In this article (clickable table of contents):
- Your cycle as an advantage
- Part 1: Your reproductive years
- Tracking your cycle
- The follicular phase
- The luteal phase
- Considerations for those using an oral contraceptive pill
- Part 2: Perimenopause
- Part 3: Menopause
- Additional nutrition considerations for all life stages
- Recommended follow up reading
Your cycle as an advantage
While you’re in the phase of life where you’re having regular periods, you may feel intuitively that you just don’t have as much drive during the days leading up to your period. And you may notice that certain times of the month you are able to absolutely crush your workouts.
If you’ve reached the life stage where your period has slowed down (perimenopause) or stopped (menopause), you’re likely also noticing changes in your energy, drive and body composition. The things you used to do may not feel like they’re working the same anymore.
All of these changes, including the cyclical nature of our energy when we’re still having regular periods, are related to the interplay of key hormones – notably estrogen and progesterone, and their impact on every cell in our body.
To learn about the science of our cycle and the training advantages it provides for women, I took a couple of continuing education courses for coaches and trainers (appropriate for anyone interested in learning this material) with Dr. Stacy Sims, a renowned scientist and researcher who studies sex differences in fitness and nutrition (courses are the professional version of Women are Not Small Men, and Menopause 2.0). I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing her numerous times on my podcast and deepening my own understanding of this material.
When comparing ourselves to our male counterparts, we often take for granted that we ought to be able to perform “the same” all month long, or “the same” after menopause. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy or shame when we feel tired, are bleeding, are gaining unexpected body fat, are losing muscle, or are in other ways impacted by the changes our hormones go through.
We deserve the opportunity to learn about how our bodies work so we can harness their unique advantages, and start seeing them as something to navigate – not something to fear. When I learned how all this works, it was a joy to begin to practice and I felt the impacts quickly.
No matter which life stage you are in, I encourage you to read the full article. When understaning the strategies that work in perimenopause, it’s important to understand your cycle phases. Same thing goes for menopause – understanding what came before will help you make sense of what is happening now. If you’re currently in your regular reproductive years, reading about where you’re heading will help you set yourself up and be prepared.
Don’t worry if an exercise program isn’t written “for your cycle” or for your life stage – with the information in this article you can apply it to any program and make it right for you wherever you’re at. Plus, if you’re a member of Rock Your Life, we’ve got customized guidance for each program we have to support you where you’re at.
Part 1: Your reproductive years
Let’s start by understanding how our natural cycle looks, and considering the length of each of your phases.
In the diagram below a “textbook” menstrual cycle of 28 days is represented. While it is helpful to see the phases broken out, keep in mind that the length of women’s menstrual cycles and the phases it contains actually varies. For instance, you may have a 3 day period, or a 5 day period (bleed). You may ovulate on day 12 or on day 15, which changes the length of your follicular phase. Some women have a longer cycle of 35-40 days total, while others have a cycle as short as 21 days. Both ends of the spectrum and everything in between are considered normal.
The Menstrual Cycle
Tracking your cycle
Knowing when you ovulate and knowing when you menstruate will help you determine the type of training that will benefit you the most during each phase of your cycle, and determine the length of each phase. This is why you shouldn’t blanket apply a “4-week” or “28 day” training cycle to yourself if your menstrual cycle isn’t 28 days long.
- Track the length of your entire cycle – from when your period starts to when your next period begins (helpful to do monthly)
- Track the length of your period, and how long your low hormone phase (follicular phase) is – which goes from when you begin your period until you ovulate.
- Track ovulation, either by getting body temperature readings from a device like one of these, or using a urine analysis tracker like Clearblue, Pregmate, or other. Another way to see your basal body temperature over the course of the entire month and know when you ovulate can be read from the Oura ring (which is what I use currently).
- Track the length of your high hormone phase (luteal phase), which is just after ovulation until your period begins again.
Tracking your cycle is a great way to start to know which phase of it you’re in so you can start using this information to optimize your nutrition and training.
