My practical advice on this subject is…train whenever you can, to maintain a consistent, progressive training plan.
Consistency and adherence are fundamental to the success of the training process. Don’t get hung up on details such as, optimal training times until you have established training as a daily habit.
With that general overview out of the way we can move on to looking at what is optimal.
If you are an enthusiastic meathead you probably train hard, on a consistent basis already. You don’t need the general population advice. You need the details. The small margins which make a difference to the advanced lifter. The marginal gains.
After all, the title of the article wasn’t “When is a Pretty Good Time of Day to Train?” It was The BEST time of day to train…
So, here goes…
While many online “experts” claim different training, times are better than others there is limited research on training time and muscle mass. Training time, strength and power, however, have been quite well researched.
Numerous studies have clearly established that maximal force and power is lower in the morning compared to the afternoon. This is known as the morning neuromuscular deficit. It has consistently, been shown that people are 5-10% weaker in the morning. Meanwhile, strength and muscle gains tend to be better when training in the evening (generally classified as after 4pm) instead of the morning.
A landslide win for afternoon training. Or is it?
Russian physiologists concluded training at 3 and 11 hours after waking up were the best times. This conclusion was based on testing grip strength hourly throughout the day. Peaks in grip strength were found at both 3 and 11 hours after waking. So, assuming a 7am alarm call you’d be best served training at 10am or 6pm.
So, if you have to train in the morning, all is not lost. Try to train 3 hours after waking. Even better, consistently training in the morning can mitigate for the morning neuromuscular deficit. You need to train in the morning for at least 5 weeks straight to make up this deficit. So, it seems simple. Train in the afternoon. If you cannot do this then you should consistently, train in the morning, around 3 hours after waking up. In time, this will allow you to make gains which equate to similar results to training in the afternoon. No big deal.
If only it were that simple.
Training 3 hours after waking is the best option if training in the morning, but is 3 hours post waking as good as waiting 11?
On top of the growing list of peer reviewed, published data on training time Menno Henselmans, highlights some unpublished research that was presented at conferences in his article here (https://bayesianbodybuilding.com/best-time-to-work-out/). Laczo et al. is one such example. They reported greater growth in the thigh musculature in afternoon versus morning training. Most eye catching amongst this is the research of Tim Scheett who found that afternoon training resulted in a 3.2% increase in fat-free mass (FFM) and a 4% reduction in body fat. Compared to a 0.6% increase in FFM and a 5% increase on body fat for morning training. For those of us concerned with gaining muscle and minimising body fat, those are some pretty damming numbers.
Side note. Now, I have to question these findings as they are quite alarming and do not tally with magnitude of differences reported elsewhere.
A 2016, 24-week training study conducted by Kuusmaa et al. found that men training in the evening (a start time between 16:30 and 20:00) gained significantly more muscle than those training in the morning. Furthermore, enhanced anabolic signalling pathways appeared with evening training. So, muscle mass gains were better and perhaps these gains can be explained by the more favourable anabolic signalling environment created by training later in the day.
So, the weight of evidence does seem to be on the side of afternoon training sessions being superior for muscle mass. Consequently, it seems reasonable to conclude that training in the afternoon is superior to training in the morning. Even if that morning session is 3 hours after waking.
The body has its own in-built clock or rhythm. This governs when certain hormones peak throughout the day and impacts upon when you are most energetic, most relaxed, most productive etc. This is known as the circadian rhythm. While daylight hours influence circadian rhythm, it can be adjusted based on lifestyle habits and your schedule. For someone with an average schedule (wakes around 7am, works a 9-5 job, and sleeps from 11pm) the following times work well as rough guide.
As you can see, best coordination, fastest reaction times, and greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength occur in the afternoon, between 2.30pm and 5pm. Based on that it seems logical to train in in the afternoon. You could argue that for technical/skill dominant tasks training at 2.30pm is best. For example, technique work on the heavily technical lifts like the snatch. Meanwhile, power training might be best served being done around 3.30pm. On this evidence, an Olympic lifter would do well training between 2.30 and 3.30pm.
