Protein Power

Protein and body composition enhancement go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly, movies and popcorn, false hope and the Chicago Cubs, or Samuel L. Jackson and mother******. It’s probably safe to assume that if you lift weights (regardless of what your goals are), you eat protein. Specifically, you eat lots of dead, cute, and furry animals. That being said, I am also going to assume that many of you reading this article are still curious to know the basics. Why else would you click on an article about protein, right?

What is it? What are the different types? What are its roles? When are the ideal times to ingest it?

How do dietary requirements differ between individuals who are trying to shed body fat as compared to those who or trying to add mass or who are involved in athletics? How is it metabolized? Will it help you get chicks? All are very prudent questions when discussing the topic of protein. So instead of me extending this introduction any further, why don’t we get right to it, eh?

“Eat all the protein you want. You will NEVER have a chance with a hot lady.”

Actually I Lied

Before I get into the meat (no pun intended) and potatoes, I want to preface all of this by saying that I did write a rather lengthy article not too long on the topic of carbohydrates. (The Carbohydrate Conundrum) If you actually read the entire thing, give yourself a medal. I know it wasn’t an easy read. In spite of that, I believe I was able to shed some light on this very “murky” topic and help to dispel a lot of the myths that are prevalent. When it comes to protein however, I feel that it’s not such a black and white debate, so I will spare you the novel. Everyone who is involved with training and/or athletics knows that dietary protein plays a major role in improved body composition (as well as several other key roles discussed later). Nevertheless, I feel that there are many people out there who may still be confused on the matter. As with carbohydrates, there is a major difference between NEED and OPTIMIZATION and I hope the information provided in this article will help to differentiate between the two.

The Basics (AKA…The Boring Stuff)

The word protein comes from the Greek word prota meaning “of primary importance,” which is meant to indicate its main role in human nutrition. [It’s also meant to give you the opportunity to impress your friends with your vast array of useless knowledge.] One key difference from carbohydrate and fat, which contain only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, is that proteins contain nitrogen atoms. These nitrogen atoms give the name amino (“nitrogen containing”) to the amino acids of which protein is made. Amino acids are the molecules that, when joined in groups of a few dozen to hundreds, form the thousands of proteins occurring in nature.

There are 20 amino acids that occur in the diet. More than half of these can be synthesized by the human body and are commonly called non-essential amino acids because they DO NOT need to be consumed in the diet (the body can make them on its own from other sources). Nine of the amino acids are essential because the body cannot manufacture them and they must be consumed through the diet.

Essential and Non Essential Amino Acids

Sources of Protein

Protein can basically be divided into two main categories, complete and incomplete sources. Complete sources of protein are those found from animals:

Animal Sources: if it swims, flys, or has four legs and is furry…it’s a great source of protein. Additionally, eggs and cottage cheese and various other dairy products would fall under this category as well.

Incomplete proteins are those found in plants, and include:

  • Plant Sources: beans (kidney, garbanzo, etc), soy, chickpeas, tofu, lentils, and a variety of whole grains (muesli, wheat, etc).
  • Protein Powders: these get their own category because it’s my article and I said so! Technically speaking, protein powders are more often than not derived from whey, which is the by-product of cheese manufactured from cow’s milk.

However, there are also protein powders made from peas, eggs, soy, and a host of other sources, which become more of a factor for those with specific food allergies (such as milk). But to keep things simple, let’s keep the discussion on whey protein and its variations.

  • Whey Protein Concentrate: contain fat, lactose, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and other bioactive compounds.
  • Whey Protein Isolate: are processed to remove the fat, lactose, and carbohydrates, and is typically more expensive.
  • Whey Hydrolysate (hydrolyzed whey): “broken down” whey proteins which are absorbed by the body more quickly and are typically the most expensive.

Note – Protein powders are ideal for Post-Training because the body absorbs them so quickly.

