Recently, a gentleman emailed me thanking me for writing the articles that I do. He mostly wanted to thank me because he also has sleep issues. He said that he was grateful to know there are other people out there dealing with similar stuff while training for strength. I have to admit that it is an honor for me to get emails like this and to know that people appreciate the time and effort I put into my articles, logs, and videos. It also gave me the idea to write this article. So I'll give an update on my sleep issues and share some things that I've personally learned about sleep.

I suppose it’s best to start with a brief (I'll try to be brief anyway) summary of my sleep issues. I've had problems with my sleep throughout most of my life, starting in about fifth grade. I just thought my sleep patterns were normal. I thought that everyone wrestled around all night trying to sleep and woke up exhausted and feeling like crap. Honestly, I thought that I was just being a bitch, and in a way, that probably helped me deal with it because I'm not a bitch.

I never gave too much thought as to why sleep was such a problem for me. I just thought that it was me and I had to do what I had to do. For example, I figured out that if I didn’t sleep in at least every other weekend for a day (I generally tried every weekend for a day), things would go seriously wrong with me. I'd get pounding migraines so bad that I'd just go home and sit in the dark with an icepack over my face. I'd have a hard time staying awake at work or whenever I slowed down. My vision would get bad and I'd start getting very negative. Like I said, in my mind, that was just the way I was and I never gave much thought as to why.

In my late 20s when I started competing in powerlifting and started to get big, my sleeping issues got worse. On top of my other sleep issues, I developed sleep apnea. After falling asleep at a stop sign, I knew that I needed to see a doctor. I'm pretty hard headed, but enough was enough. I was becoming a danger to other people.

After my first sleep study, I realized that things weren't right. I didn't get any stage three or four delta sleep. Instead, I jumped in and out of stages at random. Of course, I stopped breathing a lot. Throughout the whole night, I actually got very little solid sleep. I was hoping that the CPAP would fix my sleep, but it only helped a little, mostly with the apnea. Also, I didn't stop breathing any longer with the CPAP. After my first sleep lab with the CPAP, the technician said, “That looked like a bad night!” I replied, “Nope, that's pretty much my normal night.” I still didn't get any stage three or four delta sleep. To this day and after all the sleep studies I've done, I've only fallen into stage three one time for about a minute. I still randomly jump around through the other sleep stages, and most of the time, I'm either in stage one or awake. I've seen at least two sleep doctors who can't tell me why I'm like this.

By the time that I was heavy into powerlifting and after being put on the CPAP, I still didn’t give much thought to my sleep. It was just something that I had to deal with, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me. It began to get much worse though. I had spells of insomnia that lasted up to two weeks and caused severe depression and I just generally felt exhausted. I had actually dealt with milder depression most of my life, but like my sleep issues, I never realized that it was depression. I just thought that it was me.

In 2008, I hit my lowest point. My sleep was horrible every night, and I was dealing with severe depression often. It got to the point where I didn't talk to anyone, I was always hurting, every thought was negative, and I had nonstop suicidal thoughts. I trained and made sure that I was alone. That was about it. Looking back, it was pretty messed up, and I'm grateful that I found a way through it. At one point, it got so bad that I did a meet and just didn't have any urge to lift anymore. I talked to my partners, and we decided that I should back off lifting for a while. This was an insane thought to me though, so we came up with the idea that I would lift lighter weights and compete in the Highland games. This was a big turning point and played a big role in helping me get past that period.

During this time, I tried all kinds of sleep drugs that did almost nothing for me. For some reason, I have an insane tolerance to medication. When I was working my way through the worst of it, a friend who is a doctor helped me out and found a medication that actually worked to some extent. I had to take very high doses of it and it wouldn’t completely knock me out, but it at least helped. When I was on the medication, I was still up much of the night, but I was able to fall back asleep more quickly, so overall I did get more sleep. Things improved some, but I was still struggling a lot.

