I’ll say it right out of the gate. Getting up early to train sucks. Rarely have you had enough sleep. You’re stiff, hungry, and dehydrated, and odds are, you haven’t had near enough coffee to drink. Often, it seems like the best option can be to climb back in bed.
I completely understand these things. I’ve got five kids, ranging from 3 months to 9 years. Life is busy at our house. We’ve got homework, football, gymnastics, piano, soccer, baseball, Wednesday night youth group, and AWANA on Sunday evenings. You’re busy too. If you have kids, you know exactly what I’m saying. If you don’t have kids, you’ve probably got plenty of other things keeping you up too late. I haven’t even mentioned the amount of time your job takes.
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These can all be excuses, or they can be your motivation. It’s your choice. If you want to become an early-morning lifter and keep it sustainable, it has to be a conscious decision. For me – because of all of those things listed above – I have no other choice. The only window I can fit in consistent training is 4am to 6am.
Here’s how I do it.
First and foremost, sleep quality is paramount. The amount of sleep is pretty important too – but if you’ve got to help kids get homework done, you need ti get them through the bath and into bed, and you still have to clean up the kitchen (let alone actually find time to visit with your spouse), eight hours of sleep is a fantasy. You need to make the most of the sleep you can actually get.
I swear by the benefits of ZMA for sleep quality. You know most of the other recommendations…keeping a pre-bed routine, having a dark room, minimizing electronics before bed, etc. They work, so do them. If you are a bigger athlete, get checked for sleep apnea and consider using a CPAP if the doctor recommends it. The difference in sleep quality is literally night and day. I’ve seen it described as “legal steroids” in relation to improved recovery stemming from significantly improved sleep quality.
Second, nutrition has to be on point. Sure, we’ve all heard about the benefits of fasted cardio, but nobody can withstand a fasted heavy training session. You might be able to make it through the session, but your performance will be suboptimal, as will the recovery after the session. I guarantee you will perform better if you eat a high quality, balanced dinner the night before. Greasy burgers and fast food tacos can be convenient from the drive-through on the way home at the end of a busy day, but a home-cooked quality meal will be better in many ways, beyond just getting you ready for the next day’s session. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. Buy a cook book and a slow cooker. Figure it out, the benefits will be endless.
Additionally, figure out what works for you for pre-workout nutrition. Personally, I like a low carb tortilla with some almond butter and maybe an apple or a handful of grapes. Some people will like a protein shake, others will prefer something lighter or heavier. I personally don’t want to lift on a big heavy breakfast, but I do like a little something for fuel. Get up a few minutes earlier and eat as soon as you can so you can digest your meal and get going.
Speaking of pre-workout – for me, it’s critical. I’m usually training on about six hours of sleep (sometimes less), and using a high quality pre-workout definitely helps get my motor running in the morning. I recognize not everyone likes using pre-workout, but I’d strongly recommend trying a few different ones until you find one that works well for you. I only use pre-workout on lifting mornings. If I’m doing HIIT or yoga, or some other conditioning or recovery modality, I stick to a cup of coffee.
Once you’ve eaten and downed your pre-workout, it’s go time. Since you’ve been asleep for a while, your body’s core temperature is depressed. You need to properly warm up before you start hitting heavy weights. Doing a few arm circles and a couple of jumping jacks isn’t going to get it done here.
Develop a consistent warm up routine based on your day’s programmed movements. Start with something that will get the entire body warmed up a few degrees. I’ll usually jump on my spin bike for a few minutes of pedaling at increasing speed and intensity to get some blood flowing. If I had an Airdyne or Assault bike, it would be even better. After that, I like to start at the top and work down with dynamic stretches and ballistic movements. After I sit in a deep squat for a while, I’ll do some drop squats to get some speed going, to adjust to more dynamic movements, and to get accustomed to some impact and shock loading.
After your warm up routine, pick up the empty barbell and start working on the patterns of your prescribed movements. For example, when it’s a snatch day, I’ll do a bunch of snatch balances, overhead squats, high pulls, etc. just to move and to get my body used to the movement patterns. I’m 43, so it takes a bit longer to get loosened up than it did when I was 23 – but I’ve got it figured out, and it works. Another thing to consider is taking smaller jumps on your sets working up to your main work sets. When I was younger and trained in the afternoons, squat day might have me working up to sets at 405. I’d warm up something like 45 x 10, 135 x 7, 225 x 5, 315 x 3, 365 x 2, then work sets at 405. Today, I’ll go 45 x 10-15, 135 x 7, 185 x 5, 225 x 5, 275 x 3, 315 x 2,365 x 1-2, then work sets at 405. I’ve found smaller jumps are easier to adapt to and are gentler on sore or stiffer joints and muscles.
After the Workout
Finally, once you’re done, it’s time to turn the focus back to nutrition. Eat a quality post-workout breakfast. I also supplement with whey protein, BCAAs, and a high quality fish oil before I head to the office. I take a nutritious snack with me to eat a few hours later. Remember, the body is working overtime after a strenuous training session, and your metabolism is on fire. Eating a quality snack mid-morning keeps you from crashing and heading to the vending machine down the hall (where you and I both know bad decisions will be made). I really like to take a handful of almonds, some fruit or baby carrots, and something like beef jerky or string cheese for my mid-morning snack.
One last consideration applies if you are a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter. If you begin training early in the morning, your body will adapt its circadian rhythms to maximize performance during that window. If you know the schedule of an upcoming competition, consider adjusting the last couple of weeks of your training cycle to lift at your scheduled time to compete, including any variance for time zone changes. I failed to do this for a recent meet, and my performance was definitely impacted.
So what do you think? Are you going to join us and jump on the Early Morning Gain Train, or will you just hit snooze and watch it go by? Let’s Go!!!!
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