Why Do Powerlifters Get Sleep Apnea?

Why do powerlifters get sleep apnea?

Ever have one of those rough restless nights of sleep and find yourself struggling to get by during the day? Your motor function may be off, making it near impossible to get a good (and safe) workout in. You try to push through powerlifting feeling like putty.

Consistent sleep can be even more powerful than nutrition and supplementation when it comes to making gains. Yet, many powerlifters suffer from a severe sleep disorder called sleep apnea.

You may be wondering: why do powerlifters get sleep apnea? Powerlifters get sleep apnea because they have high weights, large necks, and push their body to extremes. This can lead to constriction of airways and breathing systems as well as increased need for oxygen.

Learn about the different types of sleep apnea, common signs and dangers, treatments, and why powerlifters are at a higher risk. Take a deep breath and let’s fill our lungs (and minds) with sleep apnea education and how to pump-up powerlifting.

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What Is Sleep Apnea?

We’re going to start with a backstory on sleep apnea. If you just want to inhale the powerlifting education, feel free to power ahead.

The Sleep Foundation defines sleep apnea as a condition that causes abnormal respiration during sleep. When people suffer from sleep apnea, they have extended pauses in between breaths. This leads to lower-quality sleep and also deprives the body of some oxygen, potentially leading to serious health issues.

Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders in the United States. Although it can affect both men and women, it tends to be more common in men. According to John Hopkins Medicine, is occurs in about 3% of normal weight individuals and over 20% obese individuals.

Types Of Sleep Apnea For Powerlifters


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)  happens when the airways at the back of the throat becomes physically blocked. Mayoclinic describes that there are muscles that support the soft palate in the back of the throat. When the muscles relax, the airway closes while inhaling.

When there isn’t enough air coming to your brain, it senses this inability to breath and wakes you from sleep. But usually it’s so quick that you may not remember. It may result in a snort, choke, or gasp. It can repeat five to 30 times or more each hour, impairing the ability to reach deep sleep.

Risk factors, determined by Mayoclinic, for obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Higher weight: obesity greatly increases the risk of sleep apnea because fat or weight around the upper airway can obstruct breathing. 

  • Neck circumference: a thicker neck could lead to more narrow airways. 

  • Narrow airway: if the throat happens to be more narrow, including as a result of enlarged tonsils, it can block the airway. This is more common in children.

  • Sex: men are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea when compared to women. If women gain weight as they get older they may be at an increased risk. As well as after menopause. 

  • Age: sleep apnea happens more often in older adults.

  • Family history: if sleep apnea runs in your family, you’re at an increased risk.

  • Substances: using alcohol or sedatives can relax the throat making symptoms worse. Smokers are three times more likely to have OSA because it can increase the inflammation and fluid retention in the lungs. 

  • Congestion: if your nose is stuffed because of physical reasons, allergies, or a cold, it can make it more difficult to breath.

  • Medical conditions: congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, hormone disorders, and history of stroke or asthma can increase risk. 


Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a less common form of sleep apnea. It happens when there is a problem with the brain’s system for controlling muscles used for breathing. The brain doesn’t send the message to your breathing muscles. As a result, there is slower and more shallow breathing. This could lead to waking up because of shortness of breath or having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.

Risk factors for CSA include:

  • Age: middle-aged and older tends to be higher risk.

  • Sex: more common in men than women.

  • Heart issues: such as congestive heart failure. This affects the pumping power of the heart muscles. 

  • Narcotic pain medication: opioids such as methadone, increase the risk.

  • Stroke: suffering from a stroke increases the risk for both types of sleep apnea. 


Mixed sleep apnea occurs when someone has both OSA and CSA. It’s when there is an obstructive event that happens during central sleep apnea. The cause is not clear but it could happen when a person tries to breath during an obstructive episode.

Dangers Of Sleep Apnea For Powerlifters

trouble sleeping

Here are the dangers of sleep apnea as referenced by Mayoclinic.


One of the major dangers of sleep apnea is that it impacts sleep quality. Continually waking up during the night can make it extremely difficult to get a good sleep. This can increase drowsiness and fatigue during the daytime. Without adequate sleep, you may have difficulty concentrating and could feel moody or depressed.

Evidence continues to show that insufficient sleep causes adverse medical and mental dysfunctions. Insufficient sleep can increase the risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, decreased cognitive function, car accidents, and accidents at work.


Since there are drops in oxygen during sleep apnea, this increases blood pressure and strain on the heart. Obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk for high blood pressure and may increase the risk of recurrent heart attacks or strokes.


Sleep apnea increases your risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is a disorder that includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and increased waist circumference.

Common Symptoms

The UK National Health Service (NHS) shows that different symptoms occur during the day or night.

While you sleep you can have these symptoms:

  • Breath stopping and starting.

  • Gasping, snorting, or choking noises.

  • Waking up a lot.

