The age-old argument about the best time of the day to lift weights still rages on.
To be honest, just like many things that are fitness-related there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer.
There are people who will tell you that working out first thing in the morning is the way forward.
Then there are others who will allude to the fact that the best gains in muscle come from training in the evening.
There are even those who will categorically state that it makes absolutely no difference, and that you should stop making excuses, and simply get to training.
For me, the best time to workout is something that I have looked into, but I’m often left just as confused as the next person.
I’ve lifted weights within 30 minutes of waking up, I’ve tried mid-mornings, post-lunch, and for a number of years I worked out in the early evenings after work.
The following facts are what I have learned from my own experiences and I’d like to share these with you.
The Best Time of the Day to Lift Weights
1. Be Wary of Your Spine
One of the main reasons to NOT lift heavy weights first thing in the morning is your spine.
Typically, on a daily basis the spine is compressed due to gravity as we stand, sit, or walk during the day.
The discs of the spine are hydrophilic, which basically means that they have the ability to absorb fluids.
The discs will usually absorb the most fluid while we are asleep simply because the spine isn’t being compressed.
This also happens to be the reason why we are “taller” first thing in the morning
However, the spine will always perform better once the fluid has had a chance to drain from the discs, which will happen as we compress the spine through our normal daily activities.
While the discs are filled with fluid it is far more difficult to twist, turn, bend, and of course lift heavy weights.
This is often why you may claim to feel “stiff” in the mornings, and why the slightest little jerk can sometimes put your back or your neck out.
So, it may be best to avoid exercises first thing in the morning that apply a direct spinal load, e.g. barbell back squat, overhead press, or deadlift.
This is probably not great news for those of you who prefer to focus on the big barbell exercises.
With that said, there are of course a plethora of other exercises that don’t involve spinal loading.
So, it really does depend on the type of weights you’re lifting and the workouts you prefer doing.
2. Missing Later Training Sessions
I’m lucky in the fact that I now work from home, so I can pick and choose the time of day that I wish to workout.
However, this wasn’t always the case.
When I first started lifting weights, I worked a full-time job that was office-based.
My working hours were the typical 9-5, so for me it made sense to exercise after work.
I was generally in the gym by around 6pm (no spinal disc fluid issues to worry about), and I was good to go.
But, it didn’t always work out that way for me.
I would often feel mentally drained after a long day at work, so I’d miss my gym session and simply go home.
Then there were the times that I had to work late, sometimes even till 9pm or 10pm, and there was no way I was going to hit the weights then (I’m sure some people still would, but I never did).
Then there’s always the one thing that has probably been the bane of my life, being easily led.
Fairly often after work we would decide to go for a few drinks, or a meal.
I also had to attend manager’s meetings a few times a month when these “pleasures of life” were always on the cards.
My workouts once again took a hit.
Fairly often, I’d have to completely change my training routine to focus on a 3-day a week workout, or even 2 days sometimes (I was originally training 5 days a week).
I eventually got into a habit of actually hitting the gym for an hour every morning as soon as they opened at 6.30am.
Initially, I found this tough, as I had completely changed my daily routine, but after a while it stuck and it felt good.
3. Working Out on an Empty Stomach
I could talk about the pros and cons of fasted cardio for days on end, although this is yet another fitness issue that has no real definitive answer.
However, working out with weights, especially in terms of strength training or hypertrophy is a very different animal.
I know myself from some of my early morning training sessions, my performance has suffered dramatically.
I would typically start out quite well, but about 30 minutes in and I could hear my stomach rumbling, and I suddenly became far more focused on what I was going to eat rather than the weights I was lifting.
There have been times when I just didn’t feel as though I had the strength or energy to deadlift at my heaviest weight, so I would typically take a plate off, and aim for slightly higher reps.
I would also say that there is the possibility that you will start burning through muscle, as opposed to carbs or stored fat, which may even lead to increased cortisol levels.
So, basically you are completely defeating the object of lifting weights, as you’re burning muscle.
Plus, the potential increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, will see the body holding onto stores of fat.
Doesn’t sound great, does it?
4. You May Interfere With Your Sleep
Depending on when you’re working out in the evening you can impact on your circadian rhythm.
This is the body’s internal 24-hour clock, which automatically tells us when we should be awake and when we should be asleep.
As you may well know, lifting weights and exercising in general will typically leave you with an “exercise high”.
You know what I mean, you basically feel fantastic, energised, and alert.
This is because the “happy hormone” (as I like to call it), serotonin, has been released into the body.
So, if you’re working out too close to your normal bedtime then you may impact on the quality of your sleep.
Now in terms of muscle growth, the main “work” is actually done while you’re asleep, not while you’re at the gym.
Through lifting weights we actually cause what are known as micro-tears in the muscles, in effect we are damaging them.
However, while we are asleep the muscles actually repair themselves, and this how they grow back bigger and stronger.
Additionally, during the deep sleep cycle the body also releases the Human Growth Hormone, which is essential for muscle growth, as well as various other bodily functions.
This is why you will always see professional athletes ensuring that they get plenty of sleep, 9, 10, 11 or sometimes even 12 hours sleep a night.
So, in terms of allowing your body to reach its full potential you must ensure that you’re getting enough sleep.
5. Charles Poliquin Said What?
The late, great Canadian strength coach, Charles Poliquin, famed for making German Volume Training popular once more, made an interesting observation.
Charles once said that the majority of world records were broken at 3pm.
I’ve never actually seen any real proof or studies that confirm this revelation, but then again who am I to argue with one of the greatest strength coaches who ever lived.
