a full night of sleep and an extra hour of exercise, choose the sleep, says Sujay Kansagra, MD, doctor of neurology and sleep medicine, director of the Duke Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program and Mattress Firm's sleep health expert.

"If you don't sleep, your workouts are likely to not be as effective anyway, since you won't perform as well," Dr. Kansagra says. "Sleep deprivation lowers motivation to exercise. It can also negatively impact exercises that require persistent effort for long periods of time."

A systematic review published March 2018 in Sports Medicine looked at 10 sleep intervention studies and concluded that getting more sleep was the intervention most beneficial to athletic performance.

Read more: 10 Surprising Ways Sleep Affects Your Whole Body

And according to a February 2015 study in Sports Medicine, sleep deprivation causes a nervous system imbalance and ultimately slower and less-accurate cognitive performance, such as slower reaction times and suboptimal endurance, which are detrimental to any fitness performance.

Image Credit: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages

How to Sleep Better — and Build Bigger Muscles

Sleep is serious business for making fitness gains, so how can you make sure you're doing it right? Nichols and Dr. Kansagra have some tips for getting the most out of your shut-eye.

1. Make the Most of Your Morning

"Getting plenty of bright light in the morning helps keep your sleep timing on track, particularly if you have to wake up very early," Dr. Kansagr says.

In addition to letting the sunshine in, he recommends working out in the early hours of the day instead of after dark: "The increase in body temperature from exercise tends to be prolonged, sometimes making it hard to fall asleep."

2. Stay on Schedule

"Having a scheduled time to go to bed and wake up is an underutilized strategy to get a quality night's sleep," Nichols says. "Our bodies are set by an internal clock structure that organizes our sleep-wake cycles. Sleeping and waking at the exact time each night helps to more effectively set this cycle."

3. Say No to the Nightcap

A glass of wine before bed sounds relaxing, right? Not so fast — alcohol can actually disrupt your sleep, as evidenced by that unrested, foggy feeling you get the next morning.

In fact, an August 2019 study in Sleep found that consuming alcohol within four hours of bedtime resulted in restless, low-quality sleep. One of the reasons for this feeling is that alcohol suppresses melatonin production in the brain, Nichols explains.

"Melatonin is one of our primary sleep hormones. Try to avoid alcohol a few hours before going to bed to ensure you're getting the highest quality sleep," he says.

Instead of relaxing after a long day with a glass of your favorite alcohol, Nichols recommends trying a 30-minute meditation session before bed.

4. Make Bedtime Screen-Free

The television, tablet and cell phone — they're all very tempting when you're curling up in bed. They're also one of the most common reasons people don't get enough quality sleep, Nichols says.

"We've all done it — stayed up late into the night because we got stuck in a black hole of Youtube videos, Instagram swipes or binging our favorite television shows," he says. "We need to prioritize our sleep, which means making our bedrooms a place where we only sleep, and that is electronic-free."

Read more: 6 Reasons You're Still Tired After a Full Night's Sleep

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