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What happens physiologically if you workout to gain mass, but don't eat and/or sleep enough?

Something I've been curious about for a while, is how the body recovers after an intense workout geared toward hypertrophy, not given enough food or sleep afterward. If the muscles are sore and recovering/healing, would this mean it would just take longer for total recovery? Physiologically, what happens? Do the muscles revert back to exactly how they were before, was the workout a waste of time?

I understand to gain muscle one must gain weight, in a general sense, but without feeding the muscles afterward how do the muscles recover. Similarly, what happens when one does not get enough sleep the proceeding days after the workout? I'm hoping in this case given enough nutrition, it would just take a few days longer for full recovery?

I inquire because there are some days when I don't get adequate sleep due to a funny work schedule, however I still try to maintain a high-calorie diet. I of course can remedy this by planning ahead for my workouts, but I'm just wondering about the times I didn't plan, and thus did not receive enough sleep or calories following a workout. I'm hoping those workouts weren't completely in vain.


The Best Answer

Working out and eating well is easy, it takes courage to rest and recover, yet that is when you will make gains. Too much training and not enough rest/sleep will create a lot of cortisol which will help fat storage. This is something younger folks can get away with for a little while, but beware the mid thirties , it may catch up with you. Start taking your resting heart rate in the morning, get a baseline after 2 FULL rest days( adequate food and sleep). Thereafter you can track how well you are recovered and or available for hard training based on how close or far from that baseline your heart rate is( a higher resting heart rate indicates a need for rest)

  • pranzo commented Feb 7th 2011:
    I appreciate the tip! I will definitely start tracking my resting heart rate.

All Answers


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From everything I read, without enough carbs, proteins, and essential fatty acids, your muscles won't really be able to grow. When your muscles are sore, it's because there's microscopic tears in them that need to be repaired. A lot of this repair happens overnight while you're sleeping. Your body will use the carbs to raise your insulin, which will then deliver the proteins to your muscles for repair. As your muscles repair, they grow...

When your body doesn't receive enough calories, it will cannibalize your muscles first, attempting to get rid of the biggest energy spenders first (muscle burns more calories than any other tissue in your body). This is what BCAAs and micellar protein are designed for, to prevent muscle loss. This is also why is recommended to eat often, to prevent your body from entering starvation mode during the day. So in the future, you'll want to keep emergency protein bars or shakes nearby so you get the most out of your workouts! I carry hard-boiled eggs and almonds around in my purse ;)

  • pranzo commented Feb 7th 2011:
    Great answer, thanks for cluing me in on the science behind this. Although I don't like the sound of cannibalized muscle tissue, it makes sense that your body would respond this way. I'll be sure to carry some protein bars around with me from now on.


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I'm no bio-scientist so don't have a definitive answer for you I'm afraid, however, based on my own experience I did get some results.

I was working away from home a lot last year and I had a good program put together for me by a personal trainer. I ate clean - ie, no junk - and did weights three days a week and cardio 2 days. I didn't intentionally over eat or unde reat in terms of calories. At the same time, I was having to get up very early in a morning so my sleep wasn't the best.

Despite that, my body still changed and improved - perhaps not as fast or efficiently as it could have done under optimum conditions but there was still progress.

I'd say, don't worry about it - plan as much as you can and for the times when it goes wrong, just accept that's life and you're working through it - we have to live and there will always be times when 'life' gets in the way. The best workouts are those that allow you do them and to live your life at the same time.

Enjoy your program!

  • pranzo commented Feb 7th 2011:
    That's good to hear your workouts won't be a complete waste, maybe just slower gains. Thanks for your experience and answer.


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Workouts not followed by sufficient calorie consumption and sleep don't just risk being a waste, but really risk setting you back days or even a week. In my experience, it can take quite a while to clear an overtraining condition (e.g., not enough rest/nutrients to rebuild muscle leads to days of soreness & underperformance).

One extreme example, back in Jan I jumped on a protein shake only diet for a week to reset some bad eating habits I'd developed over the holidays (see the V-Diet at T-Nation.com; did the full 6-wk program last fall), but I kept doing Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 strength training program and didn't compensate for the reduced calories in my altered diet. After my squats day, my legs were in such a poor state of overtraining that the sheer stiffness caused me to walk with a severe limp for almost 4 days. I have a 15min walk to/from work, so that was a painful lesson to learn.

I know undersleeping can be particularly insidious. As one of the resident polyphasers on 4HP, I'd suggest grabbing a couple 20min cat-naps during the day after a night w/

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