  • Loud snoring.

During the day you may:

  • Feel very tired.

  • Difficulty concentrating.

  • Have mood swings.

  • A headache when you wake up.

It can be difficult to know if you have sleep apnea since you may be sleeping through the symptoms. It can be helpful to ask someone to stay with you while you sleep to check for the symptoms. If you have any of the symptoms or suspect you may have sleep apnea, it’s important to contact your physician.

Treatment For Sleep Apnea

According to the Sleep Foundation, if you have any symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s critical to go to your doctor so they can find the root cause. If necessary, the doctor will have you do a sleep study, which can analyze sleep and breathing.

Treatment for OSA and CSA can help prevent long-term complications. One treatment is using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bi-level positive airways pressure (BiPAP) machine. These push air through a mask and into the airway to help keep it open during sleep.

Mouthpieces can be used to hold the jaw or tongue in a set position for people who have certain physical features that promote OSA. If needed, surgery is sometimes a treatment to help remove tissues and expand the airway.

Lifestyle changes can also have an impact. This includes limiting or avoiding sedatives, alcohol, smoking, or any medication that may be increasing symptoms. Sleeping on your side can also help improve airflow.

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Sleep Apnea And Powerlifting

Although very limited research exists, one 2003 study found that overall sleep apnea rate was 4-5 times higher in NFL players when compared to non-athlete males of similar ages.

These are some reasons why powerlifters and high weight athletes are at an increased risk for OSA:


Powerlifters that put on significant amounts of weight, even if its muscle, are at a much higher risk of getting OSA.&n

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measure that can determine overweight and obesity. It’s calculated from your height and weight. Since BMI doesn’t differentiate between muscle and body fat, it isn’t a good measurement of health for powerlifters, however it can indicate a higher risk for OSA.

Extra weight can restrict breathing, whether it’s fat or muscle. That’s because it can tax organs and increase the need for oxygen to get to muscles.

Calculate your BMI here: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NIH) BMI Calculator.


Many powerlifters have large necks. This can be a result of weightlifting and also be intentionally done to help prevent serious injury. A neck size of more than 17 inches (43 cm) in men and 16 inches (40 cm) in women is associated with an increased risk of sleep apnea.

When there is a lot of muscle, or fat, around the neck, it can decrease the diameter of the throat. The muscles that cause the neck to be thicker can cave in on the windpipe during sleep, closing the airflow.

How Sleep Apnea Interferes With Powerlifting Progress

Sleep is also essential for exercise routines, such as powerlifting recovery. Having consecutive nights of sleep restriction or poor quality sleep has shown to reduce the force output of multi-joint exercises significantly.

Most experts agree that most adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. When it comes to very active individuals, such as athletes, it’s recommended they get one hour additional sleep per night. For instance, one study showed that basketball players who slept 10 hours per night increased their speed by 5% and had 9% improved accuracy.

Pump-Up Your Powerlifting Routine


In addition to getting necessary treatments for sleep apnea, a solid powerlifting routine should include a solid sleep routine, eating high-quality foods at the right times, and mixing up your routine with active recovery.


In addition to making sure you solve the problem of sleep apnea, it’s important to prioritize a good sleep. Consider sleep a medicine that’s required for a healthy body and mind. To improve sleep quality:

  • Establish a consistent sleep time: wake up and go to sleep at the same time everyday, even on weekends, as much as possible.

  • Do a relaxing activity before bed: examples include a warm bath or shower, reading a book, meditating, or listening to music. 

  • Put away devices: aim to take at least an hour away from devices, before bed. This helps activate melatonin, the sleep hormone. 


When powerlifting or doing strength exercise, muscle fibers get damaged. To repair them and help your muscles grow, you need the right nutrition. Aim for at least 2.4g of protein per kg body weight and 4-6g of carbs per kg body weight, every day. It’s good to eat a meal containing carbs (whole grain pasta, bread, rice) pre-workout and protein (meat, eggs, yogurt, tofu) after the workout.


Cross training for powerlifting can help reduce the risk of injury and make sure that all supporting muscles get strong. In addition to your powerlifting routine, incorporate various forms of fitness.

Studies show that aerobic exercise can help reduce OSA severity and daytime sleepiness. It can also help increase sleep quality and oxygen consumption, regardless or weight loss. Aerobic exercise can be part of active recovery, which is a light training session, different from the typical training.

Last Thoughts: Powerlifting Is An Extreme Sport

Powerlifting is an extreme sport that pushes the body. As a result, there will be physiological systems that are working extra hard. Your body is pushed past its physical limits. This means sometimes it’s ok, and extremely important, to rely on external assistance such as a CPAP machine or lifestyle methods that support better breathing. Talk to your doctor today if you think you may be suffering from sleep apnea. Your gains (and life) depend on it.

About The Author

Lisa Booth

Lisa Booth

Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.

Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.

She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.