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Exercises to work with your menstrual cycle

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Is your workout working against your hormones? Debra Atkinson explains why and how to exercise with your hormonal cycle for the best results.

Exercise is a pillar of good health. We all know that. But for women, there’s a lack of information about how hormones can mess with your desire and ability to exercise—and what you can do about it.

A recent study found that 86 percent of exercising women experience tiredness, fatigue and/or other menstrual symptoms that boost their chances of skipping exercise or a sporting event.1

Only 39 percent of all exercise science and sports medicine research features girls and women.2 However, we typically go through an average of seven phases of hormone changes. One of them occurs monthly in a 28-day (on average) cycle, and others, like pregnancy and pre- and postnatal changes, may never occur or may happen multiple times.

Without considering the effects of hormones on exercise, there’s no way to support optimal performance or reduce the risk of injury. Hormones can mean you use more fat for fuel at certain times, are more prone to injury at others and are primed for strength gains during certain windows.

Working with your cycle

During a normal menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone take turns driving the process of maturing and releasing an egg and preparing the uterus for possible pregnancy. Estrogen rises in the first half of the cycle, peaks at ovulation, then falls in the second half as progesterone rises. Progesterone is released by the rupturing of the egg follicle during ovulation.

Testosterone, too, is secreted in “surges” around the time of ovulation, perhaps as Mother Nature’s way to increase our interest in sex, and again before menses. If there is no pregnancy, you have a period and the whole cycle begins again.

Let’s explore each phase and how you can exercise in tune with your hormones. Women’s experiences vary a great deal, so honor your own energy. That alone can improve your exercise results.

Menstruation/early follicular phase

Fatigue is a key symptom for many women during the bleed, which is the beginning of the follicular phase, and for the first few days afterward. Estrogen and progesterone are both at their lowest point just before your period.

If this is true for you, go for walks or do a restorative yoga session instead of more vigorous exercise. Gentler exercise is a proven method of relieving cramps and menstrual symptoms.3 If you’re prone to pushing yourself hard through days you’re not feeling it and you find your fitness level doesn’t benefit, try backing off instead.

By around day 7, gradually rising estrogen levels will kick in. This is a good time to return to a regular strength training and HIIT routine if that’s what you’re used to. HIIT (high-intensity interval training) consists of short, intense bursts of exercise alternated with short rests.

If you like to work out and find it hard to take time off, your period can be a good time to do more functional workouts that involve unilateral (single-limbed) exercises. This allows you to reach muscle fatigue at lighter loads, which is less likely to tax your adrenal system while it’s already dealing with menstruation. If pushing through tough workouts leaves you more exhausted, frame your period as an active recovery time that enables harder work when it’s over.

Mid- and late follicular phase

As estrogen rises from the start of your period and progesterone remains low, you have a window when you may more easily make strength gains. Generally, within a week of their period starting, women feel able to do more volume and recover faster. This may be the most powerful you feel during the month.

Even though you may be able to tolerate more exercise, don’t skip recovery (it’s when fitness happens, after all). Try adding more weight, sets or repetitions rather than upping the frequency, which will forfeit the recovery needed to reap the rewards.

Continue to limit high-impact exercise and any that involves a rapid change of direction. Your rigid tendons (as a result of high estrogen) support strength gains since they afford the ability to lift heavier, but estrogen also causes laxity of ligaments along with reduced neuromuscular control,4 leading to easy injury. So, while you can do HIIT, focus on bicycling, swimming or elliptical training rather than multidirectional or high-impact options.

You could also still be tired at this time in your cycle. Whatever you’re feeling, honor it with an appropriate training and recovery response.

Ovulation and the luteal phase

Ovulation occurs in the middle of the follicular and luteal phases. According to women’s hormone expert Dr Jolene Brighton, it’s a one-day event with still-peaking estrogen levels, when progesterone is cued to start rising.

The luteal phase is the last two weeks of your cycle, when many women begin to feel more tired or less motivated to exercise. As progesterone rises, because of its anti-estrogenic effects,5 performance is lower than usual. It’s when estrogen is high in comparison to progesterone in the cycle that performance increases. So, there is a dramatic difference for some women in the strength and energy they have in the first two weeks of their cycle compared to the last two weeks.

Many women also begin to have cravings related to premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Each woman is different, and you may feel good right up until the few days before your period or even be unfazed by it. Some of the changes may be related to the greater blood glucose instability and insulin resistance that occur with lower estrogen levels.

