Workout Routine for 12 Hour Shifts (How You Should Plan)

Shift work is the hardest routine to find consistency with when it comes to forming habits and an effective workout routine, especially for those doing 12 hour shifts. 

I’ve worked in hospitality and events for 7 years now and in that time I’ve tried and tested multiple routines to allow for optimal recovery whilst still being able to get some good workout sessions in. 

One thing I highly recommend against and I’ll touch on it later on in this article is training after a 12 hour night shift. This is a mistake on a few occasions and as I became more educated around human biology, circadian rhythm and training efficiencies I realized that was a flawed method.

Workout Routine for 12 Hour Shifts Work? Shift work usually follows a pattern of 4 days on and 4 days off, therefore it’s best to utilize your off days for workouts and try to limit it to 1 training whenever you have your shift work. This will still allow you to train 3-4 days in every 8 day cycle.

Workout Routine for 12 Hour Shifts Work

12 hour shift work is hard work, for most you will be constantly rotating your patterns working 4 days on and 4 days off with a combination of morning and night shifts. 

Those most common to shift work are the security industry, warehouse and factory workers (online retail and next day delivery are to thank for this), emergency services and to a lesser extent the hospitality and nightlife industry. 

Some of these industries make up a huge percentage of an economies workforce, particularly over here in the UK and therefore there are a lot of people struggling to get into good habits and workout routines. 

For most working the 9-5 lifestyle it may seem like a boring and mundane routine and you hear many phrases claiming to escape the 9-5 life, whatever your thoughts are around this there’s no denying that a steady routine like this is optimal to form a workout routine. 

Personal training classes operate in the early am and then later on in the evening, health clubs have set opening hours as well as local gym and leisure centers, the only real option for shift workers is to join a 24/7 gym chain (which are good options). 

My personal recommendation however is to change your mindset and training blocks. It’s easy to think of a training cycle over a 7 day period however, a normal working week is different for shift workers and therefore you should plan your working cycle over an 8 day period.

In the mainstream it’s easy to think you need to fit your workout routine into a 7 day period however professional bodybuilders don’t focus on how many sessions they can get in a week but focus on how many rest days they require and how frequently they need to train certain muscle groups. 

Therefore on shift work I recommend where possible that you train 3 days on your days off from work and then 1 days (this can be any day) during your working days. This only applies to those working a traditional 4 days on 4 days of style of shift work. 

Trying to fit training sessions in around a 12 hour shift is a stressful process, to burn fat or build muscle you need stress levels to be as low as possible so restricting your workout sessions to your days off from work is key. 

Not all shift work is 4 on 4 off however, I sometimes work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 9am-5pm and then Friday and Saturday is a 10-14 hour night shift (events). Anyone in hospitality will have a similar routine, therefore I workout Monday – Friday and have all sessions finished before any shift work begins. 

What Should You Eat on a 12 Hour Shift

As shift work is typically longer than your average working day people can really struggle with what to eat on a 12 hour shift. What I would say is that on a day shift that finishes any time before 8pm then you should eat as you normally would. 

This will of course depend on your training goals and if you have a planned diet program and if not then I highly recommend checking out my dieting physique guide to help you decide what your goal should be and how many calories you should be consuming each day:

Lean bulk vs bulk and cut

If that is the case then simply follow your diet plan or if you track your macros then continue to do this, it would be good to include a few high calorie shakes throughout the day as these are convenient and won’t interfere with your working routine. 

If however you fall into the category of working a 12 hour shift during the night then this is when you need to be very cautious about what you are consuming because there are very conflicting views around this subject. 

There is the viewpoint that during a natural circadian cycle we go to sleep when it gets dark and wake when it’s bright and our bodily functions have evolved to work within this cycle. For anyone working shift work this will have an impact on your circadian rhythm, sleep is affected and it has been shown to have a long term effect on mental health leading to depression and other illnesses. (research source)

If your already forcing your body to do something that it’s not used to then feeding it at unnatural hours is also not ideal as you will be digesting food at different times and not to mention any form of caffeine intake late at night. 

In terms of workout process and fueling your body for optimal results from your workout I highly recommend getting the majority of your daily calories in around specific periods, this will be a form of intermittent fasting however eating at 3-4am is not natural. 

If you sleep for 8 hours and work for 12 hours then this only leaves a 4 hour window each day, it’s not a huge amount of time however getting the majority of your calories in during this window will go a long way to stabilizing your routine. 

If you want to see more about intermittent fasting you can check it out here.

There is also advice that I’ve heard from a nutritionist that says blood sugar spikes and cortisol/adrenaline spikes are frequent during shift work, particularly at night and I personally have experience finishing a shift and feeling wired and wide awake. 

This is the result of blood sugar spikes and this particular nutritionist advised that consuming small nutrient rich meals throughout a shift will help to prevent this. It does make a lot of sense however for the purpose of physique development I’d still be inclined to move towards an intermittent fasting method.

Is It Better to Go to the Gym Before or After a Night Shift

This is a key point to take into consideration when working a night shift and that is whether you should go to the gym before or after a night shift and the answer should always be before. 

Coming back to the circadian rhythm you should be looking to go to bed as soon as possible after a night shift in order to wake whilst it’s still bright outside and having the opportunity to go out in sunlight is crucial. 

Besides from that there are a range of other reasons not to workout after a night shift and these include:

  • Increased cortisol and stress – even if you don’t physically feel it your body will be stressed after a night shift, especially a 12 hour shift. Therefore working out with raised cortisol will not only affect your progress but it will have a negative effect on your workout performance
  • Raising cortisol and adrenaline before you sleep – if your sleeping pattern is already negatively affected by night shifts then you need to be doing all you can to sleep as soon as possible after your shift. Exercises and raising body temperature, adrenaline and cortisol are all components that will keep you awake longer and further stress your body
  • An inability to get sufficient nutrition around your workout – fully fueling and recovering from a workout requires at least an hour period either side of a workout in order to both fuel and replenish nutrient stores around a workout (primarily muscle glycogen from weight training).

There are a few other smaller reasons not to workout after a night shift however the overriding point is if you are going to workout around a night shift then it is better to do so before than to seriously impact your progress by trying to train after a night shift.

Please note that this article is not provided to give medical advice and is for informational and opinion purposes only. If you feel any ill effects from working 12 hour shift work then please seek medical advice from your doctor.

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