Program to Your Own Cycle: Working Out And Menstruation

Here's a guide to working out around your menstrual cycle!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Even when you love lifting, training consistently is hard enough. 

Fluctuations in sleep levels, work stress, relationship dynamics, your mood, your mental health… everything affects what goes into your workout with you. 

And for many people, menstruation also impacts your workout. But it’s not just during menstruation itself that might have an impact on your strength goals: the hormonal fluctuations your body experiences throughout the month before and after your actual period can also influence your workout. But don’t despair: there are strategies you can use to let your period help you maximize your gym goals.

Personal Training

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.

Back To Health Class

If you’re going to program around your menstrual cycle, it would probably help to remember what the heck it even is from your high school health class.

Menstrual Phase (about 3-7 days)

The phase that’s easiest to identify is the actual menstrual phase, which is when you’re bleeding. During this phase, you might want to keep moving to help your body recover from cramps, but don’t be tempted to go super hard.

Follicular Phase (about 16 days)

The week and a half after you stop bleeding is called your follicular phase, and that’s when your estrogen levels spike. You might want to go hard right after you stop bleeding, because that spike in estrogen will likely be giving you a boost of endurance.

Training Around Menstrual Cycle
Photo by Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

Luteal Phase (around 14 days)

Ovulation is what splits your follicular phase from the next phase, which is your luteal phase, which lasts until your next menstrual phase. Hormonal changes during this phase are often associated with fatigue, hunger, and irritability, which might tempt you to skip your workouts. But keeping it active during the luteal phase can actually feel great if you’re bloated.

What The Studies Say

You can train hard during any phase of your period, science suggests. 

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness compared the effects of high-frequency resistance training of the legs during different phases of 59 women’s periods (1). All participants experienced benefits from their training, but when in their cycle they trained hardest did not affect their growth hormone levels, cortisol levels, or bone mineral density. 

In other words, if you’re a person who menstruates, you can of course train with excellent benefits any time of the month. 

However, though neither group’s workout was deemed more effective per se, the group of participants that lifted heavy during the first two weeks of their cycle reported feeling more satisfied with their training. 

Working Out Around Menstrual Cycle
Photo By Flamingo Images / Shutterstock

And in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers found that when fourteen participants engaged in hypertrophic (8-12 reps to failure) training with arm curls during different phases of their menstrual cycle, muscle hypertrophy and strength gains in the upper body were not significantly affected by hormone changes throughout their cycle (2). 

In other words, people who menstruate were able to gain as much muscle mass and strength through consistent hypertrophy training, regardless of the time of the month that they trained.

However, researchers for a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness compared the effects of high-frequency leg training between 19 women who worked out in the first two weeks of their cycle and 19 women who worked out in the last two weeks of their cycle (3). 

They found that participants who trained their legs heavily during the first two weeks of their cycle experienced greater increases in their squat and countermovement jump efficiency, as well as greater increases in lean body mass than those who emphasized leg training during the last two weeks of their cycle.

The tl;dr is that training your lower body might be more effective during the first two weeks of your cycle than your last two weeks. It’s important to note, though, that this is just one study: and one study (or even several studies) can never truly define what is best for your body. This might be especially so in this case, where there is abundant evidence that when you train during your cycle doesn’t actually matter that much in terms of gains.

So How Should You Train During Each Phase?

The most important thing — during any phase of menstruation — is to listen to your body. Be gentle with yourself when your body is saying “nope, not today.” And even if your body feels great to squat heavy while you’re bleeding heavily, let’s be real, folks: sometimes your tampon just doesn’t like the feeling of being in the bottom of a deep squat.

And that’s okay: you’ll get after it next time.

Train Heavy During And Right After Your Period

But generally speaking, it seems that emphasizing lower body resistance training while you’re menstruating and during the week and a half after you stop bleeding can help pack on strength gains and muscle. And while of course you can and should train legs throughout the month, body permitting, this kind of makes sense: the kind of compound full-body work that leg training offers can help offset your cramps, giving you an even better workout (and quality of life).

This might be one of the reasons that training legs heavily during menstruation and your follicular phase can be super effective. 

How to Train Around Your Menstrual Cycle
Photo By BigBlueStudio / Shutterstock

Another compelling reason to train heavy during the week and a half after your period: your follicular phase often gives your body higher estrogen levels. And higher estrogen levels can lead to increased muscular endurance, allowing you to hit your muscle groups harder and more often (4). This is going to be the time when you’ll want to emphasize any sprint and HIIT work you might like to do, as well: because again, those boosts in endurance can go a long way toward maximizing your gains.

