Is Working Out With No Sleep a Do or a Don’t?

Your head barely hit the pillow. Should you still hit the gym? Learn why you shouldn’t work out with no sleep (and how to be smart about it when you do).
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Woman working out at night instead of sleeping

Kevin Durant, Michelle Wie, and Steph Curry — what do these pro athletes have in common? Aside from their awe-inspiring track records, these athletes prioritize sleep for peak athletic performance. They (and countless other fitness-minded individuals) have realized that the true gains of exercise cannot come without sleep.

That brings us to the question of this article: Should you be working out with no sleep? As we've hinted, that's usually unwise (more on this later). But if you still want to engage in physical activity, even on a lack of sleep, read on to find out how you can work out right in a no-sleep situation.

Working Out With No Sleep Has More Cons Than Pros

As with everything in life on little sleep, working out with no sleep is teeth-clenchingly difficult, more so than usual. (And you don’t have to pull an all-nighter to feel its effects; just missing one to two hours of your sleep need is enough to make you feel “off” the next day.) Ahead, we show you how the cons of working out with sleep loss outweigh the pros.

It Demotes Your Performance in the Gym and in Life

Not getting enough sleep, whether you have to work out or not, means you're weighed down by sleep deprivation, which is mainly categorized into:

  • Acute sleep debt: This is the amount of sleep you've missed out on in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need. For reference, that's the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs to feel and function at its best. Unlike what many people think, not all of us do best on eight hours of sleep. Instead, most of us need a little more, averaging roughly 8 hours and 10 minutes (give or take 44 minutes; meaning most of us need somewhere between 7.5 hours and 9).
  • Chronic sleep deprivation: When you consistently fail to meet your sleep need and stay in the red for years, you're now chronically sleep-deprived. Some may look at it as a badge of honor of the hustle culture. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared sleep insufficiency as a "public health epidemic."

Sleep affects every bodily function, from brain activity to the immune system. When you don’t get enough, rather than hit the ground running (after your morning grogginess has cleared, that is), you’re running on fumes before your day has even begun. 

When you’re already struggling to get through your to-do list (and life’s other demands), working out on no sleep means you have even less energy to push through most any kind of workout, not to mention hit a PR (personal record).

So too, the reduced reaction time and attention span that come from sleep loss equal duller reflexes. You're now more likely to give yourself a workout injury.

When sleep loss, and a failure to pay it back, become a regular occurence, you also predispose yourself to chronic illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer. Suffice to say, sleep deprivation doesn't just take a toll on your training session in the immediate future. It also downgrades every aspect of your life in the short and long term.

Your Weight Loss Program Is in Jeopardy

Working out with no sleep: person on a weighing scale and a tape measure on the floor

If you're working out to lose weight, doing so on no sleep is unfortunately counterproductive. Here’s how sleep insufficiency is a triple threat to your weight loss goals:

  • Ghrelin, aka the hunger hormone, surges in concentration, so you're more likely to eat more.
  • There’s a simultaneous fall in your body's leptin levels. Because leptin is the satiety hormone that tamps down your hunger pangs, you feel less full, even when you take in more calories after a sleepless night.
  • To worsen it all, your brain's prefrontal cortex (the area that governs your impulse control) isn’t working as well as normal. This makes it even harder to keep those food cravings in check.

Furthermore, researchers found that restricting yourself to only five hours of sleep could cause you to consume up to 385 more calories the next day (this is taking into account the extra calories you might burn by being awake for longer). While that may not seem like a large amount, greater sleep loss over time can escalate the calorie count.

Besides that, acute sleep debt is scientifically proven to reduce your energy expenditure the next day. Not only do you burn fewer calories due to a reduced resting metabolic rate, but you also have less energy to tackle your training.

You Miss Out on Prime Time for Recovery and Gainzzz

When you lift weights or push yourself through the last mile, you essentially break down your muscle cells. A good night's sleep that meets your biological sleep need prompts your body to secrete human growth hormone (HGH). This hormone is crucial to post-workout recovery from the exercise-induced strain and helps your muscles build up stronger and bigger over time.

