Like it or not, there is nothing more feminine than these monthly hormone changes. As you’ll see below, this cycle is perfectly timed for body building and weight lifting. It’s like women were made for this.
Menstrual Cycle Basics
Yes, PMS symptoms are never positive and bleeding a few days every month can be annoying but there are actually many ways to minimize these symptoms:
As you’ll see below, your menstrual cycle is perfectly timed for body building and weight lifting. It’s like women were made for this.
In short, your menstrual cycle lasts about 28 days, or a convenient 4 weeks. (Though can vary from woman to woman from 21-35 days.)
It is measured from the first day of your period until the first day of your next period.
It’s divided into two equal phases of about two weeks each, with release of a fertile egg (or ovulation) in the middle.
The first two weeks (The Follicular Phase)
The first two weeks of your menstrual cycle start the day your period starts.
The primary hormone circulating during this time is estrogen. Testosterone levels in women also increase during this time until peaking at ovulation (Sung, 2014).
Right between the first two weeks and the second two weeks, your body produces an egg which is called ovulation.
It’s almost impossible to know when you officially ovulate but you may get a mild cramp for an hour or two on one side of stomach.
It happens directly in the middle, or on Day 15 of your cycle (after Day 1 of your period).
The second two weeks (The Luteal Phase)
This starts the second two weeks. The primary hormone circulating during this time is progesterone.
If you’d like more detail on the timing of hormones and phases of the menstrual cycle, this article explains it well.
Estrogen is the primary hormone circulating during the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle.
Estrogen is your best friend in bodybuilding because it helps you both build muscle and burn fat.
Numerous studies have shown that estrogen causes many reactions in muscle cells to stimulate muscle repair and regeneration (Enns, 2009), (Kahlert, 1997), (Lowe, 2010).
There has also been significant research showing that estrogen causes your liver to increase production of enzymes that break down stores of fat (and decreases your body’s use of glycogen which is stored carbs) (Mandour, 1977), (Bunt, 1990).
For both of these reasons, estrogen acts very similarly to testosterone in the way that testosterone helps men in their body-building efforts.
Unfortunately, progesterone generally acts opposite to estrogen, although there is significantly less research on the subject.
One paper showed progesterone causes fatty acids to be deposited into body fat to be stored instead of used for energy and also prevents the normal muscle breakdown from being able to easily repair itself (Kalkhoff, 1982).
Other studies have shown that amino acids destruction and protein degradation to be higher in the second phase of the menstrual cycle when progesterone is higher (Oosthuyse and Bosch 2010).
Additionally, progesterone and its equivalents are the active ingredients in most types of birth control. Since weight gain and increase in fatty tissue is a common side effect of these medications, logically it fits that progesterone causes increased body fat percentage.
Progesterone causes breakdown of muscle tissue and increased fat stores.
High frequency during follicular phase, low frequency during luteal phase
So you have the incredible muscle-building and fat-burning capacity of estrogen during the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle and rising progesterone that contradicts this effect during the last two weeks of your menstrual cycle.
You can use this natural cycle to effectively cycle your resistance training to build muscle and burn fat. Many research studies have shown great ways to do this.
The major takeaway is: high frequency and high intensity training for the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle, and low frequency/recovery training for the last two weeks of your menstrual cycle.
Paper #1: Sung, 2014
In this first study, 20 women with normal periods and menstrual cycles trained on the leg press and muscle strength and size (diameter) were measured after 5 cycles.
One leg was trained 4 times per week during the first half (follicular phase) and one time per week during the second half (luteal phase) of the menstrual cycle. The other leg was trained opposite, once per week during the first half (follicular phase) and one time per week during the second half (luteal phase).
The study showed a significantly larger increase in both muscle strength and muscle size (diameter) in the leg that trained with high frequency in the first half (follicular phase) and low frequency in the second half (luteal phase) compared to the other leg.
This study is particularly well done because it one leg was compared to the other leg of the same woman which means dietary and genetic differences between women were not a factor. It also used women who already had training experience which means that this cycling plan would be effective in those of us that already train.
