What you’re getting yourself into:
20-25 minutes read time (cup of tea advised)
1. A lot of women experience fluctuations in strength, training motivation an fatigue during their monthly cycle.
2. Women with a natural menstrual cycle and women who take tri-phasic birth control pills have multiple hormonal phases with different hormone concentrations during the month. Synthetic hormones in mono-phasic birth control pills suppress their natural production of female hormones. That’s why these women only have one (mono) hormonal phase.
3. Science supports anecdotal claims of increased strength at certain moments in the month. Studies show that strength often peaks around ovulation in women with a natural menstrual cycle. This is probably because of a peak in estrogen at that time, which is thought to enhance strength.
4. Science has repeatedly shown Menstrual Timing of Training is important for women with multiple hormonal phases (natural cycle and tri-phasic birth control). It gets them more muscle and strength for the work they do in the gym. Actually, doing the bulk of your training at the wrong times can even hamper your muscle and strength gains!
5. Scheduling your workouts and diet according to your menstrual cycle is a great strategy to get the best possible results with the least fatigue/motivation struggles.
Every time I’m at the gym, doing my thang, I see women putting in the hours. Upon hours, upon hours. Women who are actually giving weight training the benefit of the doubt, which demonstrates that the stigma of getting bulky from weights is disappearing little by little. However, for most women the hormonal circumstances aren’t great when it comes to shaping their bodies and butts. Nothing like the circumstances of the young testosterone-oozing fellows who seem like they can stuff themselves with peanut butter-lathered cheesecake. Which then of course gets turned into muscle.
This sparked a desire in me. To investigate whether women can use their rollercoaster hormones to their advantage.
A lot of women experience dips in training at different times during the month. One day, they feel on top of the world, easily deadlifting Personal Records off the ground. Other days feel like an uphill battle: low energy, low strength, low motivation to train.
There’s a logical explanation for this. It has to do with the fluctuation of hormones during a menstrual cycle. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with the workout struggles they cause. Even better, you can exploit these hormone fluctuations for better strength and muscle gains. It can be done by working with your hormones instead of against them: by timing your training according to your hormonal fluctuations.
This article will show that your menstrual cycle should dictate your training schedule if you want the best possible results with the least amount of struggles. At the end, I give some sample workout programs that you can start implementing today (and in the month to come…), along with dietary advice in line with this approach.
This article may also be of interest to (male) trainers that want to help their female clients get the most out of their training.
The menstrual cycle in a nutshell
First off, let’s have a 101 on menstrual cycles (yup, that sounds strange coming from a man, I know).
You can divide the menstrual cycle into 2 major phases:
Follicular phase (FP) – day 1 to 14
Luteal phase (LP) – day 15 to 28
Of course, some women have cycles that take longer or shorter than 28 days, but let’s imagine it always lasts 28 days.
Within these 2 major phases, there are 2 shorter phases:
Menstruation phase – day 1 to 5
Ovulation phase – day 12 to 17 (ovulation occurs somewhere between those days)
The amount of certain hormones in your body shifts from one phase to another. Especially the female hormones estradiol (an estrogen) and progesterone fluctuate up and down during the cycle. The image below illustrates this.
Taking birth control pills
These hormonal fluctuations don’t apply to all women. Birth control pills, such as Yaz, Alesse and Orthocyclen, suppress the natural production of estrogen and progesterone during most of the month (Coney & DelConte, 1999; Rechichi et al., 2009). The pills contain synthetic hormones which have the same bodily actions as their natural counterparts.
However, the blood levels of these synthetic hormones don’t fluctuate. That’s why these pills are called mono-phasic birth control pills. There’s only one distinct hormonal phase of 3 weeks, in which synthetic estrogen and progesterone are constantly elevated. Then there’s a week off the pills (or taking placebo pills). This off-week reassures women they aren’t pregnant, and it enables them to have their period.
