Early Morning Exercise: 2 Tips To Make It More Effective

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Q: I have been lifting weights now for about 3.5 months and have been happy with my results. However, I have been feeling a little tired during my last few workouts. I believe that it is because I am lifting heavier weights than when I started.

I workout in my home and workout early in the morning, usually at 5am.

I think my problem is that I am working out on an empty stomach since I literally roll out of bed, take my pre-workout and go at it. I started taking casein before I go to bed and it seems to work a little. Unfortunately, this is the only time in the day I can fit in my workouts, so moving workout time is impossible. All I have been able to find is that I may need to add a pre-workout meal.  Do you have any suggestions?

A: Whether it’s due to family obligations, work, school, or because some of us stay up late fighting crime (or more realistically, playing video games), sometimes the only way we can squeeze in a workout is if we do so early in the morning.

While that’s fine, and there are plenty of people who do very well with that sort of schedule, there are some things to consider/address.

1. Spine Stiffness

Rolling out of bed at 5AM and immediately turning into some exercise Nazi – busting out sit-ups, push-ups, heavy squats, kettlebell swings, and the like – while admirable, probably isn’t ideal.

Can you at least brush your teeth and get the “eye boogers” out first?

The key word here is immediately.

Ever notice how much it sucks to try to bend over and put your socks on first thing in the morning compared to later in the day?

Dr. Stuart McGill has done a ton of research on spine mechanics and he’s noted that the spine is very “stiff” first thing in the morning.

Namely, because we’ve just spent the past 6-9 hours sleeping on our backs, our spine decompresses, collects water, which in turn increases annular tension within the discs themselves.

With this in mind, it’s generally not a good idea to begin exercising soon after hitting the snooze button for the seventh time.  Ideally, once out of bed, you’d want to hold for about 30 minutes before you begin to exercise.  More specifically, though, this pertains to exercise which will require a lot of bending over, rotating, or nunchucks.

Going for a walk or light jog = no biggie.

Lifting heavy stuff = hold off 30 minutes.

I see one of two options happening:

1.  Get up 30 minutes earlier and just chill out.  Stand-up, read the paper, drink a protein shake (more on this in a bit), watch a few LOLCat videos, I don’t care.  Just don’t hop out of bed and immediately walk over and start busting out some deadlifts.  Wait 30 minutes.

2.  If time is a factor, getting up even earlier sounds as enticing as watching an episode of Dancing With the Stars, and you don’t have the luxury of waiting, you can still start training early, but save the “heavy” stuff for later in the workout after you’re warmed-up and have been moving for a bit.

It may look something like this.

Full foam rolling and dynamic warm-up

Note:  try to keep most of the warm-up to standing options only.

A1.  Chin-Ups 3×5
A2.  Standing Split Stance Landmine Press 3×6-8/arm
B1.  1-Arm DB Row 3×10/arm
B2.  DB Goblet Reverse Lunge 3×8/arm

C.  Trap Bar Deadlift 3×5

D1.  Rotator Cuff
D2.  Additional Core Work
D3.  Take a shower, stinky.

2.  Should You “Break” the Fast?

Didja see what I just did there?

Some people can eat a ginormous meal right before training and feel fine.  Others will just look at a bowl of oats and hightail it to the bathroom after their first set. It’s purely individual.

Here it will take a bit of experimenting on your part to see what works for you.

The while casein vs. whey protein thing is overplayed.  It’s generally accepted that casein, since it’s slower to absorb, is a better protein to ingest to help preserve or “protect” muscle mass.  Conversely, whey protein, since it’s absorbed quickly, is best to take immediately after a training session to help jump-start the muscle repair process.

While not a wrong train of thought, it’s definitely sensationalized.  Yes, casein is absorbed slower compared to whey. But the last time I checked, and I believe smarter people than myself such as Alan Aragon and Mike Roussell have confirmed this, we’re talking minutes, not hours.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter that much, if at all.

One thing that I’m adamant about, however, it telling people NOT to train on an empty stomach.  While intuition – and a lot of faulty information, logic, and magical fairies making things up on the internet – says that training on an empty stomach will help one burn more fat, I have some news for you.

Your body is a lot smarter than you.

Even if you eat carbs before a workout, substrate utilization (ie: what the body burns) during exercise doesn’t really matter.  At the end of the day it’s about what the body is doing AFTER and IN-BETWEEN training sessions.

