What is the Best Time to Workout?


I have never been a morning person. As a kid I hated getting up too early to go play hockey (then again what kid did like being dragged out of bed to an ice rink at 6am?).

Same thing in high school, never liked those AM practices or even games on the weekend before noon.

I would also never like working out in the morning either. It always just felt “half assed” when I did it. I didn’t feel like I was stronger or even into my workout.

In high school and in college I would rather hit the gym late, like 8-9pm for an hour or so.

Becoming a personal trainer really put my “morning persona” to test. The busiest time for training clients was in the AM (the before work crowd) and then some after work.

I even ran bootcamps for a while starting at 5:30am.

Needless to say those didn’t last long (well it was only a 6 week program anyways…but I didn’t want to do them again). I also ended up just giving my one earliest morning client to another trainer, because she wanted to be in the gym at 5:30am…and I didn’t!

Well the purpose of my trip down memory lane is to address a question I get often about workout times and IF/fasted training.

In the past I have talked about the advantages of working out in a “fasted state”, which can easily be done first thing in the morning. However early in the morning is not the only time, as a “fasted” state (or the lowered insulin levels) can also happen hours after your most recent meal.

So it is possible to still workout later in the day and reap the benefits, assuming you didn’t eat too soon before your workout.

Determining the “Best” Time

Outside of worrying about the “fasted” state (as you can make that happen any time of day with the right meal timing), it comes down to a simple answer…

Whatever works for you!

I know, not really anything you probably didn’t already know…but it is the truth.

When I think of a “workout”, I’m usually thinking something with “intensity” in it. A workout that has more strength/power components built in.

Strength is one of those things too that can vary during the day. Ever just lift a weight (or something) and feel like it was more effort than it should be? Then try again later on in the same day it feels light and easy?

It’s not like you just magically gained muscle in the same day, it’s more about how your nervous system is working that also plays into strength.

The activation of motor units and muscle fibers coordinated through signals from the spinal cord…simply stated your central nervous system.

In fact, you will also see stronger people who may not even “look” bigger. For example put an Olympic lifter next to a bodybuilder and there will be probably be a difference in size (bodybuilder “looks” bigger).

But have them test absolute strength/power and chances are the Olympic lifter comes out ahead every time.

Neural adaptation after resistance training has been inferred on the basis of several studies reporting increases in muscle strength with little or no change in cross sectional area of the muscle.” (Bandy et al, 1990).

So it’s how your nervous system (and adaptions it makes) that determines your real strength and performance outputs for a workout during the day.

How are You Wired?

So the answer to the best time to workout is based on when you feel optimal to do an intense workout. When is your body and nervous system working at peak capacity?

For me, that means later in the day. I feel stronger, flexible (less chance of injury), focused and my workouts are just more intense/productive.

But for another person, that optimal time may be first thing in the morning.

So whatever time of day you feel “optimal” for maximizing your workout efforts, that is probably the best time for you.

According to one study (David W. Hill et al; Circadian specificity in exercise training, 1989), it found that working out in the “late afternoon” was more ideal than morning workouts with higher body temperature, less injuries, and 4-5% increases in strength and endurance.

Of course there are also studies that find in general morning exercisers to be more consistent than later in the day ones…leading into…

Consistency Matters Too

The other major factor to look at is if you will also stay consistent with the workouts. Doing an intense exercise program for 4 weeks a year isn’t going to get the results you are after.

Now doing some simple workouts consistently year round, now we are talking. Simple daily habits that add up for lasting results.

This can depend on your daily schedule (work, personal) and other things you have going on. Some people like getting it out of the way first thing in the morning before work and the day gets too busy, others rather would do it right after work before going home to wind down for the night.

Back in my corporate world days, I used to go during lunchtime. I knew I had to get it done quick and back to work, so I focused more and kept it intense.

Although I still felt my workouts were better later on in the day, at that point in my life it was a more consistent workout time because I tended to also work late (and as stated above, I’m not a morning workout person).

Performance Needs

For the more “competitive” people out there (athletes and those who train for competition), you can also factor in specific performance times.

It may be an advantageous strategy to also workout at the “time of day” in which your competition would normally take place. There have been studies to show some benefit in athletes who train at the same time as their competitions.

If your competitions are in the AM, then that may be a better time to also workout in. Get your body better (neurologically) adapted to increasing strength/ endurance during that time of day.

I even found this analysis of baseball batting averages and morning/evening types of players interesting:

Results indicate that players who were “morning types” had a higher batting average (.267) than players who were “evening types” (.259) in early games that started before 2 p.m. However, evening types had a higher batting average (.261) than morning types (.252) in mid-day games that started between 2 p.m. and 7:59 p.m.

So if you are an evening person, but your competitions are always in the AM…maybe it is time to try a new workout strategy (and visa versa).

Wrapping Up

So really it is just a simple equation to try and maximize your performance/ strength output while also making sure you stay consistent with your workouts.

Don’t worry about whether you can or can not get a workout first thing in the morning (esp with IF), as for some it may be more effective later on in the day. You can always get that “fasted” state by just having a long period of time (2-3 hours for example) between your workout and the last time you ate.

The “type” of workout could also change up depending on the time of day.

For example since I’m more a later/night kind of workout person, that doesn’t mean I still won’t do a lighter workout in the AM (jog/bike) or even just a quick metabolic based one (tabata method). I save the heavier more intense stuff for later, but still can have a morning workout in some shape and form if I want.

I just go with what I enjoy…which leads to more consistency (and even easy to pick back up if I ever get “derailed” for a short time).

So just go with what best compliments your daily lifestyle! You can always change it up as you go along…but the goal is to just get started and keep going!

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