The Menstrual Cycle, Muscle Growth, and Fat Loss
Despite what the media and modern society would try to have you believe, men and women are very much different.
Also despite what the media and modern society would try to have you believe, women are not crippled little creatures who have no business lifting weights. In fact, lifting creates a happier, healthier world and makes them 10x more beautiful (Murci et al).
Many women are taught that they do not belong in the weight room and have pathetic muscle building ability.
That is not the case in the slightest.
Women actually have several natural strengths when it comes to strength training and with the right approach and consistency can sculpt their feminine physique into that of a goddess.
With that in mind, today I’ll be showing you the Tao of how women can utilize a common feminine ‘downfall’ as one of their greatest assets in becoming lean, sexy, and mighty:
The menstrual cycle.
The Menstrual Cycle: A Primer
Over a period of 28 days on average, women pass along what’s known as the menstrual cycle, from the Latin “mensis” (month) & Greek “mene” (moon), referring to the time interval across which it takes place.
Without going into too much detail, the menstrual cycle is the normal process whereby Mother Nature prepares a woman’s body for the possibility of pregnancy. Over the course of this period (get used to the puns), several major shifts occur within a woman’s body, and as such, the menstrual cycle can be divided into various events and phases:
- Menstruation (day 0; lasts 2-7 days)
- Follicular Phase (days 1-14)
- Ovulation (day 14)
- Luteal Phase (days 14-28)
We’ll get into the practical aspects later when we talk about how to alter your training around the menstrual cycle for muscle growth.
For now, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on & the impact that has.
Menstrual Cycle & Hormones
Unless you’re a celibate priest living in an all-male monastery, chances are you’ve noticed that women have fluctuating hormones that exert different physiological & psychological effects.
And as it turns out, it’s entirely true.
Over the course of her menstrual cycle, the hormones within a woman’s body rise and fall like a winding rollercoaster. Estrogen and progesterone fluctuate most wildly, with estrogen peaking just before ovulation and progesterone laying low before surging during the luteal phase. And although testosterone gets all the fame for its anabolic effects, estrogen has benefits for the goal of gains as well through its anabolic effects and potential role in mitigating the effects of muscle damage from training (shocker, I know).
With regards to Mr. T, testosterone stays at a more steady level during the menstrual cycle with a slight rise at the end of the follicular phase and at ovulation.
Hormonal concentrations most certainly have an effect on our bodies, and these shifts form the basis for the rest of our discussion on the menstrual cycle for muscle growth and constructing the physique. In fact, there is mounting evidence suggesting that these changes across the monthly cycle even play a role in attraction and choice in bae.
A Note on Birth Control:
Oral contraceptives alter the natural hormonal shifts that occur across the course of the menstrual cycle and create a more level hormonal millieu, so much of the rest of the article can fly right out the window if that applies to you. It simply doesn’t have the same effect.
The Research on the Menstrual Cycle and Muscle Gains
Wouldn’t you think that scientific researchers would take the time to stop trying to figure out where the aliens are at or why America is so damn fat and instead question whether or not athletic abilities and muscle growth are in some way affected by this common component of being a woman?
Well, they have.
And the results are quite intriguing.
In several studies looking at effects of working out & the menstrual cycle, healthy eumenorrheic (with a regular menstrual cycle) women made better gains in strength and size when placing the bulk of their workouts in the follicular phase of their menstrual cycle (the period of 1-14 days from the start of menstruation).
For example, a 1995 study by Reis et al showed a 32.6% increase of strength in the group who put most of their training in the follicular phase vs. only a 13.1% in the group who spread their training out normally. Muscle cross-sectional area increases were also greater in the follicular phase group.
Another study by Sung et al looked at changes in size and strength over the course of several months (5 total, 2 of which were controls) of eumonrrheic women who weren’t taking oral contraceptives and also found better gains in the women performing the bulk of their training in the follicular phase (4x/week per muscle in the follicular phase & 1x/week in the luteal vs. the other way around with most of the training in the luteal phase).