Meanwhile, for those of us training for hypertrophy, using higher volume, bodybuilding style workouts, closer to 5pm might be optimal.
The circadian rhythm can also give you an insight into when the hormones testosterone and cortisol peak. Furthermore, it can also inform you of the most favourable ratio between the two. In the scientific literature, the testosterone:cortisol (T/C) ratio is a commonly used as a marker anabolism and a measure of overtraining. When it is high you are more anabolic. When it drops the risk of overtraining increases. On average your T/C ratio will be most favourable during the afternoon and evening. At this time cortisol should be low and testosterone production is at it’s highest. Furthermore, research indicates that the elevation in cortisol from training is ‘corrected’ to normal levels quickest when training in the evening. Meaning the transient increase in cortisol brought about by training is most quickly reduced back to baseline when training in the evening.
It’s Getting Hot in Here
You tend to be strongest when core body temperature is high. Core temperature tends to drop significantly when you sleep and then rise throughout the day to peak in the evening. It generally, holds a fairly steady temperature between 3 and 8pm, with a peak most likely to occur towards the end of that timeframe. Research has indicated that the optimal temperature for strength training occurs in this late-afternoon/early evening period.
All in all, the scientific evidence appears to suggest training in the afternoon/evening is likely better for strength and muscle mass. However, as I mentioned earlier, much of the research to date has been focused on strength and power outcomes with hypertrophy considerations being secondary, or in fact, requiring speculation/extrapolation from certain other markers.
A more recent study, by Sedliak and colleagues in 2017, aimed to investigate training times effect on hypertrophy. Utilising biopsies as measures of muscle cross-sectional area (CSA), hormonal levels, blood markers of anabolic signalling pathways, and MRI scans to analyse hypertrophy. Strength testing was also conducted.
The conclusion of the study isn’t too exciting…
“In conclusion, similar levels of muscle strength and hypertrophy could be achieved regardless of time of the day in previously untrained men. However, at the level of skeletal muscle signalling, the extent of adaptation in some parameters may be time-of-day dependent.”
However, if we look a little deeper at this study and those that have gone before it believe there are some indicators which will help you determine your optimal training time.
Firstly, the rectus femoris muscle CSA increased more in the afternoon group versus the morning group. This finding did not reach statistical significance. This is might very well be due to the small number of participants in the study, rather than a lack of genuine significance. Regardless of the explanation there was an 8.8% increase in the AM group and an 11.9% increase in the PM group. That represented a 0.28% better rate of growth per week. If you could get that increased rate of growth across your training career it would add up to a hugely significant difference.
Secondly, they did report differences in many makers of anabolic signalling. Given the earlier research in this field this might well indicate that enhanced results can be experienced by training in the afternoon. It might well be that more time is needed to see a measurable difference as a result of these signalling pathways. This study was 11 weeks in duration. Unfortunately, natural trainees are unlikely to build very much muscle in 11 weeks, especially when only training twice per week as in this study. Had the study been longer, say 24 weeks, like the 2016 study by Kuusmaa et al., it is possible the differences between AM and PM training groups would have reached statistical significance. The difference between AM and PM might also have been more pronounced had participants trained 3, 4, or even 5 times a week.
Finally, the study used untrained subjects. It might be the case that any training, regardless of time of day, is sufficient to allow for gains in untrained men. The newbie gains we all know are so easily made. Perhaps, as we advance through our training career and progress is harder to come by, the time at which we train becomes a more important factor. This is certainly true of other training factors, such as periodization.
A Caveat on Previous Equivocal Findings
One of the reasons many earlier studies did not report significant differences in muscle mass between the groups was due to low participant numbers causing low statistical power. This is a problem with many sports science papers. If, however, you look at the raw data in these studies there is often some very promising (although not statistically significant) results. In general, it appears that a trend towards superior results from afternoon/evening training is present.
And Another – Are you a morning person?