The Follicular phase
The follicular phase is from the start of your period until ovulation. Your uterine lining starts to thicken, waiting for a fertilized egg to implant. Estrogen rises, and is higher than progesterone meaning your body is well set up to increase muscle mass (see diagram above). Your core temperature is in a normal range, helping you get deep, restorative sleep.
This segment of your cycle is called the “low hormone phase” because in contrast to the luteal phase where both estrogen and progesterone are elevated, only estrogen is elevated in this segment and it tapers up.
Progesterone increases protein breakdown where estrogen is anabolic – meaning it helps increase lean mass. This is why in the first half of your cycle when estrogen predominates over progesterone, you have a greater opportunity for gains in your training and can more efficiently build muscle.
Training in the low hormone phase is all about strength and power. You may hit PR’s (personal records), have great energy to push harder and farther, and can work on upping your weight in your resistance training.
This is assuming you are eating enough to support your training, prioritizing your sleep, and not allowing stress to overwhelm you. Be sure you’re paying attention to your protein intake, and eating plenty of whole foods. Get to bed on time, and prioritize your recovery so you can knock your workouts out of the park.
If you’re taking a Betty Rocker challenge or program, this is the phase of your cycle to give it your all. Try moves you haven’t been able to do before. You should still take rest days, but you’ll be able to recover more quickly from your workouts and your estrogen levels will support you in building more muscle during this phase.
Progressively up your resistance. Go hard, and go longer if you have time by adding an additional round to the workout, or even repeating the entire workout if it’s shorter and you still have energy.
During this phase of your cycle, you can really go for it with endurance, strength and power-type workouts. That could be high intensity interval training (HIIT), resistance training, or any type of more challenging, high-volume activity.
FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and LH (luteinizing hormone) peak, causing the release of an egg from the ovary. Just prior to ovulation estrogen peaks then drops off. Progesterone begins to rise (see diagram above).
Training: During the short ovulation window, you can generally continue to go hard in your training (unless your energy feels low for any reason).
Similar to the follicular phase, you can continue to do endurance or strength and power type workouts. That could be high intensity interval training, resistance training, or any type of more challenging activity.
If you experience an energy drop however, listen to your body and back off on intensity.
The Luteal Phase
The luteal phase occurs after ovulation. The egg travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus, where it will attach to the uterine lining and may be fertilized. At this time, we begin to experience a greater inflammatory response, as the body is spending a lot of energy preparing for possible pregnancy, thickening the uterine lining and doing other tasks.
Progesterone is increasingly heightened, and is now the dominant player in relation to estrogen, however estrogen still has a presence, which is why this phase is sometimes called the “high hormone phase.”
Progesterone increases our respiration rate. It alters the sweat threshold and has a thermogenic effect. As it rises in the luteal phase, it elevates our core temperature as much as 0.5 C. This can impact sleep – as in it becomes harder in the second half of your cycle to get that good, deep sleep.
Training: After ovulation, it’s ideal to begin to monitor your energy and stamina as the rise in progesterone will impact your recovery and ability to push hard in your workouts. This may be experienced gradually, or you may experience it quickly.
You can taper your training down in intensity during this phase as you begin to notice tiredness or less drive. For example, perhaps you choose to do half or part of your regularly scheduled workout. Or perhaps you use less resistance than you expected you would, reducing the volume of the workout load. Perhaps you begin the workout at your normal resistance volume, but taper it off in subsequent rounds. Or maybe you take low impact versions of higher impact moves.
Simply having the mindset that the body is shifting has been tremendously helpful to many women – knowing that they don’t have to have the same expectation of their output in the luteal phase helps people give themselves permission to shift more easily into training adaptations that feel good to the body.
In the latter part of the luteal phase (days 5-7 or so before your period depending on your cycle length), you may feel a little more fatigued, due to estrogen and progesterone crossing to the brain and effecting the central nervous system. It’s a great time to really lower the resistance (weight) and intensity of your cardio, focus on technique drills, and swap in more mobility and functional movement skills classes.
This is a good time for maintenance and recovery type sessions, slow, recuperative movement, and less cardio-focused workouts. That might be yoga, functional movement drills, bodyweight low impact training, or anything that feels restorative to you.
