[Case Study] Training with Insomnia: A Different Approach

Quick Summary

This article shares the remarkable story of Geni Ligday, who, having suffered from insomnia for over 15 years came to us for training advice, but left being able to sleep for eight hours, unbroken night after night. This is her truly incredible training story, and shares a different perspective on how you can train somebody who suffers from Insomnia.

Two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the eight hours of nightly sleep recommended by the World Health Organization. When it comes to Insomnia, between 10 percent and 30 percent of adults struggle with chronic insomnia, and between 30 percent and 48 percent of OLDER adults suffer from insomnia. They are frightening statistics. These facts may not surprise you, but maybe some of the consequences might:

  • Did you know that sleeping less than seven hours a night demolishes your immune system and more than doubles your risk of cancer?
  • What about insufficient sleep being a key lifestyle factor determining whether you will develop Alzheimer’s disease or that it contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality?
  • In terms of health and fitness, just one week of poor sleep disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Looking to lose fat on less than seven hours? Forget about it.

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Ever wondered why you want to eat more when you’re tired? Insufficient sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that signals food satisfaction. So, despite being full, you still want to eat more – a proven recipe for weight gain in adults. Even worse, attempting to diet on lack of sleep is futile, since most of the weight you lose will come from lean body mass and not fat.

The list could go on and on… To sum it up in just a few words: The shorter you sleep, the shorter your life span.

Such is the importance of sleep that it forms the foundation of any exercise and nutritional programming we do because, without it, success in reaching any fitness goal is inconsistent, slow, and temporary. It’s why we put so much emphasis on the WWS (Walk, Water, Sleep) formula. If any of these three things are off, we see problems across the board, be it with weight loss, athletic performance, or just the ability to cope with daily life. WWS is the foundation of the Strength Matters System of Athletic Development and like any foundation, if there are cracks, performance will suffer.

So how do we train people who suffer from insomnia?

This leads me to this month’s case study, Geni Ligday, who suffered from insomnia for over 15 years and came to us with athletic and performance goals to help her get her training back on track. Here’s how we approached her training and the surprising results that occurred.

Case Study:

  • Name: Geni Ligday
  • Age: 45
  • Country: USA
  • Occupation: Manufacturing General Manager + Wife + Mother of Four
  • Average Daily Sleep Prior: 3 Hours
  • Average Daily Now: 7 Hours
  • Time to Achieve: 8 Months

When Geni first started the coaching program in November 2018, she had a few hip and shoulder restrictions. General strength was an important goal as was a desire to improve her overall cardio having been an endurance athlete for many years – that had ultimately led to burn out (not surprising with her lack of sleep). We discussed briefly the sleep issue, but it became apparent that this was quite a touchy subject so we didn’t press the issue or even attempt to address it. Taking her overall lifestyle factors into consideration (sleep, family, work), the workouts needed to be easy to moderate in nature. Not that we ever told Geni that. She was highly stressed, and her body would have imploded had we added any more stress to it. Here’s the approach we took with Geni.

  • Deep Squat Sit Test: 2 Minutes
  • Flexed Arm Hang (Overhand Grip): 12 Seconds
  • 2000m Row: 8:59

Let’s discuss the key tests that stood out for us after Geni took the assessments. General strength, health, and movement were all in good shape. She was dialed in with her nutrition (a rarity), weight and body fat were all in healthy athletic ranges. Daily steps and water consumption were all on point. It was just her sleep and the three tests highlighted above that stood out for us at the beginning of this journey, which also prevented her from progressing further with the assessments.

The Deep Squat Sit Test challenges total body mechanics and neuromuscular control when performed properly. We use it to look at the functional mobility and stability of the hips, knees, and ankles. There are two benchmarks we like to hit: Five minutes, which means, in our opinion, it’s safe to load somebody with weight, and 10 minutes, which is our golden marker for optimal health. From other testing, it was all pointing towards her hips in this case (not the ankles or t-spine) so hip mobility was the area of concern here.

