Female hormones and a woman’s menstrual cycle have a huge effect on the success your client can have in the gym. Even as male trainers, you should be in the know about your client’s cycle – so you can help them use their cycle to their benefit instead of it overruling their diet and exercise adherence! The part of the cycle your client is in can have a massive impact on her strength levels, energy, sleeping patterns, ability to utilise carbohydrate for fuel, her moods and even her ability to build muscle! If you can help her track the different phases she can use these to her advantage, becoming a weapon in the gym and fast-tracking her strength and fat loss goals.
First, we need to understand the basics of the menstrual cycle. A typical cycle is between 28-35 days, and there are two distinct phases with ovulation in between. It is a good idea to get clients to use an app such as Clue or Flow to track their cycle so they can see the different phases they move through and trends that may occur.
The first stage is the follicular phase. This starts from the first day of their period and runs until they reach ovulation (typically between 10-16 days). During this stage the hormone Estrogen is at its highest and the egg is released from the ovary for fertilisation. Estrogen is anti-catabolic, which can aid muscle repair because it prevents catabolism by speeding up glucose intake within muscle fibres. For some women maximal strength does not differ between cycle phases, however many women report feeling stronger, being less hungry and having more energy during the follicular phase.
What does this mean for training?
This is the best time to program high volume/intensity strength sessions and promote high intensity HIIT sessions. Due to high levels of Estrogen, in this phase women will not only have more energy and be able to train harder but they will also recover more quickly from high volume work than they typically would in the luteal phase. As ovulation (when the egg is released) gets closer there is another surge of hormones, including Testosterone, so this can be the best time to hit a PR in the gym.
During the follicular phase, women also report being less hungry and have a significant reduction in cravings, making dieting easier. We as a coach can use this to our advantage by placing our client into a higher caloric deficit (500-700 cal) for two weeks, before adjusting for the luteal phase. Of course, we still need to fuel training sessions so it can help to taper carbohydrate intake to before and after training.
After ovulation the second stage in the cycle kicks into gear, typically from day 16-28. The luteal phase begins while the egg is waiting to be fertilised. If the egg is not fertilised, the body goes through a range of hormonal changes to trigger the return to the follicular stage, marked by the first day of a period.
During the luteal phase Estrogen levels drop and Progesterone levels rise. Progesterone counteracts Estrogen; it has catabolic effects on the body, can inhibit your brain’s ability to recruit muscle fibres, and can block Testosterone’s positive effects (such as muscle growth and activation). All of these hormonal fluctuations can lead to women struggling with a wide array of PMS symptoms such as bloating, pain, low energy, irritability, poor sleep, a decrease in strength levels, hunger, and food cravings. It is important to note that mild PMS symptoms are normal but if a client is in crippling pain or having severe mood swings she should seek advice from her GP or Gynaecologist.
What does this mean for training?
It is during this phase that your clients may suddenly feel a decrease in energy and strength levels. Many women report feeling ‘weak’ or ‘slow’ and this can have a major impact on both training and diet adherence. With knowledge and tracking their cycle we can program around this and keep them on track, instead of them being ‘good’ for 2 weeks then falling off the radar in the second half of their cycle. During this phase we need to monitor how a client feels, adjust programming accordingly, and educate the client that it is normal to feel fatigued and have less strength. This knowledge alone can be enough to improve a client’s mood as they feel less guilty for taking it easy! You can adjust their program by reducing load, increasing rest breaks or moving towards a moderate intensity mixed training style with a combination of strength training, steady state cardio and moderate HIIT training such as circuits. You can still use progressive overload strength sessions during this time if that is your client’s goal; but as the first day of bleeding approaches reduce the load, as when clients are cramping or bloated the core does not engage as well as it should and this can increase the risk of injury.
During the luteal phase, women often report being hungrier and having cravings for high fat and simple carbohydrate foods. This is partially because our body’s ability to uptake carbohydrate is reduced. If fat loss is your client’s goal it is a good idea to reduce the caloric deficit a client is in to be 100-200 calories below maintenance, instead of the usual 500 we would typically prescribe for fat loss. This allows a little extra room for clients to consume an extra snack or treat in moderation to reduce cravings and hunger levels. You can offset this by making the caloric deficit higher at 500-700cal during the follicular phase, and over the month the deficit remains roughly 500cal per day. This strategy can help avoid the binge-restrict cycle and improve diet adherence. Just be careful to ensure your client is not drastically reducing calories for their increased training volume in the follicular phase.
What about during their period?
Each woman will have different symptoms, pain levels and emotions during this time (which is actually in the follicular phase). It is important to have open communication about how your client is feeling and adjust the intensity as needed. Some clients will feel great and be keen for a big training session while others may be in pain and be better suited to a lower intensity strength session/ circuit, some technique work or even a rest day. Studies have shown that exercise during a period can help alleviate some symptoms and give clients better energy levels, improved moods, and aid sleep. Some women can become iron deficient during their period so it can help to increase the amount of high iron foods such as red meat, beans and dark leafy greens – but you should always refer to a GP for blood tests to confirm this.
The benefits of exercise are endless. It is our job as personal trainers to educate our clients and enable them to have open communication about their hormonal cycle, without embarrassment. This could be the difference between your client thriving or failing with her fitness and body composition goals.
Davis HC, Hackney AC. Sex Hormones, Exercise and Women: Scientific and Clinical Aspects. Springer; 2016. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Ovarian Axis and Oral Contraceptives: Regulation and Function; pp. 1–17.
Roar. Dr Stacy Sims. Available on book depository.
Effects of the Menstrual Cycle on Exercise Performance
Xanne A.K. Janse de Jonge, Sports Med. 2003;33(11):833-51