Interestingly, protein that comes from animals is considered to have a higher Biological Value (or quality) compared to those that come from plant sources. Biological Value (BV) is a value that measures how well the body can absorb and utilize a protein. The higher the Biological Value of the protein you use, the more nitrogen your body can absorb, use, and retain. Since protein is used in the construction of bodily cells the more protein that is retained indicates a higher level of biological utilization of the particular protein. The more nitrogen that is excreted as urine and fecal matter, the less utilizable the particular kind of protein.

Biological Value of some Common Protein Sources

And BV is Relevant Because?

I’ll take this opportunity to briefly discuss vegetarian diets. While I will be the first to admit that there are MANY vegetarians out there who thrive on not eating animal protein, I also know that there are even more who shoot themselves in the foot from a body compositional standpoint by leading such a lifestyle. Many people are under the impression that all animal protein is fattening and will result in high cholesterol levels and clogged arteries. As a result, their only sources of protein come from plants. While this rationale does have SOME merit, it’s all together untrue. If one is cognizant of choosing LEAN sources of protein (lean beef, chicken breast, turkey, tuna, egg whites, 1% cottage cheese, protein powders, and a host of other sources), this is a non-issue in my opinion

In the book “Nutrient Timing,” co-author Dr. John Berardi briefly discusses the downfalls of a vegetarian diet. He points out that there have been numerous studies which have demonstrated that a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet (dairy and eggs allowed) can interfere with the positive body composition changes seen in meat-eating weight trainers. In one particular study, it was shown that after twelve weeks of training, the meat-eating group lost about 2.9 pounds of fat while gaining 3.7 pounds of lean mass. However, the vegetarian group gained about 0.2 pound of fat and LOST about 2.4 pounds of muscle. And to think that this was WITH dairy and eggs allowed. I can only imagine what happens with “true” vegetarian diets.

Again, I want to reiterate that I know there are many vegetarians out there who have very impressive physiques and lead very athletic lives despite not eating any animal proteins. But I think that they are few and far between. In the end, it’s been consistently shown that diets containing animal proteins (therefore diets with a higher BV value), in conjunction with resistance training, tend to increase lean muscle mass and prevent LBM loss compared to vegetarian diets. It’s also been shown that people who eat animal proteins don’t look like weak, emaciated underwear models, but I digress.

Kind of hard to argue with science, although I will discuss a study later on which notes that resistance training ALONE preserves LBM, even when subjects follow a hypo-caloric diet. I am so going to blow your mind.

Protein Makes Me Swole, But What Other Roles Does It Play?

Well, protein itself DOES NOT make you “swole.” It’s often said that protein builds big muscles, which it does (kind of). Yes, the main role that protein plays is to serve as the building blocks of muscle. Specifically though, its main function is to REPAIR damaged muscle caused by the adaptive stress of resistance training. It’s not protein alone that makes you bigger (and stronger). It’s the adaptive response caused by the stress of training that begins the process of tissue repair. You train, muscles breakdown, you ingest protein, protein is broken down to amino acids, AA’s repair the damaged muscle, the muscles comes back bigger and stronger (assuming a proper training stimulus). While it’s borderline semantics, I just wanted to make that brief point.

  • Increased TEF: TEF refers to the Thermic Effect of Feeding. Your body burns calories just to digest, assimilate, transfer, and absorb the food you eat. That being said, the TEF of protein has been said to be almost double that of carbohydrates and fats COMBINED. It’s been shown that the body will burn upwards to 25-30% of protein calories during the digestive process. For example, if you were to ingest a 100 calorie meal of protein alone, the body will burn off 25-30 of those calories. This fact alone is one main reason why many people have improved their metabolic rate just by eating more LEAN protein.
  • Improved Hormone Status for Fat Loss: This is very simplified, but eating protein leads to the release of glucagon, a hormone that helps “release” free fatty acids from fat cells to be oxidized (burned).
  • Improved Body Composition: This pretty much ties in with the very first paragraph, but people who eat more protein, tend to have more LBM and less fat than those who are more focused on carbohydrates in their diet.
  • Increased Satiety: Protein takes longer for the body to breakdown, which helps prevent people from OVEReating during the day.
  • Reduced Cardiovascular Risk: In his other book, “The Metabolic Advantage,” Dr. John Berardi discusses several studies, which have “shown that increasing the percentage of protein in the diet (from 11% to 23%) while decreasing the percentage of carbohydrate (from 63% to 48%) lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol concentrations.