An interesting area of this whole conversation centres on your unique personality, characteristics and body clock. Ever heard of someone who is a “morning person”? Sure, you have. Well, their unique body clock will almost certainly dictate the best time of day for them to train is in the morning. Likewise, if you are a night owl you will probably find training in the evening is superior. This is where science meets art in the case of bespoking your training schedule.
The scientific term to describe whether you are a morning person or an evening person is a chronotype. A 2015 study by Kuusmaa et al. identified that people of different chronotypes using the Munich Chronotype questionnaire. Research in the area does indicate that people perform better on tasks when they time them according to their chronotype. So, if you are an early riser who is full of energy first thing in the morning then I suggest you experiment with training 3 hours after waking.
With this info and your previous life experience you can probably make a best guess at what chronotype you are and when it is best to train.
Chronotypes might also explain the somewhat conflicting data reported from different studies. Many of which did not attempt to record an individual’s chronotype. For example, if you have morning types training in the evening, it might well dampen the results from a programme or vice versa.
Afternoon Training – A Word of Caution
Assuming you are not a morning person the evidence seems to strongly favour training in the evening. This doesn’t come without certain downsides though. As previously mentioned, training causes a spike in cortisol. Cortisol’s natural production is high in the morning before gradually tapering off throughout the day. Evening training alters this natural rhythm.
I have mentioned cortisol several times in this article. It’s had a bad rap over the years and many think of it as some kind muscle wasting bogey man of the hormonal world. What’s the truth?
- Cortisol is part of your “fight or flight” stress response.
- Cortisol’s main function is to mobilize stored energy when facing a stressful situation.
- Cortisol and the ‘sex’ hormones testosterone and oestrogen (among others) are fabricated from a chain of events including DHEA (the grandmother/father of sex hormones) and subsequently, pregnenolone (the mother hormone). Excessive cortisol production can cause pregenolone “steal”. In this instance, you produce less testosterone &/or oestrogen because you have used much of the “raw material” (pregenolone) to make cortisol.
- While acute (short term) cortisol increases can help performance, and aid your fat loss efforts chronically (constantly) elevated, levels can skew your T/C, slow down metabolic rate and make it harder to build muscle.
- The natural/normal circadian rhythm has your cortisol levels high in the morning and it drops to low levels throughout the afternoon, evening, and night.
- Cortisol it what wakes you up in the morning. Optimal cortisol patterns will you’re you to recover properly and wake with plenty of energy and alertness.
- If cortisol levels are high at night and when you go to bed, it is much harder to fall asleep and even if you do, the sleep is much less restorative.
- If this unnatural high evening cortisol persists chronically, then you can end up lacking in energy and struggling to get out of bed in the morning.
So, you can see from the above points that we must be aware of the consequences or pushing cortisol high in the evening. Training late in the day does exactly that!
Because of the impact of cortisol, I would suggest that training very late at night (8pm onwards) might be sub-optimal. Another issue is that post-training you have increased insulin sensitivity. If you train very late in the day then you limit your opportunities to eat within this window. This limits your ability to preferentially shuttle nutrients to muscle rather than fat.
Training at 6pm for example, means you can get a post-workout shake in and then a good solid meal. Training at 8pm, however, limits this chance. A 6pm session also allow several hours post-training for cortisol to come down. As previously, mentioned cortisol does return to baseline most quickly following an afternoon session than a morning session. It is just important to give enough time for this to occur. I believe a 6pm session provides ample opportunity for this to occur.
If training in the evening I suggest you use carbs to bring cortisol down post-workout. This should help you to relax, sleep and recover. Carbs are incredibly powerful at lowering cortisol. In fact, they basically work in opposition. If a lot of carbs are consumed, cortisol is blunted. There are some other useful strategies to help you optimise the post-workout period when training in the evening.
- Fuel up for your session appropriately. For a high volume, muscle gain style workout glycogen will be the body’s fuel of choice. Thus, if you eat an easily absorbed carbohydrates and protein containing meal before training your session will be better. On top of this, your body will have less need secrete cortisol to mobilise stored energy. Thus, your cortisol peak will be a little lower, making a return to resting levels much quicker and easier.