The one thing I will say is that Charles was obviously talking about elite athletes here.
These are men and women who generally spend their entire lives training, plus they earn their living from their respective sports.
So, whereas the best times for “peak performance” may hold true for these world-class individuals, I’m not so sure if it applies to us mere mortals.
I’m guessing that most of you reading this today, much the same as me, are just recreational athletes at best.
We have to earn our living some other way, we probably don’t have access to state-of-the-art equipment to train with, we won’t have professional chefs cooking our meals, or the constant care and attention of a personal physiotherapist, or masseuse, and the list goes on.
What may be work for the “special ones” will probably not be the same for us.
6. Cortisol vs Testosterone
Back to our friend/enemy the stress hormone, cortisol.
Now whereas cortisol is typically produced as a response to stress, whether physical or emotional, it does have a necessary function in the human body.
Cortisol will actually help to regulate our blood sugar levels, and it does this by breaking down muscle tissue when required.
We require blood sugar, or glucose, in the bloodstream to supply the body’s cells with energy.
Plus, as long as blood sugar levels are kept within a safe range this reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
So, thank you cortisol for doing this for us.
However, the act of breaking down muscle tissue to do this is no good when you’re looking to workout.
Our cortisol levels are usually at their highest first thing in the morning, whereas they are at their lowest in the evening.
So, it makes perfect sense to lift weights in the evening.
Hold your horses!
If only it was that simple.
Testosterone basically does the opposite to cortisol, as it utilises proteins to build muscle.
The process that cortisol goes through is known as “catabolism” and the process that testosterone goes through is called “anabolism”.
Now, we may look upon testosterone as a male hormone, but women also have testosterone, but obviously in far lower quantities.
Testosterone is a sex hormone which plays an extremely important role in the body.
For both sexes, testosterone plays a role in bone health, bone density, and sex drive.
From a female perspective it also has a function in breast health, vaginal health, menstrual health, and fertility.
And for the guys, testosterone helps with the production of red blood cells and sperm, plus even more importantly, for fat distribution, as well as muscle mass and strength.
Testosterone also happens to be at its highest in the morning, which then leads us to believe that our greatest muscle-building potential is in the morning.
Can you now see why it’s so confusing to work out the best time of the day to lift weights – even the hormones of the human body can’t decide between them.
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7. The Scientific Studies
Obviously, there has been much research into when the best time is to workout.
A Finnish study conducted in 2016 compared the effects of training in the morning versus the evening.
The study concluded that a workout program which combined both strength and endurance training led to greater gains when performed in the evening.
An earlier Spanish study conducted in 2012 drew the same conclusions.
However, they also noted that by ingesting caffeine prior to a morning workout, the participants were able to perform at a higher level that was comparable to evening workouts.
Finally, there is also research which supports that there may be specific times when it is best to lift weights,
The conclusions here were that you should either be working out 4-5 hours or 11-12 hours after waking up.
So, for the vast majority of people this will mean mid-morning or early-evening is the best time to lift weights.
What Do I Think?
Well I did warn you that this could get confusing.
Nevertheless, the general consensus seems to be that the best time of the day to lift weights is sometime later in the day, and definitely not first thing in the morning.
In fact, many “experts” will tell that the morning is best suited to cardio, such as walking or running, and that the “real work” takes place later in the day.
I would even say that many professional athletes typically take this course of action.
A prime example of this will be a boxer who wakes up at the crack of dawn to go and do their “road work”, basically running.
And their actual strength, skill, and muscular endurance work will happen sometime in the afternoon.
However, for me, I think we have to take all the various factors into consideration, especially our own preferences and unique schedules.
If you’ve been lifting weights first thing in the morning for many years, and you enjoy doing so, then does it make sense to completely alter things?
If you have to work during the day, then you can’t exactly escape for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon workout, can you?
What if you work well into the evening, but have your mornings free?
Then again, maybe you’re a morning person, or perhaps you’re a night owl.
So, only YOU will know when your body performs at it’s best.
And as far as I’m concerned, this is the most important aspect – it’s what works best for you.
Okay, science may tell us that the best time of the day to lift weights isn’t the morning, but if you have no other choice, or this is what you prefer, then stick with it.
Personally, I have finally settled into a routine that I enjoy, and that works for me.
I am definitely a morning person and an early riser.
So, by the time I usually hit the gym at around 9.30am I have already been for a morning walk, had breakfast, and completed about an hour’s work.
In reality, this is approximately 3.5 to 4 hours after I’ve woken up – draw your own conclusions from that.
For Some It’s Not The Time of Day That’s The Problem
The way I look at it, irrespective of scientific studies, the body’s hormones, and all the conflicting information – lifting weights at any time of the day is better than not lifting at all.
As I’ve alluded to, I honestly think just doing what’s best for you is the ideal scenario.
I know I have chopped and changed my workout times over the years, but this was more out of necessity, rather than trying to find the perfect time to train.
My recommendation is once you find something that suits you, and that you enjoy, then stick with it.
If lifting weights is your thing, then I’m sure you’ve heard of the Iron Guru, Vince Gironda.
Pretty much any advice or recommendations that Vince gave about lifting weights, rest and recuperation, as well as diet and nutrition was PURE GOLD.
I’m one of the lucky ones, as I’ve had the opportunity to read, study, and work my way through the 300+ pages of the book of Vince’s wisdom that was released after his death.
In terms of exercise and fitness, it’s priceless.
If you’re someone who enjoys lifting weights and you want to know the secrets behind building an awesome physique then check out my review of Vince Gironda Legend and Myth.
Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.