Listen to your body and adapt your plan for the day if your energy is dropping off. It is not beneficial to push yourself extra hard when you feel this way, especially if it corresponds to that heightened inflammatory response that happens in that second half of the menstrual cycle.
While this is technically at the start of your cycle and included in the follicular phase, I’ve listed it last as it makes a bit more sense once you understand all the other stages of your cycle.
Take a look at the diagram above, which I’ve repeated here so you don’t have to scroll up. Menstruation is happening just at the beginning of this chart, days 0-3,4,5 or however many days you bleed for. At the end of the cycle map above, you can see progesterone dropping off at the end of the luteal phase where the tissues lining the uterus break down and shed from the body.
You may have less energy during your bleeding time than after it stops, but many women begin to feel more energized as progesterone drops down, bringing their core temperature back to normal, and estrogen once again takes a front seat as the follicular phase progresses again. Your period can be a transitionary phase, and you may shift through feeling low energy to higher energy over the course of your period, as your body starts to experience the effects of the follicular phase again.
Training: This is really up to you. If you feel tired, do more gentle movement and things that feel restorative throughout menstruation – similar to what you were doing leading up to it. It can be really helpful to get moving if you can, and going for a walk or hike or bike ride to stimulate your circulation and energy levels. But listen to your body, and stay hydrated. If you begin to feel energized and strong, you can begin training at a volume that suits you, like we talked about with the follicular phase.
Considerations for training if you’re on the pill
There’s no question, women deserve reproductive options. I just want to present the information associated with the pill as it relates to your training goals as this is rarely, if ever really shared with women who are getting on it.
An oral contraceptive pill will modify your body’s natural estrogen and progesterone cycling by delivering a low dose of hormones on a daily basis. This suppresses your natural cycle and hormones. The week that you are on the sugar pill is the week your body bleeds, but it is not the same as regular menstruation. Below is a diagram of what your hormones are doing when you’re on the pill:
Training: Because of the variation from what your body would do naturally you can still “periodize” your training by doing more high-volume training in the first 3 weeks, and backing off during the sugar pill week that you bleed.
There is evidence that the pill impacts our ability to build muscle, and can impact the strength we’re able to gain from our training (meaning we may increase size, but not actual strength). There is also evidence that women on the pill may experience increased oxidative stress, and are associated with fat gain and fluid retention. This makes sense when we consider the advantages the first half of our cycles give us for building muscle when we have more estrogen circulating – if that is being suppressed by the pill we can’t take advantage of it the same way.
I’ve discussed the pill in some depth with Dr. Jolene Brighten on my podcast previously who makes the point that women deserve to know the ramifications and long term effects of being on the pill, and that many women are put on the pill by their doctor to cover up or deal with other issues they’re having – without ever getting to the root cause of these issues. Feel free to listen to that episode for much more on this subject from a doctor I trust, and to hear my own experience with taking the pill for almost 14 years.
Part 2: Training in Perimenopause
Perimenopause may feel like it “creeps up on you” in your 40’s, and make you feel like the things you did before “don’t work the same anymore.” This is true – it is a transition! And it’s something to know about and work with so you can make the best of this unique time in your life.
Because your hormone cycles are shifting, your body is responding differently to your training and nutrient intake – but you can navigate it. To understand where we are in perimenopause, it’s helpful to take a look at our regular cycle, illustrated below:
ABOVE: we can see that the levels of progesterone and estrogen fluctuate from menstruation to ovulation. Our cycles really vary in length (the 28 day is just for illustrative purposes), but we each have a “normal” that stays that way until perimenopause (below).
When we get into peri-menopause (the period of time leading up to menopause – shown below on the left side of the chart), our cycle length may become a bit erratic as we stop ovulating on the same schedule and our hormone levels fluctuate in response. We don’t get the same length of low and high hormone phases, and your period may come at unexpected times.
Perimenopause is the time to harness strategies from both ends of the spectrum (from both your regular cycling years AND from menopause) to set yourself up for success during this transition time, and for your coming years when you no longer have a cycle.
For best results, I encourage you to track your cycle using the tips shared above so you can stay on top of erratic phase lengths (keep in mind that some months you may not ovulate at all).