But when you pass up on snooze time, you deprive your body of the chance to rest and recuperate to build muscles and bulk up your body weight. In fact, new research discovered that just one night of no sleep reduced muscle growth by a whopping 18%!

You also increase your risk of a pulled muscle or worse by 1.7 times if you slept less than eight hours the night before. On the flipside, when you increase your nighttime sleep duration by 60-plus minutes with RISE, you may downplay your odds of an injury by 70%.

Working Out With No Sleep? Be Smart About It

The answer to whether you should work out with no sleep is often a clear, hard "no." As you've seen earlier, the cons of getting your heart rate up on little sleep far outweigh the pros.

With that said, life happens. Perhaps you just got off a red-eye flight in which you tossed and turned the entire time and wanted to work off the ill-feeling of poor sleep in the hotel's gym. Or maybe your teething newborn kept you awake for most of last night, but you’ve already made an appointment with your personal trainer this morning.

No matter the reason, your sleep-deprived self can still break out the exercise mat, so long as you don't make working out on no sleep a regular thing — and you have little sleep debt to begin with (i.e., five hours or less).

To help you perform the best you can on the few hours of sleep you've had, follow these do's and don'ts.

Do: Time Your Workout to Curb the Zzz’s

RISE app screenshot showing energy peak and dip times
The RISE app shows your daily energy peaks and dips based on your unique chronobiology.

The time of day of your workout matters, more so when you're surviving on less sleep than your body needs. Every day, your body cycles through the energy peaks and dips of your circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, high sleep debt dampens your peaks and intensifies your dips, lowering your energy potential for the day.

For this reason, we recommend, when functioning on little sleep, working out during your low-energy periods. This reserves your peaks for tasks that require more brainpower, which is now all the more essential for getting things done when you’re sleep deprived. On top of that, you can leverage your workout’s energy boost to help curb morning grogginess and dampen the slump characteristic of an afternoon dip (more on both below).

If you still want to move your body during your energy peaks, you can. Just remember, your body won't be at its best mentally and physically to crush it in the gym or on the field. But whatever you do, avoid exercising before bed, unless we're talking about sex (which, incidentally, is a “workout” that may help you sleep better at night). Bear in mind, though, that sleep loss can dampen your sex drive due to a higher-than-normal cortisol count that redirects blood away from your reproductive organs.

The RISE app comes in handy here, as it tells you the exact timing of your daily peaks and dips on your Energy Schedule. Zeroing in on your energy dips, they usually occur during the following times.

Morning Grogginess, AKA Your Grogginess Zone in the RISE App

Contrary to ads for mattresses and sleep supplements, we don't wake up with all systems ready to go. Instead, it takes up to 90 minutes for your body to shake off the last of the wake-up grogginess, or what scientists call sleep inertia.

To counteract sleep inertia, an early morning workout (before your morning peak) can help you wake up more quickly. It's all thanks to your body's cortisol awakening response (CAR) that begins just before you wake up.

Because cortisol is an alertness-boosting hormone, you can credit it for your "second wind," even after a night of no sleep. Scheduling physical activity during your CAR helps you trawl through your workout with more ease.

Remember, sleep deprivation has already done a number on your body’s energy potential, so you’ll need all the help you can get to make it through your workout. What's more, cortisol is naturally anti-inflammatory and may boost your post-training recovery (recall that your body’s healing rate is now suboptimal, thanks to sleep loss).

On top of that, an early morning workout helps lower the cortisol levels in your nervous system for the rest of the day and into the night. This means your muscles feel "loose" and more relaxed, possibly upping your chances of better sleep that night to recoup lost sleep.

To help you meet your sleep need more effortlessly, exercise in the presence of sunlight. This leads to better melatonin production and reduced sleep latency, two things your sleep-deprived body can get behind.

Postprandial Dip, AKA Your Afternoon Dip in the RISE App

Another low-energy period that's ideal for working out on no sleep is your afternoon dip. Courtesy of your sleep debt, your midday dip is more intense than usual, making you more likely to doze off than stay focused on whichever task at hand.

To lower the odds of falling asleep at inappropriate times, say, at work or while driving, stack a workout during this low-energy period. Scientific evidence explains that increasing your core body temperature diminishes subjective sleepiness. Also, sweating it out can help you become temporarily more alert to move through the worst of sleep deprivation while still feeling productive.