If you train on an empty stomach you have no “gas in the gas tank” and you’re essentially exercising on fumes.  Sure, you may burn a greater percentage of fat (as preferential fuel source, depending on degree of exercise intensity), but the TOTAL calories being burned as a whole – because you’re energy levels are in the crapper – is so insignificant, that it won’t matter anyways.

To that end, I much prefer to see people train with something in their stomach if for nothing else to give them a little boost during their workout.

It’s NOT about substrate utilization! It’s about fueling your workout!

What you can eat, however, is the million dollar question.  Some people do well with a simple protein shake and maybe a small piece of fruit beforehand. Others do well with a small bowl of oatmeal or cereal.  Hell, you can have last night’s leftover pork chop for all I care.

The point is: Eat something!  Please.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Marius

    Learned this the hard way. Good advice

    March 31, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Dave Redden

    A big cup or coffee, and maybe some BCAA's. I love training on an empty stomach!

    March 31, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Steve Bergeron

    I have heard the quadruped cat/camel it's a great warm-up to start with in the a.m. (done gently, ie not aggressively stretching) to reduce spinal viscosity and get nutrients flowing to the spine. 5-10 reps is all it takes. Pretty sure I read that in one of McGill's books. Thoughts?

    April 1, 2014 at 5:09 am | Reply to this comment

  • Eric Granata

    I absolutely hate the idea of working out on an empty stomach. It is a surefire for you body to begin eating muscle for fuel. I ALWAYS take a full scoop of whey about 30 minutes before my workout, and have noticed results since I started.

    April 1, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      I don't think it's as detrimental as that Eric. It's not like you're going to lose all your gainzzzzz if you fail to eat beforehand. Long-term, however, I think it "may" have an affect. In the end it just comes down to each person figuring out what works best for him or her. I tend to lean more towards the camp to NOT train fasted - at least long-term.

      April 3, 2014 at 8:16 am | Reply to this comment

    • Eric Leichty

      Eric, how can you be so ignorant and closed-minded when there are countless people doing Intermittent Fasting and getting great results? The idea that small, frequent meals are necessary for preserving muscle mass is not supported by research. Amino acid sensitivity most likely increases with and less meals and a period of fasting, and huge boluses of protein with a prolonged digestion speed might very well give better retention than small spikes throughout the day. There's actually a study showing that 3 meals per day gave better muscle growth than 6 meals, and although there were some confounding variables in the study, the results are still quite interesting [https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/28684]. Moreover, the anabolic effect of a meal after fasted training or a prolonged fast negates the catabolic effects of the fasted training or prolonged fast. It's a compensatory response that the body has evolved to react with. A spike in blood amino acid levels, for example, is much more anabolic than a steady influx of amino acids (which is only anti-catabolic). In the end, the body takes care of itself and everything balances out, and that's why plenty of people who train fasted still make great lean mass and strength gains, and why those following IF or Warrior diets don't have any issues with maintaining or gaining lean mass. Researchers concluded that "Our results indicate that prior fasting may stimulate the intramyocellular anabolic response to ingestion of a carbohydrate/protein/leucine mixture following a heavy resistance training session [http://www.springerlink.com/content/w8712615714k8150/]." In other words, increased anabolic activity seen post-workout is a compensatory response to the increased catabolism that occurs during fasted state training. I would like to add that if eating prior to training goes against personal preference and compromises lifting performance, it could hinder progress in the long run. As always, meal timing and frequency takes a distant backseat to meeting macronutrient targets for the day.

      April 7, 2014 at 11:46 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Paul Bruce

    I have a problem with the workout program laid out here. I understand the value in supersets - your articles have influenced me to include them in my training recently. However, the third monsterset (I believe that's what you call a superset with three exercises) is very impractical and time-consuming, assuming you are to perform multiple sets of each exercise, rotating between them: If the superset simply consisted of D1 and D2, that would be fine. But showering prior to performing rotator cuff and core work can be problematic. If planking, forearms could slide forward and not allow the individual to maintain a stable position and control the extension. If doing a kneeling Pallof press or chop, the wet knees may slide around, shifting the base of support. I'd suggest "Take a shower stinky" should be the finisher, 'E'. Thank you, Paul

    April 2, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jason Beck

    "your* energy levels are in the crapper"

    April 7, 2014 at 7:51 am | Reply to this comment

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