Working Out For The Non Nine To Fiver's!

There are several aspects that I will be covering in the series. The first installment will discuss, sleep, changing sleep patterns and training/workout schedules.

If you thought this was going to be an article on building wide lats, rippling traps or a thick back, you're going to be disappointed, however, read on. I have some insight into a bodybuilding topic that I never seen addressed before. After 20+ years in the iron game, I can never recall reading an article that addresses the special needs of non-9 to 5ers.

I remember many years ago reading that Boyer Coe would often hit the gym at 2 in the morning, but, as a professional, he scheduled this as his workout time. I have seen and read many articles that discussed training at different hours of the day - morning, noon and night, but they always refer back to getting that good night sleep.

Unfortunately, most all of us haven't the luxury of living off our fitness hobby and work in many lines of work that operate on a round-the-clock basis. Professions that are subject to the rigors of all day coverage include call centers, the utilities, public safety, light and heavy manufacturing, transportation and the military. Some are fortunate to work a 9-5 job in these fields, however, many of us have to adapt to changing or set shifts in our employment that preclude sleeping during nighttime hours.

According to Circadian Technologies, a leading consulting and research firm for shift work, roughly 24 million Americans work in the 24/7 environment. An unknown is the percentage of these individuals actively involved in fitness and bodybuilding, but it is easy to assume that there is a growing number. Two important findings on shiftwork must be addressed; the research indicates that physical activity plays a key roll in shift worker health and that shift workers tend to have poorer health than their daytime counterparts. The question becomes, how can we adapt and maximize our growth despite the trap of working non-traditional hours?

This article will be the first installment in a two-part series. There are several aspects that I will be covering in the series. The first installment will discuss, sleep, changing sleep patterns and training/workout schedules. The second article will discuss the hormonal and nutritional aspects of non-traditional schedules and sleep and will attempt to pull both together. Most information provided is presented from personal experience coupled with the best information garnered and adapted from various articles.

Sleep & Rhythms

The first aspect of working non-traditional hours that must be considered is sleep. Numerous articles and scientific studies show us that during our sleeping hours, the body undergoes the recovery process and enables, hopefully, muscle hypertrophy. The amount of sleep required varies by individual with anywhere from 6 to 10 hours being recommended for healthy adults.

There are two distinct stages of sleep:

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
  • Non-REM sleep or deep sleep

I'll discuss more below. Suffice it to say that there are different states of sleep and that the body undergoes different changes in those states.

REM sleep is one of the most often heard part of sleep but appears to be less important than NREM sleep to the bodybuilder. REM sleep is bantered about more often because of its importance in cognitive abilities, but NREM sleep is when restoration and growth occurs. There are 4 stages of NREM sleep with the fourth stage, delta wave sleep, being the deepest sleep. In delta wave sleep our bodies are at their lowest metabolic activity, muscles are relaxed, blood pressure lowered and pulse rate is slower.

It is also during this stage of sleep that growth hormone secretion reaches its peak. In addition, blood supply to the muscles is increased, tissue growth and repair occurs, and the immune system rejuvenates. It takes roughly 60 to 90 minutes to go through a full sleep cycle of REM to delta wave sleep and back and several cycles are completed during sleep. The first cycle usually has the longest amount of delta wave sleep.

The question as to why we sleep is still unanswered; however, it is essential for good health and has a normal rhythm. The body's natural rhythm is diurnal, to rise with the sun and shutdown in darkness. This circadian (24-hour) rhythm that regulates bodily functions during a typical day get disrupted when working non-traditional hours. The literature suggests that our biological time clock is set to a roughly 24 - 25 hour day. It is thought that "morning" people have a rhythm closer to 24 hours while "nightowls" have one set to 25 hours.

Our biological clock is regulated by bright light. Light coming into the retina blocks signals transmitted from the suprachiasmatic region of the brain. These signals are normally transmitted to the pineal gland, which then release melatonin, the hormone that prepares the body for sleep. Functions managed on circadian rhythms include core body temperature, release of hormones into the blood, wakefulness and sleepiness. Researchers continue to investigate other circadian rhythms with particular attention for drug development and application.

Back Shift Issues

Now that we have some understanding of sleep and some circadian rhythms, what are the issues of working back shifts.

The two main issues are:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Disruption of the normal hormone cycles that regulate our bodies

Both have significant effects on attaining maximum growth and physical improvement. Individuals working rotating shifts are cursed with having to turn their bodies on and off at various hours of the day.

In addition, permanent afternoon, midnight, or 12-hour shift workers must also consider these changes in rhythms and lack of sleep since they are likely to change waking/sleeping hours on days off. Surveys have found that individuals working shifts sleep less than their daytime counterparts. Additionally, research has also indicated that although individuals can spend several years on back shifts, their bodies never fully adapt to it.

