Does it matter what time of day you workout?

When most of us go to the gym, we focus on what exercises we should do, how much weight we should be lifting, and maybe even how long we should be resting in between sets.

What I doubt too many of us think much about is whether or not the time of day we go to the gym has any real effect on our results. 

Work and life schedule

Let’s face it. Most of us go to the gym when we can.

We don’t sit around worrying about how our circadian rhythms might be affecting our workout or if our hormone levels are peaking at the right time.

In fact, most days we’re happy if we can drag ourselves out of bed and show up to the gym at all.

I’m not just talking about our motivation or energy levels either.

It’s more the fact that we have a lot of stuff going on in our lives such as our job, our kids, and social obligations that we don’t always have the luxury of picking and choosing our ideal workout schedule.

Timing matters, but consistency matters more.

Having said that, maybe you’re naturally a morning person who likes to wake up early and get things done. Or perhaps you are more of a night owl who enjoys staying up late and checking everything off your to-do list before going to bed.

Everyone is different, and fortunately, there are plenty of happy, successful, and physically fit people on both ends of the spectrum. What matters more than anything else is not whether you go to the gym early or late, it’s the fact that you show up on a regular basis.

Like pretty much anything else when it comes to fitness or nutrition, consistency matters more than almost anything else. What you do consistently (both good and bad) is going to affect your results far more than any of this other stuff we’re going to be talking about.

So while there is some interesting information here (I hope), don’t get too bogged down in the details and lose sight of what really matters, which is showing up at the gym and doing something as often as possible.

Diurnal & Circadian rhythms

I’ll be the first to admit that before I sat down and read through the research on this topic, I don’t think that I could have told you what the word “diurnal” meant.

It turns out that diurnal refers to the fact that as human beings, we are (for the most part) daytime creatures who do the majority of our activities during the day. This is the opposite of nocturnal creatures such as your cat who spends most of his day napping and then annoys the hell out of you at night.

This daytime/nighttime pattern is closely linked to our circadian rhythm, which refers to our 24-hour internal clock that tells us when we should be sleeping, eating, and doing things like going to the gym. If you’ve ever taken a plane ride across the country and experienced jet lag, you probably know how much it can throw you off when your internal clock is different from the clock on the wall.

So what does all of this mean when it comes to your training?

It turns out that just as we go through daily cycles of being tired (nighttime) and being slightly less tired (daytime), there is some evidence that our body’s strength and hormonal levels vary throughout the day as well. 

This means that, in theory, there may potentially be some advantages and disadvantages to working out at a particular time of day.

Advantages of morning training

Almost every day it seems I read another article on how some super successful CEO or Instagram influencer gets up at four o’clock in the morning and has finished their workout, showered, and conquered the world long before my alarm clock has even gone off.

I always have to wonder what time these people are going to bed if they are actually getting up at four o’clock every morning? Apparently, they don’t have kids either because I know that if I went to bed before 9:00 p.m., I’d be lucky if the house was still standing when I got up in the morning.

Putting my skepticism aside for a moment, it turns out that there are a few advantages to working out first thing in the morning.

The biggest advantage is the fact that when you workout first thing in the morning, you’re more likely to actually get it done versus working out later in the day. This is partly because when you get up before your kids, spouse, and work starts — you can surprisingly get a lot of stuff done.

Not only that, but it turns out that your testosterone levels (one of your primary muscle-building hormones) are highest first thing in the morning and then gradually decreases throughout the day.

Disadvantages of morning training

While some people naturally wake up before dawn and love to jumpstart their day, I tend to be more of a morning-ish person.

In other words, I’ll get up (eventually) and do what I have to do, but it usually requires large amounts of coffee and motivation. Let’s face it. Most of us aren’t getting enough sleep as it is, and by getting less than 7-9 hours a night, we may be short-circuiting our gains (or fat losses) in the gym.

Also, if you train first thing in the morning and don’t eat anything before your workout, you might actually be compromising your gains if it ends up affecting your intensity or the overall length of your workout. 

This is why I usually suggest eating something that is easily digested (fruit, yogurt) or at least a quick protein shake to help provide some energy and reduce the amount of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) before your morning workout.

