Life and recovery sometimes come into conflict.
Today we’re talking about what happens when you’re sleeping around 6 hours a night – and what that does to muscle growth.
We’ll touch on the science of sleep and discuss what you can do to get better sleep to drive up your muscle growth. Let’s get started with the basics.
Sleep and Muscle Growth
Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to change your results – along with a finely-tuned workout plan and smart nutrition. It’s also the easiest to make changes to in the short term, letting you start getting better results quickly.
When you sleep, your body prioritizes those recovery and growth processes stimulated by workouts and fed with your food choices. The body pushes hormonal balance, tissue repair, and muscle-building to the top of your body’s “to-do” list.
Every elite athlete and bodybuilder focuses on both the quality and quantity of their sleep.
The average recommendation of 8 hours a night is a classic, but your total daily sleep comes down to nap and sleeps quality.
The Effects of Sleep – Short and Long Term
Sleep has two sets of effects:
- Acute – or short term
- Chronic – or long term
The Acute effects are the ones you see straight away. You slept poorly, and now you’re spending the whole day (or even several) with low energy levels, you’re not feeling very “sharp” mentally, and your workout sucks when you eventually drag yourself to the gym.
These are the clearest changes when you have a terrible night’s sleep.
The opposite is also true.
If you’ve slept well, you’ll feel energized and refreshed with a massive boost to productivity and likely also workout performance – pushing at your bests and staying stronger for longer.
These are great lifestyle benefits that justify putting more effort into your sleep.
Chronic effects are more important for muscle gain, and they’re based on the average sleep you get over weeks or months. They’re the things like resting hormone levels, normal energy levels throughout the day, and even your mental health and mood.
Chronic good sleep supports better testosterone levels and other anabolic hormones. It regulates your dietary choices, changes your workout recovery capacity, and even the level of carbs and high-energy fluids you store in your muscles.
People who under-sleep are sorer, less resilient to fatigue, and have worse lifestyle performance (in food choices, workouts, and mental performance). That could be you.
6 Hours of Sleep – Enough to Build Muscle?
Technically, 6 hours of sleep is enough to build muscle.
Sleeping 6 hours every night and building muscle over time is possible. If you’re eating enough and training properly, your body can still produce muscle proteins.
However, 6 hours is massively sub-optimal and may even be clinical sleep deprivation. Your body and brain are operating lower due to the lack of time to rest and recover, leading you to under-recover, under-grow, and under-perform daily.
The results of 6 vs. 8 hours of sleep per night are clear. In studies on sleep, testosterone levels drop when 1 hour of sleep is taken away, up to 17%.
Sleep debt, as it’s called, triggers compensatory energy-saving mechanisms to deal with the higher stress and restricted recovery. These include lower testosterone levels, protein-sparing (i.e., building less muscle), and protecting energy levels – limiting workout performance and making you easier to fatigue.
When you’re in sleep debt, like sleeping 6 hours a night, you will notice a few significant changes to your performance.
These also have knock-on effects on your recovery and growth that completely change how quickly you build muscle.
Here’s how you’re tripping yourself up with 6 hours of sleep:
1. Lower Testosterone
Sleeping fewer hours per night will mean less testosterone in your system. That immediately means fewer muscle gains as your most critical anabolic hormones (including insulin, HGH, and IGF-1) are circulating at much lower levels. This is a key to manipulating your hormonal environment.
Getting more sleep rapidly turns this around to let you build more muscle – and repair what you have after workouts.
Going from 6 hours to 8 hours per night could quickly boost testosterone levels by 15% – 30%, depending on your genes and lifestyle.
2. Worse Workout Performance
Your workouts suffer from poor sleep.
First, you’re going to have far worse muscular recovery, which means there’s a good chance you’re still sore and carrying DOMs from the last workout.
That’s one way to limit your performance immediately, as damaged muscles don’t take up carbs as quickly and can hamstring your growth processes before starting.
Second, your muscles and nerves are not as well-recovered, leaving your strength below optimal levels.
It’s easy to start struggling with even 90% of your best on low sleep, especially if you’ve been training with high volume and intensity in the past week.
Finally, and most importantly for building muscle, your strength-endurance will be very low. You’ll get tired more quickly, limiting the constructive workout volume you can perform and the recovery and growth you can cause.
Workouts drive muscle growth, and the goal is to be as well-recovered as possible. You want to perform as much hard work as you can recover from, then come back and repeat that as soon as possible.
Poor sleep limits your performance, total work capacity, and the unseen processes in your body that turn workout effort into muscle gains.
Even with only 2 hours a night of sleep loss.
3. Compensatory Metabolism – Bulking or Cutting? Food Choices Suffer
The body starts saving energy when you’re under-slept and chronically stressed. Cortisol levels rise, and your body goes into a system-wide “save everything we can” process. This process is the opposite of the anabolic processes essential to better muscle growth.
