Why Hormone Cycles Make Workouts Suck

A womans biology fluctuates every 28 days due to their hormone cycle.

Handled correctly, the fluctuations in women’s hormone balance can assist their exercise programs. So why do 9/10 exercise and diet programs written for women ignore this?

Do you wish you could find a diet and exercise program that took into account the fluctuations of your hormone cycle?  A program that works with them rather than in spite of them?

When you are exercising do you sometimes feel like you could take on the world, that nothing can stop you? And at other times, doing the same workout, lifting the same weight, feel like you just want to curl up under a blanket and never lift a finger again?

Similarly, at different times in your cycle, certain foods are EXACTLY what you need more so than other times. Chocolate is the obvious common example and it’s mainly the fast release of sugar (carbohydrate) that drives this craving. It might seem to be stating the obvious that the fluctuations of hormones in the course of women’s monthly cycle affects their energy levels.  But this ‘obviousness’ too often escapes the people planning exercise routines.

Too often the woman’s cycle is ignored in exercise programming, and even more so in women’s diet planning.

This is perhaps in part due to the effect that elite training has on a woman’s cycle; it usually means women don’t menstruate so there is no obvious cycle. Even for elite women athletes, there is still a fluctuation in the levels of progesterone, estrogen, testosterone and other critical hormones. In some elite circles, it is assumed that if a woman is menstruating she isn’t training hard enough.

For the non-elite woman, the woman juggling her exercise and body composition goals with the day to day reality of family, work, kids etc there must be a way to eat healthily, move regularly and keep trim without having to obsess about hormone cycles and fluctuations in carbohydrate requirements.

Consider this though.  What if the spikes in estrogen, testosterone, progesterone and others could be used to your advantage?

There is almost universal disdain for any use of hormones to enhance performance, but all of those hormones we are so suspicious of have their origins in the human body.

So why not use the bodies natural cycle to benefit your strength gains and assist your recovery periods?

Let’s look at the menstrual cycle during which follicles in the ovary mature, in a little more detail.

hormone cycle

In the follicular phase, estrogen is the dominant hormone.

Estrogen tends to get a bad rap.  But what we now know about estrogen is that it decreases appetite, improves insulin sensitivity, and protects against muscle soreness.

So, as far as physical training and calorie restriction periods, it’s one of the more helpful hormones. In other words, periods, when estrogen is high, might be times women can train a bit harder and might have more success with avoiding high carb cravings (chocolate etc.).

Progesterone is dominant in the second part of the menstrual cycle called the luteal phase. So, now we enter the luteal phase, and in this phase, you are progesterone dominant. During this part of your menstrual cycle, your metabolic rate will increase. Your system requires between 100 and 300 more calories a day.  On average, however, women instinctively eat about 500 calories typically craving sweet things – sugar, chocolate, biscuits, cake.

Paradoxically, in this phase of the cycle you become insulin resistant, so you won’t handle the extra carbohydrates as well as you would have in the follicular phase. It’s normal to feel heavier, or bloated in this phase which often prompts a step onto the scales – only to find that we are not losing kgs.

Some women experience significant effects on their physical output in the luteal phase. Experiencing strength decreases, coordination issues;  they go into the gym and they walk out feeling like they’ve had the worst session ever.

So maybe it makes sense to think about when to train harder and when to go easy based on your cycle. Perhaps it makes sense to cycle your carbohydrate intake with your menstrual cycle.  Increasing your carb intake when your body needs it in the luteal phase and restricting it during the follicular phase.

This video that you may have seen before describes the ups and downs of a 28 female (hormone-driven) cycle. It’s thought-provoking to consider that these effects are a result of hormone fluctuation.

Training with a sensitivity to the fluctuations in your biochemistry helps to keep you motivated, safe and on track with your goals.  Don’t shoot for personal best heavy lift when your estrogen is low.  Time your big efforts for the times in your cycle when estrogen and testosterone are up.

Knowing your hormone cycle will help you to become more aware of its effects.  That awareness will help you be able to train with it rather than in spite of it.