And if you’re someone who experiences dysphoria around menstruating, then training heavy during and especially right after might help combat the effects of dysphoria by increasing a sense of control of your body and musculature. I know it’s helped me and transmasculine clients feel super powerful and in control of our bodies, even when dysphoria is super tough.

Sample Workout 1 (for during and right after your period)

  • 1. Back Squats*, 80% max, 5×5
  • 2. Front Squats**, 50% max, 3×10
  • 3. A. Lunges, moderate weight, 4×8
  • 3. B: Seated Calf Raises, moderate weight, 4×15
  • 4. Kettlebell Swings, light-moderate, 4×10

*If back squats feel too crappy during your period, you can replace these with 4×8 leg presses so your low back is braced and you don’t have to move your entire body.

**If front squats also feel impossible during your period, you can replace these with 4×12 leg extensions. But if you did manage the back squats, you can replace these to 4×8 leg presses: whatever feels best for your body.

Sample Workout 2

  1. Deadlift, 80% max, 5×5
  2. Pullups, assisted as needed, 3 sets to failure
  3. Single Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts, light-moderate, 4×10
  4. Sled Pushes, 4x20meters, 30 second rest

Focus On Your Upper Body Right Before Your Period

This is when my fatigue right before my period sets in (aka the last week or two of my cycle, the luteal phase) making lunges even more dreaded than they usually are. So the science here is comforting: apparently, it might not just be me who sees less return on lower body investment during the luteal phase. 

When your body is generally more fatigued, as it is during your luteal phase right before your period, it makes sense that lower body, high-intensity training is harder to perform and harder to recover from.

But since research has suggested that arm curls are more effective during the luteal phase, you might want to focus on your upper body training, peppered in with some light lower body work. Of course, you should train your upper body with pulls and presses throughout the month! But if you tend to feel bloated and fatigued (as you might be prone to feeling right before getting your period), you might want to take advantage and work your upper body so your lower body doesn’t have to move too much.

Sure, you’ll still have to brace, but there’s something comforting about keeping a static, stiff lower body when bloating and fatigue sets in. Presses, pullups, curls, and steady-state cardio (lower intensity to accommodate for fatigue) might be good friends of yours here.

Sample Workout 1 (for right before your period)

  • 1. Overhead Press, light-moderate, 4×8
  • 2A: Reverse Flye, light-moderate, 4×8
  • 2B: Dumbbell Frontals (slow and controlled), 4×8
  • 2C: Walking Lunges, unweighted, 4×10
  • 3A: Overhead Tricep Extensions, light-moderate, 4×8
  • 3B: EZ-Bar Curls, drop set, 8 reps per set (no rest in between)
  • 4: 15-25 minute cardio of choice (stairmaster, rowing, jogging, cycling), light-moderate intensity

Sample Workout 2

  • 1: Bench Press, light-moderate, 3×8
  • 2A: Incline or Full Pushup, 4×8
  • 2B: Bench Dip, 4×12
  • 2C: Bodyweight Squats, 4×12
  • 3A: Tricep Press, light-moderate, 4×8
  • 3B: Hammer Curl, light-moderate, 4×8
  • 4: 15-25 minute cardio of choice (stairmaster, rowing, jogging, cycling), light-moderate intensity

The Takeaway

Everyone’s body is different. So guys, pals, and girls, when you’re going through your menstrual cycle, remember that exercise science can offer you good guidelines: but you’re the only expert on your body. If you’ve found a rhythm that works for you, by all means, get after it! As always, knowing your body is often a system of trial and error and things aren’t always consistent from month to month.

But if you’re at a loss for what the heck your body is doing throughout your menstrual cycle and want to use it to maximize your gains, periodizing your training with your period (see what I did there?) can be a super helpful strategy.

References

1. Wikström-Frisén L, e. (2019). Increasing training load without risking the female athlete triad: menstrual cycle based periodized training may be an answer? – PubMed – NCBI Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 7 November 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27167713

2. Sakamaki-Sunaga M, e. (2019). Effects of Menstrual Phase-Dependent Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. – PubMed – NCBI Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 7 November 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26554551

3. Wikström-Frisén L, e. (2019). Effects on power, strength and lean body mass of menstrual/oral contraceptive cycle based resistance training. – PubMed – NCBI Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 7 November 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26558833

4. Consitt, L., Copeland, J., & Tremblay, M. (2002). Endogenous Anabolic Hormone Responses to Endurance Versus Resistance Exercise and Training in Women. Sports Medicine32(1), 1-22. doi:10.2165/00007256-200232010-00001

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

Leave a Comment