For the shoulder joints to stay mobile and healthy, they rely almost entirely on the proper function of the scapula. The true key to shoulder mobility is scapular stability. You need to have strong shoulder blades. There are many ways to test the health of your scapula; however, over the years, in fit and healthy everyday athletes, the flexed arm hang test is one of the simplest scapular health tests that we do. The standard we like to see for women is 30 seconds. Geni fell short of this benchmark and we knew her scapula needed some TLC.

Her 2000m row test, a challenge for many people, also stood out. With 8:10 being the benchmark for good cardio capacity by our standards, we knew we had a lot to work on here too. Taking these three tests into consideration, this is where Geni’s journey began.

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Stage 1: Mobility

We had a very honest and open conversation at the start about the importance of mobility that Geni took to heart. We spoke about setting a foundation for the long haul. Without her buy- in and understanding, I think we would have struggled to achieve the results that we did. Most people understand that better mobility improves performance and helps prevent injury, but very few understand the role it plays in speeding up recovery and reducing tension and stress. I used this period to help regulate her parasympathetic nervous system. Geni was constantly wired, not that she knew it. Less was more in her case, and I used mobility training to get her to essentially slow down.

Her workouts centered around hip and shoulder health. We dedicated three full days a week just to mobility, and her strength days and cardio days were interspersed with mobility. For the shoulders, we did a lot of scapular rolls – both in a hang and plank position. The hips involved a lot of time spent in the deep squat position coupled with external and internal rotation work. Check out how this method improved her testing in the charts below. We took Geni’s deep squat from two minutes to 10 minutes in just under three months and her flexed arm hang from 12 seconds to 21 seconds in the same period – and eventually to 31 seconds four months later, but more on that soon.

Stage 2: Modified Strength Work

After addressing Geni’s mobility sticking points in her hips and shoulders, we turned to develop strength in these areas to augment their newfound freedom. Coincidently, she also had her heart set on completing the Tactical Strength Challenge, which is comprised of three exercises: A max powerlifting deadlift, pull-ups for max reps, and kettlebell snatches for max reps in five minutes. This was a great event to work towards for Geni as it would require strength training the newfound movement in her hips and shoulders – something you should always do after focused mobility training is strengthen the areas with improved range of motion. The challenge I had though was to ensure I didn’t overload her nervous system with the training volume or the weights lifted. Sleep was still a major factor at this stage and she wasn’t yet sleeping more than four hours a night.

In one of her workouts that she completed two times a week, I decided to take a volume-based approach in the form of mixed modal training with Geni. Repeatability and sustainability of the workout was key, as was essentially turning the strength workout into an aerobic workout. Recovery was a big issue here. Geni had a poor aerobic base and a lack of sleep so she needed to train below 70% of her capacity so it didn’t overfatigue her. Working out at the expense of her day-to-day life was not an option and, in my opinion, neither were heavy workouts at this stage.

Here’s what this aerobic strength workout looked like:

20 Min AMRAP *for form not for time*

  • Deadlift Bodyweight x 6 reps
  • Kettlebell Snatch x 6/6 reps
  • Flexed Arm Hang: 7 seconds
  • Repeat.

As the weeks went by, we increased the time to a period of 45 minutes. This time-lapse was more about developing the volume by building up capacity slowly and keeping her from overloading her system to save her for some slightly heavier workouts in the week.

Geni’s other aerobic strength workout was a density-based model with EMOM (every minute on the minute) work that included deadlifts, pull ups and kettlebell snatches. We never went above 70% of the total weight she could lift or the number she could do, and again built up the volume during a given time frame. Here’s what this deadlift and pull up workout looked like:

Deadlift: 10 minutes EMOM, 2 reps @70% max (eventually progressed to 7 reps)
Pull-Up: 10 minutes EMOM, 1 rep (eventually progressed to 4 reps)

Geni was always in her comfort zone. As her work capacity improved, so too did her ability to recover faster. The results? Her deadlift went from a max effort of 235lbs to 270lbs (her bodyweight was 127lb!) and she went from ZERO pull ups to seven in just under 12 weeks. These aren’t even the highlight. For the first time in 15 years, Geni was able to increase her average sleep to over six hours a night in the process. Volume work lead to fundamental changes in her sleeping behavior.

