Not sure whether it’s best to work out first thing or exercise at the end of the day? We dug into the science and spoke to expert trainers to discuss when is the best time to strength train.
For some people, jumping out of bed and straight into gym kit is the ideal way to start a new day. But others thrive on waiting until the evening to strength train and lift weights. Whatever you do, we bet you can’t imagine any other way.
But, as it turns out, there might be an optimal time to train that could help you get the best possible results from your workouts. A new study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that women trying to improve lower body strength fared better with morning workouts, while upper body muscle was best improved with evening workouts.
The mechanisms behind why that may be are unclear, and Dr Paul Arcerio, the lead author of the study, reiterated that “the best time for exercise is the best time you can do it and fit it into your schedule” as all exercise times were associated with positive health outcomes. But it’s interesting to know that our bodies may react differently to different times.
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However, zoom out of that study and look at the rest of the science and things get a little more confusing. According to some studies, a morning exercise habit can shift your circadian rhythm so that your body is naturally more alert in the early hours and more tired in the evening. That means you’re more likely to keep up the morning exercise habit and reap the benefits associated with morning light and movement.
Other research suggests that muscle strength, flexibility, power output and endurance are all better in the evening than they are in the morning. Plus, people who exercise in the evening take up to 20% longer to reach the point of exhaustion.
So which is really better? We turned to expert trainers to explain when we should be hitting the gym floor, to find out whether you’ll get the most out of exercise first thing in the morning, during your lunch break, straight after work or before bed.
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When is the best time to work out?
“This is subjective depending on the person, what they want to achieve and also their own schedule,” begins Emma Obayuvana, trainer from the Strong Women Training Club. “You might want to explore the benefits of training at different times and tailor that for your own needs.”
Tess Glynne-Jones, a trainer from March On, agrees: “I think it completely depends on the person. However, you might want to adapt your training style depending on the time of day. For example, with strength training, it’s best to be fuelled beforehand so you might want to fit that around when you can eat your meals.”
What are the benefits of morning training?
A study published in the Journal of Transitional Medicine showed that training first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, is optimal for resistance training and maintaining muscle mass. But it has more benefits than that: “It can mentally set you up for the day, helping you feel more organised, refreshed and energised,” says Obayuvana.
Glynne-Jones agrees that morning workouts are great for the mind: “From experience, my most productive clients are in the morning. And often they seem to be a bit happier too because if you train at the end of the day, you are often distracted by the stress of the day or simply knackered and not wanting to train. I’d say morning or lunchtime tend to be the best.”
Another good reason for training earlier in the day is that it can help us avoid that afternoon slump. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, a walk was associated with higher energy and lower tension than eating a snack. “I think quite a good tip is that if you have flexibility with taking breaks, try to go to the gym mid-morning so you have time to fuel beforehand and it’s not peak time,” suggests Glynne-Jones.
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Should you exercise in the evening?
“Evening training can be good after a stressful day so you can use all that pent up stress and energy to channel into your workout and get a restful night’s sleep afterwards,” says Obayuvana. “We can also have a longer time to work out, as there’s nowhere to rush off to after.”
However, evening exercise does come with its own downfalls, mainly overstimulation too close to bedtime. “Often our schedules are busy so we race to the gym really late, do a workout, rush home, have a shower and then try and sleep. In reality, we need time to come down from the buzz of exercise before we sleep,” Obayuvana explains.
“Training puts your body into a really stressed state. We need to soothe our parasympathetic nervous system after we train. So if you sleep really soon after exercising, it might take your body a couple of hours to actually go into recovery mode,” adds Glynne-Jones. “I would usually suggest training pre-6pm, but if you are a natural night owl then a bit later is OK, “as if you’re not going to bed until midnight you will have a few hours of recovery before sleep.”
So, the jury’s still out, but ultimately it’s going to come down to what works for you, your schedule, your mood and your sleep. Because the best type of training is one that’s enjoyable and sustainable.
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