By James Mellor.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
It is important to be grateful for what you have in life. I am thankful to have a beautiful family, a roof over my head, a steady office job. But there is something inside that always insists that I break away from normality and commit to do something out of the ordinary. Not to brag, or prove something to others, but to test my limits as an individual and to give me a personal outlet.
Over the last few years, my passion has been long distance running and I spent most of my spare time training for and competing in marathons and ultra-marathons. This was amazing for my physical and mental health and it allowed me to feel like me. I still have a huge passion for running, but in April 2021, I decided to put it on the back burner and enter the world of Powerlifting. I am not sure what first inspired me to try it, but at 6ft5in weighing 80kg, it was an obvious choice, right? Maybe not, but I decided to go all in and signed up to a novice competition in August 2021 to provide me with some accountability and an end goal for my upcoming training.
I was used to getting up at 5am and training before the family woke for breakfast, so time was not an issue. Coming at this new found hobby with no experience, I obviously hit the internet for my new training plan. For the first 3 months I did the Stronglift 5x5 programme on their free app. You start lifting with an empty bar and add weight every session until failure. It served me well and allowed me to practice proper technique in the main Powerlifting disciplines before starting to lift heavy weights. Also, with it being so simple, it removed any thought process; just go to the gym and lift. When I reached the point where I was constantly failing reps, I changed things up slightly and started to play around with the weight and reducing the number of reps in an attempt to ‘peak’. I was content with my ongoing progress and took advantage of the famous newbie gains through consistent training and eating. Truth be told, I was making it up as I went along and I have no doubt that with the input of an experienced trainer, I could have made more solid progress and this will likely become more beneficial in the future if I start to plateau in my training.
The principals of training for ultra-marathons and powerlifting are not too dissimilar in that you need to build a solid base and good form before slowly increasing the training load, whether that be speed and distance or reps and weight. Rest and recovery is of equal importance in that you need to allow full days of rest or active recovery and also add an occasional week where you lighten the load to prevent burnout. With this in mind, I did not find the training too much of a shock to the system (other than the dreaded leg day DOMS).
With a background in long distance running, I have a history of eating massive amounts of food to keep me going, but I never focused too much on what I was eating as long as I had enough carbohydrates to fuel my long efforts. I quickly learnt that to get through the taxing process of lifting weights 3 – 4 days a week and constantly increasing the load, I would need to focus more on what I was eating. My aim was 4,000 calories a day (20% Protein, 45% Carbohydrates, 35% Fat). You will notice a theme here, in that there was not much science in these numbers other than a few internet searches and a rough idea of what my body normally needs for fuel. This allowed me to continuously add weight to the bar and put on some muscle mass, but also resulted in a lot of fat gain too. Being a tall, lanky runner, I have never had to worry much about gaining weight, so I found it quite challenging to tread the line between eating enough food to put on mass and fuel workouts but not eating too much of the wrong stuff. For anyone interested, a typical day of eating consisted of the following:
Pre Workout: Banana, Peanut Butter and Nutella Sandwich – 400 calories
Breakfast: Mass Gainer Shake (50g Protein Powder, 150g oats, 1 banana, 300ml Full Fat Milk)
Snack: Roasted Salted Peanuts
Lunch: 3 Flatbreads with Chicken (250g), Halloumi, Hummus and Spinach
Snack: Can of Tuna
Dinner: 4 Chicken, Vegetable and Cheese Fajitas
Bedtime: Glass of Full Fat Milk
Total: 4,015 calories consisting of 440g Carbs, 142g Fat, 242g Protein
Firstly, I have a huge amount of respect for Powerlifters and Powerlifting. These people put their bodies through huge amounts of stress over years and sometimes decades, overcoming injuries and setbacks to get to where they want to be, mostly for little financial gain. Do not think for a second that I am saying that you can go from beginner to competitive Powerlifter in 4 months. That being said, I do like to compete and in running, there is a very inclusive atmosphere in that anyone can give it a go; we have all seen people completing the London Marathon in 7 hours whilst the front runners finish in 2 hours.
