Lifting the curse: Understanding the female body and weight training
Of all the things I learned during grade school, I certainly didn’t think all those awkward health classes and “girl only” discussions would eventually lead me to a more in-depth understanding of my body and the internal changes that occur over the course of four weeks every month. As a female weight lifter, I can easily relate to any woman who comes to me asking about water retention – cramps – fatigue – extreme hunger and cravings – you know, all those awesome things we get to experience each month (fellas, try not to be jealous). With hormones controlling literally all avenues of our lives, it can become discouraging and annoying when the time and dedication we put into our fitness goals and progress seem to be hindered without a logical reason – we are making a conscious effort to eat right, weight training consistently, putting time into cardio, and still it seems we aren’t seeing justifiable results. Here enters the female hormone cycle (insert triumphant music sounds here)…men may think it is just a one week ordeal, but we know damn well that isn’t the case. It visits each month, wreaking complete havoc upon our lives; this is a cycle and our bodies are going through internal changes every single day of the month. Its no wonder that our training efforts and the results we see aren’t always what we expect.
Now, what if I told you there were a way to regain control over your body, to stop feeling like you are training against yourself, and instead start to see and feel that you are training in a way that will bring you more results and a greater confidence in your time spent at the gym no matter what time of the month it is. Ladies, I’d like to introduce you to the science of weight training and the female menstrual cycle! It’s time to holla at your hormones.
Before jumping into things too much, I’d like to start with the basics – the 101 on good ol’ Aunt Flow. So, to start, let me introduce you to the names of the four stages of the menstrual cycle, beginning with the follicular phase (lasting from day 0 to 14); ovulation (day 14); the luteal phase (lasting from day 15 to 28); and ending with menstruation. Throughout these days of month, there are a few key hormones I will discuss that are busy at work inside our bodies:
- Estrogen – stimulates tissue growth, boosts synthesis and function of neurotransmitters that affect sleep, mood, memory, libido, learning, attention span
- Progesterone – ensures the development and function of the breasts and female reproductive tract; binds to certains receptors to exert a calming, sedating effect, and improves sleep
- Serotonin – responsible for regulating anxiety, happiness, mood, appetite, etc.
- Dopamine – affects your emotions, movements and your sensations of pleasure and pain
So, what do these hormones and phases have to do with weight training and why is it important that we pay closer attention to what our bodies are telling us? For premenopausal females who are not taking birth control, the answer might leave you mindblown. No, this isn’t a mind trick or a placebo trial and error experiment, and it certainly isn’t a quick and easy fix. This is science, and with the proper amount of attention to our bodies and through consistent time spent in the gym, you can gear your workouts for optimal results depending on where you are currently at in your monthly cycle.
THE FOLLICULAR PHASE
Beginning immediately after menstruation ends and lasting day 0 through 14, the follicular phase welcomes an increase in estrogen while maintaining a normal level of progesterone. This phase is characterized by a higher tolerance for pain, and is exactly when we should be focusing on making progress with the weights! With our bodies reaching the highest maximum voluntary generation capacity and increasing levels of endurance, this is the time you will find you are feeling fatigue much later in your workout. This is also in an optimal time for your body to utilize muscle glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrates), the primary fuel muscles use in energy production…this means the body will have a higher insulin sensitivity (aka becoming more efficient in digesting carbs and absorbing nutrients). This two week period is a great opportunity to eat higher carb pre and post workout meals as your body is going to be utilizing this increase in carb intake to its max ability. More fuel = more energy = more gains!
THE OVULATION PHASE
The next phase our bodies enter into is ovulation, taking place on day 14. Ovulation is characterized by peaks in estrogen levels and an increase in progesterone. With our hormones rising, our bodies will also experience an increase in strength, totally rad right? – – give us all the weight! However, this comes with an increase in risk for injury due to heightened collagen metabolism and lack of muscular control. So yes, tackle the heavier sets, but be extremely mindful of your form and muscular fatigue levels.
Fun fact…ovulation welcomes a boost in your metabolism too, it sounds exciting, but it actually is to blame for those intensified feelings of hunger and cravings. You heard me right, wanting chocolate (or tacos) isn’t just a myth – – our bodies are actually reacting to the changes in our hormonal levels. We are supposed to be feeling this way! But stay conscious about what you are consuming and how much, insulin sensitivity will be slowly declining so your body will be less efficient in digesting carbs and absorbing nutrients.
