It has been clearly established that maximal force varies during the day in human muscles but the exact mechanisms behind the diurnal rhythms are still not fully clarified. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine the diurnal rhythms in maximal isometric force production in a large group of participants and also by separating the high morning performance types (n = 8) and the high evening performance types (n = 19) from the neutral types (n = 45) based on their actual maximal isometric force levels. Measurements were performed in the morning (7:26 h ± 63 min) and in the evening (17:57 h ± 74 min) for maximal bilateral isometric leg press force (MVCLP) together with myoelectric activity (EMGLP), maximal unilateral isometric knee extension force (MVCKE) and maximal voluntary activation level (VA%) during maximal unilateral isometric knee extension force (MVCVA) together with myoelectric activity (EMGVA). In addition, venous blood samples were drawn four times a day and serum testosterone and cortisol concentrations were analyzed. None of the participants belonged to the extreme morning or evening chronotype according to the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire. In the total group of participants, MVCLP and MVCKE were 4.4 ± 12.9% (p < 0.01) and 4.3 ± 10.6% (p < 0.01) higher in the evening compared to the morning. MVCVA and VA% did not show significant diurnal variation. The high morning performance types showed lower force values in the evening compared to the morning for MVCLP (10.8 ± 9.1%; p < 0.05) and MVCKE (5.7 ± 4.9%; p < 0.05). No significant diurnal variation was observed for MVCVA and VA%. The high evening performance types showed higher force values in the evening for MVCLP (16.1 ± 15.9%; p < 0.001), MVCKE (13.5 ± 11.3%; p < 0.001) and MVCVA (6.2 ± 9.9%; p < 0.05) with a concomitant higher VA% in the evening (p < 0.05). The neutral types showed significantly higher evening force values for the MVCLP (2.1 ± 6.7%; p < 0.05). All the other neuromuscular variables did not show significant diurnal variations. EMGLP and EMGVA did not show significant diurnal fluctuations in any group. Serum testosterone and cortisol concentrations showed normal daily rhythms with higher values observed in the morning in all of the groups (p < 0.001). Between-group differences were observed for MVCLP (p < 0.001) and MVCKE (p < 0.001) between all of the three groups. Diurnal changes in VA% differed between the high evening performance types and the neutral types (p < 0.05) and the testosterone/cortisol ratio (p < 0.05) as well as vastus lateralis EMGVA (p < 0.05) differed between the high morning and high evening performance types. In conclusion, we were able to identify the high morning performance types, the high evening performance types and the neutral types who showed significantly different diurnal rhythms in force production, irrespective of their actual chronotype. Therefore, the questionnaires designed to determine the chronotype may not always be sensitive enough to determine the "morningness" or "eveningness" in maximal neuromuscular performance. In general, central factors could partially explain the diurnal fluctuations in maximal strength performance, but peripheral mechanisms were also possibly involved.
Keywords: Cortisol; diurnal variation; electromyography; knee extensor muscles; maximal isometric strength; neuromuscular performance; testosterone; voluntary activation level.