These facts alone (along with a host of others) are why I tend to advocate that if people are going to overindulge on any of the three macronutrients, it should be protein. “When in doubt, eat protein,” a quote that I stole from a good friend, Cassandra Forsythe, a PhD student in exercise science and nutrition at the University of Connecticut. Use it as your mantra.

And while many people out there tout the dangers of high protein diets (namely those who say that high protein diets damage the kidneys), I feel that the advantages FAR outweigh the “never proven” disadvantages. Go to Pubmed or any variety of research journals and try to find ONE study that shows that diets high in protein cause damage to HEALTHY kidneys. I am more likely to make out with Natalie Portman than you are in finding such a study.

Basically, it’s not going to happen. All studies that I have seen or have been brought to my attention dealing with high protein diets and renal (kidney) failure have been done with people who have had PRE-EXISTING renal conditions in the first place. Well duh!

Protein Metabolism (I’m Keeping This Short On Purpose)

Before I discuss requirements, I think a few brief comments on metabolism are in order. Now, I am not going to go into any great detail, because to be honest, even I would get bored to tears. However, I do feel that it’s valuable to know that, “of the 20 physiologically important amino acids in the human body, only seven play a significant role as an intermediary in skeletal muscle metabolism: glutamate, alanine, glutamine, aspartate, and the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) isoleucine, leucine, and valine (1). Because it is generally accepted that BCAA oxidation (break-down) is accelerated during exercise, many experts have long advocated that trainees supplement with BCAA’s pre and post training. As evidenced by a study done by Phillips, et al, which showed that leucine oxidation increased in both males and females during prolonged endurance activity (2).

All that being said, the contribution of amino acid oxidation to the TOTAL energy expenditure is negligible during short-term exercise, regardless of intensity, and likely accounts for only 3% to 6% of the total ATP supplied during prolonged exercise in humans (3). The energy contributed by amino acids may be greater under certain conditions, such as when carbohydrate stores are low (4). In spite of this, the dominant substrates broken down for energy during EXERCISE are carbohydrates and fat.

As Forrest Gump would say, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

Requirements (What You Probably Skipped to Anyways)

Now this is where things get interesting and is where most people tend to differ with their opinions. No one really argues about the importance of protein or the roles that it plays in enhancing body composition. However, people DO argue about requirements and how much protein is really needed by any one individual. Let’s look at several different scenarios.

The ADA (American Dietetic Association) recommends that protein intake should be 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Their recommendations are based solely on providing the bare minimum to stave off DEFICIENCY. So, according to these guidelines, my daily protein requirement would be ~73 grams of protein per day.

200 lbs/2.2= 91 kg
91 kg x 0.8= 73 grams of protein per day.

I never knew I was a 14 year old girl! I think it’s safe to assume that my protein requirements are going to be more than 73 grams per day to maintain my LBM and to help me recover from three to five training sessions per week. As I mentioned above, the ADA guidelines are the BARE MINUMUM required to stave off deficiency. They’re geared towards average Joe Schmo who does nothing but commute to work, sit in front of a computer all day, goes home and watches three to four hours of television, and repeats the same cycle day in and day out. Because he isn’t very active, he won’t have a negative nitrogen balance and he obviously won’t need more protein in his diet. But what about those individuals who DO lead an active lifestyle?

Substantial evidence now suggests that exercise can indeed alter protein turnover—either acutely during activity or during recovery—but the magnitude of change depends on the type, intensity, and duration of contractile activity as well as nutrition and training of the individual. The muscle response is broadly subdivided into aerobic (endurance) and resistance (weightlifting) exercise, as the adaptive response, and hence requirements, induced by chronic training differs between the two types of activity.