THE LUTEAL PHASE
Following ovulation, your body will enter into the luteal phase from day 15 to 28. This time frame is characterized by a decline in estrogen levels with a continued increase in progesterone. As these fluctuations occur, it is common to experience higher than normal body temperatures which place a greater strain on the cardiovascular system – – decreased time to exhaustion and higher levels of fatigue are common during this phase as a result.
Although you may be feeling a bit more physically sluggish, internally your body will be at its peak metabolic state. In fact, studies show women can experience metabolism levels up to 7.7% higher than normal – – this also contributes to the increased thermic effect from food sources because the body will be burning more calories during digestion. Due to the gradual loss of energy and state the body is in, the luteal phase is an optimal time to work on utilizing lower intensity cardio training with moderate intensity weight training. It is also an ideal period of time to see how the body responds to nutritional changes – – opting for a lower carb, lower calorie intake will help kick-start fat burning during these thirteen days. BUT, be forewarned, despite a heightened metabolic state, letting your guard down and caving into cravings by overindulging into your favorite tub of ice cream can be more destructive than satisfying.
I want to take us back to an article I wrote a few weeks ago, “4 SIMPLE REASONS YOU AREN’T SEEING RESULTS”, for a quick recap on what happens when we do binge, giving into cravings and mindless eating. During the luteal phase, and ovulation, experiencing food highs (as a result of our hormones sending us into mental hiatus so we want to eat everything in site) that come from overeating can cause a vicious cycle within the CNS (aka the brain). As a result this can lead to feelings of depression and guilt. What happens when we get hungry is our brains seek out what aids in our survival. When we get food we are rewarded with dopamine, the chemical responsible for flooding the pleasure center of the brain. Once we have eaten enough, dopamine is no longer released. See, the downfall is when we start to scoop that ice cream, eventually taking the spoon to the bottom of the carton, the brain begins to lose its ability to stimulate and release dopamine because it no longer recognizes what a healthy amount is. So our monthly period binges may turn into more frequent happenings, resulting in an increase in weight gain and unhealthy eating habits. Leading to a setback in progress both inside and outside of the gym. If you are interested in reading more, you can find the full article by visiting: http://www.jadablitz.com/four-simple-reasons-youre-not-seeing-results/
In addition to risking chaotic dopamine levels, balancing serotonin (the hormone responsible for regulating anxiety, happiness, mood, appetite, etc.) can be a bit turbulent too. During this phase, serotonin will be lower – – this why many females experience irritability and “moodiness”. Just like with dopamine, our CNS triggers and turns us toward food to fulfill our need for this happy chemical, food and eating = a rapid release of serotonin, providing us with an instant mood boost.
At last, we have reached the end of the hormonal rollercoaster and our bodies begin to re-regulate back to some “normalcy”. As estrogen and progesterone levels begin to balance, and our fatigue levels go from zombie to functioning human being, the following 5-7 days (on average – – keep in mind menstruation duration is different for every woman) are when we should focus on transitioning back into higher intensity and strength training loads. Our metabolisms will also move toward a normal state before decreasing again at the start of the follicular phase, and insulin sensitivity increases.
If you are considering modifying your weight training and nutrition according to your monthly cycle, there are a few bits of advice I’d like to share. First, get a calendar and a notebook – – these will become your BFFs! As the body goes through four weeks of all these changes, you will want to make note of where you are in your cycle, how you are adjusting your weight training/cardio routine, as well as tracking any nutritional changes and how your body responds – – noting what you are consuming and when. Second, stay focused on eating according to how you will be training in the gym vs. for pleasure/dietary satisfaction. The more consistent you are, the more intune you will become with your body both internally and externally. Third, remember this is science and with science comes trial and error before success. Don’t expect to see results and significant change after giving things a four week run. All good things take time, and a strong dose of patient is going to be needed here. I recommend a three month tracking “experiment“, giving your body the time and attention it deserves before jumping to any conclusions about how effective and worthwhile all of this was. I mean come on ladies, this is the human body after all, and we can’t control all the whacky things that are taking place inside of us so why not work with what our mamas gave us. I say it’s time to embrace the power of the period!