Most recently, Wikstrom-Frisen et al found that after 4 months, a higher follicular phase training frequency (5x/week follicular, 1x luteal) led to better gains in muscle size, power, and strength than the group performing the higher frequency in the luteal phase (1x week follicular, 5x luteal) or a more even split across the menstrual cycle (3x/week the whole cycle), adding increased support to the effectiveness of training periodization around the menstrual cycle – particularly due to the strengths in study design and its practical relevance to girls who lift.
Note: Thank you to the lead author of the paper, Mrs. Wikstrom-Frisen, for graciously providing me with more information regarding the study.
Training Study Limitations
It’s important to note that all studies have limitations. For example, the study by Sung et. al used untrained subjects and diet was not controlled, so we can only speculate based on our knowledge of other areas as to what would happen with more trained subjects on a traditional fitness program with proper calories and macronutrient breakdowns.
Additionally, the impact of higher training volumes, different muscle groups (this study found no major differences between groups when training the biceps), and long term results has yet to be determined fully, and this is an area where more research is needed.
Despite these gaps in the scientific literature, evidence-based practice requires a multi-faceted approach (as I’ve outlined in my book, Architect of Aesthetics), and the real world speaks just as well to these results (most of my clients are women – and most compete), strengthening the support for menstrual cycle periodization schemes as a way to further optimize programming – especially in more advanced women.
The Research on the Menstrual Cycle and Diet
What about the effects of the menstural cycle on diet and nutrition?
With these hormonal changes occurring, wouldn’t there be an effect?
In this review of multiple studies, there was a significantly higher energy intake during the luteal phase of the cycle, indicating an increase of appetite during the last 2 weeks of the menstrual cycle. Energy expenditure increases during this period as well, but as you should know, diet can outdo exercise any day of the week.
Increases in cravings are observed as well during this period, particularly for sweets, chocolate, and salty foods in general. The evidence is mixed as to whether this is due to desires for more carbs, fats, or a combo. I speculate it’s #3.
Furthermore, these effects seem to be particularly prevalent during PMS, or pre-menstrual syndrome, a phenomenon occurring in the later stages of the luteal phase prior to menstruation which will be discussed further later in the article.
Ignoring these considerations would be asinine – especially for a fitness diet where specific, controlled dietary interventions are employed to achieve optimal results.
You have to calculate this into the optimal program.
Take-home Points Thus Far:
- As demonstrated by the studies above, the follicular phase is best for making gains – and fat loss during dieting phases due to the frequent increase in appetite and cravings during the luteal phase.
- In turn,the luteal phase is no time for starting diets or getting aggressive with caloric deficits through food restriction. Fat loss can still occur, but high fiber, satiating foods & a careful approach to energy balance is beneficial here. More general activity and less hard workouts can contribute to the deficit instead if desired. Fruits like berries can be an excellent choice for their sweetness as well.
- If shooting for recomp, the follicular phase is best for gaining & the luteal is best for cutting if executed properly.
How to Alter Your Training and Nutrition Across the Menstrual Cycle
With the basics of menstrual cycles and muscle gains out of the way, let’s tie all of this information together to show you how you can use this information to get better results for yourself or your clients.
As we’ve discussed, the menstrual cycle can be divided into seperate phases that more or less follow certain time frames:
- Follicular Phase (first two weeks from menstruation)
- Luteal Phase (second two weeks of the cycle after ovulation)
We’ll now take each one by one and discuss their practical implications for attaining an aesthetic female physique.
After menstruation begins, women enter into what’s known as the follicular phase. During this period (get it) of 14 days, training volume should be increased with frequency used as a method in bringing this about. In the studies I addressed, 3-5x/week was the protocol per muscle group.
In practice, 3-4 sessions of 1-2 exercises per muscle group per week is a good starting point – and volume should be tailored according to training status, nutritional status, and lifestyle factors – both in terms of practicality and stress levels. Start low, assess, and build. More volume is better, but only if you can handle it and recover.
