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Fitness Q&A

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What Does the Research Say?

The exercises and content expressed in this column are for illustrative purposes only. Consult your physician before trying any physical activity or nutritional plan. RECOIL and its contributors are not responsible for any harm or injuries sustained while attempting these techniques.

You’ve decided that you want to start building some muscle, but which time of day should your training session be to support this? Does working out after an overnight fast lead to better weight loss? There may be a few more things you haven’t thought about regarding fitness that can impact your performance and success. That’s where we come in. In this column, we discuss some interesting topics that may surprise you.

When is the Best Time of Day to Work Out?
The first thing that has to be said is working out is better than not working out. So before you read on, know that as long as you’re training regularly, that’s a good thing. Don’t stress that you’re not optimizing your time in the gym just because you’re not doing it at the research-supported time.

If you really want to know, though, the answer is that it depends, which is probably not what you wanted to hear. It depends on a bunch of factors, such as testosterone levels, cortisol levels, body temperature, alertness, and several others. For performance, the best coordination, reaction time, cardiovascular efficiency, and muscular strength happen later in the day (1). There’s a reason why you tend to find so many sporting events in the afternoon to evening. This is also when body temperature and neural drive (the activation signal to the muscle from motor neurons) are highest. It makes sense that you’d want to prioritize athletic events later in the day, as these both lead to improved performance.

Heavy, multi-joint movements are great for causing increases in testosterone.

Heavy, multi-joint movements are great for causing increases in testosterone.

With regard to hormones, testosterone and growth hormone are very important to performance in the gym. Testosterone is well known to be important for building muscle. It happens to peak in the morning, and slowly decrease over the course of the day (2). Growth hormone, another hormone responsible for building muscle, primarily is released while you sleep, and continues for a little while in the morning.

These two hormones are also released from a training session. Based on that, if your goal is to build muscle, it may be a better option to train earlier in the day to take advantage of the increased levels of both testosterone and growth hormone. If you’re training for any specific event (Spartan Race, marathon, etc.) the time of day of the event should match your training schedule. So, prioritize that over what the research says. In other words, it all depends on your goals.

Want to increase growth hormone? Look no further than the deadlift.

Want to increase growth hormone? Look no further than the deadlift.

What’s Better: Working Out Fasted or Fed?
It’s very commonly thought that working out on an empty stomach can lead to more fat being used as fuel for exercise. The theory is that the overnight fast causes lower stored glucose (glycogen) levels, which makes your body shift energy use away from carbohydrates in favor of fat. This isn’t fully supported by science, unfortunately. There’s quite a bit of conflicting data to support both sides of the discussion.

It’s likely that if you’re working out in a fasted state, energy levels should also be taken into account. Without food for any length of time, it’s likely that the effect low blood sugar has will be detrimental to performance, as it’s unlikely that your exercise output will be comparable had a meal been eaten before training, which has been shown in research (3). There was another study that showed even the perception of eating food prior to exercise with a placebo resulted in better performance compared to water alone (4).

If you’re in a situation where food isn’t as plentiful, however, this shouldn’t dissuade you from exercising. Being physically prepared is of utmost importance. A fasted workout is better than no workout at all, and at the very best, there’s a small difference in outcome.

Strength training isn’t the only type of exercise to boost hormone levels. High-intensity conditioning can also do the trick.

Strength training isn’t the only type of exercise to boost hormone levels. High-intensity conditioning can also do the trick.

How Is Exercise Different Between Men and Women?
There are some differences to be aware of between men and women when it comes to training. No, these won’t substantially affect how you would go about training; they’re more like something to be aware of. When we’re talking about exercising in a hot environment, women tend to have a higher surface area-to-body-mass ratio (5). This can allow more heat to be evaporated, which would result in better cooling.

That being said, men usually have a higher sweat rate, which can be both good and bad (6). On the one hand, this means better cooling, and on the other hand, it leads to greater fluid loss. So, men should be more aware of this and make hydration a top priority. This increased sweat rate resulting in greater fluid loss is mainly due to increased testosterone, causing sweat to occur quicker than estrogen.
Speaking of having higher amounts of testosterone, men generally have about five times as much as women, while women have higher amounts of estrogen. Testosterone tends to be better for strength-based activities, but estrogen can be important for endurance events. In fact, when compared to sedentary men, endurance-trained men have roughly three to five times the amount of estrogen receptors, which has been shown in animal studies to cause an increased glucose uptake into the muscles.

