Whether you are a woman trying to fine-tune her health and fitness agenda by learning ways to become intuitively connected to your own physiological rhythms, or you’re a coach, therapist, trainer or any provider in the health, wellness or fitness field looking to optimize results with your female clients – understanding the foundations of a woman’s ever-shifting hormone cycle will directly and greatly benefit your work with each of them individually.
Most women grasp the main concepts of their monthly cycle and how all that stuff works, but many of them don’t track or keep logs for their cycles. The majority of women I have worked with have a hard time answering me when I ask for the date of their last period. If you are a female athlete, or simply a woman who participates in regular exercise, sports, or resistance training programs, the following information is going to help you understand and track your activities in line with each phase of your cycle for optimal performance. Especially if you are experiencing any physical recovery, mental, emotional or chronic health challenges! Trainers, coaches and therapists alike; it would behoove you to become familiar with all of this information as well.
I’m going to preface; this is a guide, based on my own gathered knowledge and practice, as well as over 1,000 articles, studies, research papers, and books that I’ve gathered, read and compared to introduce you to the very small amount of information you will learn in this article. There is more. Way more. Though helpful; I highly suggest you look into the course I wrote, developed and recorded for the C.H.E.K. Institute, Holistic Health & Performance for Women. It’s important to know that women still only account for 25% of subjects across all studies, research and pre-trials despite proving through several studies that female sex hormones react differently to viruses, bacteria and certain pharmaceuticals.
Hundreds of studies have shown us how different the female muscle responds to various exercises differently than men, yet women are still being trained the same as men. We know that exercise training and diet affects women differently across changes in her cycle, yet women still only account for less than 3% of all exercise science research. I cover all of this and more – way more – in my new course at the CHEK Institute, so if you’re interested in understanding this topic on a high level in addition to learning practical tools to help and empower the women around you, go to the course landing page for more information.
Women don’t need equality, we need equal-QUALITY.
In healthcare, education, therapy, coaching and fitness programs that represent the needs, expressions, voices, variations and differentiations of women.
Why is it important to understand each phase of the cycle to program exercises and training?
A: There are four phases (or weeks) in a normal female cycle. It’s important to understand and distinguish each one because of the rise and dips of three main hormones that affect a woman physically, mentally, and emotionally. During some phases, a woman will have very poor reaction times, so take note that performing box jumps against a timer during certain days can or will lead to bloody shins or worse. Other times, energy and/or strength will peak and that should be noted and programmed into an exercise or lifting program.
What are the important hormones to understand?
A: I am going to talk about three main hormones that play the biggest parts throughout a woman’s cycle that directly affect performance and energy.
- favorably affects macronutrient metabolism, enhancing endurance training
- increases glucose utilization by slow twitch type 1 muscle fibers
- increases glycogen storage in luteal phases with steady levels
- can reduce muscle inflammation and encourage efficient repair following a workout
- elevated estrogen is associated with higher levels of energy, quicker reaction times, as well as an increased secretion of cortisol
- can help to increase blood velocity to the thyroid, and enhance metabolism
- elevated estrogen is associated with higher blood pressure numbers
- supports and can increase production of human growth hormone
- has been shown in preliminary studies to reduce glycogen and macronutrient metabolism & utilization, thus acting as an antagonist to estrogen, not favoring endurance type training
- reduces gluconeogenesis, the body’s mechanism for maintaining stable glucose levels, thus compromising endurance training, and also a reason that women tend to be favored less in those sports.
- elevated levels are associated with higher levels of GABA, a calming chemical in the body that also enhances Serotonin
- elevated progesterone is associated with slower nerve reaction times and suppressed energy and metabolism
- elevated progesterone is associated with suppressed or lower blood pressure
Note about Estrogen and Progesterone!
Both are produced from cholesterol (as are testosterone, cortisol, DHEA, and aldosterone) which is important for women eating a low fat, vegetarian or vegan diet. This can lead to suppressed production or imbalance of hormones, speed the aging process and lead to early menopause, a real crappy immune system, bone loss, and a myriad of other issues. It may feel good the first year, even five, but after that you’re just asking for trouble. Save the time and give your body what it needs when it needs it.