With these factors working against us, we must stay vigilant to what our bodies are telling us.

Telltale signs to watch for when experiencing sleep deficit/deprivation:

Alertness & Reaction Time

      - Being sleep deprived lowers both and can have similar effects as consuming



Sleep Latency - Sleep latency is a measure of how quickly you get to sleep. If you are falling asleep as soon as you hit the bed, it is a sign of extreme fatigue and probable sleep deprivation.

Mood - Sleep deprivation is accompanied by irritability and should be noted both before and after sleep. A healthy, refreshing amount of sleep should relieve most irritability.

Microsleep - Microsleep is a period of time, up to 30 seconds, characterized as sleep and non-perception of external stimulus. If you experience many of those, "How did I get here?" situations, microsleep is a likely cause and indicative of sleep deprivation.

Snoozing - Hitting the snooze button consistently every day to get an extra 10 minutes of sleep is indicative of sleep deficit.

One adjunct to sleep is the nap. Napping if effective in dealing with both physical and mental fatigue. However, it is not a complete replacement for uninterrupted sleep. There are two types of naps to consider. First is the catnap, roughly 15-30 minutes of sleep. The catnap is good at relieving symptoms of sleep deprivation but is not long enough to enable physical repair and growth. The other type of nap is a deep nap, lasting from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

This type of nap allows both sleep deprivation relief and physical repair and growth since NREM sleep is achieved. How you budget your time is probably the biggest determinant of the type of nap you can get. The catnap is taken more often as a target of opportunity while the deep nap is usually planned for. One caution must be noted. The literature and personal experience suggests that it is difficult to "get going" immediately after a nap; recommend you ease back into activities, 10-15 minutes, after a nap.


Training also needs to be approached differently when working non-traditional hours. There is a need to balance the recovery cycle, getting our natural rhythms back in order and optimizing our work, workouts and personal life.

Some options for appropriate times to workout are available:

Upon Waking

      - This is an ideal time as the body has been refreshed. Ideally, this can be carried forward to both work days as well as days off.

Before Work - A good time to workout since you will have been active and limber and the time can be regularly scheduled. However, drawbacks include possible tiredness at work (if physically and mentally demanding work is performed), and changing workout times for individuals that change shifts.

After Work - Not the most ideal time since the demands of the job can sap energy levels and you are more likely to be tired and possibly lack motivation. Additionally, exercise activates the body (increasing metabolism and core body temperature) and makes it difficult to fall asleep immediately afterward.

Whenever Possible - Not structured for a particular time of day or placement in one's cycle. Training whenever possible can often lead to missed and ineffective workouts.

During Work - This is the most ideal situation. If the facilities are available take advantage of this gem/gym.

I have tried all of these options with limited success. Since I work rotating shifts, it is almost impossible to workout upon waking (family commitments). Before work has been effective because I can often block out that time and the family understands it. After work is one of the most difficult times, particularly after working nights (tiredness) or afternoons (trouble getting to sleep rapidly post-workout). Lifting during work hours, normally lunch hour, is ideal if your exercise routine is of high intensity and short duration. I've had opportunities to lift during working hours and recommend it if it is an option.

Besides when to lift, there are two other significant drawbacks with working back shifts when it comes to training. The first drawback is the difficulty in finding a training partner. Unless you have one of your co-workers tagging along, it is hard to find a good training partner available at the hours you are likely to workout.

A permanently scheduled back shift has an advantage here, but it may still be difficult to workout at the same time on a daily basis due to overtime or personal commitments. The lack of a training partner can also lead into the second possible drawback of limited training intensity due to safety concerns.

At 2 in the morning it is hard to get a safety spot when you're the only one in the gym. Using cheat and forced reps to increase your intensity will likely force you into poor form, a precursor to injury. I advocate strict form over sheer weight, so be cautious when using the heavy iron when at home or at the gym with only a few other bodies around.


Working back shifts places an unusual stress on your body that typical 9-5ers don't experience. Our bodies and our rhythms have been conditioned through evolution to wake to the morning sunlight and rest and recover after the sun goes down. However, since the advent of the electric lightbulb, our society now uses the dark hours for many purposes forgetting that our bodies were not meant to work during those hours.

As bodybuilders, we need to realize that there are differences and adjustments that must be made so we can continue to grow. This article covered different aspects of sleep and training that those of us working non-traditional hours must be cognizant of. The next part of the series will cover the some nutritional and hormonal differences that non 9-5er should be cognizant of to optimize health and growth.