Most questions surrounding training usually revolve around training programs, reps, sets and accessory work to address weaknesses. Rarely does anyone inquire about recovery and sleep to make progress in their training.

Sleep is probably one of the most underrated disciplines that people utilize to make progress with strength training and it's probably one of the easiest that you can control. You can have your programming, nutrition and supplementation all set up perfectly and “dialed in” for your training cycle, but if you’re only getting four or five hours of sleep a night or sleeping sporadically, I can guarantee you that your training won’t be anywhere near optimal and you’ll have great difficulty making progress. Sleep and recovery should be one of your number one priorities for training. Sleep puts your body into an anabolic state where there is a period when it's producing new bone and muscular and nervous tissue.

Have you ever gone a few days with minimal sleep and then went to the gym expecting to have a great session only to feel exhausted and weak? On the other hand, have you ever had a few days off from the gym (probably unintentional) only to come back and smash some “personal bests” at your next training session? Do you think it's a coincidence that you became stronger with more rest? There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture with military organizations in attempts to gather intelligence information from captives. Part of the Navy Seal initiation training utilizes sleep deprivation to weed out potential candidates and help candidates understand how dysfunctional you can become with minimal sleep.

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Our entire evolutionary biological system centers around the light and dark cycles of the circadian rhythm. We are systematically programmed and designed to sleep during the night time dark cycles and be awake during the daytime seasonal cycles. Any disruptions to this pattern causes an upset with a cascade of hormonal and neurotransmitter functions within our bodies. Our bodies become confused, our immune system and hormonal functions become compromised, and we become weak and sick. With the invention of electricity and present day 24-hour artificial light cycles, it’s no wonder people are having difficulty getting enough rest when the light, day cycles become never ending. Televisions, cell phones, computers, laptops and electrical lighting all emit light that delay or blunt the release of melatonin, which controls your sleep cycle. Instead of sleeping when it’s dark outside, we stay inside where we can control the light and stay up as late as we want without feeling the need to go to sleep.

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Getting enough sleep seems simple and might be attainable for people who work consistent day shift hours, but it's much tougher for those who work shift work, consistent night shifts or irregular hours on a regular basis. To further complicate matters, working shifts or irregular hours with consistent strength training stresses the body even more. Considering that your body grows and recuperates when you're resting and sleeping, you can see that paying more attention to your sleep pattern may become very beneficial to your training progress.

Once you fall behind on your sleep, you play a never ending game of trying to “catch up.” Most people complain of feeling tired all the time, lethargic and inattentive, and they fall asleep during the daytime. Ever go to the gym and feel like you don’t have any energy to train? People start to rely on stimulants like caffeine, energy drinks and ephedrine to function on a daily basis, which becomes a vicious cycle of “pill therapy” just to find some sleep and stay awake during the day. How are you supposed to function, progress in your training and perform at your best if you can’t get into a regular sleep pattern to help you recover and grow?

A normal sleep pattern entails cycling through five stages. The first four stages are referred to as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the fifth stage is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During a normal sleep cycle, people pass through all five stages, which typically lasts between 80 to 120 minutes for a complete cycle. Then it starts over.

Stage One: In stage one, you drift in and out of very light sleep and are easily awakened. Muscle activity declines and your eyes move very slowly.

Stage Two: As you move into stage two, your eyes stop moving and your brain waves slow down.

Stages Three and Four (your delta sleep stages): During stage three, your brain produces extremely slow waves with occasional bursts of faster brain wave activity. As you enter stage four, your brain produces extremely slow waves almost exclusively. These stages are known as “deep sleep” or “delta sleep”. When you're in delta sleep, there isn't any eye movement and you have reduced muscle activity. It's during these stages that your body emits growth hormones and works on repairing the physical damage done during the day.

Stage Five (REM sleep): In stage five, your brain wave patterns rise to levels similar to those when you're awake. Your heart rate increases, and your blood pressure rises. Your breathing is irregular and shallow and becomes more rapid. Your limb muscles are temporarily paralyzed, and your eyes jerk rapidly (hence the name rapid eye movement, or REM). It's during REM sleep that most dreams occur.

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So we’ve established that it’s extremely important for athletes and lifters to establish a proper sleep pattern to try and optimize training, strength, recovery and growth. What is the best way to approach this?

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There are a few natural and simple things you can do to improve your sleep without resorting to any prescribed medication.

  • Listen to your body. If you’re fatigued and feel weak, take a break from training.
  • Reading before bed will help you fall asleep.
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible. Every cell in your body is sensitive to light, so don't have any televisions, computer screens, alarm clock lights, cell phones or anything that emits light on when you're sleeping.
  • Stop watching television one hour prior to going to bed.
  • Magnesium spray (zinc magnesium aspartate) or powdered magnesium prior to bed has a calming and relaxing effect on your body and will help you sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine or stimulants during the second half of your work day.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol prior to going to bed. It will blunt the release of growth hormone.
  • Over-the-counter sleep aids may be helpful periodically for the short term, but most contain antihistamines and tolerance levels will increase, making them less effective. Most sleep aid medications will leave you feeling groggy and lethargic the next day.
  • Melatonin tablets prior to going to bed can assist with falling asleep.
  • Invest in a good mattress and pillow.
  • Consciously make an effort to get to bed early and try to target eight to nine hours of sleep every night.
  • If you have trouble sleeping, go to a sleep clinic and see if you have a disorder like sleep apnea, which may require treatment. The continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is a device that has been utilized by numerous athletes to improve their quality of sleep. It has been touted as one of the best “performance enhancing” devices available.

If you're training and you want to improve your strength and conditioning, you must make sleep and recovery a priority and part of your programming recipe for progressing and keeping your hormonal system functioning properly. Our everyday lives can be extremely busy and complicated with family, work obligations and busy schedules. If you don’t pay enough attention to sleep and recovery, you’ll find that your training suffers, your strength suffers and your general health suffers.