- If training with lots of volume then consider an intra-workout drink of liquid carbs and easily digested protein.
- Consume carbs in a post-workout shake and the evening meal. Carbs blunt cortisol and help raise Serotonin. Serotonin helps to relax you and facilitates restful sleep.
- Take magnesium with the evening meal. Magnesium glycinate is my favourite. The magnesium is chelated (bound) to glycine (an amino acid). This aids absorption. Glycine also has a calming effect.
- Add 5g of glycine to your post workout shake. As mentioned in the point above, Glycine has a calming effect. In fact, it is a “neural inhibitor”. This means it helps to lower cortisol and relax you.
- Take 600-800mg of phosphatidylserine (PS). Charles Poliquin promoted the use of PS to lower cortisol at a seminar I attended about 6 or 7 years ago. I have to say that whenever I have used it I have had good quality sleep.
- Take an Epsom salt bath after training. This helps to saturate your muscles with magnesium which is a muscle relaxant. The whole process of having a bath is also very relaxing and promotes a restful deep sleep.
So, there you have it. Train in the evening but, set-up your nutrition, supplement and recovery strategies to help you bring cortisol down ASAP. This will allow you to train hard and recover harder. Net result = more gains.
What Do I Do?
Now, you might be thinking, that’s all well and good, but do you take your own advice Tom? So, here is what I do…
I personally favour training around 4pm (this tends to be about 10 hours after I wake). A 5pm start roughly, 11 hours after I wake might be superior, but I have clients at this time. I need to earn a living so, training at 4pm is an excellent compromise. I get the benefits of training in the afternoon. I have time for cortisol to reduce back down to low levels before bed. I can also get two meals in post-training when I am more insulin sensitive. Win, win, win!
Your schedule might be working against you.
Perhaps, your work schedule dictates you have to work in the evening and train in the morning. If you’re a night owl this is good news for your bosses. Not so good for your gains! In this situation, you can do a few things to help you get the most from your training even when it’s not the most “optimal” time.
Firstly, train at the “wrong” time for at least 5 weeks running. It will suck at first. Performance will most likely be down, but after that timeframe the likelihood is your body will have adapted and many of the downsides from training at a sub-optimal time will be reduced, or even, completely removed.
Secondly, coffee. Mmmmmmm coffee. Obviously, I’m a fan of coffee so this one is an easy sell to me. I hope you too are a fan. If you are then consider tactically timing your intake to get the most from your training session. Caffeine causes a spike in cortisol. Cortisol is supposed to be high when you wake up. You can use caffeine to artificially create an increase in cortisol levels to get your body clock on track/in-synch with your training time. This is why so many people reach for coffee first thing in the morning. Taking caffeine in the morning can actually help afternoon/evening workouts. The half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours for most people. As such, a late morning coffee can actually enhance an afternoon workout. Caffeine has been found to improve performance in numerous physical activities so use it to your advantage if you cannot train when you feel most energetic.
So, there is a best time to train. It is most likely between 4 and 6pm, but it depends on your chronotype. If you are a morning person then I suggest you train around 3 hours after waking. For everyone else, training in the afternoon appears optimal so long as your recovery needs are met. A window between 4-6pm is my suggested start time. With 11 hours after waking potentially the best. With that said the research indicates anything between 4.30-8pm can be effective. I personally train around 4pm. This works great for me.
With all the gym geekery I have outlined above it is possible to lose sight of the fundamentals. Do not make this mistake! You must train at a time you can maintain consistently. Even if this is “sub-optimal” your body will adapt and results will improve after around 5 weeks. So, pick a time and stay consistent. I would suggest this is superior to constantly training at different times of day. Your body is an incredible adaptive machine. It will adapt to almost anything you throw at it. So, make sure your priorities are in place and you are following the correct hierarchy of needs. Firstly, you need to train, secondly it should be at roughly the same time of day each day, finally it would be marginally better if you train in the evening, so long as you take care of recovery.