In the 1980s companies started producing tri-phasic birth control pills to mimic the natural fluctuations of hormones during a monthly cycle. Brand examples are Enpresse, Trivora and Ortho Tricyclen. Women on tri-phasic birth control have to take 3 types of pills thoughout the month, each with different amounts of synthetic hormones. That makes for 3 hormonal phases. Each of these phases is characterized by certain blood concentrations of these synthetic hormones (Rechichi et al., 2009). Then there’s a week off the pills. The image below illustrates this.
In a nutshell, women with a natural menstrual cycle, and women taking tri-phasic birth control pills have multiple hormonal phases. Their hormonal environment is constantly changing. That’s the main reason why scheduling their training during specific times of the month could have benefits (Sung et al., 2014; Wikström-Frisén et al., 2015).
Women on mono-phasic birth control pills have only one hormonal phase. As we will see, for them there’s no benefit of timing their training. Then again, if you are one of these women, and you’re thinking about stopping your mono-phasic birth control pills or getting an IntraUterine Device (copper or hormonal), you may want to keep reading.
Now let’s look at why timing your training according to your menstrual cycle is so important when your hormones are fluctuating during the month…
Strength peaks around ovulation
Many women tell me their strength levels are as stable as a tourist on a bicycle in Amsterdam. Take Monika for example, one of my correspondents. She noticed that some workouts her strength was through the roof. On other days just the stairs to the gym posed a serious challenge. What frustrated her most: that there wasn’t any information on this phenomenon available that she could pass to her personal trainer. Her 2014 training log, shown below, clearly shows a pattern of ups and downs in workout performance. This pattern was in line with certain phases of her monthly cycle.
Science supports Monika’s claims of feeling fatigued and weak one workout, and feeling like squatting a full-grown cow the next. Multiple studies show a strength peak during ovulation (between day 12 to 17) (Bambaeichi et al., 2004; Phillips et al., 1996; Sarwar et al., 1996), after which strength declines rapidly. On average, the literature shows that strength fluctuates about 10% during the month. Hypothetically, that’s an extra 22 lbs on a 100 lbs squat! At bodyweight 120 lbs, so 10% of 220 lbs. The following infographic illustrates this.
(Studies that didn’t include ovulation phase not included)
Researchers are not sure about the mechanism behind these strength fluctuations. However, the peak in estrogen right before ovulation may have something to do with the sudden leap in performance (Phillips et al., 1996; Sarwar et al., 1996; Gordon et al., 2013). There’s a theory that estrogen directly improves the function of the contractile chains (myofibrils) within the muscle (Lowe et al., 2010).
There’s also some (more convincing) evidence of testosterone having a enhancing effect on the contractile chains in women (Dent et al., 2012). Considering the fact that testosterone peaks around ovulation, it’s another possible explanation for the strength fluctuations.
Strangely, there is one study that showed no increase in strength around ovulation (De Jonge et al., 2001). Because of this conflicting study, my best advice would be to track your workouts and see whether your strength fluctuates, or not. If it does, it’s a clear sign you might benefit from timing your training according to your monthly cycle, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Finally, all the studies that investigated women taking mono-phasic birth control pills didn’t show these ups and downs in strength (Phillips et al., 1996; Sarwar et al., 1996). This is indeed what we would expect, looking at the lack of hormonal fluctuations. Some researchers even think taking a birth control pill decreases overall strength in women by reducing the amount of free testosterone in the blood (Dent et al., 2012). However, this is rather speculative, so don’t attach too much importance to it.
Menstrual Timing of Training and gains in muscle and strength
This is where it gets interesting. In the past years multiple studies have investigated the effects of Menstrual Timing of Training (MTT) on gains in muscle and strength. To do this, they scheduled most of the training during a specific phase of the month.
Overall, the results show that doing most of your workouts during the Follicular phase (day 1 to 14) grows your muscles bigger and gets you stronger than doing most of your workouts during the Luteal phase (day 15 to 28). Follicular phase training also beats consistently doing 3 workouts per week during the entire month (regular training) (Reis et al., 1995; Sung et al., 2014; Wikström-frisén et al., 2015). The following image shows the results for one of these studies (Wikström-frisén et al., 2015).