Your ideal muscle-growth state is relaxed, low-stress, and in an energy spending anabolic state. Sleep directly limits all 3 of these – leaving you compensating for your metabolism.
By limiting your sleep, you’re telling your body that you don’t have the energy or environment to push muscle growth to the max. Limiting your sleep cuts your results short at a neural and hormonal level – the opposite of good habits.
4. More Injuries
Most people ignore this one, but there’s a direct link between sleep debt and injury risk.
Sleeping 6 hours a night could be why you keep getting nasty minor injuries. As we all know, injuries are the fastest way to ruin training momentum and limit your results.
Sleep is a critical factor in taking care of your body, extending beyond muscles.
Tendons and joints need to recover, too, and they’re hit particularly hard by poor sleep as they are already slow to repair and strengthen.
When you cut your sleep short, you hike up the risk of actual injury and damage, leaving you out for weeks. Some people never fix these low-level issues, and poor sleep could turn that “niggling injury” into a long-term problem.
How to Improve Your Sleep for Muscle Gains
So, how do you get better sleep to solve the problem of undercutting and sabotaging your muscle gains?
Better sleep for muscle growth breaks down into quantity and quality. That means sleeping more and sleeping better – or deeper. You can make a few easy changes to each to squeeze out the best results.
Quantity: Sleep More
Sleeping more is the easiest thing to measure – but a harder one to improve.
There are a few ways you can change your routine and lifestyle to get better sleep and thus better muscle building.
- Time It: Figure out what sleeping and waking time give you the most hours and fit your schedule. Have something to aim at, or you’ll never improve your sleeping hours.
- Evening Routine: Set a time after which you want to start winding down, even if it’s only 1 hour before bed. This routine helps relax and makes it easier to hit that go-to-bed goal you’ve just set out.
- Bed-time Rules: Phones and other screentime need to come down, while you replace them with more relaxing activities. Think reading or bathing, which help relax the mind and muscles for a faster, deeper sleep.
- Set a Sleep Alarm: Set an alarm an hour before bed to give it the same urgency as waking up in the morning. You have one for waking, and you should have one for sleeping if you want to improve your results.
- No Scrolling: Charge your phone somewhere far away from the bed to prevent notifications and the thrill of scrolling through the same three apps keeping you awake. Buy an accurate alarm clock if you have to.
- Set a Caffeine Limit: Caffeine has a 6-hour half-life, which means you really shouldn’t be drinking it too close to bed (the only exception being pre-workout). Give yourself a time after which you cut the caffeine, and you’ll reduce the risk of lying awake in bed.
These simple changes can start to improve your sleep today. It’s not a complex set of changes to implement, and you can start them one at a time. You’ll see results quickly, which might be the motivation you need to add more to your habits and improve the results.
Quality: Sleep Better
Sleep quality is about how restorative and restful each hour of sleep is. Even with 6 hours, higher quality sleep can improve your results – though you want to get quantity and quality.
There are a few ways you can improve sleep quality and get deeper, more anabolic sleep.
- Reduce Pre-sleep Anxiety: Bring down anxiety levels with relaxing activities, lower-arousal media, and more focus on slowing down. As above, bathing, stretching, and reading are good places to start.
- Improve Your Wind-down: Spend more time in your pre-bed slowdown, or start earlier. The more relaxed your mind and muscles are by the time you sleep, the faster and deeper you’ll sleep.
- Cooler Room: Warm rooms lead to tossing and turning, fragmenting your sleep, and pulling you out of that restful deep sleep. This means a cool room with a warm blanket is the best choice, letting you sleep like a rock.
- Darker Room: Light can break up sleep just like heat, and it’s easy to ignore those cracks of light. Invest in a suitable black-out blind or other window covers to darken your room for better sleep.
- Quieter Room: Sound is among the worst things while you sleep, as it breaks up sleep and spikes anxiety. Turn off phone notifications, reduce electronic buzz, and try to insulate yourself against any sound in your room.
- Sedative Supplements: Relaxing nutrients from green and herbal teas can help reduce anxiety – think chamomile and valerian root. If you’re serious about building muscle, you can supplement things like melatonin or 5-HTP to reduce anxiety and boost sleep quality.
Can you build muscle with 6 hours of sleep?
Technically, you can build muscle on 6 hours of sleep. You need to ask yourself if you want 6 hours’ sleep worth of results or if you want to make maximum muscle gains. The more sleep you put in, the more muscle building you will get out.
Muscle building is all about optimizing your workouts, nutrition, and sleep. As one of the three most important factors, it’s one of the most important things you have to control your results.
Getting 6 hours is enough to build muscle, but maximal gains are 8-10 hours.
Remember that this is all about averages: one good (or bad) night’s sleep isn’t a massive change in the long term. Getting those high average hours in a good quality sleeping environment matters. It can be easy to make these changes now to give yourself better results in the months ahead.