Wellness Refocused Education: Does your menstrual cycle impact your strength?

Ladies – can you pin point specific phases in your menstrual cycle by your symptoms? I know, it’s not exactly dinner talk, but I’m being serious.

Do you have any varying level of these symptoms?

–        Fatigue

–        Cramping

–        Bloating

–        Breast tenderness

–        Fluctuations in body temperature

–        Energy

–        Hunger

–        Moodiness

Have you noticed a difference in your workouts around your period?

If you need a refresher about your menstrual cycle – and trust me I did after I stopped taking hormonal birth control here it is below:

*Menstrual phase – days 1 to 5

*Follicular phase – days 1 to 13

Ovulation phase – day 14

Luteal phase – days 15 to 28

*In some texts, the menstrual phase and follicular phase are grouped together

These are average lengths of time, every woman is different, which means every cycle may be shorter or longer (Reed & Carr, 2015).

The first day of the menstrual phase is when “your period” starts. A healthy period can last between three to five days. During this phase, the hormone progesterone declines. You may have some low energy and depending on how you respond to low energy levels, you may be a little irritable.

During the follicular phase your body is making itself ready for a potential guest #baby. The lining of the uterus grows and becomes thicker, the vaginal environment changes and is more welcoming to sperm. During this phase, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is released by the pituitary gland to cause the egg/ovule to grow and matures inside a follicle. Breasts may become tender because of enlarging milk ducts. After the release of FSH from the pituitary, there is a decrease in FSH, while there is also an increase in estradiol (a form of estrogen) and testosterone (Reed & Carr, 2015). You may have more energy, but a decrease in appetite because of these hormonal shifts.

Ovulation occurs for up to 24 hours. During this phase, the egg is released in response to luteinizing hormone (LH). This 24 hours is crucial for someone wanting to become pregnant. Estradiol and testosterone are at their peak levels.

The luteal phase is the final phase of your menstrual cycle. If the egg has not become fertilized it dies, then the endometrium sheds its lining (your period). Progesterone decreases during this phase, which also can cause a rise in body temperature. During this phase you may also have cramps due to muscle contraction to rid the body of nutrients that had been stored in preparation for a fertilized egg. You may have cravings for carbohydrates during this phase as well as other symptoms like bloating, anxiety, moodiness – these are going to be similar symptoms as experienced during menstrual phase.

Quick recap: luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle-stimulation hormone (FSH), estradiol (E2) and progesterone (Prog) and testosterone fluctuate during menstrual cycle. Estrogen and testosterone reach their peak prior to the menstrual cycle or at the time of ovulation (Sung, et al., 2014). There are also other hormones like prolactin (stimulates the production of milk in the mammary gland) that change during the menstrual cycle that we won’t be talking about in this post (Marieb & Hoehn, 2016).

Hormonal changes during different phases of the menstrual cycle can cause changes to energy levels, hungry levels, mood, etc., but can hormonal levels impact our training?

Is it possible to be strategic in your training schedule other than picking days that fit with other priorities?

Much literature discusses that changes in female steroid hormone levels can affect the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and metabolic functions (Pallavi, Souza, & Shivaprakash, 2017).

According to a 2014 study that examined about 20 women in their mid-20s, it’s probable that the rise in testosterone prior to (in the follicular phase), or at the time of ovulation could “account for differences in strength, muscle diameter and muscle cell characters between follicular – compared to luteal phase-based strength training (Sung, et al., 2014).”

This is a small study, which means that while the findings are interesting, there needs to be further investigation to determine their validity and ability to be found in a larger group. One limitation that the study does mention is that researchers compared phases such as the follicular phase to the luteal phase, rather than analyzing hormone concentration in different parts of the phases like the early follicular phase when menses occur versus the later part of follicular phase when both estrogen and testosterone hormones are close to peak.

Another study conducted in 2016, utilized 100 healthy volunteers – again a small study, but larger than the first in 2014. Three trial periods were conducted to test muscle strength and throughout the courses of the study all participants were “oriented to not ingest any kind of energy drink including caffeine and alcohol as well as not to perform any sort of physical activity one day before or on the day of the tests (Pallavi, Souza, & Shivaprakash, 2017).” Similarly, this study found work done was significantly greater during the follicular phase with the same phase having the least amount of fatigue. Participants showed the most fatigue during the menstrual phase followed by the luteal phase. Researchers concluded that changes during a normal menstrual cycle could indeed affect exercise performance and should be considered for training (Pallavi, Souza, & Shivaprakash, 2017).

