Did you know that your menstrual cycle can totally affect how your workouts feel?
Yep, your period and fluctuating hormones mean that working out may feel different depending on where you are in your cycle. If you’ve ever been upset that you didn’t have much pep or you couldn’t hit weights that normally come easily, it’s time to learn more about what your body is experiencing.
Working Out with Your Menstrual Cycle
In this post, you’ll learn:
- Phases & events of the menstrual cycle
- Why you should consider varying your workouts during your cycle
- How to modify your workouts to sync with your cycle
Note: This post is meant to provide general advice and rationale for working out with your menstrual cycle. It’s not a substitute for medical advice or treatment from a medical provider. Please check with your doctor before starting any and all fitness programs. And if you’re having ongoing hormonal difficulties, please seek professional treatment.
Last year, on Instagram, I posted about how my training varies based on my cycle. I got so much feedback that it was clear I needed to write more about the topic.
Many, many women were shocked – and frankly comforted – to know they’re not alone with the fluctuations in their strength levels.
What This Post Covers
In this post, I’m going to lay out a case for working out with your menstrual cycle instead of against it, and give you some of the basic biology behind it. (Important: This assumes that you are NOT on hormonal birth control. Pill or hormonal withdrawal bleeds are not true periods because they suppress ovulation.)
Then, I’ll give you some guidelines for adjusting your fitness program for best results.
The female cycle is super important, and unfortunately, many women have been made to feel that it’s gross or too hard to understand.
You’re not alone: It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I began to get intimately familiar with my own cycle. (Read more about why I quit hormonal birth control here.)
My goal is to empower you to make better decisions about your physical movement pursuits by understanding your body better.
What this post doesn’t provide:
- Advice for reclaiming healthy hormonal function if you’re dealing with PCOS, female athlete triad (now called RED-S), hypothalamic amenorrhea, adrenal dysfunction, etc.
- Information on menstrual cycle abnormalities (for that, pick up a copy of The Period Repair Manual by my friend Dr. Lara Briden)
- High level primary research and other nerd stuff (for that, pick up a copy of Roar by Dr. Stacy Sims)
Phases & Events of the Menstrual Cycle
Let’s get the science-y stuff out of the way first. It’s not too complicated, but it’s really key to understanding working out with your menstrual cycle. Remember this information pertains to a “normal”, healthy cycle.
Your menstrual cycle is split up into two main phases: When your body is preparing to release an egg (follicular phase) and after an egg’s been released (luteal phase).
Day 1 of your cycle is the first day of your period, the day you start bleeding. This is when the uterine lining starts to shed. The follicular phase begins now, and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) causes egg follicles to start developing. These developing follicles produce estrogen, which rises as this first half of your cycle continues. During this phase, estrogen is the dominant hormone.
It starts off low and continues to rise throughout the follicular phase.
As the follicular phase continues, an egg from one of your ovaries is preparing to be released. Ramped up estrogen levels cause the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH). This results in ovulation, the release of an egg, somewhere around day 14.
This ovulation day can vary within the same woman from cycle to cycle. That’s why it’s helpful to track your period – including signs of ovulation and basal body temperature – with an app.
During a short window of time following ovulation, you could get pregnant if you have sex.
What about appetite? In the first half of your cycle, when estrogen is higher, your appetite feels more normal and “under control.” You’re less likely to have cravings and more likely to feel satiated from your usual meals.
Once ovulation occurs, the second phase – the luteal phase – begins.
Here, there’s some hormonal jockeying. Estrogen drops and progesterone kicks up. (Progesterone is released by the outer remnant of the released egg called the corpus luteum, hence the name luteal phase.) Estrogen does begin to climb a little bit because it’s also produced by the corpus luteum.
(chart from womeninbalance.org)
During the luteal phase, progesterone causes the lining of the uterus to continue thickening and preparing for implantation of a fertilized egg. If no fertilization occurs, both estrogen and progesterone will fall as the empty follicle shrinks and your body prepares to shed the uterine lining.
The luteal phase lasts approximately 10 to 12 days.
About 5-7 days before your period starts, both progesterone and estrogen start to taper down which means BOTH hormones are at a low. This is the time when you may begin to notice PMS symptoms and your energy in the gym starts to dip.
And appetite? You guessed it. Since estrogen is lower in the second half of your cycle, its ability to tell your brain to stop eating is lessened. That’s why you may feel hungrier than normal or experience cravings. (source)
You’re not crazy. There’s nothing “wrong” with you. (Read more about how hormones affect hunger here.)