Finally, although it is true that your testosterone levels are typically highest first thing in the morning, it’s also true that your cortisol levels are at their highest levels of the day as well.

Cortisol is also known as a catabolic (muscle breakdown) hormone tends to by at its highest levels first thing in the morning. Certain types of training can spike cortisol levels, even higher because of the physical stress it places on your body.

Does this any of this mean that you shouldn’t be hitting the gym first thing in the morning? 

No, of course not.

Remember that the best time to workout is any time you can workout.

So does this mean that it’s better to exercise later in the day?

Let’s take a look…

Advantages of afternoon or evening training

One advantage of working out later in the day is the fact that our strength levels are typically higher in the afternoon. This means that we can potentially lift more weights, which can lead to more strength and muscle growth (hypertrophy).

Not only that but like many of us, I often spend a good portion of my day sitting in front of a computer, so training in the late afternoon gives me the chance to work off some of the stress and frustrations that have accumulated throughout the day. It also happens to be the time of day that works best for my family and me.

Disadvantages of afternoon or evening training

Unfortunately, one of the biggest disadvantages of training later in the day is the fact that it’s a lot harder for many of us to actually show up at the gym regularly.

Life, family, and work demands have a way of throwing off even the best of intentions when it comes to squeezing in an afternoon workout. 

When you have to choose between going to the gym and picking up your kid from soccer practice or finishing up your TPS reports at work, chances are you are going to miss your workout.

Not only that, but by the end of the day, many of us are too exhausted and stressed out and all we want to do is eat dinner, curl up on the couch, and binge Netflix until we pass out.

Doing what works best for you

After looking through the available research on this topic, there really doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to this question on whether it’s better to workout in the morning or later in the day. This is probably just as well because if there were, we would probably just end up using it as one more excuse not to exercise.

Now having said that, there does seem to be at least some evidence that because of the body’s lower cortisol levels, higher perceived strength levels, and the fact that afternoon (but not morning) training has been found to increase IGFBP-3 levels which is another hormone that can stimulate muscle building— training is the afternoon may have a slight advantage over morning training, but more research is still needed.

Keep in mind, however, that whether we choose to exercise in the morning, afternoon, or evening, our bodies will adjust over time as long as we maintain a consistent workout schedule. 

The bottom line:

Often we get so wrapped up in the little details that we lose sight of the stuff that really matters. Things such as whether we should separate our cardio from our strength training workout, when we should eat (or not eat), or what time of day we should be working out shouldn’t be our main focus.

Instead, we should focus more on simply getting to the gym and doing whatever we can do, no matter what time of day that may be. 

If you are a naturally a morning person or if that time of day works best for your schedule, then by all means exercise in the morning.

On the other hand, if you can barely drag yourself out of bed in the morning and you have the opportunity to exercise in the afternoon or evening, then do that.

Like anything else when it comes to fitness and nutrition, in the end, doing something consistently matters far more than what time of day you schedule your workout. 

References:

Hayes, L. D., et al.. (2010). Interactions of cortisol, testosterone, and resistance training: influence of circadian rhythms. Chronobiol Int, 27(4), 675-705.

Ammar, A., Chtourou, H., & Souissi, N. (2017). Effect of Time-of-Day on Biochemical Markers in Response to Physical Exercise. J Strength Cond Res, 31(1), 272-282.

Chtourou, H., & Souissi, N. (2012). The effect of training at a specific time of day: a review. J Strength Cond Res, 26(7), 1984-2005.

Burley, S. D., et al. (2016). The Differential Hormonal Milieu of Morning versus Evening May Have an Impact on Muscle Hypertrophic Potential. PLoS One, 11(9), e0161500.

Foulstone, E. J., et al. (2003). Role of insulin-like growth factor binding protein-3 (IGFBP-3) in the differentiation of primary human adult skeletal myoblasts. J Cell Physiol, 195(1), 70-79.

Küüsmaa, M., et al. (2016). Effects of morning versus evening combined strength and endurance training on physical performance, muscle hypertrophy, and serum hormone concentrations. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 41(12), 1285-1294.

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