Aerobic Exercise: Unfortunately, from what I have found, the effect of aerobic training on protein turnover in skeletal muscle has not been determined in humans. That’s not to say that protein is not broken down during aerobic activity, it most certainly is. Case in point…take a look at the majority of endurance athletes (such as marathon runners) who have low body-fat levels, but little to no lean body mass. To say that aerobic exercise does not break down protein (muscle) would be false. However, when it comes to PROTEIN TURNOVER (breakdown/synthesis), there is no significant research that says that aerobic activity does anything definitive.

Resistance Exercise: On the contrary, there is a plethora of information in regards to resistance training and skeletal muscle turnover. Phillips and colleagues (5), confirmed that the rate of muscle fractional breakdown acutely increases three hours post-exercise and is still elevated after 24 hours, but returns to basal levels within 48 hours. In studies done by the same researchers, the effects of an eight week resistance training routine (in a fed state) showed that rates of fractional synthesis and breakdown (turnover) is muscle protein were both higher at rest FOLLOWING training. Very few studies have failed to detect significant increases in muscle protein synthesis following an acute bout of resistance exercise, and those that have, were conducted on trained individuals (suggesting that they have adapted to the exercise stimulus).

That being said, here are the protein requirements for “active” individuals based off of the research (6):

Protein requirements for “active” individuals

Because most athletes do not fall neatly into one category (aerobic or strength), a general recommendation of 1.5-2.0 grams per kg of body weight has been suggested by the NSCA (6). Personally, I have found that 1.0 grams per lb of body weight works well for the majority of people I work with.

Additionally, one’s nutritional status will effect protein requirements as well. Those who follow a ketogenic diet, generally have diets high(er) in protein (to make up for calories lost from subtracting carbohydrates). The most critical aspect of protein intake for these people is to PREVENT lean body mass loss (or is it?).

During a ketogenic diet, atleast 120-150 grams of protein are needed per day (regardless of total calorie intake) to maintain nitrogen balance and to provide glucose for the brain (7). Anymore, and you sacrifice leaving ketosis (58% of dietary protein will appear in the bloodstream as glucose).

Table of Protein Intake and Grams of Glucose Produced (7).
(assuming a 58% conversation rate)

If you remember from my “Carbohydrate Conundrum” article, I stated that the brain needs roughly 75 grams of glucose per day to function properly. I am not going to go into specifics here because you can read the article for more details, but as you can see from the table above, anything more than 150 grams of protein per day and you risk leaving ketosis.
Personally, I am not a fan of ketogenic diets (although I am fascinated with the physiology behind them), but I just wanted to point out that an individual’s nutritional status will also affect their protein requirements and that these are STILL higher than what the ADA recommends for the majority of people.

Something Interesting

Earlier, I mentioned that the main function of protein during hypo-caloric diets is that it helps to PREVENT loss of lean body mass. Because of this, many people believe that protein requirements INCREASE while dieting and that this alone will help prevent LBM loss. While I don’t mean to “rock the boat” or make things even more confusing, I do want to touch on a study that was brought to my attention concerning Very Low Calorie Diets (VLCD) and LBM gains/loss.

VLCD diets (geared towards weight loss) typically result in loss of LBM and a decrease in Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). To offset this, many people think that adding cardiovascular work will help prevent this cascade of events. In short…it makes things worse. The purpose of this particular study was to examine the effect that high volume RESISTANCE training in conjunction with a VLCD had on these parameters.

Two groups were made: C+D (cardio plus diet) and R+D (resistance training plus diet). Both groups consumed 800 kcal/day liquid formula diets for twelve weeks. The C+D group exercises one hour per day (4 times per week) by walking, biking, or stair-climbing. The R+D group performed resistance training three times per week at ten stations increasing from two sets of 8-15 reps to four sets of 8-15 reps.


Maximum oxygen consumption (Max VO2) increased significantly, but equally in both groups. Body weight decreased significantly more in C+D than R+D. The C+D group lost a significant amount of LBW (51 to 47 kg). No decrease in LBW was observed in R+D. In addition, R+D had an increase in RMR O2 ml/kg/min (2.6 to 3.1). The 24 hour RMR decreased in the C+D group (8).

