Something on Instagram is bugging me. I tried not to let it get to me, but I keep seeing it. Every. Damn Day.
Posts, of people at the gym, with hashtags like this:
Hashtags to emphasize that they aren’t just working out, they’re doing so at a particular time.
Let me be clear. I respect anyone who is in the gym at 6:30 am. Not because it is 6:30, but for making time to train, and sticking to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5:30 am, 11 am, 4:26 pm or you’re doing push ups in church on a Sunday. It’s the commitment that counts.
Is someone who trains at 6:30 am more committed than someone who trains mid morning? Of course not.
So why do these hashtags bother me?
I get the impression these people are trying to prove something.
I’m yet to see the hashtag #11amMondayWorkout for example as I guess it’s not perceived to be as ‘impressive.’
So, and yes this is an assumption, the reason for these hashtags must be ego related. “Look, everyone, I’m at the gym at this ridiculous hour, look how dedicated I am, please like my photo.” #likeforlike #fitfam
If we put ego aside, we’re left us with an interesting question.
Is there a best time of day to train to get the best results physically?
In this post, I’ll answer that question. We’ll consider research and experience so by the end you can make an informed decision.
As people aren’t happy to take action without ‘evidence’ these days, let’s start there.
What the science says (and why it doesn’t matter).
We need to consider two things:
- Best time for performance
- Best time for hormones.
The ideal outcome here is these times overlap.
Let’s say the goal is to keep/gain muscle and lose bodyfat so I’ll explain everything in relation to that.
Training in the afternoon/evening gets the edge over the morning here. The body is ‘warmer’ which leads to the following:
- Improved joint mobility (also good for reducing risk of injury)
- More fired up nervous system due to better nerve conduction velocity
- Better muscle flood blow.
The two hormones we are interested in are testosterone and cortisol.
Testosterone is a powerful anabolic hormone that helps build muscle. It tends to be highest in the morning, but also increases after exercise.
On the another hand, cortisol is a stress hormone, that when poorly managed, can make building muscle and losing fat difficult. It’s highest in the morning when we wake and declines throughout the day to its lowest as we get ready to sleep.
We want to look at something called the testosterone to cortisol ratio, or T/C ratio. For the best results, you want a high ratio.
Before I continue, this is still theoretical and it’s not sure how significant this is. I think it’s worth mentioning in this post, but don’t get too caught up in it.
The highest T/C ratio seems to be in the afternoon/evening. The increase in testosterone in response to exercise and recovery from cortisol is better at this time too.
Another plus for this time of day it seems, but wait.
Why none of this matters.
I wasn’t feeling myself a few years ago. After visiting Dr. Internet, I convinced myself I had low testosterone.
I read and read (a lot) about how to boost testosterone naturally and change everything I was doing. I changed my diet, my supplements and my training from the AM to the PM, to match the data I just gave you.
I don’t know. I missed too many workouts to say if it worked.
Whether it was my energy or schedule, it wasn’t happening. My mindset turned negative, and I lost strength. If I couldn’t do ‘optimal’ nothing else was worth doing. One of the many negatives of a perfectionist mindset, something I’m glad I changed.
This was a lesson. What works in some situations, doesn’t work in others.
So is it worth trying to change things up to fit with the science?
Consider the following.
There was a 10-week study that had two training groups with the same program. One trained in the morning, one in the afternoon. As to be expected, the afternoon group experienced a greater increase in muscle size. But it was only 3.5% compared to 2.7% in the morning.
Is changing 100% of your day schedule worth an extra 0.8%?
Unless you’re an athlete, or extremist (get help), then no. Science is great at giving objective data but isn’t finding the best time to train subjective?
Most of us have to consider this thing we call life. Work, family, friends, hobbies. We already have to manage our time and energy across a busy schedule. We don’t have the luxury of moving everything so that we can train at the ‘optimal’ time.
If that is the case, we’re asking the wrong question.
The right question to ask.
The best way to answer the question “What is the best time of day to train?” is to ask a different question.
“When am I least likely to cancel my workout?”.
The consistency of workouts is more important than when they happen. Schedule your workouts, when you know you’re unlikely to cancel.
Let’s look at some tips on how to make this happen.
Tips to find your best time and immediately improve consistency.
Do what’s worked before.
Instead of finding a new way, see if you can copy something that’s worked before.
Think back to the last time you didn’t miss workouts. What you were doing then, that you’re not doing now? Can you do it again? If nothing has changed, chances are you can. If things are a little different, can you do something similar?
This is what Dan and Chip Heath call Finding The Bright Spots in their book “Switch.” When trying to make a change, it’s easier to find things that are already working and replicate them, than create new ones.
Can you find your bright spots?
Work out what works for you.
How fun is it to say that? Anyway…
If you look at your typical day you will notice patterns.
Things like motivation, willpower and energy fluctuate throughout the day. You need to find when they are at their highest.
For a lot of people, energy and willpower are highest in the morning before the world has gotten to them. If you notice you fade as the day goes on, AM training could be a good option.
Also, think about other people/other commitments.
For example, do you need to spend some time with the children before they go to school? Do you often meet your mates after work?
Here, AM and PM workouts would work so as not to conflict with other commitments.
If you don’t know this about yourself, observe a few days. Make notes throughout the day of how you feel, your energy, when your busy and when you’re quiet. Is there a clear window where you can train?
This could be a time where you know your energy is good and you have nothing else on.
Make an appointment with yourself and NEVER cancel.
Implementation Intentions are what psychologists call it when you say where you are going to implement an action. Studies show that you are more likely to stick to a goal if you state when, where and how you’ll perform a relevant behaviour.
Now you have a window in your schedule, narrow them down to a specific time every day you train.
Participants of a study who filled out the following sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].” were 2x to 3x more likely to exercise than a group who didn’t.
Make an appointment with yourself. Mark it in your calendar like you would with everything else. Every day and every time.
Just like you wouldn’t cancel on somebody else unless you had a good reason, don’t cancel on yourself.
Before you know it you’ll be heading off to the gym at these times without even realising it.
Create an action trigger
An action trigger is something that causes you to do something else. For example, your alarm goes off and you jump out of bed…right?
We can outsource action triggers to our environment. Technology makes this easy.
If you’ve scheduled your sessions on your online calendar, set an alert to go off just before. When it’s time to head to the gym you’ll get a notification reminding you. It’s simple, but it works.
I have every training session on a repeating event in iCal with an alarm that goes off 15 mins before (this is how long it takes me to get to the gym).
1. This stops me from getting caught up in my reading (which is what I do pre-workout) and leaving it too late.
2. It makes it harder to cancel. I don’t know why, but the fact it pops up as a scheduled event makes it feel more ‘real’ than if I was just to think “I’ll train tomorrow.”
This is just an example. You may need to choose a different action trigger that works for you.
Put your clothes out the night before, so they are already ready.
Arrange to meet someone at the gym. If you cancel, you’re letting them down as well as yourself. This is effective as we don’t like to let other people down.
At the end of the day…
The answer is yes and no.
Yes, there is a scientific best time to train, but it’s only relevant if you have the freedom to train then.
Otherwise, the best time to train will be different for everyone.
If you read this post hoping for a definitive answer, you may feel disappointed. I don’t apologise for that.
To apply something well, you need to understand it. I hope, with this information, you can find the best time for YOU to train.
If you have any question, please leave them in the comments section.