Stage 3: Aerobic Capacity

With Geni’s mobility still holding strong and a new solid base of strength behind us, it was time to address her aerobic capacity. For the first time in our coaching relationship, we were able to have the sleep conversation. It was no longer a touchy subject for Geni as her new average sleep hours were something to be celebrated. We wanted to continue to explore this trend. Over the years, I read in numerous research papers that aerobic exercise was proven to improve sleep quality. Geni needed a new challenge so we decided to focus on running to build a strong aerobic threshold base.

For those who have read my book Maximum Aerobic Power, you’ll know that the key to building aerobic threshold is volume, volume, and more volume of sub-aerobic threshold training to improve your efficiency. There’s no easy way around this. In all credit to Geni, she put the hard yards in here and stuck to the task at hand. Alongside regular strength work, she put in four runs per week all below aerobic threshold.

The simplest way to determine your aerobic threshold is to use the MAF method of 180 minus your age, then always run with your heart rate below this figure. We began with short runs 20 to 30 minutes in length and, over 12 weeks, we increased this to running at MAF for up to two hours. It was easy, repeatable, and sustainable work that NEVER left Geni tired or unable to continue about her day. She became faster at running but it also became effortless. As the trend of improved aerobic capacity continued, so too did her sleep, until finally we hit an average of seven hours of sleep per night. Something that was, in Geni’s mind, unfathomable just a few months prior.

Lessons You Can Learn from Geni

Sleep is the cornerstone of health and well-being. You can’t hide from it and one day it’ll bite you on the ass if you don’t address it, or even acknowledge there’s an issue surrounding it in the first place. We certainly didn’t set out to “cure” Geni of her insomnia; we’re not experts or doctors in this field. We simply learned that her body was under immense stress and more stress from training was the last thing that she needed in our expert opinion. Most people over thirty are highly stressed and chronically sleep-deprived. High-intensity, hard workouts can provide results for a short period but they are not sustainable.

If you’re starting an exercise program but don’t have the fundamentals of sleep nailed down, you will not be able to maximize your results or improve long-term health. All the research I’ve done over the years indicates that aerobic fitness is a great way to improve sleep quality, but most people misinterpret the meaning of aerobic work. It doesn’t mean hard, all-out workouts.

It means long, slow efforts that build gradually over time. If you’re highly stressed or struggle to sleep more than seven hours a night, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the training you’re doing currently? Maybe it’s time to dial it back a notch and focus on regulating your parasympathetic nervous system too, just like Geni.

Geni’s Thoughts:

“Prior to working with Strength Matters, I couldn’t train or even move well. My days were driven by stress and a frantic rush just to keep up with my work, life, and kids. I was in a constant state of deficit and overwhelmed. Everyone knows you can only run on empty for so long. I remember thinking I can’t do this anymore. I just need someone else to tell me what to do.

“And so it began, the slow progression out of pain and exhaustion. Subtle changes every single week that confirmed we were on the right track. Stress became manageable which allowed me to better organize my thoughts and day which then became more productive. My intensity was winding down, my energy was increasing and my sleep was starting to improve. THIS was life-changing. THIS is how life should feel. What an amazing difference. Seriously, my life was crushing me. And now it just feels like MY life. Like I own it. Who on earth would have ever guessed all this would come from one email and a phone call!” Geni Ligday, everyday athlete.

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Can I Train with Insomnia

It depends. However, we recommend starting of doing low moderate intensity exercise to help re-set the body and reduce the levels of stress you’re experience. Fitness is stress inducing, when you have insomnia, the last thing you want to do is increase stress levels.

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[Case Study] Training with Insomnia: A Different Approach
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[Case Study] Training with Insomnia: A Different Approach
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Here's a unique case study on how we helped Geni train through Insomnia...
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