Women's hormones have a huge role in overall performance in the gym. Once you understand the role of these hormones, as a woman yourself or a coach programming for your women clients, you can adjust programs as necessary so that by design, their workouts are working with them- not against them.
For the record, you should know that this blog is pertaining to premenopausal women who aren't using oral birth control.
The Different Phases of your Cycle:
1. The Follicular Phase
*Focus on getting stronger and eating carbs
The start of your cycle starts right after you finish menstruating with the follicular phase, lasting from day zero to 14. This phase is characterized by increasing estrogen, normal progesterone, and an average body temperature.
This is the phase in your cycle you should be focusing on progress because you will be at your highest maximum voluntary force generation capacity which means you’ll be able to see noticeable progress. You’ll also enjoy increased levels of endurance during this phase and will able to endure a good amount of pain.
Insulin sensitivity levels will also be higher during this phase so focusing on higher carb foods, especially after lifting heavy weights, will aid in muscle building and recovery.
*Warm up, set some PR’s and eat a well balanced diet
Ovulation takes place around day 14 and when it occurs, your estrogen is at its peak while progesterone starts to increase. Body temperature usually begins to rise bit and you are at your most optimal levels to conceive.
Ovulation is actually the best time to set some new PR’s! This is because you’re actually at your highest sheer force generation capacity. Note that you are also at a higher risk for injury though due to your estrogen being at its peak and impacting collagen metabolism as well as neuromuscular control so make sure you take the time to warm up.
You may also experience higher levels of hunger here as your metabolism is starting to increase so consider adding in some more calories during this phase. Since your insulin sensitivity is already on the decline, if you add more calories in, make sure to add a good balance of all macros; proteins, carbs and fats.
3. The Luteal Phase
*Decrease workout intensities, increase reps, try to avoid carb and sugar cravings
The Luteal phase occurs from days 15-28 and it’s when estrogen begins to drop, progesterone increases and your body temperature stays a bit above average. Menstruation comes on the 28th day and the cycle starts all over again.
This is the phase where you’ll be on the struggle bus and most likely lacking in motivation. Your body temperature is high, your cardio endurance is low which means you’ll find yourself fatiguing at a faster rate than normal, and you’ll most likely be bloated due to increased water retention.
Be aware that your body will most likely be utilizing fats as a fuel source instead of muscle glycogen due to decreased performance in the gym and ability to go all out during your workouts so doing workouts that will utilize fat as a fuel source such as steady state cardio and moderate to low weights with higher reps would be most optimal.
The good news about this phase? Your metabolism is at its highest and you’ll experience a higher thermic effect from food which means your body will be using more energy to digest the food you consume.
With PMS comes a drop in serotonin which often leads to cravings in high sugary foods or all the carbs to counterbalance. It’s most important to keep your carb intake under control during this time as your insulin sensitivities are now at their lowest. Try your best to resist these cravings and shift your focus to recovery, getting enough sleep and adequately hydrating.
As soon as you begin menstruating and PMS symptoms begin to subside, you’ll feel somewhat normal again. Body temperature will return to normal and water retention will also subside. (yay!)
When your period decreases in flow, consider shifting back to higher intensity workouts. Since your metabolism will be on it’s way down as you move back into the follicular phase and insulin sensitivity will be back on the up and up, you may also want to consider transitioning back to a more moderate caloric intake while keeping carbs pretty central.
As your period finally ends and you shift back into the follicular phase, you can go back to focusing on building and implementing those higher carb/refeed days in hopes of putting on muscle mass and making some gains.