That’s an eye opener! Essentially, what this study shows is that the addition of resistance training (not increasing protein intake) resulted in the preservation of LBM and RMR, even while drastically hypo-caloric (800 calories per day). How you like dem apples?

My Concluding Thoughts (It’s About Time)

Protein. It’s a wonderful thing. It serves MANY crucial roles in enhancing body composition and it’s darn tasty. Like with anything in life, people tend to get into the mindset that “more is better.” There are only a handful of things that people need MORE of.

1. More exercise
2. More sex
More cowbell

I think people tend to swing the pendulum too far to either side. On one side, you have those who feel all you need is the bare minimum to stave off deficiency (regardless of activity level), and on the other you have bodybuilders who eat upwards of 400-500 grams per day. There is no ONE perfect requirement. Hopefully I was able to shed some light on the topic and to answer some of your questions. I have a steak to go eat.

Written by Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, CPT

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Protein Power discussion thread.


1. Hargreaves, M., Spriet. Exercise Metabolism (2nd Ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.

2. Phillips SM, Atkinson SA, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD.Gender differences in leucine kinetics and nitrogen balance in endurance athletes. J Appl Physiol. 1993 Nov;75(5):2134-41.

3. Tarnopolsky MA, Atkinson SA, Phillips SM, MacDougall JD. Carbohydrate loading and metabolism during exercise in men and women. J Appl Physiol. 1995 Apr;78(4):1360-8.

4. Lemon PW, Mullin JP. Effect of initial muscle glycogen levels on protein catabolism during exercise. J Appl Physiol. 1980 Apr;48(4):624-9.

5. Phillips, S.M., K.D. Tipton, A.A. Aarsland, J.C. Cortiella, S.P. Wolf, and R.R Wolfe. . Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology. 1997. 273: E99-107.

6. Reimers, K., Ruud, J. Nutritional factors in health and performance. In: Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (2nd Ed.) Baechle, T.R., Earle, R.W.., ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.

7. McDonald, L. The Ketogenic Diet. 1998

8. Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, Donley D, Hornsby G, Kolar M,Yeater R.
Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate.J Am Coll Nutr. 1999 Apr; 18(2):115-21.

The Art of Napping

“A day without a nap is a day wasted”

It’s 1:00 pm. A stifled yawn escapes from my mouth, my eyelids are growing heavy, my shoulders are drooping and I’m drifting off to a place where the grass is green and the skies are blue. It’s naptime for me.

There’s nothing quite like an afternoon snooze to rejuvenate the mind and, most importantly, the body. Even though North America is a productive society, unfortunately, in our overly regulated routines, the art of napping has been, somehow, underrated.

There are many of us who are not people of the siesta, unlike some Latin Americans and Europeans who view 10-30 minutes of shut-eye in mid-afternoon as a worthwhile tradition. In Mexico and in Greece it’s customary to close shop sometime after high noon so shopkeepers can count sheep. Not only is napping a practice in many countries, but some of the world’s most influential leaders have practiced this custom. While leading a victorious campaign during the Battle of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill took naps. His Italian enemy, Benito Mussolini, also napped, however, it is said to have cost him the war. Napoleon Bonaparte, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy have also have been in the ranks of notable nappers (all of them napping, of course, for the benefit of the nation). Seven-time Tour De France winner, Lance Armstrong, napped his way to the podium. His coach, Chris Carmichael says that these “naps were critical” in his overall training plan.

Despite a history of positive views of napping, many people today still frown upon this sleep tradition because most of the western world tends to associate napping with lethargy and non-productivity. However times are changing, and there is now a North American group called the World Nap Organization which proclaims itself as “the nap lobby —an unabashed special interest group devoted to battling negative images of the blissful practice of nap-taking.”

The art of napping is staging a comeback. The evidence is mounting, and our day-to-day lifestyles are reinforcing the notion that napping does the body good.