Now, when we split the participants of the 3 studies (Reis et al., 1995; Sung et al., 2014; Wikström-frisén et al., 2015) up into women with a natural cycle, women who take tri-phasic birth control, and women who take mono-phasic birth control, we start to see a pattern…
The closer you are to a ‘natural’ menstrual cycle, with its highly fluctuating hormones, the more important MTT seems to be: for women who weren’t taking any birth control pills, timing of training had the biggest impact on muscle and strength gains. For example, doing most of the workouts in the first 2 weeks (Follicular phase) increased muscle mass by 2.0%, while doing most of the workouts in the last 2 weeks (Luteal phase) decreased muscle mass by 1.9%! (Wikström-frisén et al., 2015)
In women who took tri-phasic birth control pills (which mimics the natural fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone), timing of training had a moderate impact on muscle and strength gains.
Finally, for women on mono-phasic birth control, timing of training didn’t matter much at all. Whether they did the majority of their training in the first 2 weeks or the last 2 weeks, there was almost no difference in muscle and strength gains.
From looking at this pattern, you could say there’s an ‘order of effectiveness’ of MTT:
- Natural menstruation (very effective)
- Triphasic birth control (moderately effective)
- Monophasic birth control (timing of training doesn’t matter much)
Finally, there was one study from 2016 that showed no significant difference of training mostly during the first or last 2 weeks of the month (Sakamaki-Sunaga et al., 2016). This goes against the other findings. However, the women in this study were all untrained. When you’re untrained, you’re so sensitive to weight training that the mere sight of a barbell will kick your muscles into growth. Also, they were eating only 55-60 grams of protein per day. Clearly, these are not the perfect conditions to test whether MTT is effective for women with experience in weight training, like yourself.
Why does Menstrual Timing of Training give better results?
So why does MTT seem to work so well for women with a natural menstrual cycle and women taking tri-phasic birth control pills? As stated previously: hormones probably have something to do with it. Specifically, researchers argue it’s because of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (Wikström-Frisén et al., 2015). Let’s look at their reported effects on muscle.
Estrogen is repeatedly shown to have anabolic effects by increasing the amount of myonuclei in the muscle (Enns & Tiidus, 2010; Sung et al., 2014). In turn, this increases the muscle’s capacity to grow (Bruusgaard et al., 2010).
Estrogen also seems to have indirect anabolic effects: it increases growth hormone levels (Constantini et al., 2005; Trenkle 1976). Growth hormone in turn promotes muscle-building (Fryburg et al., 1991) and muscle preservation (Moller et al., 2009).
Progesterone, which is elevated during the last 2 weeks of the cycle, is shown to have catabolic effects (Landau & Lugibihl, 1961; Kriengsinyos et al., 2004). In other words, it breaks down muscle (Oosthuyse & Bosch, 2010).
Testosterone might also play a role in the better results with MTT (Sung et al., 2014). It peaks around ovulation, and workouts during these few days may be extra productive for strength and muscle gains (Bui et al., 2013; Longcope, 1986). Additionally, testosterone on its own has major effects on muscle growth, even without lifting a single finger (Brodsky et al., 1996).
The image below summarizes these effects.
To better understand the bigger picture impact of these hormones, let’s look at an analogy of sowing and reaping. The first 2 weeks of the month, the soil is extremely fertile because there’s more estrogen and testosterone. Also, there aren’t many gains-eating insects flying around (progesterone). All the sowing you do in this period by planting seeds with your workouts will reap more muscle growth and strength gains.
During the last 2 weeks, the soil is less fertile, because there’s less estrogen and testosterone. Additionally there are more pesky insects (progesterone). All the sowing you do by training will reap less muscle growth and strength gains.
A recent study supports this theory of hormones ‘making the soil more/less fertile’. They found less muscle damage and better strength recovery from a workout during the first 2 weeks compared to a workout during the last 2 weeks (Markofski & Braun, 2014). These were women with weightlifting experience. Another study showed contradicting results… A workout either in the first 2 weeks or last 2 weeks both produced similar muscle growth rates the day after (Miller et al., 2006). However, women in this study had no weightlifting experience whatsoever: the bare thought of a barbell would increase their muscle growth rates. As such, we could say that the more experienced you get, the more the rules of MTT apply.