My preconceptions of Powerlifting made me think that I would be ridiculed by big scary blokes for showing up to a competition and finishing dead last. Once again, I consulted the internet and got a range of answers to my question; “How Strong Do I Need To Be To Compete In Powerlifting?”
Answer 1: You should be able to Squat 2x your body weight, Bench 1.5x your body weight and Deadlift 2x your body weight.
Answer 2: If you can lift the empty bar with correct form, you can compete!
Confused? Me too. But the main take away for me was that other than a few message board ‘coaches’, no one really cares what you can lift, people are more focused on their own results and are generally quite supportive when it comes to other competitors. So with that I signed up to the Raw Strength Powerlifting Competition on the 8th of August 2021. The competition was advertised as suitable for novices, which suited me, but was subject to IPF Rules so I still felt like it was the real deal.
Competition day was soon upon me and I headed to the Raw Strength Gym and found it to be a friendly, inclusive and an energetic environment. No meat heads who wanted to eat me for their pre competition snack, just nice normal but passionate individuals.
When I started training I was 80kg and on the day I weighed in at around 95kg. For a little while, I was focused on staying below 93kg so that I fit into that weight class, but soon realised that this was pretty irrelevant in my stage of training. Plus I was going to get beat by lifters with more experience, regardless of my weight class.
On the day, I was happy with my lifts. I will give you the numbers, but more importantly my thought process behind picking my weights and how it went on the day:
Squat: 130kg, 135kg and 140kg
I went with a comfortable opening lift at 130kg. The advice I followed was to open with something you can do for a treble in the gym. From there I took it conservatively and went up in 5kg increments and managed to get three good lifts.
Bench: 80kg, X and X
Bench has always been my weakness. Training alone, it is the one lift that I feel I could not push through fear of failing and crushing myself. I went for an 80kg opening lift for the same reason as above; I had done this for a treble in training. It felt good on the day so I went for 87.5kg on the next lift and failed to lock out. On the third lift I went for the same again but I got in my own head a little and bounced the bar off my chest. Two bad lifts, which was disappointing. If I had of stuck to my original game plan and gone up to 85kg, I might have fared better.
Deadlift: 160kg, 170kg and 185kg
The first two attempts went up quite easy so I jumped to 185kg for my final lift and managed to get it up, which I was super happy about. The most I had done in training was 160kg for a single. If the lesson learned during my Bench was to be conservative, the lesson here was to overreach and go for it. In terms of advice, I guess that is unhelpful, but your first meet should be your own learning experience.
Overall I placed 8th out of 10 competitors with a 405kg total and a 52.46 dots score. My plan for the day was to show up, have fun and get some experience, so overall it was a success. The parallels between competing in running and Powerlifting remain here in that they are both solo endeavours rather than a team effort and the only competitor you are really going up against is yourself.
Since the event, I have continued lifting, I am still enjoying the process and I am sure I will compete again. I have also been on a couple of short runs recently and unsurprisingly, I nearly died. Obviously I have lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness over the last few months and I am much heavier, but I am sure I will get back into running one day, when I am ready to shift the incoming power belly.
The key thing I have learnt over the last few months is that being a runner, or being a powerlifter, or whatever your thing is, bares little importance. It is important that we remove these labels that we think define us and just see these things as what they are; an outlet. Running makes me feel free, Powerlifting makes me feel strong, but the critical thing is to just do something that pushes your limits, forces you to learn about yourself and makes you feel alive.
This is James's first guest post on my blog and you can find his instagram @jamessmellor.
By James Kennedy.
Sleep. A health and performance essential that everyone loves. Yet, according to the ONS, nearly half of UK adults report not getting enough sleep, with a quarter surviving on less than 5 hours a night. The same survey found that despite people recognizing they have a problem with inadequate sleep, less than half of poor sleepers are actively trying to improve their sleep.
Within this guide, we will explore why we need to sleep and the special importance of sleep for strength and physique athletes. We will then explore how much sleep you need and whether catching up on sleep works as effectively as getting enough sleep every night. Finally, we will outline how to set up a bedtime routine to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Why do we need to sleep?
