Most of us don’t get the luxury of choosing when we work out in the morning or in the evening.
If you’re employed in a traditional 8 to 5 job, well, you most likely are resigned to the fate of heading to the ever-crowded gym after work. But what if you had a choice between working out in the morning or the evening — which do you think is scientifically-backed as the option which allows the most significant muscle hypertrophy and strength gains? And, if you’re planning to squeeze both weight-lifting and cardio into the same session, which should you do first?
The scientific quest for more significant gains
Lucky for us, a group of researchers was interested enough to find out. 72 healthy men who weren’t lifters were rounded up, and the scientists formulated a training program which consisted of a combination of strength exercises and endurance exercises for them. The subjects were split into four groups:
- Group 1 performed aerobic training before strength training in the morning; they trained between 6.30AM and 10:00AM
- Group 2 performed strength training before aerobic training in the morning; they trained between 6.30AM and 10:00AM
- Group 3 performed aerobic training before strength training in the evening; they trained between 4.30PM and 8:00PM
- Group 4 performed strength training before aerobic training in the evening; they trained between 4.30PM and 8:00PM
Study duration and training frequency
The entire study lasted for 24 weeks, making this quite a lengthy study — it is therefore unsurprising to find out that only 52 subjects managed to attend at least 90% of training sessions and were consequently considered to have successfully completed the study. For the first 12 weeks, the participants trained twice per week. Then, training frequency was upped for the second 12 weeks of the study — they worked out five times in the span two weeks (a 25% increase from the first program block).
Overview of the training program
The cardio program ranged from 30 to 50-minutes per session, and they primarily involved either steady-state cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Weight lifting program
Leg presses, leg curls, leg extensions, dumbbell flies, military presses, lat pulldowns, curls, triceps pushdowns, and crunches were involved in the weight lifting program. The workouts were engineered to become progressively harder through increments in both weight and workout frequency to ensure that subjects were sufficiently challenged for the stimulation of muscle growth.
Tracking of progress in participants
The researchers routinely assessed the leg press 1RM (One-Rep Max) of participants and time to exhaustion in an incremental cycle ergometer test. The cross-sectional area (CSA) of the subjects’ vastus lateralis — one of the four muscles of the quadriceps — was estimated using ultrasound scans of the quads at 50% of femur length. Repeated measurements of serum testosterone and cortisol concentrations were also taken.
Results from the study
Researchers found no significant change in resting hormone levels — testosterone and cortisol — in any of the individual groups. It is believed that the nonsignificant differences in hormonal levels are physiologically unimportant.
Overall, three clear trends were observed from the scientists’ analysis:
Strength gains didn’t seem to be specific to the time of day training took place
When it comes to strength gains, this particular study found that it doesn’t matter what time in the day you train — even if you are accustomed to training in the evening, performance gains will be carried over to the morning as well. This conclusion differs from other scientific literature available, however — studies have generally demonstrated that most people tend to be naturally stronger in the afternoon and evening. It is worth taking note that such strength differences between timings can be smoothed out through training in the morning.
If you’re a powerlifter who typically trains in the evenings, you may benefit from getting a few morning lifting sessions in leading up to the meet. Other than it being an excellent physiological performance enhancer, the morning lifts can help better prepare you for the additional amount of warm-up time you need before your first attempt. It is entirely possible for you to need five sets of warm-up at 9AM when you usually only require two at 5PM. You don’t get many tries in a powerlifting meet — better to be prepared than sorry!
Gains in strength and aerobic performance seem to be influenced by the order they’re placed within a training session, at least to some degree.
While it’s been argued that cardio should be performed first as the catabolic aerobic training stimulus may negate the anabolic signaling from lifting, this study shows that if you want to prioritize improving a given physical quality — be it strength or endurance — more, you have to train it while you’re fresh. As energy is finite, it’s unsurprising to find that performing weight lifting while you’ve just gotten to the weight-room leads to better strength gains.
Observations from similar studies have been mixed, however: a group that performed strength training before aerobic training obtained more strength gains than a group that completed aerobic exercise first, but the opposite was false. The group which performed aerobic training first didn’t gain more aerobic improvements over those who executed strength training first. Additionally, two other studies (here, and here) added to the confusion by reporting minimal differences in adaptations based on whether training sessions started with strength training or aerobic training.
When surveyed as a whole, the totality of the literature suggests that it may not matter whether you perform strength training or aerobic training first within a session, but starting with the quality you most want to improve is probably the “better safe than sorry” approach.
Rates of hypertrophy may be higher when training in the evening, but it may take a few months for the difference to be noticeable.
Changes in the cross-section area of the vastus lateralis — one of the four muscles in the quads, in case you’ve forgotten — were similar between the morning and evening groups for the first three months. After that, it was observed that the evening groups experienced substantially more muscle hypertrophy over the next 12 weeks training block.
This finding concurs with a 2009 study where a group that trained in the evening for 20 weeks increased quad volume and cross-section area slightly more than a group that trained in the evening for 10 weeks before switching over to training In the morning for 10 weeks (3.5% versus 2.7%, to be specific). Additionally, an unpublished study in 2005 found that a group of young men increased lean body mass by 3.21%, while a group training in the morning only experienced a 0.64% increase. It is essential to note that both studies above failed to reach statistical significance, which means that the observed differences could potentially be entirely due to chance.
Applications and takeaways
As strength gains seem to be time-of-day-specific, at least to some degree, powerlifters can consider getting in several early morning lifting sessions a few weeks leading up to a meet.
2. For those who wish to maximize strength gains:
Training in the evening and performing your strength work before your cardio (if you need to do both in the same session) may lead to slightly faster progress, but the difference probably isn’t worth rearranging your whole schedule for if you’re not a competitive athlete. This is especially so if it’s inconvenient or is a poor fit to your personal preferences.
3. For those who seek to maximize muscle growth:
There seems to be a significant benefit to training in the afternoon and evening.
Just tell me — what is the answer?
Ultimately, the combination of this study and the current literature suggests that the time of day you train and order you perform your weight lifting and cardio may impact rates of progress to some degree, but the overall difference is rather small.
The most efficient way to build strength and muscle is the way you can sustain — growth comes from consistent progress. You, therefore, have to train in a way that is personally viable for you in the long-run.
Now, you know what to do the next time your gains are compromised due to your personal trainer (PT) or training partner canceling on you for the nth time in the week: download GymStreak for a convenient, intelligent PT slash training partner you can take along with you at all times of the day! You’ll receive your very own personalized workout plan the moment you key in your stats and training goal. More so it continues to adapt as you exercises keeping you motivated and focused on your goals. If you’re up for it, GymStreak is there for you and your gains, 24/7.Get GymStreak
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