Hacking Your Sleep 101: Nine Tips For Better Gains

Sleep is essential both in and out of the weight room. Learn how to maximize your zzzz's and improve your recovery time, workout performance, and muscle growth.

Struggle to keep your eyes open during class? Always find yourself dozing off in the middle of the afternoon? It's no secret, sleep is one of the most important regulators of our energy levels. We live in a culture that is sleep deprived 24/7. Teenagers, college students, working adults, and sometimes even the elderly struggle to get enough sleep. Why? I think it's largely due to a term I coined: the "Facebook phenomenon".

Everyone has become hyper-focused on the events taking place in other people’s lives. They feel the need to constantly check their Facebook and Instagram in order to stay up to date. However, what we fail to recognize is that all of this late night scrolling is depriving our bodies of some much needed shut eye. You wake up completely exhausted and tell yourself that you're going to get to bed early; yet, it's the same story night in and night out - you're up just as late, once again killing time on your phone. We forget how we felt earlier that morning and remain content to just put off going to bed.

I'm not here to hate on social media. I utilize each one and believe they're helpful for both personal and business means. However, I think there comes a point where we must realize that we're not going to miss out on anything “ground breaking” by putting our phones down an hour earlier so that we can give our bodies a bit more rest.

9 Tips to Build Muscle While You Sleep

Sleep has to be a priority if you want to help your body grow both in and out of the weight room. Your body has its largest surge of growth hormone during the middle of the night, so it’s no wonder that this is when most of the internal repairs begin after your tough training sessions. If you neglect this aspect of recovery, your lifts AND life will suffer.

1. Unplug From Electronics an Hour Prior to Bed

Stop using your phone, TV, and computer about an hour before bed and stick to reading instead.

"Mike, seriously? That's impossible, no one can do that."

I had many conversations with folks regarding their sleeping habits and this is typically their first response. I know, it’s tough. We live in a culture immersed in electronics and video screens, but just hear me out on this one.

As the sun begins to set and the day winds down, there is a small structure in your brain known as your pineal gland, which begins to secrete melatonin. Melatonin is one of the key components that helps to regulate sleep/wake cycles and circadian rhythms. Melatonin is only produced in the absence of light stimuli. But not just any light, specifically blue photons, which have a low wavelength but very high energy. Your typical incandescent light bulb emits an dull orange glow with a high wavelength and very low energy; as such, this won’t disrupt melatonin secretion and you’re still able to fall asleep rather easily.

When you use a computer, iPhone, tablet or watch TV, the high energy light that is emitted triggers your brain to stop producing melatonin. Your sleep/wake cycles become disrupted, and you remain in a state of alert wakefulness. Ever wonder why it's tough to fall asleep after watching a movie or texting your friend late at the night? Well now you know, it's all about the wavelength of light emitted from different devices you're using.

"But what if I HAVE to use my computer? I'm a student, I need to study, work on projects, or write papers."

For those who absolutely must use their computers later into the evening, I recommend installing and using a blue light blocking program. This actually changes the wavelength of light emitted from your screen as the day goes on. I've been using one for over a 2 years now, and it is fantastic. You don't even notice the color change, and it’s very easy on the eyes. There's also no issue with visibility.

2. Establish a Nightly Ritual

Our bodies love routines. It's important to get in the habit of learning how to clear your mind and relax before bed. Here are a few ideas to get you on the right track:

  • Foam roll. Use a foam roller to improve your mobility and relax your muscles for 10-15 minutes.
  • Stretch. Lats, quads, adductors, pecs. Each of these muscles are some of the most common trouble spots for folks.
  • Take a cool shower. Ideally, you want a lower body temperature before sleep so I typically don’t advise hot showers.
  • Read. Something light that won’t stimulate your central nervous system and hype you up.
  • Perform a “brain dump.” Write down everything - to do lists, ideas, worries, inspiration - all of it, just get it off your mind and onto paper.
  • Utilize diaphragmatic breathing. See the 2 YouTube videos below on quadruped and 90/90 breathing.

Whatever routine you use, stick to it every day but don’t be afraid to try and incorporate new elements which might further enhance your sleep quality.

Quadruped Breathing

90/90 Breathing

3. Go to Bed and Wake Up at the Same Time Every Day

This one is tough. Most folks love sleeping in on the weekends, trying to "catch up" on all the sleep debt that accumulated during the week.

But as I mentioned before, the body loves routines. Circadian rhythms are meant to occur in a cyclical fashion. Ever wonder why you wake up at 6:30 AM on a Saturday morning even though you don't have work and didn’t set an alarm? Your body has an internal clock that is already set even without any conscious thought - work with it, not against it.

4. Make Your Room as Dark as Possible

Given our current culture, it’s tough to get away from lights these days. As I’ve already discussed, they won’t disrupt melatonin secretion by any large amount, but they can keep you awake or interrupt your REM cycle.

As such, it might be worth your while to try out some blackout curtains or a sleeping mask. Turn your cell phone upside down and flip around your alarm clock. Make sure that if it emits light, you try to block it out. Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Lately, with the weather turning colder, I've been sleeping with a knit cap. It's kills two birds with one stone: I can pull it over my eyes to block out any light and it helps keep my head and ears warm while I sleep.

Related: Understanding The Uberman Sleep Cycle

5. Sleep With Earplugs

Don't knock it until you try it, seriously.

I adopted this habit during my sophomore year of college. The dorms were too noisy, and rowdy freshman would party well into the wee hours of the morning. I always keep a pair of ear plugs handy when I go on vacation or travel for work. They make a world of difference in terms of my sleep quality.

6. Add White Noise

White noise can be something as simple as a fan or sound of an air conditioner. This background noise will help you drift off. If it's wintertime, or perhaps you're on vacation and didn't think to bring a fan, you can download a simple white noise app on your phone.

Woman sleeping on her side in bed wearing a striped sleep mask.

7. Taper Down Your Fluid Intake

As athletes, we're always told to stay hydrated. Dehydration can limit performance and increase fatigue. However, it's also important to remember that if you're getting up to use the restroom 2-4x per night, then hydration is actually hindering your recovery more than helping it. Try to taper your fluid intake as the evening progresses. Consume more water earlier in the day.

I try to limit fluids to less than 8oz after about 6pm. This will help to promote a restful, uninterrupted sleep.

8. Consider Supplements

According to 2009 study by the Department of Agriculture, 68% of the population was deficient in magnesium and 42% in zinc. Both of these minerals can affect sleep quality and quantity.

So, if you've tried all of the above recommendations but still have trouble drifting off or staying asleep, it could be because you have a nutritional deficiency. However, make sure you do your research; some companies use certain forms of minerals with low bioavailability that have poor adsorption and utilization rates. The folks over at examine.com are a fantastic resource in regards to supplementation research. I would highly recommend you check them out before making any purchases.

sleep supplement should only be a last ditch option, as many folks abuse them in large doses to combat other negative lifestyle behaviors.

Related: Supplementing for Success: The Key Mineral You're Deficient In

9. Get 8-9 Hours of Sleep

Sleep can be thought about as an inverted U curve. There's an optimal range for everyone, but it differs based upon each person’s individual lifestyle demands and other genetic factors. It should be noted that on the opposite end of the spectrum, you can overdo it by sleeping too much. The average sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes, so 9 hours of sleep perfectly coincides with 6 sleep cycles.

Have you ever wondered why there are certain times when you wake up before your alarm clock goes off feeling refreshed and alert, but then there are other days when you feel like you just got hit by a bus? Well, on those days when you feel good, it’s likely because you've timed your sleep cycles to coordinate with your wake up call. Try out this bedtime "calculator" which can help you to determine the best time to go to sleep and wake based upon the number of sleep cycles possible in a given time frame.

Final Thoughts

Remember, sleep is about quality, not quantity. Higher amounts of REM sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and recovered, but if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, your body will never get a chance to repair itself. If you’re constantly nodding off or feeling the need to nap everyday, try out these recommendations and let me know what you think. Still have questions? Drop a comment below.