For a long time in the fitness industry, there has been little to no consideration for how the menstrual cycle affects training. This has led to training programs being written predominantly for those without cycles, and everyone else just has to make do.
However, the phases of the menstrual cycle have a significant impact on strength, energy, recovery, and stress and it’s helpful to understand this so you can adjust your training throughout your cycle.
There are two main phases of the menstrual cycle – the follicular and the luteal phase. The follicular phase is the time between the first day of your period and ovulation and the luteal phase is the time between ovulation and the first day of your period.
During the follicular phase, where your body prepares to release an egg, estrogen levels increase. You will also have a boost of testosterone just before ovulation.
This is generally when you will feel faster and stronger, coordination is better, energy levels are higher, and your recovery will be better. As a result, you will be able to handle higher volume and heavier loads. It would then make sense to push your training during this phase, lift heavier, and increase volume.
During the luteal phase, your estrogen drops and progesterone increases in preparation for fertilisation. If the egg isn’t fertilised, progesterone will decrease, causing menstruation. During this phase, energy will start to decrease, and as you get closer to menstruation, you may experience a lower mood, increased cravings, and poor balance and coordination.
You may find that you’re unable to lift as heavy as you could during the follicular phase, and you might not be recovering fully from your sessions. As such, it would be a good idea to lower the intensity of your training and even consider switching to movements that require less balance and coordination (such as switching to a goblet squat or leg press instead of back squat).
There’s also a higher chance of dislocations during this phase so it’s important to be careful if you’re doing movements that require significant coordination or will have a high impact (jumping, Olympic lifting).
Everyone who has a menstrual cycle will experience different symptoms to different degrees. You might feel fine lifting heavy during the luteal phase while someone else might just need some moderate intensity steady state cardio in between light lifting sessions. However, it’s useful to understand how your cycle can affect your training so you can understand why your lifts feel amazing one week and then the bar feels like 100kg the following week. It’s not because you all of a sudden got weaker or you’re not making progress.
Tracking your cycle alongside your training and how your training feels is a really good way to be able to autoregulate your training and get the best out of your sessions, while also maximising recovery and keeping yourself healthy.