What is the best time of day to work out? I wouldn’t blame you if you were confused about this because everyone seems to have an opinion: Conventional wisdom says train in the morning to start your day right and improve compliance. Past research has uncovered evidence that training in the late afternoon gives you the best results. In recent years, a number of training experts have claimed that neither of these times are ideal and that you should actually train at night. A recent analysis published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has shed some new light on the controversy.
One thing we know for sure is that psychological and physiological functions can indeed change relative to the time of the (solar) day. These variations are known as circadian rhythms. It’s not a question of whether these rhythms exist – they do. The real questions are, how much does this affect your training performance and your results over time?
Several studies found that short-term maximal performance (sprinting, maximal muscle contractions, jumping, etc) peaks in the late afternoon between 16:00 and 20:00 hours. The variation in performance has ranged between 3% and 21%.
Why the difference in performance with different training times? One explanation is body temperature.
Exercise physiologists noticed that this rise in athletic performance in the late afternoon paralleled the circadian variation in body temperature (which also peaked in the late afternoon). They hypothesized that the increase in core temperature could have a passive warm up effect, which enhances metabolic reactions, increases extensibility of connective tissue, reduces muscle viscocity and increases the conduction velocity of action potentials.
Studies have also found that tendons are stiffer in the morning. Even the actual muscle architecture itself (arrangement of muscle fibers) is different as the day goes on. Dr. Stuart McGill, a respected professor of spine biomechanics has suggested that certain exercises (involving bending and twisting) should be avoided within an hour of rising from bed. He says the discs are filled with fluid at that time, which magnifies the stresses placed on the spine.
Basically, most people are more likely to have used their muscles during the morning and day, whereas they are cold and tight first thing in the morning.
Hormonal response to training
Some studies say the difference in performance is hormones, because hormone levels can fluctuate based on the time of day. Testosterone and growth hormone are important for muscle growth and there is some evidence that testosterone rises more after a late afternoon training session than it does during a morning workout. The stress hormone, cortisol (which can be catabolic in nature), peaks in the morning and decreases later in the day.
Some experts have started recommending PM workouts for this reason alone – hormones. However, research is very mixed about how much these short-term hormone fluctuations affect performance, and more importantly, whether they affect long term results (strength, hypertrophy, etc) at all.
Of course that hasn’t stopped various fitness gurus and lay-press news sites from swearing that the long-revered advice to train in the morning is incorrect! Journalists, contrarians and other attention mongers love to do that: “The way you’ve been doing it is ALL WRONG!” (doesn’t that drive you crazy?)
Since Burn the Fat Blog readers are much smarter than that and don’t jump to premature conclusions, let’s take a closer look, shall we? First of all, what kind of training are we talking about?
The effect of training time on training type
Although differences have definitely been found in short term exercise performance, most studies have found that when the training is prolonged, the differences disappear or are not significant. There’s little or no evidence that physiological responses fluctuate during the day during middle and long-duration performances which depend on the athlete’s vo2-max, HR max and running/cycling economy.
So now that narrows our focus to something I am particularly interested in: gaining strength and muscle! (This also applies to power training and intense or intermittent types of cardio training).
Ironically, the effect of weight training on strength and hypertrophy is the least studied area. Fortunately, that’s changing. Recent studies have not just stopped with measuring short term performance or acute spikes in hormones, they have begun measuring performance over time and adaptations over time. The findings have been interesting and they were summarized in the recent Strength and Conditioning Research review:
If you are an athlete and you do your regular training at the same time of day that you usually compete (game time or meet time), you are more likely to perform better. In other words, if you compete in the morning, train in the morning. If you compete in the PM, train in the PM
This also suggests that you avoid haphazard or random training times and be aware that if you switch your training time, there might be a decrement in performance at first until you get used to it. If you pick one time – any time – and stick with it, your body may adapt to it – positively.
This subject is still being researched and while best practice guidelines are starting to emerge, the fact is, there are pros and cons to nearly every training time, and in the end, it becomes as much a matter of convenience, personal preference and behavioral/psychological factors as it is anything physiological.
Many people find that training in the morning helps them stay consistent. One positive behavior or accomplishment in the morning can set a positive tone for an entire day and your desire to stay on track (including eating better) remains high all day long. Some people also find that night time workouts are easier to blow off, because they are tired and stressed or work or family issues come up and take precedence (or, like some people I know, happy hour is calling).
Many people also find that if they train too late at night, it disrupts their sleep, and there is some research supporting this. That’s especially important considering that adequate quantity and quality of sleep is one of the factors that affect diurnal variations in sports performance as well as body composition.
Bottom line: Steer clear of rigid “guru commandments” that you must train at one particular time. Instead, customize your training time just like you customize every other part of your plan. The ideal time for you to work out is the same that a lot of common-sense trainers have been saying all along: Simply train at the time when you can perform the best… when you feel the best physically… when you’re mentally aroused, alert and focused… and when you can stick with it.
Train hard and expect success,
PS. What about me? Over the years, I’ve trained at almost every hour of the night and day. The WORST lifting time for me was 6 am. I had to get up at around 5:20 am to be ready for that… but I was never ready. I was a grouchy, miserable SOB and the ONLY reason I made it is my training partner (who one time, broke into my apartment and literally dragged me out of bed). We were both prepping for a contest; we both competed. I won the middleweight and overall, but I hated every minute of training at those ungodly hours. Cardio before breakfast – especially right at home – at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, I could always manage, and I always felt that helped me both mentally and physically.
For a while, I did a stint of training at 7:30 am (lifting) with my trainer Richie (“the master of pain” – who enjoyed getting up at 4 am to come torture his clients before the sun had risen) . That was better (time to drink more coffee). But not much. I competed and won competitions, but took that 7:30 – 8:30 am time slot begrudgingly. Second least favorite time for me has been in the evening – after dark, with starting times after 8 pm. I feel like I’m physically dragging at that time and my mind is more scattered, especially after a high-stress workday. Afternoon training times – starting between 1pm and 4 pm have worked very well for me, and as a plus, the gym is empty, (so I can curl in the squat rack like a good meathead, and there’s no one there to yell at me). I have only been able to do that in recent years because my previous career in the gym business had me working afternoons and evenings.
The BEST time for me ever was in the late morning – starting time around 10 or 10:30 am. Training in the late morning, again I have prepped for competition and won, but I was also in the absolute best shape of my life. That was the time for me that I felt strongest, most energetic and most mentally ready and focused. I had time to already have a couple meals in me, plus there was enough time to drink copious amounts of Starbucks :). Being self-employed does help, because you can train any time you want… experiment… and find what works best. I also agree with the latest research: I’ve been guilty of training at miscellaneous, haphazard times, and I think that sometimes hurt my mental readiness and physical performance.
PPS. How about you? If you have experimented with multiple training times, what did you find was the best time for you? How did it affect your: 1. Workout performance, 2. Eagerness/willingness to train, 3. Consistency over time and 4. Your results over time? You can post your comments below – would love to hear from you.
The Effect of Training at a Specific Time of Day: A Review. Chtourou H, Souissi N., Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(7): pgs 1984-2005.
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss coach. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and is today a full-time fitness writer, blogger, and author. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details