What about IUD?
(you can skip this part if IUDs aren’t relevant to you)
We don’t know a lot about IntraUterine Devices (IUD) and the effectiveness of MTT. However, keeping the sowing and reaping analogy in mind, we can look at what and IUD does to the monthly fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone. A copper IUD (such as Paragard) doesn’t affect female hormone production. Makes sense. For hormonal IUDs (such as Liletta, Mirena, Kyleena and Skyla) it’s a different story…
Hormonal IUD effects on estrogen
Most science shows a hormonal IUD doesn’t affect natural estrogen levels at all (Järvelä et al., 1998; Xiao et al., 1998). However, one study shows peak estrogen levels aren’t as high with an IUD (Barbosa et al., 1990). All in all, we could say estrogen still fluctuates, as in a natural cycle, but probably not as dramatically.
So why do birth control pills suppress natural estrogen levels, and a hormonal IUD doesn’t? Birth control pills work systemically by sending synthetic hormones through the entire bloodstream, while an IUD works locally in the uterine.
Hormonal IUD effects on progesterone
What about progesterone? Two studies show that long-term hormonal IUD use (4+ years of use) doesn’t affect the ups and downs of progesterone much (Barbosa et al., 1990; Xiao et al., 1998). However, another study showed a hormonal IUD decreases peak progesterone levels to 4 times less than usual (Järvelä et al., 1998). A possible reason is that the women in this study had had the IUD for just 3 months. We could say that in the short run (several months after IUD insertion), the peak levels of progesterone really take a hit. Hence, the total fluctuation of the hormone isn’t as dramatic. However, that probably recovers to natural-like fluctuations in the long run (years).
It’s important to note that about 1/6th of all studied women experienced irregular menstrual patterns, which was related to low peak levels of progesterone (Barbosa et al., 1990; Xiao et al., 1998). For this reason Menstrual Timing of Training as discussed in this article probably doesn’t work for women who experience the same. More on this in the next section.
To sum it up, women with a copper IUD very likely benefit from MTT, as nothing happens to their natural hormonal fluctuations.
Long-term use of a hormonal IUD mildly flattens the fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone. This is especially true for those with irregular menstrual patterns. However, there are still specific hormonal phases (be it less pronounced). That’s why we can assume that the discussed timing rules also apply to women with a hormonal IUD. However, until studies validate this, we can’t be certain. Feel free to experiment with the set-up for MTT I lay out in the next section to see if it works for you.
The image below summarizes these findings.
Applying Menstrual Timing of Training
For women with a natural menstrual cycle, women who take tri-phasic birth control pills, and women with an IUD, MTT seems to be effective for more muscle and strength gains. They are best off doing the bulk of their weight training in the first 2 weeks (Follicular phase) of their menstrual cycle.
Identifying where you’re at in your menstrual cycle is a challenge by itself. Helpful tools are apps like Clue (iOS/Android) and Period Tracker: my calendar (Android). When you’ve got an idea of where you’re at in your cycle, and you know how long your cycle generally lasts, you’re ready to put the above knowledge to use. As noted, some women with an IUD may experience irregular menstrual patterns. For them it’s not certain whether MTT is effective… But it might be worth experimenting with.
First 2 weeks (Follicular Phase)
During the first 2 weeks (Follicular phase) you want to focus on the iron part of the fitness game: weight training 3 to 5 times per week, doing many sets, performing different Types of Exercises. Your calorie intake should be a little (5 to 10%) above maintenance. These are the perfect conditions for muscle building and getting stronger.
Days around ovulation
At the end of these 2 weeks (Ovulation), when you’re at your strongest, make sure your workouts are tough, heavy, and long. Really squeeze the last bit out of you. Try to go for personal records in multiple compound exercises. The last 2 weeks you’ll have enough time to recuperate.
