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Experts say resistance training can produce post-workout effects that generate quality sleep. Iya Forbes/Getty Images
  • Researchers say resistance training such as using free weights and stretching cables may be better for getting quality sleep than aerobic exercise.
  • Experts say resistance training results in post-workout fatigue and muscle recovery that can promote better sleep.
  • They add that aerobic exercise can also improve sleep. A combination of the two types of exercise may be the best course for some people.

People with sleep issues may want to get off the treadmill and give the rest of the gym a chance.

Resistance training — weight machines, free weights, cables, etc. — may be better at generating quality sleep than aerobic exercise, according to a new study presented this week at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention, Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2022 in Chicago.

In addition, as a nice secondary benefit, better sleep is important for good cardiovascular health.

“It is increasingly recognized that getting enough sleep, particularly high quality sleep, is important for health, including cardiovascular health. Unfortunately, more than a third of Americans don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis,” said Angelique Brellenthin, PhD, the study’s author and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University.

“Aerobic activity is often recommended to improve sleep, yet very little is known about the effects of resistance exercise versus aerobic exercise on sleep,” Brellenthin said in a press release.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Scientific Report identified the need for more research into resistance exercise and sleep outcomes. Our study is one of the largest and longest exercise trials in a general adult population to directly compare the effects of different types of exercise on multiple sleep parameters,” she said.

The heart association says not getting enough sleep — about 7 to 8 hours a day for adults — or getting poor quality sleep increases the chances of high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and atherosclerosis (fatty deposits building up in arteries).

Lack of sleep has also been linked to weight gain, diabetes, and inflammation, all of which can worsen cardiovascular disease. Not enough sleep (or sleeping too much) also increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and early death.

This study looked at 386 adults meeting the criteria for being overweight or obese. Subjects were also inactive and had elevated blood pressure.

The participants were randomly assigned to a no-exercise group (for comparison) or one of three exercise groups (aerobic only, resistance only, or combined aerobic and resistance) for 12 months.

The exercise groups did supervised 60-minute sessions, three times a week, with the combination exercise group doing 30 minutes of aerobic and 30 minutes of resistance exercise.

The resistance group did sets on 12 machines, working all major muscle groups in each session.

More than one-third (35 percent) of participants had poor quality sleep at the beginning of the study. Among the 42 percent of participants who weren’t getting at least 7 hours of sleep, after 12 months, sleep increased by about:

  • 40 minutes for the resistance exercise group
  • 23 minutes in the aerobic exercise group
  • 17 minutes in the combined exercise group
  • 15 minutes in the control group

Sleep efficiency increased in the resistance exercise and combined exercise groups, but not in the aerobic exercise or no exercise group.

DJ Mazzoni, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who also serves as the medical reviewer at Illuminate Health, told Healthline that resistance training builds lean muscle mass, which can increase overall metabolic rate.

The resulting muscle fatigue and the body’s recovery process lead to better sleep.

“Resistance-trained athletes burn more calories at rest, on average, than athletes who don’t engage in this type of training,” he said. “Resistance training typically involves more instances of maximum or near-maximum effort compared to cardio. This causes fatigue and delayed-onset muscle soreness post-workout, and may contribute to the psychological feeling of improved sleep and recovery.”

“It simply feels better to get in bed after a hard resistance training workout than after cardio for many athletes,” Mazzoni added. “Medical studies have examined a wide range of different resistance workout programs and found nearly all of them to be effective for improving sleep quality.”

Alicia Pate, PhD, an associate professor of medical anatomy and physiology at Ponce Health Sciences University Saint Louis in Missouri, told Healthline that resistance training helps the body produce a chemical called adenosine, which promotes sleep.

“Adenosine binds to cellular receptors, inhibiting neural activity and causing drowsiness,” Pate said. “A 2017 review finds that chronic resistance exercise improves all aspects of sleep, with the greatest benefit being sleep quality.”

“These benefits on sleep of resistance training are attenuated when resistance training is combined with aerobic training or with aerobic training alone,” she said.

“The mechanisms by which resistance exercise alters sleep remain largely unknown,” Pate added. “Resistance training could potentially improve sleep by improved symptoms of depression or anxiety, alterations in energy expenditure, increase in body temperature, or relief of musculoskeletal pain, for example.”

Pate noted that this doesn’t mean there’s no value in aerobic exercise when it comes to sleep.

“There is evidence that suggests aerobic activity can also have positive effects on sleep quantity and quality,” she said. “Therefore, most physicians will suggest a regimen that includes both aerobic and resistance training for sleep (as well as many other aspects of health).”

“But, if a patient is unable to withstand aerobic activity, resistance training alone provides a valuable alternative,” she added.

Mazzoni said specific exercises aren’t necessarily important when it comes to training for better sleep.

“There’s no specific type or duration of resistance training optimal for improving sleep,” he said. “The ideal workout will vary significantly based on the individual. The most important thing, for healthy adults, is that the resistance workout is challenging and physically taxing.”