Strength training is emerging as a strong variable and lever for increased health span and longevity, but is often overlooked amongst the female population in favor of aerobic and endurance-based exercise activities.
Historically, women were discouraged from muscle-building and athletic endeavors due to societal apprehension of the “de-feminizing impact of sports”, as well as the belief that “strenuous sports interfered with women’s reproductive capacities.”
Though overtraining and over-reaching in the female population is quite common, there are many opportunities to support reproduction and hormones by varying our exercise inputs and prioritizing recovery!
This begs the question, should we strength train on our cycle? Yes, and… it depends!
Strong bodies are linked to strong minds, and there is growing evidence in favor of strength training to support muscle, bone density and fat burning in women. Compared to men, women, on average, have less muscle strength-potential, making strength-training a potent strategy for optimized wellness and disease prevention.
A JAMA Study of over 115,000 predominantly female participants, ages 65 yrs and older, who participated in strength training at least twice weekly, found a correlation between strength training and all-cause mortality. Another study showed that even when training was “brief and low intensity”, that strength training successfully supported increases in strength and reduction in pain.
What does this mean for our exercise and general well-being?
Our hormones are intimately connected with our mental, emotional and physical capacities; in other words, we are NOT meant to feel like a million bucks every day of our cycle! We can and should expect to experience highs and lows throughout the month, as our bodies prepare (or don’t prepare) to procreate. Our life-creating and life-sustaining hormones experience a beautiful, dynamic flow over the course of a month, which can feel unpredictable, frustrating, and simply uncomfortable.
How can strength-training possibly support the female menstrual cycle?
Say hello to Cycle Syncing - what may be a magic solution and exciting opportunity to work WITH our hormones, rather than against. While men can generally exercise the same way every day of the month, the female Infradian Rhythm may be perceived as a complication to our calendar. Alternatively, we can reframe and perceive this as empowered permission to both ‘hit it hard’ and rest, exactly when we’re meant to.
To get started, it’s important, first and foremost, to have an understanding of the menstrual cycle and natural fluctuations of steroid hormones throughout the month.
Starting with Day 1 (the first day of a bleed), the 3 major steroid hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, rise and fall at majorly two distinct phases in a 29-day cycle. Both estrogen and testosterone peak around day 13 in the Follicular phase, whereas progesterone peaks between days 19-22 in the Luteal phase. Each of these steroid hormones can track quite differently from one woman to another, so mapping our personal cycle is an essential first step. Time to get intimate with your hormonal cycle!
Tracking temperature is an easy way to identify the transition from the Follicular to the Luteal phase. Typically, basal body temperature will read 1/2 to 1 degree higher during the second half of the cycle, post ovulation. If you haven’t ever tracked Basal Body Temperature, here are 2 simple ways to begin:
- Take a BBT thermometer or arm band and measure your body temp every morning before getting out of bed. Keep a pen and paper nearby and be sure to collect at the same time every day.
- Wearing a sleep and recovery tracker (like the OURA ring) will automatically track overnight body temperatures and chart them over a weekly, monthly and yearly period. When you see the temperature switch from below baseline to above, that’s a good indication of ovulation!
Additionally, logging the days and symptoms of your cycle with a period-tracking app can elucidate patterns and trends to make Cycle Syncing even more personalized and specific.
Once you have a clear map and calendar of your cycle, we can match our exercise selection to one of four specific phases:
- Clearing Phase (Days 1-6): all hormones are low
- “Wonder Woman” Ascension Phase (Days 7-15): estrogen & testosterone are on the rise
- Expansion Phase (Days 16-20): post-ovulation, estrogen & testosterone are metabolized and detoxified
- Cultivation Phase (Days 21-start of period):
Days 1-6: probably not your superstar moment, but it can be a clean slate! It’s normal to feel like doing nothing… but maybe a light workout sounds appealing…. the only wrong answer is not listening to your body! In general, movement and blood flow will be more helpful over being sedentary.