Hitting it hard can be delayed a couple days if menses brings discomfort. You may find you do best towards the middle/end of the follicular phase and feel your strongest, anyways.
Lastly, if you’re looking to make gains here, don’t skimp on the calories. If fat loss is your goal, take advantage of the energy and controlled appetite.
Approximately 2 weeks after menstruation begins, women ovulate and for the next two weeks are in what’s known as the luteal phase. Progesterone rises to a peak & the ratio of estradiol (the main estrogen):progesterone is less favorable.
Therefore here – in line with the current research – training should be lowered, and frequency can be lowered to reflect that as well. 1-2 sessions per muscle adequately spaced is just fine depending on volume, and lighter loads can be used here if going heavy isn’t practical, provided you’re still working hard. You can still be active & enjoy some light activity, but temper yourself.
Due to this, deloads & off weeks from training/active recovery can be best suited for the late luteal phase to properly manage fatigue before hitting in hard in the next cycle of training when women are most receptive to gains in muscle mass and strength.
Additionally, training can be (and oftentimes must be) further reduced when factoring in the next variable of the menstrual cycle for many women: PMS.
During that last week of the menstrual cycle as they creep closer to menstruation, many women go through what’s known as PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome).
During PMS, a woman can experience mood swings, body aches, cramps, bloating, cravings/increased appetite, and shooting lightning & laser beams out of her eyes (the mechanisms behind this remain to be elucidated).
There is a lot of inter individual variability here, and not all women experience them all, at all, or to the same degree. However, it doesn’t take a NASA know-it-all to realize that this can have serious implications for diet and training.
Therefore, for the last week of the menstrual cycle where a woman may be experiencing PMS, go ahead and taper the training down and build up the dietary budget to allow her to satisfy those cravings and not fear hampering progress. As I noted earlier, higher fiber, filling foods with a little IIFYM mixed in can work like a charm.
If when cutting a diet break is to be incorporated (short periods of regular caloric intake), here is a good place to put them before hitting it again in the next phase.
…So Go With the Flow
This is key to work with the flow of a woman’s shifts and set her up for success by creating a favorable program that doesn’t have her suffering when she’s most vulnerable.
This is key for sustainable outcomes via adherence and enjoyability.
For Trainers, Coaches, and Clients
Lastly, let’s talk about some further real-world implications.
Clear, open communication, trust, and confidentiality are all key aspects of top-notch coaching, so when working with female clients, this is a discussion you damn well better be having.
The menstrual cycle is an integral part of being a woman and brings with it several changes in mood, energy level, and so forth that are highly individual.
In addition, you’ve just learned about the potential of altering training to match these shifts, so being on the same page is essential for ensuring you’re maximizing your results.
If you’re a client being coached, don’t be afraid to bring it up for the reasons listed above.
And if you have a coach who isn’t aware of the implications of the menstrual cycle when training female clients (who can read and knows the value of evidence-based coaching), share this article with them.
Most male coaches have no clue and run around thinking you can train women the same way as men.
Not if you wanna be the best, that is.
Menstrual Cycle Tracking
You should also know by now that tracking is an essential part of fitness success.
It applies to training, nutrition, body composition (weight and fluid retention shifts across the cycle), subjective factors, and for women : their menstrual cycle.
There are several apps out there that make this simple & easy, so find one that you like and track your monthly cycle to get better in tune with things.
On top of that, keep a journal in your notes app, a cloud document, or plain ‘ol pen and paper to write down more subjective factors related to your monthly cycle such as how you feel:
- and emotionally.
Adding these in to your traditional tracking methods of training, nutrition, and body composition, you’ll be able to identify trends and learn your body on a whole new level.
Responses across the phases of the menstrual differ in women, and some see greater benefits or downfalls during different periods. Track it for at least 2-3 cycles and see how you’re responding.
In conclusion, girls are from Venus, boys are from Mars. Or something like that.
Women, work with your body – not against it. Try these tactics for menstrual cycles and muscle growth out for yourself and show the world what a lifting woman is capable of.
Share this article with fellow female lifters out there…
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