Training Without Sleep

The following is a guest blog from my good friend and DC-based personal trainer, Josef Brandenburg. Enjoy! – MR

“What am I supposed to do with my workouts when I can’t sleep?”

We get this question from members sometimes.

There is a very good practical answer, however, first, there is a very important mindset shift that you’ve got to make first:

“Even on the morning after his wife’s death, the farmer must still milk the cows.”
-Robert Schuler

The above quote is good regardless of what you think of Schuler’s politics or career.   (To be honest, I actually don’t know much of anything about him, just that he has 2 really good quotes and that’s all I care about.)

Schuler is absolutely right.  Even on the morning after his wife’s death the farmer still has to get up, mourning and all, and go milk the cow or the utters might get sore and infected, and the cow might dry up until its next pregnancy, and then, if you make your living as a farmer, you’ve got some problems.  Mourning doesn’t make the responsibility to do the milking going away.

Personal problems don’t make personal responsibility disappear, they just make it uncomfortable to get done.  Most people shy away from discomfort – like it’s something to be avoided, but just the opposite is true.  Everything you want to be, do or have absolutely requires your discomfort to attain regardless of what they “get rich quick and easy with no work on the internet” people have told you, or the “lose weight with only very easy exercise” people have tried to sell you.

I think for adults life is pretty much a never ending river of problems, punctuated only by crises and disasters.  So, if you are only mature enough to hit the gym, eat well, and all that other stuff during your “easy weeks,” that means you might be lucky and get 2 good weeks, interrupted by 2 months of chaos; and repeat.  That is a nice way of saying you will never get anywhere and you will always be frustrated and blaming other people, God, your life, or something other than yourself.

The mature way to look at inconvenience in life is that it is part of life and its not going away, nor are your problems.  If you were interested in achieving a desired result, then just go ahead and get it done anyway, ‘cuz, as the cliché goes, the only time that there is is right now.

If you wait to get started on something that you want until the time is right, that means you’ll get started on almost nothing.  Nowhere is that more true than with your health, fitness and weight.

And, if you quit or take breaks from pursuing the things that you want in life, then that means that you will get almost nothing that you want in life.  Nowhere is that more true that with your health, fitness and weight.

One more good quote:  “When you squeeze a lemon, out comes the juice.”
– I forget

Squeezing is stress. Juice is what’s inside.

When life puts the stress on you, who you really are comes out. You do not want to show that you’re a quitter or a procrastinator.

The people that quit and give up when life is imperfect, and that wait until “the time is right” are the people that wind up with almost none of what they want, and most definitely not the bodies they want.

The “What To Do” Part For Working Out When You’ve Had Little (or no) Sleep

I used to think the answer was you should just skip it, however, nowadays I think that’s probably bad advice for several reasons:

#1.  If you’re schedule is tight enough that you had to go with 0-4hrs of sleep it really isn’t likely that you’re to get it done at some later time and this throws people’s schedules off, and starts the formation of bad habits.  Having regular rituals of when you exercise that minimize decision making or thinking are incredibly important to getting it done.

You want to be in a pattern and stay in a pattern regardless. You want showing up to the gym to be a mindless and automatic decision – you only get that with repetition, consecutive, minimally interrupted repetition.

#2.  There are few things that are actually better for helping with sleep deprivation and immune stimulation than exercise.  (Well, intelligent exercise, not beating people into the ground on a regular basis.  That has the opposite effect.)

However, on days (or weeks or months) with little sleep/high stress what you do at the gym should be different.  I think there are three really important variables to manipulate – volume, intensity and frequency.

My volume approximation is “how many sets?” since I think in a given phase the rep range should stay constant.  My imperfect approximation of intensity is mostly just load or assistance.  Frequency is how many days per week.

Intensity seems to actually be downright helpful when sleep deprived and stressed, but volume seems to actually be a problem – especially in terms of immune suppression. (1)

The solutions for low sleep and/or very high stress are pretty simple:

  • Same/progressive loading scheme:
    • Intro/back off week – low volume
    • Base week – low volume, but increase load as you can
    • Overload week – probably same number of sets, but increase load as you can
    • Shock week – maybe add a set, maybe add a set to only the first few movements, maybe not, but definitely push the intensity
    • Intro next phase and repeat
  • Fewer sets:

    • Generally speaking 1-3 sets, mostly 2 sets for non-newbies
    • Limit total body resistance training to twice a week
    • Probably limit HIIT to twice a week
    • Enforce recovery shake usage

Not “ideal,” but usually more volume and more frequency leads to worse results – reduced/regressed strength, poor energy levels, and worse body composition.

For myself, with my erratic sleep, tremendous workload, etc cutting back to 2 sets has been wonderful.  In 2010 I’d been sticking to 3 days per week and full volume and steadily getting weaker – every month I could bench press less and less.  In 2011 I am stronger, bigger and just as lean. Initially, I felt very un-manly to stop at 2 sets, but the results spoke for themselves.  Thanks to Josh Proch for the idea.

On actual all-nighters I stick to 1 set.  You’ll actually get the same post workout metabolic boost from 1 set as you would from 3 sets; however that is not the same as saying you will get all of the same benefits from 1 vs. 3, but is a much better idea given those circumstances. (2)

Josef Brandenburg is a Washington, DC personal trainer <> ; he owns a DC personal training <> business, The Body You Want that focuses on helping normal, busy people get the bodies they want in the time they actually have.

1. MacDougall , D, et al. Immune response to changes in training intensity and volume in runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Aug 27(8), 1995

If you read the study, as with most research, I think you should look at the data and not the author’s conclusions.  They conclude that high intensity is the worst when compared to high volume.  But, they didn’t actually test this hypothesis.

LI = low intensity, HI = high intensity, HV = high volume, LV = low volume

They didn’t test all 4 combinations, only 3. LV/LI, HV/LI, HV/HI.  (Who thinks high volume and high intensity is a good idea anyway?)

People in the LV/LI group didn’t seem to have the immune suppression issues.  But both the HV/LI and HV/HI groups did.

To me, the results are pretty clear – LV group was OK, both HV groups were not OK.  To me the commonality of the groups with compromised immune function was HV.

2.  Heden et al. One-set resistance training elevates energy expenditure for 72 h similar to three sets. European Journal of Applied Physiology. Volume 111, Number 3, 477-484, Mar 2011


Leave Comment

  1. Nice piece Josef, you make some really good points.

    I definitely agree with the HV versus HI distinction. I believe I first encountered this in an old Program Design DVD by Paul Chek, Charles Poliquin, Kim Goss and Jerry Telle. I forget if they were going off a study or anecdotal evidence, but the message was clear: if you or your athlete was fatigued or not feeling well, it was better to cut volume and keep intensity the same.

  2. Hi,

    Perfect timing! My wife and I just had a baby and I’m struggling to get to the gym. This article is a good start – any recommendations for additional articles or resources to help me plan my workouts with an infant?


  3. So what you’re saying is that the udders won’t get sore and infected if i decrease the volume?

    In all seriousness thanks for the post as I’m often stuck with clients who are coming into workouts stressed and exhausted. It’s important for trainers that deal with the weekend warrior-type client to realize that the daily variations in mood and energy level affect their workouts. A great trainer can read his/her clients and adapt the planned workout accordingly.

    I appreciate the guidelines!

  4. “That is a nice way of saying you will never get anywhere and you will always be frustrated and blaming other people, God, your life, or something other than yourself.”

    I love it!

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