“When should I work out?”
Fair question. Let’s explore it.
Whether you work out morning, noon or evening, there are some definite pros and cons to your chosen time of exercise. Some are physical and emotional, while others are practical.
However, understand that each time frame has an Achilles heel or two that if left unaddressed, will actually keep you from getting results.
Walk with me. (No, seriously, you’ll get more out of this article if you are walking while reading it.)
The alarm blasts. It’s the beginning of a new day. You roll out of bed, brush your teeth, grab your pre-packed gym back complete with everything you need for the workday, hop in your car and drive to the site of early-morning productivity. Get ready to wake up, Rocky-Style. Well, minus the raw eggs (I hope).
In Your Favor: A morning workout takes advantage of a number of biological processes in addition to starting the day on a positive, proactive note.
If you’re not intensely impaired (on a hormonal level) at o’dark thirty, you will get a spike in cortisol and testosterone that ultimately can result in more epic workouts. Increased epic-ness in workouts leads to increased growth hormone production and ultimately bigger, stronger, prettier muscles that are capable of doing more. This normal physiological spiking process is the natural result of being a diurnal mammal — and cashing in on it is paramount to enhancing your results in the gym.
This cortisol and testosterone spiking combine to provide more motivation to overcome challenges and more gusto to grow (more weight, different lift, longer session, higher bar, etc…). Combined with the idea that every day should start with a task completed in order to set yourself up for a whole day of accomplishments, a morning workout routine is arguably the best schedule to keep. In fact, this is the first way you can change the world according to this old Seal[i].
That is, if you can overcome to major obstacles.
Obstacles: Intensity and sleep
Morning workouts are plagued by a difficulty maintaining the intensity required to create strength, power, and/or hypertrophy adaptations. Because you’ve fasted all night, your body has been depleting glycogen stores to keep important functions running. A morning workout asks muscles to work hard, despite not having many carbohydrates to work with.
Since glucose is necessary to fire type II muscle fibers intensely, (the ones that generally get bigger, raise metabolic rate, and make you stronger/more powerful) those muscle fibers require a more carbohydrate-rich atmosphere than most people have in the waking hours.
And intensity is not the only issue. Many who choose to start a morning workout routine often don’t have a good sleep routine to begin with. Already skimping on their 7-9 hours necessary to recover from their workouts, they further stack the deck against themselves by setting the alarm earlier and shortening that all-important deep sleep time.
So if you choose to join the AM crowd and recovery, strength, power and tone matter to you, what to do?
I suggest setting a non-negotiable bedtime and drinking a mix of BCAA’s and UCAN on the way to the gym to provide needy type II fibers with the fuel needed to perform and the building blocks (and sleep) to adapt appropriately!
If you can’t tackle those changes, I might suggest you join the lunch crew.
The morning has been filled with trials and tribulations, but you make it a point to put everything on pause and take some time for yourself. Before tying a bow on a successful day, you steal away from your desk, counter, phone, computer and go regain your center and invest in yourself.
In Your Favor: While you don’t have the cortisol and testosterone benefits of the AM’ers, and it’s definitely too late to “start the day on the right foot”, neuroscience and real estate are on your side with this decision.
Exercise has a stimulating effect on your mental faculties while diminishing the nuerotransmitters that bolster anxiety. You can read about it full HERE, but the short of it is that if you’re presented with unsolvable, stressful problems in the mornings of your day, (personal, professional, existential, or otherwise) a midday workout could put your hominid brain in a better position to come up with productive solutions.
Additionally, you’ll have no problem getting to use the machine you want to or having the space you need to perform your workout: Midday-ers are the smallest population of fitness enthusiasts you’ll encounter and therefore you have a lot of real estate to work with. Regardless of whether it’s because of the difficulty removing yourself from work or home, or because by the middle of the day, most lose the motivation to work out, take advantage of having the gym, trail, road, pool or studio all to yourself.
Some don’t enjoy the bustle, and the solitude is nice in the middle of a potentially hectic day if you can overcome the obstacles.
Obstacles: Time and Focus
Since your workout is in the middle of the day, you’re always on a timer. You can’t be late getting back to reality and if it’s rushed or half-baked, a shortened workout time can hinder results.
Couple that with the fact that all of the challenges of the day have likely been set firmly in motion, making it difficult to focus fully on the quality of your movements during your exercise session. The midday-ers are the most likely to spend rest periods on their smart phones or, heaven forbid, mindlessly peddling on a recumbent bike while checking email.
If you’re a midday-er, I suggest being EXTRA purposeful about your program design. Make the time that you ARE in the gym efficient and effective to get the maximum adaptive benefits.
Also, your focus is crucial. I often preach with exercise, like with food, that quality matters more than quantity. It doesn’t matter that you did 100 Deadlifts if you didn’t use your glutes, your core was loose and your knees caved in because you were thinking about everything that you had to do when you get back to work. This is a common issue with midday workouts.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about or would like to outsource your program time-efficiency and focus, talk to a trainer. They can design something that will work with your time and physical constraints, while ensuring the utmost focus on the little things that will make the biggest difference. I promise you won’t be sorry you did.
If you’re not ready to get up super-early or cannot overcome the obstacles of the midday-er, you may be relegated to evening workouts. Prime time, here we come.
Work’s done, the kids are out of school and now it’s time to brave the traffic to get somewhere you can exercise. No other time in your day will work for you, so this has to be it.
In your favor: Social opportunities abound
Since most everyone can make this time of day work, classes, groups, workout partners and clubs generally meet in the evening.
The AM crew needs more coffee and the midday crew is on a timer, but the evening crew will welcome your weary soul with open arms.
If you’re looking for moral support or the opportunity to engage with people during your healthy foray, the evenings are certainly the time to do it!
Obstacles: Almost everything else
Your energy is at its lowest, (unless your circadian rhythm is goofy) your willpower is drained from a full day of decisions, you’re at the mercy of a myriad of people or things vying for your time , AND there are always a multitude of people around who were also unable to make it this morning or at lunch time.
If you must exercise this late in the day, here’s a couple things you can do:
Get good at body weight movements, kettlebell, and TRX. Being good at modalities that the masses are less informed on will give you an edge when the gym is full.
Join a class. The more the merrier in a group setting. Cash in on the sociability of the post-work crowd!
Hang out in the dry sauna for at least 10 min after your workout. This will help your body relax, maximizing your recovery and preparing the body to be wound down for sleep rather than wound up.
Grab a snack before you leave work. Something like a UCAN with either a protein shake or StrengthStack will help you feel energetic during the most difficult time of day to feel so.
Get on a Schedule
If you’re a diurnal primate, (good chance that if you are reading this, you are) there are three main timeframes you can choose from to schedule your exercise program around.
While I personally prefer mornings for myself and my clients, each have their merits and difficulties. I hope my suggestions for overcoming pertinent obstacles help you find a time that works for you.
If I do see you in the AM on the fitness floor, I will say good morning. If you’re not compelled to say it back, I also may recommend that you find another time to workout. (No, seriously, don’t be a grouch. It rains on the whole self-actualization parade for both of us.)
Whatever crowd you join, I hope you’ll commit and be consistent five days per week.
Then you can count on a change.