If you’re a student, you’re usually up at the crack of dawn, ready to hit class and to get down to learning. You’ve made your meals for the day, head off to train, study, and then hit the sack. If a student is lucky they’ll usually get 6 hours of quality sleep a night. If you’re a college athlete, you’ll have mandatory practices, games, training sessions and course-work. For those of you in the work force who put in an 8-15 hour day, 5-6 days a week combined with several intense training sessions a each week … well you get the idea … sleep is a luxury.

For females, if it’s that time of month sleep can become compromised, usually for the duration of the menstruation. And, let’s not forget stay-at-home moms and dads (hey, it’s a liberated era) – sleepless nights from attending to a newborn. Did you know that this results in 400-750 hours of lost sleep for parents in the first year? Running the kids to soccer practice and ballet, cooking dinner, and house chores can take quite the toll on the body.

When it comes to making progress in the gym, people take into account their training, nutrition, and supplementation. They spend hours tweaking their routines, finding the right performance-boosting supplements, and making sure as they prepare and cook their meals that they are eating the right foods at the right time of day. Unfortunately, it’s the need for quantity and quality of sleep that is often overlooked in a trainee’s routine. Sleeping eight hours a day is not always enough and, even then, the quality may be poor.

The next time you’re in the local Barnes & Nobles or Chapters, browse through the “fitness” and “exercise” section. Notice how many books have been written on the topic of strength training, supplements, and nutrition. Then look at how many have been dedicated to getting a good night’s sleep, or talk about the quality of sleep and its effect on the body in relation to strength training.

If you’re lucky, you might find a chapter somewhere that touches briefly on the subject. The impact sleep has on overall health, body composition, performance, and recovery means that it should rank high on any list of strength-training priorities. It is also equally important that people realize why a nap can do the body good – even after a full 8 hours of sleep a night.

Did You Know?

  • The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that:
  • The average adult sleeps under 7 hours a night during a workweek.
  • 33% of adults surveyed sleep only 6 1/2 hours nightly.
  • 40% of adults admit that the quality of their work suffers when they’re sleepy.
  • 68% say their ability to concentrate is diminished by sleepiness.
  • 19% report making mistakes and errors due to sleepiness.
  • Sleepy drivers cause approximately 100,000 car crashes annually.
  • 33% of adults surveyed would nap at work, if allowed.

Sleep can be defined as an anabolic state since it increases the process of growth and contributes to the restoration of the immune, nervous, and muscular systems. It is also responsible for maintaining normal levels of cognitive skills such as speech, memory, innovative, and flexible thinking. In other words, sleep is an essential part of life. The world record for the longest period without sleep is 11 days, set by Randy Gardner in 1965. It’s up there with all those other body-abusing milestones, such as denying the body food and water for long periods of time.

Sleep Overview

Those of us who live an active life should have a nap during mid afternoon. However, to appreciate why we need to include this nap in our daily routines requires a quick overview of the mechanism of sleep.

After a long day, it’s time for bed. You prepare your meals for the next day, gulp down your last protein shake or meal, and then the lights go out. But wait—there’s more to sleep then just closing your eyes and then pulling yourself out of bed the next morning.

There are 5 stages that the body goes through during a good night’s rest. The first stage of sleep, called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) contributes to the physical regeneration of the body. Although more info is needed, NREM has also been said to be responsible for the bolstering of the immune system. NREM is known as a transitional stage between waking and sleeping and lasts for approximately 5-10 minutes. During this period, breathing slows down, the heart rate decreases, the eyeballs start rolling and drowsiness occurs.

Moving into stage two of sleep, eye movements disappear, images start to pass through the mind, the muscles start to relax and the body starts to shut down.

In stage three, breathing becomes increasingly slower as does the heart rate. Stages three and four are usually grouped together. These two stages are referred to as “Delta Sleep” or “Slow Wave Sleep.” This stage is probably the most important stage for weight trainers as growth hormone (GH) is released (1,2,). GH is responsible for a number of things. Increased mental alertness, increased strength, increased feeling of wellbeing, decreased body fat and improved neurological function. The fifth and final stage of sleep is rapid eye movement (REM) otherwise known as “Dream Sleep”. During REM the brain is very active, dreams occur at this stage as well as paralysis of the muscles. Other characteristics are irregular breathing, increased heart rate, and rapid eye movements.