Jumping ahead to more current times, things are much better than they have been in awhile in terms of sleep. Unfortunately, I've been plagued with injures the last few years, and my torn muscle list is getting pretty impressive. I've had major tears in my left hamstring (which I tore twice), left pec (which I tore three times), and the inner head of my right triceps. Just recently, I tore my right hip flexor. I've also had minor tears in both biceps at least three times. Along with those injuries, I've messed up my lower back twice in the last two years, which may have involved torn muscle but I'm not sure. I've also been dealing with shoulder issues, but I just attribute those to powerlifting wear and tear. On a happy note, the hip injuries that I had been struggling with for years and years seem to have healed. I'll know for sure as I start training with heavier weights.

While all this was going on, I didn’t compete. I figured that there wasn't any reason to carry around so much body weight, so I dropped down from my usual competition weight of 385 pounds to about 320 pounds. Throughout my life, my weight has fluctuated a lot. I know that it has little effect on my sleep, but it does make life with lousy sleep much easier to deal with. My normal body weight is around 240 pounds, and although I'm still much heavier than that, I do feel much better than I did at 385 pounds. Also during this time, I ended up taking more time off or lifting lighter weights as I tried to heal my injuries. I never took off more than a couple weeks at a time and I was always still in the gym helping my teammates. Mentally, I have a hard time staying away from the gym. Just being there and even lifting lighter weights gives me the feeling that the world is right.

Over these last couple years, I've been focusing on paying off bills and decreasing my debt. To do this, I've been working a second job installing tile and granite. It's a good job that I like, but it means getting up early on the weekends and sometimes working six weeks or so in a row without any days off or any days to sleep in. Even with all this, I'm learning how to deal with my sleep issues and what triggers them to get even worse.

Currently, I'm starting to lift heavier again (well at least what is heavy to me). My bench is going well, except I still have a bit of trouble locking out anything over 800 pounds because of the triceps that I tore. I'm building my squat and deadlift back up, but I'm still careful with my torn hip flexor. I don't want to injure it again because I dealt with it for so long. I'm working very hard to find a balance between life, sleep, and training heavy. I'm also always analyzing things that I did in the past and how they affected my sleep and analyzing the things that I'm currently doing and how they're affecting me. I want to be more proactive than I've been because I don't want to go through the crazy insomnia spells or depression again. I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job so far.

I hate that I have to deal with sleep issues and all that it causes, but in a way, it's a positive thing. I say this for two reasons. The first reason is the letter that I described in the beginning of this article. It's an honor to be able to help people push past problems, let them know that they can still achieve great things, and help them see that they aren't the only ones suffering from things like this. The second reason is the sensitivity that it's brought me. Because I've gone through this, I'm more sensitive to it, which has allowed me to help my partners and other lifters avoid major sleep issues or overtraining to reach greater levels of strength. Through my years in powerlifting, I've been forced to deal with and learn about sleep. These have been very hard lessons. Trust me when I say that I wish I could do it all over again knowing what I know now. I would have gotten much stronger with fewer injuries and a whole lot less pain and misery.

Of all the things that I've learned about sleep, the most important is how major a role sleep is in gaining strength. I'm proof that you can get as strong as hell without it, but you can do so much more with it. You can do it so much more easily and quickly with more and better sleep. I'm always baffled by people who can sleep but won’t. I've heard people brag that they drank all night but still went to the gym to train. I've heard people brag that they trained and then went out all night. That doesn’t make you tough or hardcore. It just makes you stupid. Plain and simple, that isn't dedication. A dedicated athlete would get the sleep he needs for his body to recover and get stronger. Most of the recovery that your body goes through happens while you sleep, and most of the hormones that we need are released while we sleep. Like I always say, “We break ourselves down in the gym and get weaker, but we get stronger outside the gym when our bodies recover from the training.” Most of that recovery happens while we sleep, which makes sleep crucial for gaining the most strength that we can. There are plenty of scientific studies and reports stating these facts, but being a blue collar guy, I trust my own experience more. In the past, I've always had larger increases in strength when my sleep has been better.

