The reality for many of us is that we are not professional athletes.
Training, although an essential part of life, can't often take the place of the highest priority over things like work, family and lifestyle and honestly, nor should it.
Training is a tool we use to drive positive health outcomes and work towards our strength or fitness goals, and for some of us to make that happen, it has to be relegated to the early morning shift, where you can steal a bit of free time.
For many, including myself, the struggle has always been making early morning training feel as productive as training later in the day, especially if you are hitting heavy compound work or sessions of a high load or intensity.
Questions like to eat or not to eat, how to get moving as fast as possible and how to manage your time effectively are all things I want to give you the answers to today!
Half of the battle regarding early morning movement is setting clear routines.
Our bodies have many hormonal systems doing their checks and balances every moment. They generally work in cyclical patterns and ebb and flow as the day turns to night and back to the day.
This is the place we need to start. Being able to wake up early and feel up to getting moving is going to first come from a little bit of discipline that then turns to hormonal systems adjusting to the new things you ask of them.
This means standardising your sleep and wake times regardless of whether you are training! It may be hard at first, but it will benefit more than just the training. Good sleeping habits are the bedrock of everything we do!
Once you have these times constantly rolling over each day, it gives you a chance to plan appropriately. Depending on how far away you live from the gym and what you need to do in the morning, you should allow yourself enough time that you don't have to rush, even if this means adjusting your sleep-wake time to cut some time out of your evening to dedicate to the morning.
In this extra time, you can eat, drink and give yourself a second to wake up.
On the front of eating pre-morning training, there is evidence to support both training fasted and training on a small meal, but it will come down to the amount of time you have and if you can stomach food in the morning.
As long as you had a meal balanced with protein, fats and carbs the night before, you will have all the materials needed to train successfully in the morning.
As long as you don't begin to feel sick from hunger during the session, that is! If that is the case for you getting 500ml to 1L of water into your system (don't skull it, please sip it like an adult) before waking and setting foot in the gym may be all you need.
If you are aware that not eating makes you feel unwell or decreases your performance in the gym OR you are in for a session longer than 60 minutes, some easy-to-digest carbs are consumed 30-40 minutes before you step into the gym.
If you want a more hearty meal, ensure you have it around 90 minutes before you train.
Generally, you are better off slightly under-eating and having an intra-workout snack or drink is better than cramming a full-sized English breakfast down your gullet 20 minutes before deadlifting.
Once you have managed to get yourself somewhat put together, waking up, slightly fed and ready to go, how does one warm up as effectively as possible in the early hours of the day?
For those who have never tried to do something heavy or hard very early in the morning, the feeling is like your bones are made of glass, and your body gains an extra 40 years' worth of aches and pains.
If you have previously been training more towards the middle or latter half of the day and need to switch to mornings, everything will feel slightly to significantly worse in the beginning.
Not only do you have to contend that your body is trying to rouse itself out of a restful and relaxed state, but not having as much food or caffeine in your system will pose a hurdle to overcome and get used to.
The first thing we can address is the restful and relaxed state. First thing in the morning, the worst thing you can do is slug your way onto the floor and start rolling out and gently stretching. What you need is a shift in your nervous system state and what brings that is an increased heart rate and something high stimulus.
My highest recommendation for this is non-other than cardio. Staying at a steady pace on a bike/rower will be a huge help.
Something like 5 minutes at a steady pace on any of the equipment mentioned above, then ten calories did as fast as possible to get the heart working will get you warmed up better than any foam roller on the planet.
Even a brisk 10-15 minute walk will do the trick, with emphasis on brisk.
So, now you are fed (maybe), watered (hopefully) and wide awake with your heart beating out of your ass after your quick cardio warmup.
Ticking off each of those boxes has saved you some time and gotten you feeling better than ever.
Now the question is how do we organise our training session to maximise the amount of productive work while minimising the fluff and not getting you home after midday?
My philosophy on training has changed over the past. While shifting towards more is less, we want to ensure, especially in the morning, that we are not spending our time on things we don't need to.
This is why my approach to warming up and getting started is greatly simplified, and as you start your session, it is no different.
Even after you have done the above steps to get ready, you still aren't prepared to put a heavy barbell on your back. That will require some extra work and warming up in a more specific context. However, it doesnt have to be complicated.
Many people will view their warmups as a separate part of their session or an ever-growing list of adjuncts to complete before the real work begins. However, what if I told you that isn't the case?
What if we view warmups as a lower-difficulty activity that still provides the meaningful stimulus and prepares you for your main work?
There is always this dogmatic view in powerlifting that the most challenging thing must go first, regardless of the situation. Yes, in some circumstances, ill concede that is correct; however, we can't work in absolutes.
For the instance of training in the morning, especially if you are doing it inconsistently, say 1 -2 morning and 3-4 afternoon sessions, it is going to be hard to acclimate to the time, and you still may feel that bit weaker on your main work. (The good news is the more consistently you train in the morning, that strength deficit goes away as you get used to it.)
However, when you start mornings, or it is a once-off, you have two handy tricks to get around that slight downturn in performance. First off is doing some accessories.
In many situations, and you can be honest with yourself, you sandbag your assistance work. That begs the question if your accessory work is light and easy enough to be a warmup, why not use it as one?
If you are busting your ass on an RPE 10 leg press ok, maybe don't do that before squats, but things like split squats, lighter RDLs, Lighter assistance rows and presses can be done to a high intensity right before your main work with almost no meaningful impact on strength.
This works well on two fronts. First, off you manage to get a relatively good hit of intensity right away that you hardly have to prep for, and two, it will increase the performance of your compound movement because the warmup is directed and valuable!
Secondly, you can just cut your exercise list RIGHT back and increase the amount of workup sets you do for everything.
Often, people will need more time to estimate the number of exercises they need to do in a session. Perform a well-curated list of useful movements, treating the workup sets as stimulating sets. You can significantly increase the amount of work you do while reducing wasted time transitioning between moments.
To round us out, I'll do a TLDR