Last 2 weeks (Luteal Phase)
The last 2 weeks of your menstrual cycle probably includes some of your weaker days. And the science on Menstrual Timing of Training showed weight training isn’t as productive during these weeks. For these reasons you should do less weightlifting-workouts and focus on fat loss. This is perfect, because you probably gained some fat along with the muscle during the first 2 weeks. Trimming it off will require you to lower your calorie intake. Optionally you can add in 1 or 2 days of low intensity cardio for about 20 – 40 minutes.
Make sure you’re still doing 1-2 weightlifting workouts per week, though, as this will do 2 things:
- Maintain your muscle mass while losing fat (Bickel et al. 2011).
- Re-sensitize your muscles to the stimulus of more serious weight training (Fischer et al., 2013; Ogosawara et al., 2013b).
The muscle you worked for in the first 2 weeks by training 3-5 times per week is not going to evaporate by only training 1-2 times per week (Bickel et al., 2011). Even better, there’s evidence it re-sensitizes your muscles to the subsequent 2 week block high-frequency training, which might increase muscle gains in the long run (Ogosawara et al., 2013b).
Some of my clients told me they really love to train often. If you’re like that as well, I would advise to do 50% – 70% of your regular training volume during the last 2 weeks,
while keeping your training frequency the same. For example, If you did 4 sets per exercise, 4 times per week in the first two weeks, you would decrease that to 2-3 sets per exercise for the last 2 weeks.
One 24-week study demonstrates these benefits of short periods of “taking it easy on the weight training”. They divided the participants in two groups: (1) training continuously, and (2) training with interspersed de-training periods. Both groups got the exact same muscle gains in the long run (Ogosawara et al., 2013a). The image below illustrates the results.
We do have to take into account that these participants were untrained. That’s why we err on the safe side by actually training some during the last 2 weeks, instead of not training at all (‘de-training’).
We should also note that all the studies showing benefits from short periods of de-training are mostly done in men. Men without the hormonal fluctuations of a menstrual cycle. Adding this hormonal ingredient to the soup may have reaped even more benefits from periodic blocks of less training, which is also what the Menstrual Timing of Training studies suggest (Reis et al., 1995; Sung et al., 2014; Wikström-frisén et al., 2015).
If you’re still not convinced that 2 weeks of infrequent training can do no harm and might even help your long-term progress, you can choose to emphasize activator/stretcher-type exercises in this phase. Examples would be exercises like deep Squats, Hip Thrusts, and Bulgarian Split Squats, which suit the low training frequency better. That’s because they probably take longer to recover from than Pumper-type exercises, such as Band Hip Thrusts, Band Lateral Walks, and Frog Pumps (Gibala et al., 2000 and Gibala et al., 1995).
The image below summarizes these training and nutrition strategies in relation to the sowing and reaping analogy.
Final note: some women are especially sensitive to the Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. Every cake or cookie in sight looks like heaven. For them, I would suggest to ’loosen up’ on the diet during these days. Treat yourself with some nice foods, but make sure you don’t overdo it. This will probably give some mental relief, which is much needed for the 2 weeks of frequent and hard workouts to come.
Without further ado, let’s get to the sample programs you can follow after you’ve established where you’re at in your Menstrual Cycle (for example, with the help of Clue (iOS/Android) or Period Tracker: my calendar (Android)). Depending on your whether you want to train your whole body, or focus on your Glutes, the following training programs could be implemented.
Full Body Sample MTT Training Program
Full Body MTT (first 2 weeks, 5x/week)
The first 2 weeks of the sample Full Body program has you hitting all major muscles of the body 4x per week. There’s a special focus on Glute training, as they get worked with 3 exercise categories per day. “a” and “b” denote exercises that can be combined in circuit-style. Who wants to spend 2 hours in the gym when you can get everything done in 60 minutes? Make sure you’re still resting for about 30 secs in between the exercises (don’t do them back-to-back). This way the exhaustion from the previous exercise can’t carry over to the current exercise and decrease performance.
Try to progress by increasing the weights every week. If the increment is too large, you can also progress by doing an extra rep or two (for example: doing 17 reps with the same weight instead of 15). The week after you can probably successfully increase the weight and do 13-15 reps.
