I’ve been strength training on a regular basis, and noticed a strange phenomena. One week I’d be feeling great, lifting heavier weights, when suddenly, out of nowhere—noodle arms! It was frustrating and I didn’t know why. I started getting into a rhythm of one or two weeks a month feeling like I’ve lost strength before bouncing back harder than ever.
Why was this happening?
Believing it had something to do with my menstrual cycle, I decided to do some internet sleuthing and found out that the drop in estrogen and testosterone during a woman’s luteal phase could be the issue.
What is the luteal phase?
The luteal phase is the second part of the menstrual cycle, beginning after ovulation. This occurs the third week of our menstrual cycle, usually about 14 days before our period (going by the 28-day cycle). During the luteal phase, testosterone and estrogen drop. Testosterone and estrogen are hormones responsible for building muscle and endurance, respectively.
It seems like a pretty raw deal, until you factor in the fact that we have the “follicular phase.” During the follicular phase our bodies are high in estrogen and testosterone, giving us the ability to crush our goals and build muscle. One study recommends focusing on weight training during the follicular phase in order to maximize strength gains.
How Hormonal Changes in Women Affect Workouts
Throughout a 28-day cycle, women’s bodies produce varying amounts of estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. The first week of menstruation starts the follicular phase in females, bringing gains, endurance, and energy.
Basically, from the first day you begin your period until ovulation (on average, 14 days after your period) making gains in strength and endurance is optimal. Lifting gets easier from week one to week two because women will have higher pain tolerance, and endurance. Rising testosterone helps you build muscle, and estrogen production helps build connective tissue, protecting your muscles and joints. Evidence suggests strength training for the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle leads to greater gains in lean body mass.
Finding a Workout Flow
Days 1–7 of the menstrual cycle begins the first day of your period. I don’t know about you, but the first few days of being on my period, workouts are usually off limits. I rest for two or three days, then start priming my body to meet training goals. At the beginning of this week I opt for gentle to moderate day or two of slow yoga (avoiding inversions and backbends). Near the end of my period I start doing moderate lifts/reps, vinyasa Yoga, and body-weight workouts. As my testosterone and estrogen levels rise, I steadily increase the intensity of how hard I work my body, in sync with my rising energy levels.
Days 7–14 of the menstrual cycle, leads to a peak endurance and strength gains. Because estrogen and testosterone are peaking around the same time, working out is easier, and our bodies are primed for endurance. These days I opt for HIIT or jump roping, alternating with heavy weights. This is the time to push hard kick ass! I’m always pleasantly surprised by my strength this week, and lavish the additional energy 🙂 .
Days 14–22 is the “Wow, what the heck happened to all my strength?!” week. This is the beginning of the lutual phase, and occurs immediately after ovulation. Exercise is harder, and women’s bodies are generally more fatigued due to steadily dropping levels of estrogen and testosterone. I don’t do much except gentle yoga and resign myself to the pathetic amount of reps I manage to struggle through.
Mostly I want to snack, go on a nature walk, and take it easy. And that’s fine; my personal fitness isn’t diminished by resting when my body needs a little extra care. If you choose to strength train at this point in your cycle be cautious. You will be more prone to injuries like strains and joint injuries due to an increase in relaxin (a hormone that softens ligaments), and a decrease in estrogen (which builds connective tissue). Try less reps or lighter weights to adjust for this stage of your hormonal cycle.
Days 23–28 marks the end of the luteal phase. This is the time PMS may hit and you’ll benefit from doing moderate exercises. I usually choose this time of the month to focus on doing moderate cardio, body strength exercises, and power yoga, with peppered with low-intensity strength training.
Before I researched it, I didn’t understand why my energy levels were taking dips and jumps, for seemingly no reason at all. Now I realize this pattern is normal, and to be expected. I’ve carved out a fitness routine that respects my body’s need to adjust to hormonal fluctuations, while maintaining the integrity of my fitness goals. It’s become a natural flow. I’m proud to have found a workout routine that I can stick to, that is manageable, and above all helps me stay fit while respecting my body.
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Photo: Logan Weaver via Unsplash