Your workouts are more dependent on your hormones than you might think. Here’s how to maximise your training, depending on what phase of the menstrual cycle you’re in.
Being mindful of your menstrual cycle when strength training can totally transform results. The ebb and flow of oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone can improve or inhibit strength, hand-eye coordination, endurance and muscle growth. Understanding your cycle means knowing when it’s good to push yourself and when you should take a step back.
Don’t just take our word for it. We’ve called upon women’s hormone expert and functional nutritionist Alisa Vitti, author of Woman Code, and personal trainer Caroline Bragg for a guide on tailoring training regimes according to each phase of our monthly cycles.
“For women, it’s not testosterone that causes lean muscle gain exclusively. It’s the combination of metabolic changes, cortisol and oestrogen paired with the right amount of calories and the right type of workout. When done properly, you can gain muscle efficiently,” explains Vitti.
While this advice will undoubtedly shed some serious light on your strength training progress, it’s key to note that everything depends on both your specific goals and the regularity of your cycle.
Day 1 of your cycle marks the start of your period and the time when many of us will want to curl up into a ball and hibernate. But the right kinds of exercise can be beneficial.
Recommended duration of strength training sessions: cap sessions at 30 minutes or less, Alisa advises, as you should avoid overstressing the body. New research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that during this stage, people are more vulnerable to strength loss and muscle damage due to lower concentrations of sex hormones and recommends using lower training loads or longer recovery periods.
Exercises recommended: when you’re probably feeling at your weakest, Bragg suggests “avoiding anything too taxing” and opting for walking, mobility or yoga as a means to make strength training progress without running the risk of burnout or injury. Less strenuous exercises will likely seem more appealing than trying to gear yourself up for intense workouts, too.
Weight intensity recommended: “Focus on form,” says Bragg. Fatigue may come as your iron levels drop through blood loss, so training with a heavy load could be counterintuitive as your form may subconsciously fall by the wayside.
Number of reps recommended: continue Bragg’s form-focused approach and consider dropping your usual rep per set target in favour of nailing your technique.
Foods for optimum physical performance: Vitti suggests upping your intake of healthy fats such as salmon and avocado to stabilise your mood and cortisol levels. An increase in calories (goal dependent) may also be worth considering, since your metabolism will be higher.
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You enter this phase after your period has come to an end. For those on a 28 day cycle, it will usually be around days six to 10. Things are on the up as oestrogen starts a steady climb to prepare the body for pregnancy. Expect motivation to come in droves as your energy builds.
Recommended duration of strength training sessions: more energy means women are often capable of extending the duration of strength training sessions at this time and, according to Bragg, this is a good opportunity to achieve PBs. Vitti adds that metabolism is slower and cortisol levels lower so you may wind up consuming fewer calories. In this stage, 30-minute sessions are sufficient.
Weight intensity recommended: while you may be capable of increasing weight load, injury risk is higher. Studies show that collagen – the protein needed to repair damaged tissues – metabolism may be slower, and so Bragg recommends “spending a little longer warming up and cooling down”. Stretch for five to 10 minutes at the start or end of a workout to encourage blood flow to muscles.
Number of reps recommended: Bragg says that rep range is another factor to consider increasing during the follicular phase, but only providing that “nutrition, sleep and stress” are under wraps. “Hormones are just one part of how we feel,” she explains. “If the rest of your lifestyle is balanced, you will see progress in this stage by steadily adding reps according to your goals.”
Foods for optimum physical performance: “Focus on lean proteins, steamed vegetables, and light grains,” says Vitti. These will regulate blood sugar and cortisol levels to avoid inflammation which could hinder muscle growth. An easy go-to? Chicken breast, quinoa and kale.
Next comes a surge in oestrogen to trigger the luteinising hormone responsible for releasing eggs and fertility. This’ll boost both strength and energy, while a study published in the Journal of Physiology showed that you could have an 11% increase in both quad and handgrip strength. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning research also found that oestrogen seems to assist muscle repair and regeneration during recovery, meaning your muscles won’t feel quite so sore after those big sessions.
Recommended duration of strength training sessions: make good use of your energy and extend your workouts if you feel capable, says Bragg. Just remember to incorporate rest where you can to avoid burnout.
Exercises recommended: with oestrogen at an all-time high, both Bragg and Vitti are advocates of taking advantage and challenging yourself with more intense classes during this time of the month. Bragg adds, “LISS (low impact steady state) is always great to complement strength training so scheduling some of this to counterbalance intensity is key.” Think long walks, swimming or yoga.
Weight intensity recommended: high oestrogen equates to a high pain threshold, making heavy loads more manageable. “Now might be the time you stack an extra plate on the barbell,” says Bragg, though this only applies if you’ve been “prepping a lift for a while”. While you’re working out from home, try to push through extra reps or add an extra few seconds onto your plank hold.
Number of reps recommended: if the goal is to gain strength and build muscle, look to “lower reps and heavier weights”, says Bragg. This will activate your fast-twitch muscle fibres and promote strength gains.
Foods for optimum physical performance: stock up on raw salads and smoothies. Vitti explains that the antioxidants and fibre will help process the oestrogen and stabilise both mood swings and cortisol levels.
By this point, progesterone is at its peak to prepare for fertilisation. A plummet in testosterone and oestrogen, meanwhile, will explain why you may feel lethargic and ‘pre-menstrual’. But all is not lost.
Recommended duration of strength training sessions: depressive tendencies are a trope we have long associated with PMS in the luteal phase, but this is a chance to take things slowly and do what makes you happy. Shorten your strength training sessions according to exactly what suits you.
Exercises recommended: “High intensity training may fatigue you faster and leave you feeling burnt out,” says Bragg. “It is always better to move than not, but give yourself permission if you don’t fancy your usual beast mode workout.”
Weight intensity recommended: go back to basics and focus on fundamentals. “This is a good chance to nail your form without loading,” says Bragg. “When you hit the higher peaks you will be properly ready with better technique.”
Number of reps recommended: do a U-turn on last week, and opt for lower weights and higher reps. Remember, strength training isn’t all about load – increased reps will encourage heart rate and endurance.
Foods for optimum physical performance: look for vitamin B-rich foods to promote production of serotonin for energy and motivation to train. Vitti recommends grains such as quinoa and buckwheat, and cooked cruciferous veggies including cauliflower, broccoli and kale.
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