In total, the brain’s sleeping pattern repeats its cycle every 90-120 minutes. The brain will move from a light sleep, to a deep sleep then to a mentally active sleep and finally back to a light sleep. This cycle will repeat itself 2-7 times in young and middle-aged adults (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

Typical sleep cycle

Why Nap?

Even though we spend a third of our lives sleeping, scientists are still trying to learn exactly why people need sleep. In animal studies it has been shown that sleep is necessary for survival. For example, while rats normally live for two to three years, those deprived of REM sleep survive only about 5 weeks on average, and rats deprived of all sleep stages live only about 3 weeks. In humans, those who had been deprived of just one night’s sleep were shown to have a reduction in mental exertion. In real life situations, the consequences of being sleep-deprived are grave. Some speculation has linked sleep-deprivation to certain international disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil-spill, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the Challenger shuttle explosion.

Taking this into the gym can mean that the ability to concentrate and focus can become compromised which means less of an effort and intensity in the workout (9). Hopefully it’s not leg day.

Athletes who suffer from sleep-deprivation have been shown to see a decrease in cardiovascular performance (10), that is, their time to exhaustion is quicker. Sleep-deprivation in studies has been shown to occur around 30-72 hours. For an athlete who has a full course-load, studies, mid terms, and trains, sleep-deprivation can accumulate very rapidly.

Another study looked at cortisol and performance levels after staying up for an 8-hour period overnight. Performance declined and cortisol levels increased. For someone looking to pack on muscle and increase strength, this is bad news since the main focus is to minimize cortisol release since it is a catabolic hormone (11).

From a fat loss perspective, sleep deprivation can impair fat loss through a decrease in levels of the satiety hormone leptin, and increases in the hunger hormone ghrelin. According to Dr. Van Cauter a professor of medicine at the university of Chicago, “One of the first consequences of sleeplessness is appetite dysregulation.” “Essentially, the accelerator for hunger [ghrelin] is pushed and the brake for satiety [leptin] is released.”

“The leptin levels are screaming ‘More food! More food!’” What this means is that the hormone leptin is responsible for telling the body when it is full. However, with decreased production of this hormone, the body will crave calories (especially in the form of carbs) even though its requirements have been met. For someone trying to diet, good luck!

Voluntarily sleeping less than 6 hours per night has been associated with an increased incidence of impaired glucose tolerance, according to a cohort analysis of the Sleep Heart Health Study (SHHS) reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. (12) This may mean that a chronic lack of sleep can impair glucose tolerance, which can make body recomposition a difficult task. Most people have a hard enough time trying to regulate their carbohydrates and time them so that the body metabolizes them efficiently.

So, if you’re getting the required 8 hours of sleep, are you ok? Well, if this sleep is broken up, then its value decreases as the sleep cycle is interrupted. Deep sleep appears to be connected with the release of growth hormones in young adults. Many of the body’s cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repairing bodily stress (muscle damage from strength training), uninterrupted deep sleep plays an important role in recovery and regeneration of the body.

Finally, adequate sleep and a properly functioning immune system are closely related. Sleep-deprivation compromises the immune system by altering the blood levels of specialized immune cells and important proteins called cytokines. These chemical messengers instruct other immune cells to go into action. As a result of being compromised, greater than normal chances of infections are likely to occur. And we all know that being sick can be a big setback both in and out of the gym.

The Benefits of Napping

Hopefully, you are beginning to understand why taking a nap just might be beneficial, if you aren’t already snoozing sometime during the day. The question that needs to be answered is: how long do I nap?