Physiological Status: slower reaction times, immune suppression, fatigue and reduced pain tolerance
Exercise Recommendations: low intensity, prioritize recovery days and “working in”, bodyweight strength-training, light cardiovascular training
TRY: Yoga, Tai Chi, light hiking, swimming, bodyweight functional patterns (squat, lunges, push-ups, planks)
Days 7-15: the Phoenix rises! As estrogen and testosterone start to rise (peaking around day 15) you’ll likely feel your most vital, most resilient and strong! Progesterone is low at this time.
Physiological Status: increase in mood & motivation, increased playfulness and competitiveness, increased mental clarity & cognition
Exercise Recommendations: low volume training with high intensity, speed and agility, power training, a great time to develop a new skill!
Explore: Boxing, HIIT intervals with equipment, Heavy weight training (keeping reps/sets low), Resistance machines, Hypertrophy weight training
Days 16-20: Estrogen and Testosterone drop off post-ovulation, progesterone begins to rise (peaking around Day 19/20).
Physiological Status: steady energy and efficient metabolism, recovery is highly efficient and muscular coordination is strong
Exercise Recommendations: high volume with low intensity, bodyweight exercises & conditioning work, Endurance weight training, Eccentrics training
Explore: Kettlebell MetCon, Full-Body Bodyweight Circuit, Rowing
Days 22 - start of period:
Though this isn’t an optimal time to break records and push ourselves, it can be an opportune time to improve mobility and flexibility, and prioritize restorative practices like yoga and walking. In this phase it is increasingly important to listen to your body’s recovery needs, and additionally, not skimp on total calories or carbohydrate intake, as progesterone requires these extra nutrients.
Physiological Status: motivation and energy start to decrease, reaction times inhibited, stress resiliency goes down and emotional sensitivity goes up, stability and coordination are more limited than usual
Exercise Recommendations: focus on “working-in” and rehabilitation work, more recovery days, avoid high skill & agility exercises, avoid high volume and high intensity, incorporate longer rest periods between work sets
Explore: Pilates reformer, Animal Flow, Mobility and End-Range-Conditioning, walking, Yoga
Late-Luteal Phase Disclaimer: due to the drop-off in hormones, it’s quite predictable to not only feel more emotional, but also to feel shame, guilt, and perhaps pity ourselves for not being as productive and motivated. PSA: YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE! Giving your body adequate rest by doing less and eating more carbohydrates (surprisingly) will support your hormones and overall strength resiliency.
A note about tracking physiology:
Paying attention to sleep quality, body temperature and heart rate variability can help guide which days need to prioritize recovery and rest. There are many wearable trackers on the market that can provide feedback on how your exercise choices are affecting your physiology. A few trackers I recommend: OURA Ring, Biostrap, Hanu HRV, Garmin watch, and Whoop.
Staying in the flow:
As you can see, we shouldn’t be hitting it hard every day of the month, but what happens to our habits and behaviors if we need to rest? It can be extremely helpful to have an “anchor” to keep you in the flow, and condition an intuitive practice (more on this below). When HRV and recovery are low, there are still plenty of opportunities to move your body and simultaneously support your hormones. Simply keeping the routine of walking through the doors of your gym (even if you just lay down and stretch) is a powerful enough habit to keep you in your routine and reduce the chances of losing motivation.
Back to your intuition…. we all have it! (though it often needs some gentle love and encouragement to speak its truth). Cultivating a strong intuitive practice requires patience, consistent effort, and deep listening. The more you can listen to your body and honor exactly what it needs on a given day, the more confident communication it will share with you! Over time, you will rely less on external opinions or group class schedules to dictate your exercise choices, and more on your own internal compass telling you, “today, my hormones will feel best doing _____.” You can and should be your own guru!
We can “cycle sync” many wellness practices, like skincare, nutrition, and supplements, but exercise tends to emerge as the clear winner for short and long-term benefits for health and longevity. By varying the type and intensity of exercise in accordance with our hormones, Cycle Syncing allows us to reap the maximum benefits for our efforts. Yes, you can get stronger and leaner simply by leaning into your hormonal calendar.
By working WITH our hormones, not AGAINST, we can optimize our menstrual cycle, and our strength potential! Love and befriend your hormones. That is a superpower all in itself.