Paper #2: Reis, 1995
This study, although done much earlier than the first, seemed to be aware of the possible benefit of high frequency training training during the first half of your cycle with low frequency during the second half.
This study also had women with normal periods train one leg on one schedule and the other leg on another schedule, also eliminating effects of dietary or genetic differences.
One leg was trained every other day during the first two weeks of her cycle and only once per week during the last two weeks of her cycle. The other leg was trained three times per week during the whole four weeks.
The study showed significant increases in strength in the leg that was cycled compared to the leg trained evenly throughout. There was a tendency toward larger muscle mass in the cycled leg but not a statistically significant difference.
So not only is it more beneficial to do higher frequency during the first half vs high frequency during the second half but it is also more beneficial to do high frequency training during the first half with low frequency during the second half vs equal timed training throughout.
Paper #3: Wikström-Frisén, 2015
This third study basically compares all three timelines of training, high frequency first half vs high frequency second half vs moderate frequency throughout.
There were about 20 women in each of three groups. Group 1 did squats five times per week during the first two weeks of her menstrual cycle and only once per week during the last two weeks. Group 2 did squats once per week during the first two weeks and five times per week during the last two weeks. Group 3 did squats three times per week throughout.
After four months, strength (one rep max) and lean body mass were measured and compared to before the study started.
Group 1 and Group 3 both increased in strength over this time but only Group 1 increased in lean body mass.
Clearly, a high-frequency training schedule during the first half of your menstrual cycle and low-frequency training schedule during the second half of your menstrual cycle will help you build the most lean muscle and strength.
What to do during the low-frequency (luteal) phase
My two biggest concerns after hearing about this schedule and before starting were “What am I going to do to ensure I get the mental benefits of regular exercise during the last two weeks?” (Since daily exercise is #1 in keeping my stress levels low) and “What can I do to prevent significant muscle loss during the second half when progesterone is killing all my gains?”
Low Intensity Exercise
To address the first question, I would recommend both yoga and walking (or light hiking).
Both yoga and walking are considered low-intensity steady state cardio which will burn fat, avoid muscle breakdown as in moderate-intensity steady state cardio, and give you the stress-relieving mental benefits of exercise.
Yoga is very important also for balance and flexibility, both of which keep you safer later on during high-intensity workouts as well as in life in general.
Also, walking or light hiking out of doors give you the additional benefit of a mental break from the screen and artificial light and a large healthy dose of fresh air.
Light workouts may feel like a waste of time but they’re truly as important as heavy training. They improve muscular recovery by increasing circulation and keep the muscle fibers activated without breaking them down.
Minimize Effects Progesterone
To address the second question, the catabolic (or muscle breakdown) effects of progesterone during this time can be overcome by boosting protein intake.
Progesterone only causes the body to breakdown a certain amount of amino acids over time.
By making sure you are consuming more protein than the amount that is broken down, you will have a sufficient amount available to maintain muscle mass. Consuming 1g per lb of body weight per day of protein is generally considered enough to overcome this breakdown.
My personal training split
My menstrual cycle lasts a very regular 26 days but I divide it into a 16-day high-frequency phase and 10-day low frequency phase to make scheduling the high-frequency phase easier.
As always, you can take what is helpful to you from these studies and make it work for you, it doesn’t have to be exact.
I have split all of my desired exercises into 4 workouts. I currently do full body every day but I’ve also used this with upper body/lower body split for a while in the past and it worked for me.
Since I have a random work schedule, it works better for me to have a Workout 1, Workout 2, etc. that I can assign to days of the week based on my work schedule instead of trying to do the same workout every Monday for example.
I lift weights 5 days per week during my high-frequency phase and 2-3 days per week for the low-frequency phase.
The day my period starts, I start with Workout 1, the next day, Workout 2 and rotate through for 16 days. I take 2 days off per week whichever fits best in my schedule (usually Wed & Sat) and then pick up the next day with the next workout in the lineup.
For Days 17-26, I’ll look at my work schedule and plan 4 total lifting workouts per week where I similarly rotate through the workouts but at about 60%. I feel like the 60% mark makes me feel like my muscles are getting good activation but not overly stressed. I can keep my strength gains but still let my body recover for a bit.
