by Sean Nalewanyj
Is workout timing an important aspect of an effective muscle building and fat loss program, and is it something you should be specifically paying attention to? When is the best time of day to workout for maximum performance and overall results? Some trainees are happy to jump out of bed and lace up their workout shoes first thing in the morning. Others prefer to wait a few hours and hit the weights in the afternoon. While others are part of the evening crowd and save their workouts until later in the day.
Finding the best time to workout is as much about personal preference as it is about physiology, and in this post we’ll be going over the main factors to take into account when deciding where to schedule your training sessions during the day.
The Best Time Of Day To Workout For Maximum Performance
From a pure physiological standpoint, there technically is a “best” time to workout: anywhere from the late afternoon to the early/mid evening. This is due to the way that the body’s circadian rhythm works and how it activates various parts of the central nervous system throughout each 24 hour period. Assuming that you have a typical sleeping and waking schedule in place, positioning your workouts at this time of day will have the following physical benefits:
-Core temperature will be in the proper range for optimal performance.
-Muscle activation, blood flow and strength will be maximized.
-Joints and connective tissues will be less susceptible to injury.
-Reaction times will be at their peak.
In terms of raw physical performance, somewhere around 2-3pm until 8-9pm would theoretically be the best time to train if you were wanting to fully maximize your results. If you operate on an irregular sleeping schedule, waiting about 5-6 hours after waking prior to hitting the gym would be ideal in order to derive the same benefits. Before you go re-arranging your entire schedule and delaying your workouts until later in the day though, keep in mind that this is not a black and white issue and that there are several other factors to take into account as well.
Why Early Morning Workouts Are Still A Viable Option
While your body may be less physically primed for maximum performance first thing in the morning, what if that’s the specific time of day when you personally feel the most psychologically primed? The mind is a very powerful tool, and if the morning time is when you’re the most pumped up, motivated and excited to hit the weights, that alone could be enough to offset the less-than-ideal physical conditions and could allow you to get in just as high quality a workout.
Also keep in mind that the brain’s willpower reserves tend to deplete as the day goes on and as you become increasingly mentally fatigued. For that reason, a 6pm workout could still end up being a lower quality session in comparison to a morning workout if you’d been working at a stressful job from 9-5 and were feeling tired and burned out once the evening rolled around.
There are three other important things to consider as well when making the case for those earlier training sessions. First off, the body will tend to adapt its circadian rhythm to the time of day that you normally work out. Begin consistently performing your training sessions at, say, 10am, and your body will gradually start priming itself for maximum physical exertion at that specific time. This adaptation is not perfect (the earlier in the morning you train, the less significant the effect will be), but it certainly comes into play regardless.
Secondly, research has shown that if caffeine is used as a pre-workout aid prior to morning workouts (around 150-300mg would be a standard dose depending on your body weight), this alone can largely erase the physical drawbacks of those earlier sessions. A strong cup of coffee or a basic pre-workout stack might be all you need to boost your performance up to evening levels. (Keep in mind though that caffeine tolerance will develop over time if used every day without cycling off, so this is still something that needs to be used in moderation to get the full benefits)
Thirdly, training too late in the day can potentially interfere with sleep. Even if an 8pm workout results in a better session performance-wise, the benefits may be negated (at least in part) if that later session negatively impacts recovery and mental focus leading into the next day as a result of reducing your sleep quality.
Overall Workout Timing Recommendations
As you can see, a case can be made for training at virtually any time of day once all the various factors are taken into account. So, when should you workout in order to build muscle, lose fat and gain strength at your full potential? In terms of practical recommendations, here’s what I’d suggest doing.
If you truly have no preference on the matter and if it’s equally convenient for you to workout at any time during the day, go ahead and schedule your workouts somewhere within that late afternoon to evening time frame.
This is the time of day that will be most likely to deliver the highest quality workouts assuming you don’t work a highly stressful job that interferes with your training performance. If you do work a physically and/or mentally stressful job, perform your workout in the morning or at lunch.
If you definitely do prefer earlier morning workouts because you feel more motivated at that time or because it fits into your schedule more conveniently, just continue training at that time as usual. The psychological aspect may be enough on its own to allow you to match the strength and energy levels you’d feel later in the day anyway, and I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to switch your entire schedule around unless fitness is your #1 life priority and you’re aware that such a switch may only produce a minor increase in results in the overall picture.
The critical factor of long-term adherence should not be ignored either. In other words, if you truly enjoy morning workouts (or if training later in the day doesn’t fit your schedule well), earlier morning sessions will probably still be a better overall strategy since there’s a greater chance that you’ll actually stick to them over the long haul.
For example, I personally am aware that I perform slightly better in the gym if I wait until later in the evening, but I still train in the morning regardless because I enjoy the mood-boosting effect it produces throughout the rest of the day and because it just fits into my daily schedule in a much more streamlined manner.
What’s the bottom line on workout timing?
While working out later in the day should theoretically produce slightly higher quality workouts, the best time of day to workout for the average trainee will simply be the one that feels best for that particular individual and that is most convenient.