Female Fitness and the Menstrual Cycle

If you check out my workout logs on the regular, you may have seen the moan at the top of last week’s chest & triceps session:

Today’s workout SUCKED BALLS. Everything felt too heavy, I couldn’t hit my usual amount of reps, bleargh. Period due in 5, 4, 3…

Which, if you don’t have periods, don’t track your cycle or don’t pay attention to the ups and downs of strength and endurance training may be leaving you thinking… wtf?

For a lot of women, the few days before a period can be a shitshow at the best of times. Aches and pains, sensitive nipples, cravings, bloating, insomnia. For a small subset of that group things get even worse, and if you’re a regular reader of my personal blog you’ll know all about my PMDD: Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder. I won’t go into detail now, but suffice it to say that it’s like PMS on crack. I keep mine in check most months with regular exercise, abstaining from alcohol and a cocktail of vitamins and minerals. But still, what’s this got to do with strength training, and why was I moaning about my sucky workout?

On Thursday, when I logged my chest & triceps workout, I was right at the end of my cycle (day 26 approx). At the end of a typical 28 day cycle and as the next one starts, a biological female on no hormonal birth control who isn’t pregnant will have low estrogen and low testosterone, and progesterone will have just peaked and will be rapidly dropping again. This combination of low sex hormones and the rise in prostaglandins, which are released to help the body shed the lining of the womb, make us more relaxed, weaker and wobbly: for example, one study found that a significant number of ACL (part of the knee) injuries occurred on days 1 and 2 of the menstrual cycle1. However, In a few days, my strength will recover and by mid-cycle I’ll be smashing PRs again.

Idealistic Isabel’s Guide to Gainz illustrates the menstrual cycle, hormones and impact upon strength training as follows:

guide to strength training during the menstrual cycle

Isabel’s assertion that ovulation is our optimum time for “gainz” is backed up by a study on the changes in strength during the menstrual cycle from 1996 2, and the more general recommendations in the timeline of training is echoed by a 2014 study on the effects of training in the follicular vs luteal phases of the menstrual cycle3.

In addition to the affects on our actual training, the fluctuating hormones may be responsible for how we respond to our workouts and whether or not we get a mega case of the DOMS. One study in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research from 20144 showed that there may be some benefit participating in maximum effort training during the follicular phase (the first half) of the menstrual cycle when estrogen levels are highest, as this may offer some protection against muscle damage. This was also found in a 2001 study on the influence of estrogen on muscle damage5: “elevated estrogen levels have a protective effect on muscle tissue following eccentric exercise”.

So in plain English, for my menstruating ladies on a typical 28 day cycle:

  • A couple of days before bleeding starts, and for the first few days of a period, expect to feel weaker and achy.
  • From day 3-4 til ovulation, smash out some beastin’ workouts, less DOMS
  • Mid-cycle, during ovulation, go for those personal bests
  • After ovulation until menstruation, gradually drop the reps/weight and concentrate on form, watch out for DOMS
  • And start again from the top.

For an even more in depth look at how the menstrual cycle affects training, including information for those on birth control, check out Stijn van Willigen’s MONSTER guide to Monthly Timing of Training which covers everything I’ve mentioned here and more. A must read if you’re interested in getting the most benefit out of your fluctuating hormones during the month.

Me personally? I’m going to find chocolate and a hot water bottle…

References

1 The Menstrual Cycle, Sex Hormones, and Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury (James R. Slauterbeck, Stephen F. Fuzie, Michael P. Smith, Russell J. Clark, K. Tom Xu, David W. Starch, and Daniel M. Hardy)
2 Changes in muscle strength, relaxation rate and fatiguability during the human menstrual cycle (R Sarwar, B B Niclos, and O M Rutherford)
3 Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women (Eunsook Sung, Ahreum Han, Timo Hinrichs, Matthias Vorgerd, Carmen Manchado and Petra Platen)
4 Influence of Menstrual Cycle on Indices of Contraction-Induced Muscle Damage (Markofski, Melissa M; Braun, William A)
5 Influence of estrogen on markers of muscle tissue damage following eccentric exercise (Carter A, Dobridge J, Hackney AC.)

Lead photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Jem Turner hello@strongmum.com +44(0)7521056376

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