On days where I would have weight trained during the first two weeks, I go to a yoga class at my gym, or do some YouTube yoga, or go for a light hike or walk if it’s not raining outside.
I’ve been doing this for about 5 or 6 months now and I’ve added about 40lb to my deadlift, 25lb to my barbell hip thrust, and even about 20lb to my bench press. This time has been over several holidays and a vacation so I’ve stayed about the same in terms of subcutaneous fat but I have noticed increases in size and muscle definition of my lower body so clearly muscle is growing.
I highly recommend this training periodization cycle!
How to plan your training split
The first thing you need to do (and from a general health standpoint, I hope you are doing this already anyway) is to write down in your calendar or in an app the first day of your period every month.
Count the days between each cycle for several cycles.
Note: If you are frequently missing periods or time varies widely between each cycle (more than 5-6 days difference) and you haven’t already been evaluated by a doctor or you don’t have a medical reason that would be causing this (such as taking birth control pills irregularly), please schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or OBGYN to discuss this.
Assuming you have a fairly regular period, divide the number roughly in half.
Again, it can be flexible, whatever will fit well into your schedule or lifting routine.
Based on how much time you have every day to work out, you may be able to do an entire body workout with high frequency during your first phase or you may have to just focus on your highest priority groups those days.
You can always plan something, try it, keep what worked/felt good and change the rest for the next cycle.
Possible Hormonal Birth Control Effect
It’s worth noting that, although it hasn’t been studied, from a medical standpoint this will probably not work if you are taking high dose progesterone/progestin birth control methods since this stops the hormone cycle in your body and just makes you high in progesterone the entire month.
These high dose birth control methods are the pill birth control, Depo-Provera shot, or Nexplanon/Implanon arm implant.
The progesterone IUD and progesterone vaginal ring are both very low dose and localized progesterone so they don’t circulate through your body to your muscles where it would effect protein metabolism or to your brain where the hormone chain starts.
So the progesterone IUD, the progesterone vaginal ring, as well as the copper IUD (which is non-hormonal) would likely still allow this cycling method to work.
Periodization or cycling of training into higher and lower intensity time periods has been very effective in both men and women for decades to gain strength and build muscle while avoiding overtraining and injury.
As a woman, timing your training cycle to your menstrual cycle is not only logistically convenient but research shows that this will also likely help you make even greater strength and hypertrophy gains.
Schedule high frequency, high intensity, or high weight workouts during the first half of your menstrual cycle and back off during the second half.
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Enns, Deborah L., and Peter M. Tiidus. The Influence of Estrogen on Skeletal Muscle: Sex Matters. Sports Medicine 2009; 40(1): 41–58.
Kahlert S, Grohe C, Karas RH, et al. Effects of estrogen on skeletal myoblast growth. Biochem Biophys Res Commun 1997; 232: 373–8
Lowe DA, Baltgalvis KA, Greising SM. Mechanisms behind estrogen’s beneficial effect on muscle strength in females. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2010;38(2):61–67. doi:10.1097/JES.0b013e3181d496bc
Mandour T, Kissebah AH, Wynn V. Mechanism of oestrogen and progesterone effects on lipid and carbohydrate metabolism: Alteration in the insulin: glucagon molar ratio and hepatic enzyme activity. Eur J Clin Invest 1977; 7: 181–7
Oosthuyse T, Bosch AN. The effect of the menstrual cycle on exercise metabolism: implications for exercise performance in eumenorrhoeic women. Sports Med. 2010;40(3):207–227.
Reis, E, U Frick, and D Schmidtbleicher. Frequency Variations of Strength Training Sessions Triggered by the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle. Int J Sports Med 1995. 16(8): 545–50.
Sung, Eunsook et al. Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women. SpringerPlus vol. 3 668. 11 Nov. 2014, doi:10.1186/2193-1801-3-668
Wikström-Frisén, Lisbeth, et al. Effects on Power, Strength and Lean Body Mass of Menstrual/Oral Contraceptive Cycle Based Resistance Training. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, Nov. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26558833.