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Workout Routines: 6 Tips for Adjusting to Exercise in the Morning

Written on April 12, 2012 at 8:27 am, by Eric Cressey

We are creatures of habit – not only psychologically and socially, but physiologically as well.  If you need proof, all you have to do is read up on shift work disorder, which shows that simply changing one’s sleep and work schedule can have some profound consequences for our health.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that changing the time of day when one’s workout routine takes place is a huge deal for everything from mood to performance.  Perhaps the most common adjustment that takes place is when someone decides to exercise in the morning.  It may be because a long day at work is too exhausting to be 100% when you hit the gym after it’s over, or you may just not want to wait for equipment access in a crowded gym at 6PM.  Or, it could be because a parent is super busy with kids’ after-school activities, so first thing in the morning before they wake up is the best bet for getting in a strength and conditioning program.

Whatever the reason, the adjustment to exercise in the morning is without a doubt the toughest “time change” one could make.  With that in mind, here are five keys to making it a smooth transition:

1. Get to bed earlier.

This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many people complain that they can’t get results from exercise in the morning without realizing that they’re still going to be far too late at night.

If you’re someone who is accustomed to sleeping 12AM-8AM, then racing to be to work at 9AM, it’s going to be an adjustment if you want to start training at 6AM before you head to work.  You’re only making it tougher if you decide that you’re simply going to sleep 12AM-5AM. It’s also going to crush your productivity for the rest of the day, as you’ll be sleep walking rather than enjoying the post-exercise energy boost most people experience.  If you want to be up at 5AM or 6AM to train, you’ve got to be in bed by 10PM.  In fact, I always tell my athletes that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight.

2. Stand up for a bit.

Dr. Stuart McGill has made some fantastic observations on spine stiffness first thing in the morning. In a nutshell, when we lay down to sleep at night, our spine is decompressed, so the intervertebral discs actually collect water.  This increased hydration status builds annular tension within the discs, and makes the spine stiffer overall.  This isn’t a good kind of stiffness, though; more stress is placed on the ligaments and discs than the soft tissue structures that typically protect them.

Simply standing upright and moving around decreases the hydration status of the discs – and, in the process, actually makes us shorter as the day goes on! While I don’t know of many people that want to get shorter, the good news is that this height reduction reduces the spine stiffness and allows us to move the spine more safely and effectively.  While disc hydration diminishes over the course of the entire day, the majority of it occurs in the first hour that we’re awake.

With this in mind, you’re someone with a history of back pain, you’re probably best off not incorporating exercise in the morning, especially if your workout routine includes a lot of bending and rotating.  If you’re going for a walk or light jog, though, it’s probably not a big deal.

Conversely, if you’re someone who plans to use some of these more challenging compound movements and have to exercise in the morning, I’d encourage you to get up 30 minutes early and just focus on standing up, whether it’s to read the paper, pack your lunch, or take the dog for a walk.

3. Take a hot shower before exercise in the morning.

One of the biggest struggles a lot of folks encounter is getting warmed up in the morning.  Folks usually turn the heat down at night while they’re asleep, and it’s obviously colder outside at nighttime.  You might think I’m nuts, but hopping out of bed and into a hot shower is a great “body temperature transition” strategy that bridges the gap between bed and exercise.  And, since you’ll be standing in the shower, it also helps to accomplish tip #2 from above!

It only has to be 25-30 seconds to get your body temperature up a bit, and then you can take your “real” shower after you sweat up a storm.  As an alternative to shower #1, you can always splash some hot water on your face and drink a cup of coffee.  There’s no way you’re getting out of shower #2, though, Smelly.

4. Extend the warm-up.

In line with points #2 and #3, it’s a good idea to add a few more dynamic warm-up drills to your pre-exercise routine.  Typically, our athletes do between eight and ten drills, but those who exercise in the morning are better off with as many as 15.  It might add five minutes to your dynamic warm-up, but that’s far better than spending far more than five minutes in physical therapy for an injury you got from insufficiently warming up!

In line with tip #2 from above, you likely want to focus on more standing variations in your mobility exercise selections.

For some additional options on mobility drills, check out Assess and Correct: Breaking Barriers to Unlock Performance.

5. Tinker with various nutrition approaches.

I’ve heard thousands of different nutritional strategies outlined for those who want to exercise in the morning, but the truth is, everyone is different.  I have known folks who will throw up anything solid that they consume prior to exercise, and others (myself included) who could eat a giant breakfast and keep it down just fine.  For most, I think sipping on a shake as you start the training session is a good place to start.  If you handle that fine, you can consider having some solid food before the training session, if you find that you’re hungry in the middle of the training session.

6. Recruit a training partner.

A training partner is almost always a good idea, but this is especially true when you’re up at the buttcrack of dawn and not necessarily in the mindset to really push yourself.  Plus, when you’re awake for exercise before the sun rises, you’re far more likely to hit the snooze button if someone isn’t waiting for you at the gym.