An exercise program specifically for women? Don’t bother. Men and women both respond well to good training.

An exercise program specifically for women? Don’t bother. Men and women both respond well to good training.

On the other hand, the increased testosterone in men leads to greater gains in strength and muscle size. Women have about two-thirds the muscle men do (7). There is, however, a much larger difference in upper body muscle than lower body, with women having about half the muscle men do in their upper body, and about two-thirds in the lower body. This is primarily the reason why men tend to be stronger, especially in upper body exercises.

It’s more likely that the differences between men and women from a performance standpoint has more to do with body composition (muscle and fat mass) rather than gender alone (8). From a training standpoint, there isn’t much different that you would do with women compared to men. Each will respond well to training focused on their goals, so regardless of your gender, good training is good training.

Is it Better to Eat Only Carbs, Only Protein, or Carbs and Protein After a Workout?
When a training session occurs, or after substantial physical activity in general, we both break tissue down and use fuel. It’s important that both of these be addressed in your post-workout nutrition because they both ultimately result in improved performance and fitness. The repair part of the equation happens when proteins get broken down and new ones are made through a process called protein turnover. This is why protein after a workout is important; without it, you would be limiting your ability to adequately recover.

For the average person, what does this look like? Well, in terms of protein, there’s nothing very substantial in literature pointing to one form of protein over another. So, you could drink a whey protein drink or scarf down some animal protein and it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. Men should shoot for two palm-sized portions of protein, while women should eat one.

The other part of the equation is the fuel used to complete that exercise session. This fuel is made up of stored carbohydrates. So it may be easy to see that eating carbohydrates after a workout is something that will also help replenish what you’ve lost. It has been very popularized to promote fast-digesting carbohydrates post-workout, such as white bread, white rice, or a bagel. It’s actually a better choice to eat some whole-food (less processed) carbs with some fruit. This way, you’ll get the added benefit of fructose (the sugar in fruit) to help maintain or restore the stored carbohydrates (glycogen) in the liver (9). For a serving size, two cupped handfuls of carbs for men and one for women are good places to start.

No need to scarf down a bowl of Fruit Loops. Stick to high-quality, whole foods post-workout.

No need to scarf down a bowl of Fruit Loops. Stick to high-quality, whole foods post-workout.

Hopefully, you took away some tidbits that you may not have thought about. It’s not so common to think of some of this stuff, but it certainly can impact your performance in the gym or other athletic endeavors.

About the Author
Ryne Gioviano is the owner of Achieve Personal Training & Lifestyle Design located in Aurora, Illinois. He holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology, an NSCA Certified      Personal Trainer, and Precision Nutrition Certified Nutritional Coach. Ryne is also an avid firearms enthusiast. For more information, visit:

1.  Racinais, S., Perrey, S., Denis, R., & Bishop, D. (2010). Maximal power, but not fatiguability, is greater during repeated sprints performed in the afternoon. Chronobiology International, 27(4), 855-864.
2.  Hayes, L., Bickerstaff, G., & Baker, J. (2010). Interactions of cortisol, testosterone, and resistance training: influence of circadian rhythms. Chronobiology international, 27(4), 675-705.
3.  Mears, S., Dickinson, K., Bergin-Taylor, K., Dee, R., Kay, J., & James, L. (2017). Perception of breakfast ingestion enhances high intensity cycling performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 27, 1-21.
4.  Schoenfeld, B. (2011). Does cardio after an overnight fast maximize fat loss? Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33(1), 23-25
5.  McLellan, T. (1998). Sex-related differences in thermoregulatory responses while wearing protective clothing. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 78(1), 28-37.
6.  Sidman, R., & Gallagher, E. (2008). Exertional heat stroke in a young woman: gender differences in response to thermal stress. Academic Emergency Medicine, 2(4), 315-319.
7.  Lindle, R., Metter, E., Lynch, N., Fleg, J., Frozard, J., Tobin, J., Roy, T., & Hurley, B. (1997). Age and gender comparisons of muscle strength in 654 women and men aged 20-93 yr. Journal of Applied Physiology, 83(5), 1581-1587.
8.  Bishop, P., Cureton, K., & Collins, M. (1987). Sex difference in muscular strength in equally-trained men and women. Ergonomics,  30(4), 675-687.
9.  Berardi, J., Andrews, R., St. Pierre, B., Scott-Dixon, K., Kollias, H., & DePutter, C. (2016). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition, Inc.

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