Continue to exercise, but reduce the intensity or the duration if your usual high-intensity workouts leave you exhausted. You can also focus more on endurance and lower-intensity exercise like walking, yoga or Pilates.

To alleviate fatigue and cravings, try increasing your caloric intake. It may seem counterintuitive to women who are reducing their regular exercise to increase fuel, but metabolism is also a bit higher during this time.6 The body will respond well to both lower-intensity exercise when you feel the need and an increase in high-quality proteins, vegetables and resistant starches (sweet potatoes, beans, legumes, brown rice).

Each woman responds uniquely. Some do best with intermittent fasting (a reasonable reduction in the daily hours during which you eat) during this time to benefit blood glucose levels. However, others do best increasing food intake to control cravings, boost energy and improve mood.7

The state of women’s exercise science

Science is still relying on women’s diaries or apps to collect information. Women often report feeling their strongest and most energetic during days 7–14. This may have to do with better insulin sensitivity during this phase than in the luteal phase. The female body is primed to burn fat and gain muscle during this time.

A 2021 study showed no physiological evidence to support training timed relative to the menstrual cycle.1 In other words, there’s not enough data to show whether it works because data hasn’t been collected consistently or in large enough amounts. But there is enough evidence to show a need to conduct more research.

Still, by understanding the known metabolic changes that occur with hormone fluctuations (as relayed in this article), a woman can better adjust her workouts and use energy fluctuations to her exercise advantage.

What about testosterone?

The focus of the menstrual cycle is on estrogen and progesterone. Testosterone, however, has a role in exercise endocrinology that can’t be forgotten.
It is well known for its anabolic effects on muscle. 

So when your testosterone level is high, you may feel a little stronger and benefit a little more from those workouts. Testosterone is also secreted in “surges” around the time of ovulation.

What about post-menopause?

The concept of periodization, this cyclical method of planning exercise, doesn’t apply only to women who have a period, or even only to women. It’s been a longtime tool of strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers, used to produce optimal benefits with reduced injury risk.

To get the benefits of exercise, we must exert ourselves beyond the level of daily activities of life. For that extra exertion to be beneficial and not damaging, we must consciously plan our exercise and make time for adequate rest.

Both male and female athletes benefit from exercise periodization, for men minus the actual period, of course. Cycles of periodization exist within weeks, months and the year.8

For postmenopausal women, lower estrogen levels mean adequate intensity is needed more than ever to offset menopausal symptoms and increase muscle, bone and brain health. The best partner of adequate intensity is adequate recovery. So, cycling times of work with times of recovery is key to optimizing fitness. 

Cycling your exercise doesn’t have to be complex, but it shouldn’t be done by accident. Exercising with just a little more thought can give you the optimal energy and physical results you want and deserve. Period.

Four-week post-menopause cycling

Week 1: Functional strength (unilateral, multidirectional)

Week 2: Strength with power (moderately heavy with speed on lift)

Week 3: Hypertrophy (heavy with fewer repetitions)

Week 4: Endurance (lighter with higher repetitions)

 

Debra Atkinson

References

Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS, is CEO of Flipping 50 and creator of the Flipping50 Menopause Fitness Specialist course for trainers and health coaches. She is a medical exercise specialist with nearly four decades of experience. Her career has included teaching kinesiology at Iowa State University, giving international presentations to fitness professionals for major fitness associations, and serving as a subject matter expert for the American Council on Exercise.

She’s a sought-after speaker for reframing aging and teaching how to do it, and her TEDx talk is “Everything Women in Menopause Learned about Exercise May Be a Lie.” She’s a best-selling author and a frequent contributor at featured news outlets, and she serves on the education advisory board for Medfit.org.

 

The state of women’s exercise science

References

1 

Sports Med, 2020; 50(10): 1813–27

  Main Article

References

1 

Br J Sports Med, 2021; 55(8): 438–43

2 

Br J Sports Med, 2017; 51(6): 487–8

3 

J Altern Complement Med, 2016; 22(9): 732–8

4 

Orthop J Sports Med, 2017; 5(7): 2325967117718781

5

Front Physiol, 2021; 12: 654585

6

PLOS One, 2020; 15(7): e0236025

7

Pratyusha R. Gudipally and Gyanendra K. Sharma, Premenstrual Syndrome (StatPearls, 2022)

8

Sports Health, 2010; 2(6): 509–18

 
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