Sleep Deprived? Save Your Workout!
Smashing weights day after day is incredibly fun, especially when you are hitting personal bests and there are no nagging pains. When the gain train is rolling, the sun seems to shine brighter, the air is cleaner and thoughts are more lucid. Then all of a sudden, it comes to a halt. One horrible night of sleep impedes upon progress and those coveted strength levels disappear. Is there a way to salvage a sleep deprived session of training?
Being a father of four, many nights over the last 8 years have been lost to crying children, vomiting, teething and maybe the occasional fear of the local monster. I have perfected the art of training while sleep deprived. Fortunately for me, I take TONS of creatine and have created a few tricks to stimulate my nervous system to still put out a large amount of force while under fatigue.
Through trial and error, I have been able to stimulate my body and at least recognize what type of training will be best for my body on a given day. Can I train my body to stimulate myofibrillar hypertrophy or is it a sarcoplasmic day? Maybe just a general aerobic day for active recovery? Whatever it is, understanding the physiological response is important to overall fatigue management!
Understanding What Happens
After a poor night of sleep, a few things happen. We have a very good understanding behind sleep and recovery and we know that there is a drop off in various indicators of performance.
1. Testosterone is lower: This means energy levels will drop off, muscle protein synthesis can take a hit if it happens chronically and this can also diminish cognitive ability long term.
2. Awareness is poor: Our nervous system feels sluggish, we may notice that it is a struggle to warm up and motivation is incredibly low!
3. Stimulants don’t work: Poor sleep means that the typical dosage of caffeine will have a negligible impact on arousal!
4. Cognition and Stress Management: After a poor night's rest, our cognitive ability will drop tremendously, this can lead to confusion and short term memory loss. On top of that, our irritability will be off the charts, decreasing our ability to manage stress for the day.
Is there a way to save the day?
WAKE IT UP: Cluster Sets
My absolute favorite means of saving a training session revolves around cluster sets. Perhaps your first question is: what the hell are cluster sets?
Take a weight, hit that weight for a set of two, rest 20-30 seconds and do it for another set of two, then rest 20-30 seconds and do it again. Typically, this is done for 5 sets of 2, each time with 20-30 seconds rest. At the end of the 10 total reps, there comes a 4-5 minute rest.
Is this my favorite method? Yes and no. This is not the exact method but it is heading in the right direction. I like to call the set of 5 sets of 2 reps, the BIG set. Therefore each Big set looks like this:
Big Set = 2 reps, 20 seconds rest, 2 reps, 20 seconds rest, 2 reps, 20 seconds rest, 2 reps, 20 seconds rest, 2 reps...long duration rest
My favorite trick is in regards to any compound strength movement (bench, squat, deadlift) but typically in regards to the squat. I like to utilize THREE Big Sets, the first two sets determine the pathway of my third set, almost like a flow chart.
Big Set # 1: Pick 80% of max 5 x 2 with 20 seconds rest
Rest 4 minutes
Big Set #2: 83% of max 5 x 2 with 20 seconds rest
Rest 4 minutes.
During this second long duration rest period, I determine if I will hit a big set that uses a hypertrophy cluster programming ( 3 x 4 with 20 seconds rest) or a myofibrillar hypertrophy program (6 x 1 with 20 seconds rest).
Here is an example of a full day:
Big Set #1 at 184k (80% of max squat)
Big Set #2 at 190k (82% of max squat)
Big Set #3 start at 195k and ramp over 6 sets (195k for a single, rest 20 seconds, 205k for a single, rest 20 seconds, 215k for a single, rest 20 seconds, 220k for a single, rest 20 seconds, 227k for a single, rest 20 seconds, 233k for a single)
I have had many sleepless nights of parenting but was still capable of salvaging my training session the following day. How so?
Neural Drive: Potentiation
After a long night of sleep, the nervous system has had plenty of time to recover and is then fully operational. There is no sense of clumsiness. Your thoughts are clear and your ideas are creative. However, after a poor night of rest, you may find yourself tripping over seemingly ridiculous obstacles. You may be losing your train of thought and struggle to piece ideas together. This can be solved by cluster sets.
Remember that first Big Set? That set is hard but it isn’t overly difficult. BUT, after hitting 10 reps at 80%, your body starts to wake up and realize that it is undergoing some serious stress and needs to adapt. Typically, this continues into the second Big Set. Around the third intraset of 2, the body really starts to wake up and feel strong. By the fourth and fifth intraset, it feels like a bomb of caffeine has been ignited and the body starts to really wake up.
This feeling will be noticed even during the long duration rest period. It’s important to be aware of the clarity and improvement in thought processing as you rest. When this is noticed, training motivation comes back to life and it’s time to start smashing weights! That takes us into the six sets of one and possibly a new PR.
Using cluster sets to manipulate training after a poor night’s rest is an incredible way to keep the gain train rolling. However, this does not mean it’s ok to miss good sleep regularly. Sleep is absolutely CRUCIAL for long term gains! Be sure to warm up effectively and listen to your body. If your body is not feeling it after the second Big Set, it’s time to move on and just get some easy work executed!
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of elite athletes building comprehensive programs for strength and sports performance. Several times a year he leads a seminar for coaches, trainers, and athletes.
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