This way if you’re in the first half of the cycle (follicular phase) you can confidently push a little harder like we talked about before, and when you’re in the second half (luteal phase) you’ll know why you’re a little more tired and shouldn’t push it as hard.
In the second half of your cycle (from ovulation to menstruation) progesterone goes up, causing physiological changes that prepare the body for the possible fertilization of the egg. Our basal body temperature is elevated, meaning we get less deep sleep and we have more inflammatory markers in our system meaning recovery may not be as quick. We may start to feel less energy as that second half of the cycle progresses.
What’s different about your cycle in perimenopause from the one you had in your previous years is that the length of these 2 phases begins to change and become a bit erratic. Tracking can help you take the pressure off yourself to “go hard” when you’re actually in your luteal phase (second half of the cycle).
Training: In the first half of your cycle (from menstruation to ovulation) you can push harder in your workouts and it’s easier to build muscle as you have more estrogen present. This is the E2 or estradiol estrogen (there are several kinds of estrogen), and it gives us a bit of an edge.
The training strategies that are the best include resistance training and HIIT or burst or any kind of interval cardio (you’ll find all of these options in every program I create). Resistance training should be approached from the aspect of building a strong foundation and then gradually increasing the amount of resistance you’re working with. Starting with bodyweight training can be a great place to build that foundation and make sure you have solid form.
As we age, we want to ensure we’re supporting our bone density and muscle tissue and if we’re training on misaligned joints, or weakened body areas with too much resistance than we’re really ready for, we can get injured. So build yourself up the smart way, and start where you’re at. Once you build a solid foundation, add weight in the form of household objects, dumbbells, bands or even weight machines.
You can take your resistance training as far as you like, and I encourage you to use my programs.
The other layer to the way you’re training is that you can do is to begin “staggering” your training with the goal of polarizing tough workouts with real recovery days, setting you up for greater effort and greater restoration periods between workouts to better stimulate muscle protein synthesis as hormones begin to become slightly erratic. This means rather than going hard 5 or 6 days a week, you actually start to stagger your tough workouts with recovery days.
Without proper rest, we can never hit truly high intensities in the workouts that we do, because we’re never fully recovered.
And this is the stage of life when we want to be hitting those high intensities, both with high intensity interval training (HIIT) style workouts, and ramping up the resistance training to add more load to the body. Because we no longer have the same amounts of fluctuating estrogen and progesterone to drive lean mass development, we need to increase the training stimulus in other ways.
Both of these types of higher volume training force adaptations that will enable us to maintain and build lean mass. But we must be properly rested to take advantage of these adaptations.
This strategy will become essential when you hit menopause to offset the loss of your estrogen/progesterone cycle and help you continue to build and maintain your muscle mass.
If you get into the habit of tracking your cycle, you can follow a more intense training schedule in the first half of the cycle (menstruation through ovulation) and a lighter training schedule in the second half (ovulation through menstruation) while layering it with the staggered hard days/rest days approach.
Speaking of nutrient intake, you need to ensure you’re really optimizing your protein intake and prioritizing leucine (one of the essential amino acids responsible for muscle protein synthesis) as we stop absorbing aminos as readily in our 40’s and beyond. So increasing protein to 30-40 grams per meal, prioritizing being adequately fueled before and after training, and focusing on fruit and vegetable sources of carbohydrates and minimizing sugar intake will all support a leaner body composition and improve training results. For specific recommendations and ideas, I strongly encourage you to read: How eating the right amount of protein affects a woman’s body
As an example of how you could incorporate all of this, here are some sample workout plan layouts:
- Example Layout A: 2 days of training, 1 day of recovery, 2 days of training, 2 days of recovery, including walking, yoga or other low impact active recovery and mobility/stretching work.
- Example Layout B: 1 day of training, 1 day of recovery, stagger this throughout the week (works well for a M-W-F split) with the option to take a lighter training day over the weekend but still focusing on balancing and polarizing the training intensity.
You may find that layout A works well for you during the first half of your cycle (if you’re tracking, you can determine how long that is), and that layout B works better for you in the second half. Either way, feel free to experiment with these strategies and don’t forget the importance of the actions you surround your workout with (sleep, nutrition and stress management).