In the past month, my second job has slowed down and I actually had three or four weekends off. Despite missing the money, I like having the time off. I've been taking advantage of it by making sure that I'm in bed for eleven or twelve hours each night on those weekends. This extra sleep has really had a positive impact on my training and how I feel. The healing of my injuries has progressed a lot, my soreness has eased, and I'm making a ton of progress in my training. I've even had an easier time at work. I work for a liquor, wine, and spirits company, and I was getting to the point where I would lift the kegs or propane tanks as little as possible. In the last week or so, I've been back to straight arming steel propane tanks on to the forklift and shouldering kegs or putting them over my head for a few reps. I've also noticeably leaned out some and have become harder (yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like a bodybuilder). Now keep in mind that if you recover more quickly, you can train more often. So many lifters overtrain and can’t stay out of the gym. Sleep more and you'll be able to train more often without overtraining. Train more without overtraining and you'll get stronger faster. Those simple and true facts alone should make you want to take a nap right now!

Sleep will allow you to train more often and keep you from overtraining, but what if you do start overtraining? I have a very intense habit of analyzing my training and all aspects of life that affect my training. I realized that one side effect of overtraining is that it wrecks your sleep. This is like a house collapsing on itself. You're already overtraining and your strength gains will suffer from that alone, but once your sleep goes to shit, the effects are devastating.

With my sleep issues being so terrible, it took me a long time to recognize this in myself, but when it came to my partners, I was able to see and realize it much sooner. You can overtrain muscle and/or you can overtrain your central nervous system. I find that most people don't overtrain their muscles very easily, but people who lift heavy with a lot of intensity can easily overtrain their central nervous systems. I believe that the overtrained central nervous system is what effects your sleep the most.

When I see signs of overtraining in my partners, I start asking questions to find out what's going on. One of the questions I ask them is about their sleep. My partners all sleep normally, but once their central nervous systems start to become overtrained, they'll start to wake up a lot and become more restless during the night. They'll still fall asleep like normal at first, but if they don't back off in their training and let their central nervous systems recover, it will go from restless nights to trouble getting to sleep. I've never let them go past this phase, but I'm guessing that it will eventually lead to insomnia. My normal sleep involves waking up often and restlessness, and I'm proof that you can still make gains like this. But why go through it if you don’t have to? It just makes sense that if I could sleep normally, I would make much bigger and better gains. I know that my partners do much better once they back off and let their central nervous systems recover.

I've had many minor issues that I recognize stem from poor or not enough sleep. It only seems logical to me that most of these symptoms will effect strength gains. I know that they do in my exaggerated state. They range in severity depending on how poor my sleep is or how long I've gone without sleep. Depending on how poor my sleep is, I'll get digestion problems ranging from just an upset stomach to not wanting to eat at all. I can also tell that my metabolism will slow way down. I usually burn through a meal in a couple hours and will be hungry, but with messed up sleep, I'll still feel full four or five hours later. My vision will get blurry and it will be hard to focus. It actually takes longer to get my eyes to focus and adjust to changes in light. I've heard that this may also be due to adrenal fatigue, which I still believe is correlated to lack of quality sleep. I even notice that at some levels my motor skills will go kind of haywire and I'll drop stuff or knock stuff over whereas I normally don't do that.

Of course, there is the depression and negative thinking. My muscles normally stay very flexible, but I'll find myself getting tighter and taking longer to stretch out. It will even become painful to stretch to my normal limits (this is usually correlated more to overtraining). I'll also feel like I got hit by a semi the morning after training. If you train hard, you'll always be sore the next day, but this is way worse. It seems like all my injuries stop healing and they even hurt more. Part of this may be that my normally high pain threshold seems to drop with poor sleep. Once my sleep really gets bad, I'll lose a lot of my emotions. When this happens, I've been called a zombie. I'll also lose any enthusiasm for things that I normally love to do. I think the only reason that I've been able to keep training through this is because of my goals. Achieving goals is a very logical thing for me.