Everyone needs to sleep. Getting adequate sleep is linked to better mood, better focus and better performance in every aspect of life. For strength athletes, who spend hours in the gym trying to maximise muscular hypertrophy and strength gains, sleep is even more important.
Sleep is a key factor in boosting recovery from training and maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) i.e. muscle growth. Without adequate sleep, your body does not have the opportunity to recover fully from training, leaving you unable to perform maximally in subsequent training sessions and in competition.
For the bodybuilders, physique focused and powerlifters trying to move down a weight class for those sweet, sweet wilks gains, sleep is just as important for physique results.
Chronically under-sleeping is linked to higher body fat levels (1) due to a combination of altering hormone levels and limiting diet adherence. Studies have found that when people are systematically under sleeping, they eat an average of 350 extra calories per day vs a control group getting adequate sleep (2). This equates to an extra 2450 calories a week. To put that in perspective, the recommended daily caloric intake for a sedentary man is 2500 calories. Eating an additional 2450 calories a week equates to almost a whole extra day of eating per week, making weight loss even more challenging.
A lack of sleep also alters the hormone balance of the body. Being in a sleep deficit reduces the level of two anabolic hormones within the body - specifically testosterone and IGF-1 - hormones critical in muscle protein synthesis (3). The same research shows that a lack of sleep leads to a rise in cortisol levels - a catabolic hormone which increases rates of muscle breakdown. These mechanisms - overeating, a reduction in anabolic hormones and increase in catabolic hormones - all combine to hinder recovery, reduce lean body mass and slow weight loss.
Another consideration for strength athletes is injury risk. Multiple studies (10, 11) have investigated the link between under sleeping and injury risk. The findings are predictable: the amount of sleep an athlete gets is the biggest predictor of injury risk (10) and getting less than 6 hours sleep increases injury risk from the very next day (11). This is due to the combination of a decrease in coordination when tired and the reduced ability of the body to recover from previous training.
How much sleep do you need?
The standard recommendation for adults is for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, with some people needing more and some needing less. In all likelihood, as life happens you’ll find yourself needing more or less sleep at different times. Generally however, if you’re waking up tired or need a lot of caffeine to get moving in the morning then you need to sleep more.
A key distinction needs to be made however, between hours asleep and hours in bed. If you get into bed at 10pm then spend 3 hours scrolling through social media before drifting off at 1am and waking up at 7am feeling tired - you're not ’sleeping nine hours and still tired’. If you feel as though you need more sleep, make sure you're actually sleeping for 7-9 hours a night.
Can you catch up on sleep?
A common response to being tired during the week is to have a ‘lie-in’ over the weekend to catch up on sleep. Is this a good idea and does it work?
If the average adult needs at least 49 hours sleep a week (7 hours a night), the number of hours under this number is known as their sleep deficit or sleep debt. For example, if you slept 6 hours a night from Sunday to Thursday night with a sleep debt of 5 hours. The intuitive response to this is to get an additional 3 hours of sleep on Friday and Saturday night to make up the sleep debt. But does this work?
Maybe. It is possible to catch up on sleep - with studies highlighting that sleeping in on the weekend is linked with improved insulin sensitivity, fat metabolism, body weight, stress, fatigue and performance (12-16). Sounds good right?
The downside of this approach is that sleep debt - much like credit cards or student loans- accrues interest at an unholy rate. Getting one extra hour of sleep at the weekend does not compensate for an hour of lost sleep - instead the ratio is closer to 1:4 (17). For every hour you under sleep during the week an additional 4 hours are required at the weekend. Going back to our example at the top, the person with 5 hours of sleep debt heading into the weekend needs 20 hours extra sleep to catch up.
There are more downsides. By sleeping in on the weekend, you disrupt the bodies circadian rhythms, making it harder to sleep during the week and increasing your sleep debt.
