There are big hormonal differences between men and women. The main sex hormone for men is testosterone, which increases gradually with age, reaching its maximum in the 20’s and slowly decreasing after that. Women, however, have several sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, which follow the so called menstrual cycle (MC). Adapting training to this cycle may improve results. Here’s how to do it.
The Female Menstrual Cycle
The MC lasts 4 weeks and has two phases: the Follicular phase (FP) during the first 2 weeks and the Luteal phase (LP) during the last 2 weeks. FP starts right when menstrual bleeding starts, and during this time, the dominating hormone in the female body is estrogen, while in LP the dominating hormone is progesterone.
When is the Best Time for Women to Train?
During FP, an estrogen called estradiol (E2) may be particularly important for strength gains in women. Body estrogens play big role controlling muscle synthesis and protein building processes. High estrogen levels are also activate genes which support building muscle (anabolic genes) and recovery after intense strength training. What’s more, testosterone in FP (even in its small amounts) supports muscle building effects of estrogens.
On the other hand, during LP, progesterone dominates. This hormone supports muscle breakdown (is catabolic) by activating so-called “pro-oxidative systems”.
Do We Have Actual Research to Prove this?
A recent study showed that women athletes with regular periods (i.e. normal MC) showed greater results in Maximum strength (isometric force, Fmax) and muscle size (diameter) after 3 weeks of supervised leg press strength training in FP compared to LP. Therefore, it is generally recommended for women to train harder in FP and take a deload week during LP.
But What About Other, Smaller Muscle Groups?
The study above proves that leg muscle gains can be improved by timing your training as a woman, but does the same apply to smaller muscles like biceps and triceps? Are they as sensitive to hormonal changes as muscles of legs?
There is not enough evidence to clearly say YES or NO. One study evaluating training biceps brachialis according to the MC phases did not find any differences in muscle strength or size.
All things considered, there could be suggestion to work on bigger body parts during FP (that is, during the first 2 weeks of your period) to stimulate higher muscle building response. Then, during the last 2 weeks you can focus on smaller muscle groups in LP.
- Effects of follicular versus luteal phase-based strength training in young women Eunsook Sung, Ahreum Han, Timo Hinrichs, Matthias Vorgerd, Carmen Manchado, and Petra Platen Springerplus. 2014; 3: 668.
- Effects of Menstrual Phase-Dependent Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. Sakamaki-Sunaga M, Min S, Kamemoto K, Okamoto T. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jun;30(6):1727-34.