- elevated testosterone during specific phases of the cycle increases endorphins and oxytocin
- enhances mental clarity
- increases neuromuscular reaction times
- increases muscle protein synthesis
- supports and can increase production of human growth hormone
Below is an overall standard summary based on what an average normal, and balanced hormone cycle would and should look like for a menstruating woman.
PHASE I: Early to Mid Follicular Days 1-6
First day of a woman’s cycle is Day 1 of menstrual blood flow. This week is characterized by the duration of a period, and a significant dip in all main hormones. In fact, estrogen and progesterone will take a dive three to five days prior to menstrual flow, which is associated with a dip in mood and energy, as well as quality sleep. By the onset of menstruation, a woman’s body has already slowed down, her reaction times are inhibited, and her energy is slow.
So going into this week, perform more restorative exercises such as yoga, zone, or tai chi. Take more rest days and save the strength training for the end of the week when estrogen begins to rise and provide more focus, energy and coordination. Without those three anti-inflammatory hormones to boost the immune system and other systems of the body, digestion is especially vulnerable during this time, as well as muscle recovery and the optimal function of adrenals. Eat clean, hydrate well with good sourced water, and avoid extra stress when possible.
PHASE II: Mid to Late Follicular + Ovulation Days 7-14
This phase begins around the 7th day of cycle and lasts up until the day of ovulation which is usually around day 14. Hormones go through a lot of shifting during this week. Estrogen begins to rise from the middle of the menstrual week and climbs all the way through ovulation, lending a woman higher levels of energy, focus and enthusiasm. Performing high intensity workouts and higher volume lifts during this week will show enhanced strength and endurance.
Testosterone will rise around the time of ovulation, so around the 12th to 15th day is a great time to get heavy and do some power lifts! The downside of all this energy is that this comes, in part, from the natural elevation of cortisol when estrogen spikes, so it can cause anxiety and heightened levels mental stress. A lot of this is due to the extra energy and how that will create this mental and physical environment to get everything done, start new projects, work out longer, go faster, do more etc. So be mindful to distribute the good energy during this phase of the cycle!
PHASE III: Early to Mid Luteal Days 15-21
From post-ovulation to about the 21st to 22nd day of the cycle, hormone levels begin to elevate and rise again, especially progesterone. Estrogen will begin to rise as progesterone levels increase, but should remain lower. This elevation of both hormones lends tendencies for a more positive mood, steady energy levels, efficient metabolism, and a great combination of power and stability-coordination capabilities. Progesterone maintains dominant levels over estrogen, which is great for keeping the stress hormones in check even though cortisol secretion will be higher.
PHASE IV: Mid to Late Luteal Days 22-31
Ranging from 22-24th day of the cycle, the late luteal week in the fourth phase of a woman’s cycle is all about preparing for menstruation, and this is where hormones will all take a dive and drop down again. For many women, this can cause a dip in mood as well. When a woman experiences dramatic onsets of symptoms prior to menstruation regularly, her hormones may be imbalanced and she may need an assessment. Although common, it is not normal to go through such dramatic highs and lows both mentally and physically. throughout the cycle. That said, if a woman is finely tuned in to her body, she may notice a decrease in mood or motivation.
Low levels of estrogen during the late-luteal phase, especially 3 or less days prior to menstruation, can cause energy to decrease, low back pain and sometimes headaches and minor hot flashes. Progesterone also has a coinciding drop at the same time, being at its all time low for the entire cycle. Physical effects of this drop could cause a woman to experience blood sugar drops and irregularity, which is associated with cravings and binge eating.
Stability and coordination are limited during this time, so it’s not wise to do complicated or dynamic movements during a training session. Stick to moderate strength and conditioning sub-50% or high volume low intensity workouts and increase restorative activities such as walking, stretching and mobility exercises, yoga and tai chi.
Use this information as a guide, and once again- if you’d like to dive in even deeper, go check out the course here. In Holistic Health and Performance for Women you will discover the often ignored differences between men and women on a physiological, musculoskeletal, limbic, somatic, and biochemical level, as well as each variation on a cellular level in every system of the body. This program is the first of its kind to outline every variation that sets women apart and teach you how to assess, design programs, train, and coach women to incredible success based on these crucial differences.
Would you like to nerd-out on some studies? Start here: