Hacking Your Sleep 101: Nine Tips For Better Gains

Sleep helps you 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 news feed in order to stay up to date. However, what we fail to recognize is that all of this late night ‘net surfing is depriving our bodies of some much needed shut eye.


We've all done it...

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 the internet. We forget how we felt earlier that morning, and remain content to just put off going to bed. We yearn for that instant gratification from the latest Vine or YouTube clip.

I'm not here to hate on Facebook or Twitter. 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 shutting down our computer or iPads an hour earlier so that we can give our bodies a bit more rest.


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.

Hacking Your Sleep 101

Mobile WebsiteHack #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.

However, 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 the program FLUX. This actually changes the wavelength of light emitted from your screen as the day goes on. I've been using it 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.

My sleep has been better than ever despite using my computer late into the evening. Also, there are cell phone versions of the same program for android users known as LUX and TWILIGHT.

Hack #2 - Establish a Nightly Ritual to Help You Relax

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 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.
Quadruped Breathing

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.

Hack #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 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.

Hack #4 - Make Your Room as Dark as Humanly 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.

Ear PlugsHack #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.

Hack #6 - Add Some 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 for your iPhone.

Hack #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.

Hack #8 - Consider Supplementation - Magnesium, Zinc, ZMA, Melatonin, Etc.

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.

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

Hack #9 - Try to Get 8 Hours, But 9 is Even Better

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.

Hacking 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 night.

Recap

  1. Stop using your phone, TV, computer about an hour before bed and try to read and relax.
  2. Establish a nightly "ritual".
  3. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  4. Make your room as dark as humanly possible.
  5. Sleep with earplugs.
  6. Add some white noise.
  7. Taper your fluid intake.
  8. Consider supplementation (magnesium, zinc, ZMA, melatonin, etc.)
  9. Try to get at least 8 hours every night but 9 hours is even better.

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 or shoot me an email.

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About The Author
Mike received his B.S. in Exercise Science from USC and is currently pursuing his Masters in Exercise Physiology and Sport Performance at ETSU while continuing to serve as a strength and conditioning coach in his free time.

10 Comments+ Post Comment

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Posted Mon, 02/08/2016 - 09:37
Robert

All of that sounds Great But what happens when you work a 7 day rotation and go from 11-7 Thursday then rotate to 7 -3 on Saturday. Just out of luck or what

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Posted Mon, 02/08/2016 - 10:48
MikeWines

Hey Robert,

Shift work certainly makes things a bit more difficult as you're not allowing your body the chance to establish a rhythm. However, most of these tips can still be applied in spite of a differing sleep schedule.

If you're struggling to transition between the differences in the two schedules, I would recommend buying some black out curtains for your bedroom. Being able to manipulate that environment as much as possible will be an immense help. If the curtains aren't appealing, consider picking up a sleep mask.

Also, naps may be incredibly beneficial to help you offset some of the sleep "inertia" (feeling of grogginess from waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle) which you feel when transitioning between the two.

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Posted Fri, 01/02/2015 - 21:21
sahil shorie

That's a very nice article !!, I have a Question, i'd be thankful if you could solve my problem.
i am 16 and height is 5'5''
i sleep at night and i could not be able to wake up next morning.. i woke up on next evening or on sunset, sleeping generally about 16 to 20 hours ... and the next night i am not be able to sleep at all...
than i have to sleep on sunrise and again i woke up on sunset.. please do something with that
my nights are disturbed and my days are gone in sleeping.
what would you suggest ?

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Posted Thu, 12/04/2014 - 16:18
paul

I work offshore so can be very physical, when i go to bed at night i will try your tips above. At the minute i do shifts so my sleep pattern is all over the shop. My question is i go to the gym after work then relax for hour after this but nearly everyday i will get 3-4 hours sleep a day. I need to take on fluid as i work in extreme heat right up until i finish everyday. What would you suggest

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Posted Sun, 12/07/2014 - 22:55
Mike

Paul,
It certainly sounds like you've got some very interesting work conditions that call for some drastic measures. I would definitely ensure that you're getting plenty of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc.) due to your high fluid output through sweating. If you find that drinking that much keeps you up at night, you could try to work in some naps, stick to solid rather than liquid postworkout meals, and try to keep your workouts a few hours before bed to allow your body time to relax afterwards.

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Posted Thu, 11/20/2014 - 14:36
Hadi HitcheR

Thank you for the article
I had a question, I'd be thankful if you could help me
I'm 21 and my body type is ectomorph, after 3 years of bodybuilding I have gained 17 kg's. My question is this: Will I gain muscle naturally after this? or I'm done with the natural gaining?
plz be honest, after this should I use anabolic steroids? or no I can gain muscle again?
Height: 187 cm's
Weight: 85 kg's

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Posted Sun, 11/23/2014 - 18:38
Mike

You're only 21, you're in your prime years of growth and you're willing to risk that simply because steriods seem "easier"?

You haven't reached your genetic potential, I can guarantee you that. This isn't about reaching some "magical" number and instantly becoming satisfied with your physique and all of your goals. This is the journey of a lifetime, keep eating and training.

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Posted Wed, 11/19/2014 - 12:24
John

The problem that I have is that going to bed at a reasonable time leaves no time to do anything that I actually want to do. Tonight for example I'll get home at 7 pm and I get up each weekday morning at 6 am. So I'm constantly trying to cram everything into a couple of hours every night. The alternative is too depressing to consider.
Also worth mentioning that eating too late can stop you from sleeping great.

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Posted Sun, 11/23/2014 - 18:33
Mike

Even if you go to bed between 10:30-11pm, that'd still give you 3.5-4 hours to do whatever you need to do plus 8 solid hours of shut eye. It isn't ideal but still pretty solid. What all do you have to cram in?

I think eating late is somewhat dependent upon the individual. I can personally put down a 1,000 calories, wash my dishes, brush my teeth, and immediately fall asleep. But yes, for some, it can most definitely be an issue for some folks.

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Posted Mon, 11/17/2014 - 21:01
Omar

Very good article, I definitely feel better when I sleep with no TV on. The wife is convinced she can't fall asleep unless TV is on, so I tend to just roll with it. I am hoping by sharing this article she will understand why falling asleep in the dark is important.