You may also benefit from talking to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy at this time if you’re getting your blood tested as it can be helpful during the perimenopause transition. I used it personally for a period of time and then transitioned to using more adaptogens (here’s an article where I delve into some of the ones I really like and recommend for hormone stabilization). I may use HRT again in the future as needed, and there has been a lot of emerging research debunking the old faulty research that said HRT was “harmful” to women. So don’t be afraid to explore all the options!
Hot flashes: I would recommend using something like a Chilipad mattress topper to help regulate body temperature and improve deep, restorative rest. That’s the one I use, but there are many mattress toppers that circulate water through them that can help keep your body temperature even while sleeping. In her Women are Not Small Men course, Dr. Sims discussed improving your heat tolerance by using a sauna, something you can try out to help your body acclimate to hot flashes more easily.
Part 3: Training in Menopause
To understand how our hormones have changed in menopause, it’s helpful to take a look back to where they were in the past. In our regular cycling years, we go between menstruation, a follicular phase where we have more estrogen, ovulation and then the luteal phase where we have more progesterone.
In perimenopause, the lengths and regularity of our cycle begin to shift. Our hormones are no longer cycling as regularly and our response times to training start to shift. As we don’t absorb the aminos from our protein intake as readily, unless we’re purposely increasing protein intake many women start to see less muscle tissue and begin overtraining and undereating which leads to greater fat storage.
Even though we no longer have fluctuating estrogen and progesterone in our system, we can still build muscle (and we can still lose excess body fat). We simply have to take a new approach to our training and train smarter, not harder.
The things we surround our workouts with, notably our protein intake are also imperative for creating the restoration of the muscle tissue. If you’re not fueling around your workouts, your body may be in a constant breakdown state and you simply can’t repair or rebuild your muscle tissue without the right nutrients.
This is the time to “polarize” your training to create muscular adaptations in the absence of the E2 (estradiol) estrogen. Your muscles require a stimulus to adapt and build new tissue. That means if you’re training day after day, you’re not ever fully recovered for the workouts you do and you won’t be able to hit your workouts as hard to create those adaptations.
This means no more “no days off” training schedules.
You’ll see a better response with 3 hard workouts a week with a rest day between them and then some more restorative workouts on the other days than you will going 5 days of tough workouts in a row followed by 2 rest days. Remember that a workout creates an inflammatory response and breaks down muscle tissue. Without recovery, we can’t rebuild it.
This also means it’s time to ramp up your training intensity – either with resistance or speed/intervals/HIIT. The more recovery you get, the more effective this will be for you.
This “ramping up” and doing “hard” workouts is a gradual process to accomplish, as we want to build strength safely and begin where we’re currently at, not injure ourselves overdoing it too fast.
To do this safely and effectively, pay attention to how challenged you are by the resistance you’re using. You’ll build muscle when you’re challenging yourself appropriately and taking it to your limit, not when you’re pushing yourself to do what someone else is doing.
If you’re just starting out with a particular move, sometimes bodyweight is the best place to be. This done with good form will help you build strength and then later you can add weighted objects. Once you get into weighted objects, you can work within rep ranges to learn your limits and work within them so you can gradually increase.
Challenge yourself in your workouts so you feel tired and worked by the end of them, whether you’re doing explosive cardio or using resistance. All of the programs contain both of these elements, so you’re in the right place!
A couple of sequence options for you include (but are not limited to) the following):
- Example Layout A: Day 1: Workout, Day 2: Rest, Day 3: Workout, Day 4: Rest, Day 5: Workout, Day 6: Rest, Day 7: Yoga
- Example Layout B: Day 1: Workout, Day 2: Workout, Day 3: Rest, Day 4: Workout, Day 5: Workout, Day 6: Rest, Day 7: Yoga
Keep in mind these are just suggestions, and your energy may shift some weeks because of sleep or stress. Always listen to your body first and foremost!
You are welcome to add in yoga or walking or other active recovery things you enjoy on your rest days – but you will not get a “better” result doing “more.” Remember that your days off from harder workouts are meant to restore you so you can get the most out of the days you do train.