I don’t think a person with normal sleep patterns will ever feel these side effects from poor sleep or no sleep to this degree, but I do think that they experience a lighter version of these symptoms. They may not even recognize the symptoms but might just feel awful. I often hear people talk about how terrible they feel after one bad night of sleep. This one bad night is my best sleep, so I do find it hard to have sympathy for them. However, it does prove that they experience some symptoms from a lack of sleep or poor sleep even if they aren’t equivalent to what I feel.

Strength athletes kill themselves looking for every little strength gain that they can find, so why not make sure that you sleep according to the stress you put your body through? Even if your sleep isn't as poor as mine, you'll still be affected in a negative way if you aren't getting enough quality sleep. You'll also see greater benefits if you do get enough quality sleep. For example, let's say that you're staying out late or staying up too late and you're only getting six hours of sleep a night. You start to get some symptoms like me, but they really aren’t bad enough for you to recognize them. They're about 80 to 90 percent less than mine. That means there's 10 to 20 percent more improvement that you could be making. That’s improvement in your strength gains and your recovery. You'll have better digestion and use of the food that you're eating, better flexibility, a higher pain threshold, and a better mental state, which will allow you to have better training sessions. I also think about the muscle in my eyes and how it becomes hard for me to focus. If it's affecting the muscles in my eyes, what is it doing to my larger muscle groups? Don’t forget about the hormones released while you sleep. Not enough sleep equals not enough of those hormones getting into your body and to the places where they're needed for recovery. The bottom line is that more quality sleep means faster recovery and a stronger athlete.

So how much sleep is enough? Does sleep have a diminishing return factor? As with most things, I feel that this is an individual answer. I've known people who function perfectly on five hours of sleep a night and others who need ten hours just to get through regular life. On a generic level, it has mostly been said that a normal person with a normal life needs eight hours a night. Throw in heavy strength training and I say that this jumps to ten hours. Strength athletes usually have to deal with all the normal parts of regular life plus the effects of intense weight training.

How do we get ten hours of sleep a night and does it have to be in one stretch? My personal feeling through my own experiences and research is that it doesn't have to be all in one stretch. I've known bodybuilders who sleep four hours and then get up and eat or even do some cardio and then go back to bed. I try to nap at lunch every day and on the weekends along with sleeping in. Some say that sleep sessions should be based on sleep cycles, but most people don’t have a lot of room to play around with. For this reason, I say just get as much sleep as you can and understand how important sleep is for gaining strength. Think of sleep as training sessions that make you stronger.

Sleeping like a baby.

My sleep has been a mess for almost as long as I can remember. The thought that people can fall asleep and wake up in the morning is unfathomable to me. Just the thought of going to bed is a nightmare. On my best nights, I know that I'll get some rest, but I also know that I'll be up over forty times and it will be a struggle. I know that my fastest strength gains occurred when my sleep was at its best or when I was able to stay in bed for twelve hours or more on the weekends. I also know that most of my injuries happened when I was sleeping poorly and that my strength gains slowed during those times as well. If you can sleep well, take advantage of it just like you would with anything else such as learning better technique, training, getting better nutrition, or taking supplements. If you're blessed with good sleep, it's right there and it costs nothing.

If you're one of the unlucky few like me, there are still things that you can do. Try to get to bed earlier, try to sleep in on the weekends, try to find medications that will help, or try to take naps. I know that my sleep is probably only going to get so good, so sleeping in on weekends and taking naps helps a lot. If I stay in bed for twelve hours on Saturday morning, I'm getting six to eight hours of broken up sleep, which is pretty damn good for me.

For me, it's important that I don't overtrain my central nervous system because when I do, my sleep goes to real shit and turns into long insomnia spells. I try to remind myself that if I let my sleep get out of hand and keep training, my progress will be terrible. As hard as it is to back off, in the long run, I'll have way better gains and fewer injuries. So when I get to that point, I now back off or use lighter weights until my sleep improves (to what is normal for me) before going heavy again. If your sleep is like mine, it doesn’t mean anything except that it will be a bit harder to reach higher levels. It doesn’t in any way mean that you can’t get there and I'm proof of that. It just means that you need to be smarter and think more. Never forget that heart and will are the most important things for achieving anything!