At the end of the luteal phase, progesterone drops enough that the uterine lining begins to shed, and you get your period. The cycle starts again. Rinse and repeat for approximately 40 years.
So to summarize, the first half of your cycle is marked by increased estrogen. The second half is when estrogen is lower and progesterone increases.
Day 1-14 = higher estrogen
Day 15-28 = higher progesterone
Remember those because they’re going to help you understand why sometimes you feel invincible and sometimes your workouts feel like a pile of dog poo.
The Case for Working Out With Your Menstrual Cycle
How your hormones fluctuate in different parts of your cycle can make you feel very different in and out of the gym.
There’s a few main problems I see when it comes to working out with your menstrual cycle:
- Many women have no idea that these changes exist, so they beat themselves up for not feeling as strong during the second half of their cycle, the luteal phase (especially during the last 5-7 days).
- Some women notice they do feel “off” but assume it’s something that’s wrong with them instead of a result of natural hormonal fluctuations.
- Many coaches have no idea how to change training plans to account for these variations or they’re completely unaware of these fluctuations. Worse, female athletes may feel uncomfortable advocating for themselves.
On a meta level, cycles, and fluctuations are an inherent part of your biology. You have 24 hour circadian rhythms, 90-120 minute ultradian fluctuations, sleep cycles, and even seasonal variations depending on where you live on the globe. (And let’s not forget lunar cycles.)
Add to that the hormonal ups and downs from the last section, and it’s clear that women are a unique case. Yet rarely, if ever, do I hear other coaches or trainers discussing this with their female athletes and clients.
Perhaps it’s because hormonal birth control has meant that many women don’t actually have periods at all. (Note: I’m not anti-birth control, but I am pro-informed consent…something that’s quite lacking in today’s pharma-dominant culture.) Some women are amenorrheic because of lack of nutrition, stress, and other factors. Period problems are not uncommon.
And modern life has meant that all our creature comforts have made it easier to flatten these fluctuations and rhythms and completely alter our natural cycles. Mother Nature be damned.
I’m not saying you have to go live like a cave(wo)man. But if you pay more mind to working WITH your cycle instead of constantly banging your head against it, you’ll be a lot healthier and a hell of a lot happier. You and I really aren’t smarter than nature.
What You Might Notice
At the very least, start paying attention to your body’s signs like changes in cervical fluid, ovulation pain, appetite differences and cravings, etc. Click here to read about fertility awareness method.
Second, let’s walk through how a month of workouts might play out if you don’t know how to adjust for your cycle.
Days 1 to 14
The first day or two of your cycle, when your period starts, you may feel crampy, sluggish, or fatigued. By the end of the first week, you’re feeling strong. In general, the first two weeks, you’re feeling good in the gym.
Your strength workouts are awesome, and you’re able to hit heavier sets and more volume without a problem. Also, you may notice your appetite is pretty normal…and on some days you may be less hungry than usual. You’ve got plenty of energy.
Around ovulation, as estrogen is high and LH surges, your desire for sex goes up. This is totally normal as you’re experiencing a little boost in testosterone.
Remember, you’re a biological being and drive to reproduce during ovulation makes sense. (Important to use protection during sex or abstain during this short window if you don’t want to get pregnant…you’re at your most fertile!)
Days 15 to 28
In the week after ovulation, when estrogen is lower and progesterone starts to rise, you don’t feel quite as “on fire” as you did last week.
Finally, in the fourth week of your cycle, you start to notice major “problems.” It’s hard to hit heavier weights that you normally don’t have a problem with. Recovery feels like it takes longer.
Motivation might be totally lacking. And you might be bloated or experiencing other PMS symptoms. (Note: For help fixing PMS symptoms naturally, get The Period Repair Manual.)
Your appetite inexplicably ramps up and you have carb, chocolate, or salt cravings for no apparent reason. These are because both estrogen and progesterone are dropping, not because you’re weak, abnormal, or you flat out suck.
Note: If you’re an athlete who’s cutting weight for a competition, understanding where in your cycle your competition falls is really key. And if you’re just generally trying to lose weight, hormonal fluctuations explain why it’s normal for your body weight to creep back up in the second half of your cycle as you’re retaining a bit more water.
If you’re like most women who don’t understand their cycles, these Week 4 challenges can be frustrating physically, mentally, and emotionally. You may not feel like yourself, and you can’t figure out why.
Worse, you may beat yourself up because you can’t keep up with your workout plan or you don’t feel like pushing yourself.