2a) Front Squat (stretcher Glute exercise) – 3 x 10 – 15
2b) Upright Row (video) / Dumbbell Lateral Raise – 3 x 12 – 15
3a) Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 x 10 – 15
3b) One-arm Dumbbell Row – 3 x 10 – 12 (video)
2a) High Step-Up – 3 x 10 – 15
2b) Push-up (on box) – 3 x 10 – 15
4a) Frog Pump / Elevated Glute Bridge – 2 x 20 (video)
4b) Dumbbell Curl – 2 x 12 – 15
1a) High-bar Squat – 3 x 10 – 15
1b) Band Upright Row / Band Face Pull – 3 x 15 – 20 (to failure) (video)
3a) Assisted Chin-Up – 3 x 10 – 15
3b) Assisted Chest Dip – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
3a) Lying Leg Curl – 2 x 8 – 12
3b) Off-bench Side Lying Hip Abduction – 3 x 10 – 15 (instagram video, third exercise)
1a) Bulgarian Split Squat – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
1b) Dumbbell Lateral Raise – 3 x 12 – 15
2a) Incline Dumbbell Press – 3 x 10 – 15
2b) Incline Dumbbell Row – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
3a) Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift – 3 x 10 – 15
3b) Standing EZ-bar Triceps Extension – 3 x 12 – 15 (video)
4 Swiss Ball Reverse Hyperextension – 3 x 20 (video)
Full Body MTT (last 2 weeks)
In the last 2 weeks, there’s only 2 workout sessions per week. That means you’re hitting all major muscles 2x per week. You may still try to increase the weights you’re working with, but don’t expect it to go as easily as in the first 2 weeks. If you can maintain your strength on all exercises, that’s great already.
2a) Bench Press – 3 x 10 – 15
2b) Reverse Crunch – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
4a) Standing Cable External Rotation – 3 x 10 – 15
4b) Cable Biceps Curl – 3 x 12 – 15
4c) Cable Triceps Extension – 3 x 12 – 15
1a) Deficit Backward Lunge – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
1b) DB Lateral Raises – 3 x 12 – 15
3a) Assisted Wide-grip Pull-up – 3 x 10 – 15
3b) Assisted Triceps Dip – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
4a) Incline DB Press – 3 x 10 – 15
4b) Incline DB Curl – 3 x 10 – 15 (video)
Glute-specific Sample MTT Training Program
Glute-specific MTT (first 2 weeks, 4x/week)
In this sample program we’re focusing exclusively on the Glutes. The first 2 weeks we’re doing more frequent training, hitting the Glutes with 3 exercise categories per day. Sets per week are set at 37 in this specific program. However, you can adjust this according to how advanced you are (and how you respond to the program!).
Progress still happens in the way described in the Full Body sample program. For the pumpers, you can gradually increase the amount of reps you do, while periodically increasing the toughness of the resistance band. For instance: with a red band you can first try to progress by increasing the amount of reps you do (going from 20 to 26 reps in 3 weeks time, for example). When you can do 26-30 reps, upgrade to the tougher blue band and start at 18-20 reps per set. Then slowly build your way up again.
(more sets, because just before rest day)
(more sets, because of the 2 rest days in the weekend)
You may respond better to certain exercises. For example, if Band Hip Thrusts leave you stumbling around the weight room while knocking over water bottles, do those instead of the barbell version.
As Bret Contreras and James Krieger underscored in their latest article collaboration, individual differences are very important. If like Erin, your Glutes fire when thinking of resistance bands, you might want to do 5-6 workouts of exclusively pumpers.
Glute-specific MTT (last 2 weeks, 2x/week)
The last 2 weeks are designed to maintain the Glute muscle you gained during the first 2 weeks. As explained earlier, we’re focusing on long-recovery stretcher exercises here, because they fit the low training frequency better.
I hope this article has given you insights into why Timing of Training is so important. If you care about spending your time in the gym as productively as possible, and taking your physique to the next level, I cannot recommend enough that you at least experiment with the above set-ups.
If you need any help with setting up your program; ask away in the comment section. For more in-depth programming/nutrition help, you may hire me as an Online Coach.
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