Don’t: Be Fooled by the Fight-or-Flight Response

Working out with no sleep: cortisol gauge at the high point

Regardless of the time you workout, don't be fooled by the fight-or-flight (FoF) response that cortisol activates.

Because sleep naturally inhibits cortisol secretion, not getting any sleep last night means it's not business as usual for your body's healthy cortisol production. Come morning, there's more of the stress hormone circulating in your system. This shifts your body into FoF mode, which primes you for action. You're then duped into thinking you have ample energy to sail through your workout despite your all-nighter.

Unfortunately, this is a dangerous and inaccurate thought process. Chronically high cortisol levels add another layer of health problems in the form of widespread body inflammation, on top of the ones caused by sleep deprivation. And because cortisol and sleep loss share a convoluted relationship whereby both parties feed into each other's toxic nature, it spells devastating news for your well-being in the short and long run.

Don’t: Give Yourself an Injury

Recall that you're bleary-eyed, lethargic, and slow-moving — all signs pointing that you're "out of it." In your current state, you're incredibly vulnerable to exercise-related injuries due to impaired musculoskeletal health and reduced motor control. As such, it's best to go easy on yourself. One way to do that is to tamp down the intensity of your workout as well as switch up the modality.

For example, instead of your usual routine of 30 minutes of weight lifting followed by 30 minutes of cardio, consider shortening the duration to avoid overtaxing your muscles and joints. Also, switch vigorous, strenuous workouts to low-intensity, gentle exercises to lessen the odds of hurting yourself. Instead of strength training, for instance, get on your stationary bike or do yoga.

Do: Get Enough Sleep Afterward to Pay Down Sleep Debt

After working out with no sleep, prioritize outsleeping your sleep need to bring down your sleep debt. All the prior do's and don'ts mentioned in this section are for naught if you still continue to disregard your sleep schedule for the sake of hitting your fitness milestones (which may not happen, as we've mentioned how important sleep is to your physical performance.)

So, how can you pay down sleep debt? Follow these four golden rules:

  • Sleep earlier for the next night or more: An earlier bedtime that accounts for your sleep need is the quickest way to bring down sleep debt. To doze off more easily and stay asleep till morning, make sure your new bedtime is within your Melatonin Window (the window of time in which your body produces peak levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin). You can check its timing in the RISE app.
  • Nap during your afternoon dip: Aside from exercise, napping is another way to stay productive during your afternoon dip. Just be sure to use the RISE app to schedule your nap as early in the day as possible, i.e., at the start of your afternoon dip rather than toward the end. This can help you avoid releasing too much sleep pressure and delaying your bedtime that night.
  • Sleep in only when you have no choice: Sleeping in the next morning can upset your internal body clock, so use it as a last resort. Try to limit it to no later than an hour of your usual wake time.
  • Pay close attention to your sleep hygiene: At times, your schedule may not allow for an earlier bedtime or a later wake time. But you can still optimize your sleep efficiency (how much time you spent asleep while in bed) with sleep-promoting activities and habits. They reduce the time you take to fall asleep and limit your middle-of-the-night awakenings.

Remember, paying down sleep debt should be your top priority after working out with no sleep.

Meet Your Sleep Need to Meet Your Fitness Goals

Woman sleeping soundly in her bed

Unlike what the hustle culture portrays, exercise and sleep are essential to helping you meet your potential every single day. The bottom line is, you need to meet your sleep need to meet your fitness goals. But on the rare occasion that you want to exercise despite being sleep-deprived, structure your day in a way that allows you to get the best of both worlds — train without intensifying your sleep debt.

That's where RISE can help. Your Energy Schedule in the app tells you the exact timing of your daily energy peaks and dips. This way, you'll know the best times to knock out a workout routine while grappling with sleep loss. (Keep the previous do's and don'ts in mind, and go easy on yourself!)

Last but not least, use the Sleep screen to find out where you stand with regard to your running sleep debt. Only when you sleep for exercise will you see real results with how you feel the next day, as well as your well-being in the longer term.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.
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