Let’s talk hormones. The body secretes about 50 different hormones – each one with distinct functions. Hormones are released from glands in the endocrine system.

The major glands that release the hormones we’re discussing in this post are: anterior pituitary gland (FSH, LH), ovaries (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) (Marieb & Hoehn, 2016).

Just to give you a little background on hormones so you can find your way out of the rabbit hole later. Structurally, there are different kinds of hormones: amines, polypeptides, glycoproteins and steroids (Marieb & Hoehn, 2016).

Please note, that steroid hormones are made from cholesterol (fat), which is why it’s important to consume enough dietary fat in your diet. It’s also another reason why there can be fluctuations in menstrual cycle when a female reaches a significantly low body fat percentage.

Looking at the hormones that may impact your training – Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are steroid hormones. While estrogen and progesterone are known to be in women, testosterone is also naturally produced in women, just at much lower levels than in men. Both LH and FSH are glycoprotein polypeptide hormones.

Testosterone is classified as an anabolic steroid hormone, which stimulates protein synthesis and muscle development. This is one reason why men may have an easier time developing muscle and losing weight. Like some research has shown, it may also be one reason why strength increases during the middle of the follicular phase.

Now, while it’s possible that hormonal fluctuations can make us feel like superwoman, other studies have also examined the frequency of training during menstrual phases and how that may impact hypertrophy and strength.

A small study (14 women with regular periods) found there were no major differences in muscle hypertrophy and strength when comparing a structured “menstrual phase-dependent” program to any other training protocol (Sakamaki-Sunaga, Min, Kamemoto, & Okamoto, 2016).

However, like all studies they’re were holes or aspects that could’ve been approached in a better way. Researchers examined arm curl strength over 12 weeks, having participants perform three sets of eight to 15 repetitions during different phases of menstrual cycle. However, the biceps are a small muscle, which means that the load they can handle may not be capable of great change in a 12-week time – other factors like other accessory movements would need to be considered before determining the viability of this result. Examining a deadlift or squat movement may have more telling results.

I do think a combination of factors need to be considered to see if you can push your strength at different times of cycle.

Consistency will always be queen. Regardless of your hormones, if you’re training is consistent then you will see progress over time.

Nutrition and sleep are also important factors to consider when training and seeking to develop strength. If you’re exhausted, you have a higher risk for injury. Sleep also can impact hormone levels, which can have positive or negative impacts on other organ system function. If you’re not fueling appropriately then you’re going to feel fatigued and have a harder time recovering from intense workouts. Time of day may be an impactful factor that you want to consider.

While my cycles are still irregular – even after being off of hormonal birth control for a year, I do notice a difference in my overall energy levels during the follicular phase, which impact my lifts. I also have significant breast tenderness, which can impact how I feel during certain chest-focused exercises like bench press or movements laying facedown. These are the times that I look to different carbohydrate sources and focus on what helps me feel good – usually more fiber, less simple sugar foods (natural and added). I’ve moved training around and also changed up my training times to ensure that I’m at a peak energy time, which means not too late in the day.

I would ask yourself are you able to be this in tune with your body and are you noticing a difference overall that should be considered when creating your programming?

References

Marieb, E. N., & Hoehn, K. (2016). Human Anatomy and Physiology. New York: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Pallavi, L., Souza, U. D., & Shivaprakash, G. (2017). Assessment of Musculoskeletal Strength and Levels of Fatigue during Different Phases of Menstrual Cycle in Young Adults. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, CC11-CC13.

Reed, B. G., & Carr, B. R. (2015). The Normal Menstrual Cycle and the Control of Ovulation. In B. G. Reed, & B. R. Carr, Endotext. South Dartmouth: MDText.

Reis, E., Frick, U., & Schmidtbleicher, D. (1995). Frequency variations of strength training sessions triggered by the phases of the menstrual cycle. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 545-550.

Sakamaki-Sunaga, M., Min, S., Kamemoto, K., & Okamoto, T. (2016). Effects of Menstrual Phase-Dependent Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 1727-1734.

Sung, E., Han, A., Hinrichs, T., Vorgerd, M., Manchado, C., & Platen, P. (2014). Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. Springerplus.

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