While training first thing in the morning isn’t exactly ideal, it may be your only option for staying consistent with your workout routine – and consistency is the name of the game.  Implement these strategies to get the most out of your early morning training sessions.

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  • http://www.benbruno.com Ben Bruno

    Great post Eric. As someone who lifted at 4:30 am for about 5 years (not ideal, I know), I think these are all great tips. Another thing I would add that has helped me is wearing lots of layers to the gym, especially when you live in colder climates. I’d bundle up a few minutes before heading to the gym to get a little sweat going, then I’d leave them on as I warm up and gradually take them off as I warmed up (I call it strip lifting, haha). Also, I know many people have moved away from things like the bike, elliptical, and treadmill in their warmups, but I think for early morning lifters, 5 minutes on the bike or elliptical is great first thing when you get to the gym just to get the blood circulating and then proceed with a regular dynamic warmup as normal.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Awesome addition, Ben; thanks!

  • Anders

    Am i the only one that cant train in long sleeve t-shirts in the morning because they feel like im still under the duvet and i never really wake up unless i go short sleeve ?

  • http://swolept.com/ Mike Swole

    Awesome post. I wrote a similar post couple of days ago mentioning the benefits of the morning shower as well. http://swolept.com/posts/a-morning-routine-for-energy-and-productivity

    How big of a role would the hot shower be for increasing synovial fluid temperature and overall joint warm up? Also would an hour of standing around be sufficient for the spine fluid to equalize in your opinion?

    I’ve also found doing 5-10 minute ramping walk before any dynamic stretching to work best.

    Thanks for the post :)

  • http://.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/own-the-a-m-25/ Eric Bach

    Awesome! I find for morning workouts that I need to get up right away and get moving. On morning workout days I hop out of bed and turn on all the lights I can. I usually have an extra strong glass of green tea that I put down, and then a glass of water or two.
    It takes me longer to warm up, so I wear more clothing, Foam Roll, and get in a good dynamic. The best activities to get my body ready in a timely fashion are rowing and timed jumping jacks/split jacks.
    Hope the suggestions Help!
    Thanks

  • Shayne Whitehouse

    Dehydration or re-hydration is also important. I generally drink two glasses of water first thing when I get up and finds that helps during the workout. Given you wont have drunk anything for 6 – 8 hours whilst you slept and may not have had anything before going to bed it helps to drink before you raise sweat during your workout.

  • Chuck S

    I have a water bottle next to the bed and drink some before and after my sleep. Also drink some if I have a bathroom stop.
    I also heard that drinking water before going to bed can help prevent a heart attack. Also, if you have a heart attack, drinking a glass of water helps. I guess it thins the blood so it can get more places.

  • http://www.ibodybuilder.wordpress.com Gaurav Kapil

    Great post Eric. This is going to be most helpful, especially Point# 2.

    My way of getting body warmed up is to get 300-500 rope jumps and if required then Jump Squats & Burpees.

  • http://brandonbikepunchkick.wordpress.com/ brandon

    Great post, I train in the morning but I find it hard not to do another session at night to get more of a rush, this leads me to add and add until I virtually workout all day.

    For a warm up in the am though I like some burpees and some gymnastic rolls.

  • http://www.ashotofadrenaline.net Todd Kuslikis

    I have always been a shower-before-my-workout kind of guy! People would always say, Todd, that doesn’t make any sense. And I would always tell them it seemed to wake me up!

    Great list Eric!

    Todd

  • Molly

    I recently started going to the gym at 4:30 AM, and it was a bit of an adjustment, but I found that once you get up and brush your teeth–drink at least 16oz of cold water, that helps jump start your metabolism. I still find that it’s more difficult to work out in the morning, but for me, it’s more likely that I won’t work out if I wait until the evening to go.

  • http://movemofitness.com Matt B

    Thanks for the post Eric! Really interested in #2 and will def look up Dr McGill’s book.

  • http://www.pedrocorreiatraining.com Pedro Correia

    Hello Eric,
    Great post. Regarding nÂș2, can you tell me what do you mean with “the soft tissue structures that typically protect them” when you discuss the increased stress (stiffness) on the spine? Many thanks.

  • http://www.modernhealthycaveman.com Lorcan Mulhern

    My recent job required me to wake at 4 am, sleep was most important factor- for me to perform at good level I was in bed by 9 and asleep by 915ish, after dark I used lamps for reading and stayed out of bright lights- this required wearing red tinted glasses- I would wake before my alarm and feel refreshed.
    Completely agree with every hour before 12 counts as double-
    Alternating between hot to cold in shower i found very good to get back moving in the morning- 30/30/30. i always finished on cold.
    Great post!


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