Us women face issues that men simply never will. Performance, strength, training motivation and coordination when training vary during our periods because of the (roughly) monthly cycle of hormonal variations that we undergo.
On the contrary, a man’s hormones are relatively stable across the month: the implication being they can train pretty much the same way, every day. Lucky bastards!
While I still wish that we didn’t need to bleed out every month, there seems to be a silver lining. Research suggests that we can exploit our rollercoaster hormones consisting of progesterone, estrogen and testosterone for better strength and muscle gains. This exploitation is also referred to as the Menstrual Timing of Training — MTT.
An overview of the “normal” menstrual cycle
Just a tiny note before I begin: strictly speaking, there is no “normal” menstrual cycle — as we all know, it varies from duration between women and even the same woman can experience different period lengths from month to month.
The word “normal” in this article only serves to describe the typical cycle of hormonal changes which occur under standard situations. Alright, now that we’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, let’s proceed.
While most women report a 28 day cycle, menstrual cycles can last between 24–32 days in duration. The primary purpose of Aunt Flo is to prepare for the potential of pregnancy and most of the hormonal changes and their effects are aimed at this goal.
The menstrual cycle can be divided into 2 major phases.
#1 — Follicular phase (FP): day 1 to 14
In early follicular phase, 5 to 20 follicles — each housing an immature egg — develop due to the effects of Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and bead on the surface of the ovary. Usually, only one follicle will mature into an egg, while the others die.
Progesterone levels remain pretty much constant, while estrogen levels rise throughout this phase. This surge in estrogen causes a thickening of the uterine lining and causes the vagina to be less acidic and more hospitable towards sperms.
The baby-making machine is now live.
#2 — Luteal phase (LP): day 15 to 28
The egg is released on day 14 and this event is also termed as ‘ovulation’. This special day marks both the middle of the menstrual cycle and the end of the follicular phase. The menstrual cycle now enters the luteal phase.
In early luteal phase, the follicle which released the egg develops into a structure called the corpus luteum, and it starts to produce the hormone progesterone.
In the late luteal phase, progesterone and estrogen start to drop again. This drop in hormonal levels is also the main underlying cause for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) — also known as the “monthly-crazies” to most of the boyfriends and husbands out there. PMS usually occurs in the last 4–7 days before menstruation begins once again, setting off yet another cycle.
The above dynamics just goes to show just how incredibly complex women are in comparison to men — progesterone and estrogen levels are increasing, then decreasing, then criss-crossing.
Okay, I’ll admit: that wasn’t nearly as brief an overview as I’d hoped it to be, but an understanding on the fluctuations of specific hormones helps with the scheduling of training for maximum strength and muscle gains.
More gains for less work? Hell, yes.
So — how do we structure our workouts around Aunt Flo? Here’s how.
Go as hard as possible in the first 2 weeks
In the first 2 weeks of your menstrual cycle, the focus should be on the iron part of the fitness game: weight training should be done 3–5 times a week, and calorie intake should be a little above maintenance. This article will show you how you can calculate your maintenance calories. The combination of heavy weight-lifting and additional food intake helps with muscle and strength building.
Wait — but why?
Multiple studies have investigated the effects of Menstrual Timing of Training (MTT) on gains in muscle and strength. Overall, the results show that when strength training is primarily performed during the Follicular Phase, there is a noticeable superiority in muscle and strength gains in comparison to training performed during the Luteal phase.
Okay — but why?
Well, it’s probably because of — you guessed it — the hormones. Estrogen rises throughout the Follicular Phase, and it’s repeatedly shown to have anabolic effects through increasing the amount of myonuclei in the muscle. In turn, the muscle’s capacity to grow increases, highlighting the reason why the first 2 weeks of the menstrual cycle are optimal for building muscle and strength. Estrogen’s impact is also further boosted by the peaking of testosterone levels around ovulation.
Make sure you warm up in the fertile window
Women are at a substantially greater risk for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries than are men, and a recent meta-review has found that the risk of tendon injury for women is highest in the days leading up to ovulation: when estrogen levels are high.
While more research is definitely needed in the area, it never hurts to do more warm-up exercises during the fertile window. It burns more energy too.
Focus on fat loss in the last 2 weeks
In terms of muscle and strength building, the Luteal Phase of the menstrual cycle isn’t as productive as the first 2 weeks. The focus should be on fat loss instead of weight-lifting. 1 or 2 days of low intensity cardio at 20 to 40 minutes per session can be added in if necessary.
That doesn’t mean that no weight-lifting should be performed though — 1 to 2 sessions should still be part of the routine to maintain muscle mass while losing fat, and re-sensitise the muscles to the stimulus of more serious weight training.
Wait — but why?
Its catabolic effects, paired with the falling levels of estrogen and testosterone in the luteal phase, explains why women would reap less muscle growth and strength gains in this period. Pun entirely intended.
And there you have it — the guide on how you can schedule your workouts around your menstrual cycle for more gains in muscle and strength. If, like me, you can’t even remember most of your passwords and therefore can’t be arsed to track where you are in your menstrual cycle, you can download period tracker apps which are easily found on the Android or Apple app store.
To more muscle gains and (hopefully) less period pains!
Thanks for reading! If you want an evidence-based approach to fitness and nutrition for women, start by learning how many calories you need daily. You’ll like it — I promise!