These sequences are like what I recommend for perimenopause, the real difference is that in perimenopause you also have the layer of where you’re at in your cycle, even if it’s erratic. But in both cases, you want to be giving your body a greater stimulus when you train, which means you need to be recovered.
Additional Nutrition considerations and resources for all life stages
One of the most essential things to consider when you’re training regularly is that you are adequately fueled for your training. Going into your workouts fueled is going to allow for adaptations and energy output, and help you preserve the lean mass you have so you can build more.
Low energy availability (LEA) is a far more common occurrence in women than men, as many of us are not eating enough for our needs – whether because of the demands on our time and lack of prioritization, or because we’re intentionally cutting calories or skipping meals. Being in an underfed state causes cortisol to rise, which increases fat storage.
If you don’t have enough amino acids circulating in your system throughout the day and your body needs to use them, it breaks down your muscle tissue to access the aminos stored there. Your body needs enough amino acids for muscle protein synthesis, not to mention enzyme and hormone function, brain health and your immune system.
Remember that your body is also breaking down muscle during a workout. This is why we want to be including protein with each meal we eat, and paying attention to fueling around your workouts to optimize your body’s ability for tissue repair and muscle protein synthesis.
The essential amino acid leucine is integral to muscle protein synthesis, and ensuring that you have enough of this amino acid (along with all the essential aminos that your body cannot make on its own) will support your training goals.
Prioritize your protein intake through your entire cycle – aiming for at least 20-30 grams of protein per meal if you’re under 40, and between 30-40 grams per meal if you’re over 40.
If you’re over 40 and in perimenopause or menopause, this is essential, as you need the additional stimulus of more amino acids to be able to build muscle, especially as estrogen levels begin to wane.
I use protein powder to increase my overall daily intake of protein, like my organic I ❤️ Vanilla Protein. I’ll use it to boost the protein content of my breakfast foods, as a shake post workout, or even if I’m going to do a morning workout and need a little fuel going into it to help me access my best output.
Because I tend to perform best an hour or so after a meal, I like to work out an hour or so after breakfast, and have a protein shake with fruit afterwards. Just like the protein from whole foods, a protein powder has to break down after you ingest it for your body to access the amino acids.
During my workouts, I drink a free-form amino acid supplement Rock and Restore, which contains all of the essential and branch chain amino acids (including an optimal dose of leucine) to keep my muscle tissue fueled.
In their free form, aminos do not have to be broken down, making them a great supplement to support you during your workout, and also help improve recovery. However you should not replace your protein powder or dietary protein with an amino acid supplement. I would consider that a “bonus” for workout purposes, but you still need enough dietary protein (which includes a protein powder that your body also has to break down).
This prioritization of protein is especially important in the high hormone phase (after you ovulate) as your body is in a continuous breakdown state with elevated cortisol and progesterone, breaking down more tissue. Be sure you’re adding protein to each meal, and consider using a quality protein shake to conveniently boost your daily intake.
Prioritizing quality, complex carbohydrates around your training (and quick carbs during your training for longer training sessions) is essential for both recovery and energy to push through your workouts.
Follow up reading:
I hope this article has given you a good foundation to build upon. Know that we provide a lot of guidance for all of this inside Rock Your Life, my online home workout studio and women’s fitness community where you can find training programs and challenges, recipes, a private women’s fitness community, coaching and more! Get a trial today, and join us!
Here are some articles on the blog that discuss training and nutrition through the life cycle from different angles:
How Eating the Right Amount of Protein Affects a Woman’s Body
Shifting the Muscle to Fat Ratio: Women-Specific Body Composition Considerations
6 Adaptogens that Support Hormone Balance
Eating and Training with Your Cycle (part 1) with Dr. Stacy Sims
Eating and Training with Your Cycle (part 2) with Dr. Stacy Sims
Women-Specific Nutrition and Training with Dr. Stacy Sims
Hidden Causes of Weight Gain with Dr. Jill Carnahan
What You Need to Know About Birth Control, Your Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle with Dr. Jolene Brighten