Napping may provide an alternative - short, 30 minute naps, improve performance in the short term and longer naps (up to 1 hour) allow for muscle repair (18). However, napping can make it more difficult to sleep in the evening - leaving you unable to get enough sleep at night.
What are we to do with this information? Well, if you haven’t had enough sleep during the week, sleeping in on the weekend will help you feel better and may alleviate and offset some of the problems associated with under sleeping. The best plan however, is to avoid being in a sleep deficit at all.
How can you maximize muscle growth during sleep?
Sleep enables recovery and growth, as it is the period of the day where the body heals and your muscles grow. Studies have shown consumption of a protein shake before bed leads to increases in overnight MPS and subsequent muscle hypertrophy (6). This effect is observed even when the participants are consuming a high protein diet (1.3g/kg of protein/bodyweight) (7) and is independent of an increase in total calories (8). This strong body of scientific literature led the International Society for Sports Nutrition to recommend the consumption of 30-40g of protein before bed, as doing so acutely increases muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate through the night (5). Further, consumption of a small meal before bed has been linked to improvement in sleep quality (9), which will enable further muscle growth by maximising the time your body has to repair and growth - win-win!
It is often claimed by supplement companies that you need special nighttime protein that breaks down slowly whilst you sleep. This is just an excuse to sell you casein protein. Whilst supplement companies advertise that casein - a more expensive product - is the only suitable overnight protein, multiple studies have found that whey protein is superior to both casein and soy protein for maximising muscle protein synthesis (3,4).
Now we have established why we need to sleep and how much we need to sleep, how do we set up a routine for us to get a good nights sleep every night?
1. Allow enough time to get enough sleep.
This might sound obvious, but if you want 7 - 9 hours sleep and have to wake up at 6am then you need to be asleep between 9 - 11 pm.
2. Establish a wind down routine
It’s important to take some time before you got to sleep to relax and get you ready for sleep. This can take anywhere from 20 - 45 minutes, depending on how stressful your day has been. Reading a book, doing yoga or stretching, meditating, journaling or planning out tomorrow are all good activities to do during your wind down routine.
During this time, the key point is to avoid activities that stimulate you or your brain, making it harder to drift off and sleep well. Try to avoid phone, tablet or laptop screens - blue light exposure reduces melatonin release which makes it harder to fall asleep. If you are going to use a phone, download an app that uses a blue light filter.
3. Stick to a schedule
Once you have established a bedtime routine and a wake-up time that enables you to get enough sleep, stick to it. Even over weekends. Allowing your body to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day allows for the establishment of a strong circadian rhythm. After a while, you’ll begin to feel tired when it’s time to start the bedtime routine and alert when you wake up. Use your body’s natural rhythms to your advantage and you’ll sleep better!
Daily exercise helps you sleep more deeply. This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym every day - even going for a walk during the day can help improve your sleep quality.
5. Be careful with caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant - this is why we like it. It’s primary role is to increase awareness. Avoiding caffeine around bedtime will massively help improve sleep quality. Caffeine has a half life in the body of 6 hours - avoiding caffeine in the 6 hours before bed will allow you to drift off quicker and sleep deeper.
6. Improve your sleep environment
The sleep environment (i.e. a bedroom - hopefully), is a key component of getting a good nights sleep. It should be cool dark and quiet. Ideally, utilise black out blinds or sleep masks to reduce the amount unnatural light pollution from outdoors (street lights, car lights etc) . If your bedroom is noisy, utilise ear plugs or a sleep soundscape to block out external noises which can stop you drifting off to sleep.
1. Sleep is an important part of the recovery process; getting adequate sleep will help improve body composition, strength gains, mood, mental performance, recovery and reduces injury risk.
2. Adults need 7 - 9 hours of sleep a night. Setting a consistent bedtime and a wind down routine will allow your body to settle into a rhythm.
3. Catching up on sleep is not a viable long term strategy. Catch up sleep is lower quality and can prevent you establishing a healthy sleep routine. Napping (in the short term) and establishing a bedtime routine is essential to maximise the benefits of sleep and reap the rewards from training!