Takeaway: You may notice you feel stronger in the first half of your cycle, and less so in the second half.
How to Sync Working Out With Your Menstrual Cycle
Note: Every woman is different. You may not experience much difference between the two halves of your cycle, or they may vary significantly. Or, you may find some months easier or harder than others. There are many other factors that influence your hormones such as sleep, nutrition quality, and stress levels.
Your best bet is to start tracking your cycle and paying attention to what kind of workouts you’re doing, when. Begin making small adjustments when needed. In the grand scheme of your training plan, you won’t suffer from strength or endurance losses if you work with your cycle.
More than anything else, you’ll begin to realize that these fluctuations in how your workouts feel aren’t because of lack of effort, discipline, or skill.
Now, if you understand how to train in sync with your cycle instead of fighting it the whole way, you can make the most of your workouts and save yourself a lot of heartache.
So how might you change what you’re doing?
Let’s keep it simple.
Follicular Phase (Day 1 to 14, on average)
During the first half of your cycle while estrogen is increasing and ultimately hitting its peak, it’s the time to push it with heavier strength training (sets of 80+ or RPE 8+). These are the best weeks for many women to push for a new PR or to compete.
If you’re on a more formal strength training plan, look at it carefully. Assuming it’s properly periodized, you should see one week out of every four or so the weights, reps and / or sets are at their highest.
You may want to make that “hardest week” match up with Days 7-14 of your cycle when estrogen is at its highest.
Luteal Phase (Day 14 to 28 on average)
From Days 14 to 21, as estrogen is lower compared to the follicular phase, you may find your strength feels bit a flatter.
Where it really gets interesting is from Days 22 to 28.
Because estrogen and progesterone both begin to drop, you may not feel as strong as usual. It’s not uncommon to hear women in this last week say things like, “I can usually hit that weight, no problem,” or, “I feel really off today.”
If you’re on a strength plan, now is a better time to work on lower percentages, focus more on technique, and lift at a lower intensity / volume.
The sudden drop-off in hormones right before your period starts may make you feel slower than normal, less coordinated, and clumsy. Probably not the time to try for a new PR in the snatch or other complex lift.
What about Progesterone?
And because higher progesterone increases the laxity (stretchiness) of ligaments and tendons, you may want to avoid lifting very heavy in the few days leading up to your period. (source)
(On a personal note, most times I’ve tweaked something in the gym, it’s matched up with the last week of my menstrual cycle. And I know many female athletes who have sustained injuries or tweaked something the week before their periods. Coincidence? I don’t think so.)
So instead, now’s the time to swap out heavier lifts for more HIIT-style workouts, lighter technique lifting sessions, easy cardio, or active recovery type fitness.
If you’re feeling really crummy, you’re not likely to have a productive workout session anyway, so do something fun and unstructured that helps you get some movement without punishing yourself.
Sometimes a light movement session is just what you need, and sometimes an extra day off works wonders.
Above all else, start learning your body and what it’s telling you. Track your period, pay attention, and begin connecting the dots for your own unique cycle.
Takeaway: Prioritize harder workouts for the first half of your cycle, and work on lighter technique work or cardio-based training in the second half, especially the last week of your cycle.
Watch This Video About How Your Period Affects How You Feel in the Gym
And subscribe to my YouTube channel for more nutrition and fitness videos.
To Summarize Working Out with Your Menstrual Cycle
It’s my hope that this article gives you a jumping off point to understand your menstrual cycle better, and a way to have conversations about it with your friends, family, and coaches. Periods are not shameful and ovulation is your fifth vital sign.
- There are two main halves of the menstrual cycle: the follicular phase – estrogen rises – and the luteal phase – estrogen is lower and progesterone rises.
- Because of these hormonal variations, many women experience changes in how they feel while training or in the gym. It’s normal. You’re NOT crazy.
- Strength levels are likely to feel higher in the follicular phase and lower in the luteal phase.
- Stack harder workouts in the follicular phase. Swap heavy lifting for lighter technique lifts, HIIT, cardio, or unstructured movement, especially in the last week of the luteal phase.
- Above all else, remember that there’s nothing wrong with you for experiencing fluctuations in strength, endurance, body weight, cravings, sex drive, etc. during the average menstrual cycle. Learning to work with your body in conjunction with its natural rhythms instead of against it can help you feel healthier, happier, and stronger.
Looking for a flexible functional strength plan? Check out my Made Strong program!
Have a question about working out with your menstrual cycle? If so, leave me a comment and let me know!
This post was updated on March 25, 2019 to include video.