The Center for Applied Cognitive Studies states:

“Studies show that the length of sleep is not what causes us to be refreshed upon waking. The key factor is the number of complete sleep cycles we enjoy. Each sleep cycle contains five distinct phases, which exhibit different brain- wave patterns. For our purposes, it suffices to say that one sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes: 65 minutes of normal, or non-REM (rapid eye movement), sleep; 20 minutes of REM sleep (in which we dream); and a final 5 minutes of non-REM sleep. The REM sleep phases are shorter during earlier cycles (less than 20 minutes) and longer during later ones (more than 20 minutes). If we were to sleep completely naturally, with no alarm clocks or other sleep disturbances, we would wake up, on the average, after a multiple of 90 minutes–for example, after 4 1/2 hours, 6 hours, 7 1/2 hours, or 9 hours, but not after 7 or 8 hours, which are not multiples of 90 minutes. In the period between cycles we are not actually sleeping: it is a sort of twilight zone from which, if we are not disturbed (by light, cold, a full bladder, noise), we move into another 90-minute cycle. A person who sleeps only four cycles (6 hours) will feel more rested than someone who has slept for 8 to 10 hours but who has not been allowed to complete any one cycle because of being awakened before it was completed…. ”

Power naps can be defined as “brief periods of daytime sleep lasting an hour or less.” They should be directed at targeting sleep stages 1 and 2, and take place in the afternoon. Dr. Claudio Stampi’s, aka Dr Sleep (one of the world’s foremost sleep researchers), found that afternoon siestas were full of slow-wave sleep. The main benefit that is derived from these stages is restoration from mental fatigue or an increase in alertness. During a 10-20 minute nap the brain cells reset their sodium & potassium ratios when the brain is in Theta state. This state of mind is associated with a flow of ideas or a positive mental state. The sodium & potassium levels are involved in osmosis, which is the chemical process that transports chemicals into and out of your brain cells. After an extended period in the Beta state (when the brain is aroused and actively engaged in mental activities, it generates beta waves) the ratio between potassium and sodium is out of balance. This is the main cause of what is known as “mental fatigue”. A brief period in Theta (about 5 – 15 minutes) can restore the ratio to normal resulting in mental refreshment. Stampi says, “Sleep charges your battery more at the beginning of the sleep cycle than at the end.”

Nap of Choice

  • The Nothing-Nap: This nap lasts a whopping 10 to 90 seconds. Studies are inconclusive as to the benefits of nodding off on someone’s shoulder while on the bus (13).
  • The Quickie Nap: 5 to 20 minutes of shut-eye can increase alertness and motor performance (14,15).
  • The 20 Minute Snoozer: This also allows for an increase in mental alertness and the increased performance of tasks (16).
  • The Deluxe Nap: If you can afford the time a 50 to 90 minute nap allows for muscle recovery to take place. This nap includes slow-wave plus REM sleep; which is when growth hormone is released.
  • The Caffeine Nap: Drink your favorite Starbucks caffeinated beverage and immediately take a 15-minute nap. Coffee helps clear your system of adenosine, a chemical that makes you sleepy. A combination of a cup of coffee with an immediate nap chaser provided the most alertness for the longest period of time (17).

Note: One of the side effects of snoozing occurs upon awakening. The feeling of grogginess that is often experienced here is called Sleep Inertia. Minimizing the time it takes your brain to get into sync can be accomplished by not waking up while you are in the Slow Wave Sleep stage.

If you don’t want your naps to interfere with your night-time sleep keep them under the 3 hour mark and make sure they are completed at least 3-4 hours before going to bed (18).


Taking a power nap provides more patience, less stress, increased learning, better health, better reaction time, more efficiency. Many athletes find a daytime nap further increases their body’s ability to build muscle. Dr. Sara Mednick, a scientist at the Salk Institute for Biologicak Studies adds that “Napping also benefits heart functioning, hormonal maintenance, and cell repair.”

So stop feeling guilty and take a well-deserved nap at work or at home. Your Nattitude (nat´y-tood´)n.: a proud attitude about one’s napping) should be displayed by laying your head down and grabbing some well-deserved shut-eye.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s past my naptime, and I’ve got to get setup for the rest of the day.

Written by Maki Riddington

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Art of Napping discussion thread.


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