It’s not uncommon for a client to seem like he’s doing everything right—tracking his food, monitoring his heart rate, mapping out his training—and yet his progress has stalled out. There are many other stressors to consider but one of the first ones I go to is sleep.
In 2013, Alex Ariza and I inadvertently ran a little experiment on sleep. We had two fighters with fights very close to each other, so they did their entire training camp together and identically. Mikey started out at 9% body fat. Brandon started at 13%. Usually, a person with more to lose will lose faster than someone with less, but that wasn’t the case. Mikey plummeted immediately from 9% to 4%–that’s 5 percentage points in 4 weeks. Brandon, who we’d have expected to lose more starting from the higher percentage, actually took longer. Almost 6 weeks to lose the same amount—from 13% to 8% and we didn’t really see anything happen until week 5. Unlike Mikey, who lost immediately, Brandon’s progress was very slow considering his higher starting point. While Mikey’s progress was significant and steady every week, Brandon’s virtually stalled out at 11% and then at 10%.
What was the difference? Sleep. While it’s true other factors may have been at work, the variables of exercise and food were pretty well controlled. Remember both fighters were training together. They got up at the same time, did the same 6 AM track workout together, ate the same things at the same time, went to the same afternoon gym workouts. We know this because Alex lived with them during camp. They would come to my office , weigh-in and pinch, and then Alex would hand them both the same post-workout meal.
But the one thing Alex couldn’t control for was sleep. You can’t make a guy go to sleep if he can’t or doesn’t want to. So Mikey would do his 6 AM run, eat, and take a 2-hr nap before heading to the gym in the afternoon. Brandon stayed awake. Mikey was in bed and asleep by 10. Brandon would stay up until midnight playing video games. He just couldn’t sleep. And it stalled out his body-comp progress. The reasons for this are legion—sleep deprivation causes impaired immune function, inflammation, insulin resistance. Brandon didn’t really make significant progress until Week 5–when he finally crashed and went to sleep! He started taking the 2-hr naps. He fell asleep early at night. He immediately dropped 2%.
So, no, while we didn’t run this experiment in a sleep lab or control for nutritional deficiencies—heck, we didn’t even set out to run an experiment—based on the body comp data and the timing of Brandon’s eventual progress with his finally crashing, our little accidental experiment does make a pretty strong case for sleep as a significant contributor to body comp. If the processes that normally occur during sleep—tissue repair, immune function, detoxification—aren’t happening, we end up with increased inflammation, edema, and altered metabolism. There are other things to consider as well–including impaired brain function, neurotransmitters imbalance, stress hormones–but poor sleep often occurs in clusters with these factors. And setting yourself up for good sleep through consistent habits and controlling your environment can go a long way towards fixing all of them.