By Eirinn Carroll
When it comes to women and the fitness industry, there’s so much out there telling you how to “tone, thin, trim, lose, smooth, shape, (enter any catchy phrase on shrinking yourself).” As a woman working in the industry for the last decade, I try to remind myself how far our industry has come, but that we still need to do a better job of framing exercise as a way to empower women.
For now, let’s talk about how women should train. No matter your sex or gender identity, you should train how you like. I seriously can’t emphasize this enough. Training should allow you to appreciate and love the body you have. After all, exercise is not punishment. You shouldn’t force yourself to do things you hate, because somewhere along the line you’ve been convinced you need to do them.
But the inevitable question becomes: do women need to train differently than men? The answer is…kind of.
There is no reason you can’t do any and all of the same exercises as men. However, you need to keep in mind your menstrual cycle and how that (approximately) 28 day cycle impacts the performance and feel of your body.
A brief overview of the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle to refamiliarize ourselves:
Menstruation: The start of your cycle begins on the first day of your period
Follicular Phase: This phase includes the first 14 or so days of your cycle. Estrogen is the dominant hormone, that progressively increases up until ovulation. Because of this, you are likely to be feeling your best.
Ovulation: This happens around day 14 of your cycle. Of course it varies from women to women and even cycle to cycle.
Luteal Phase: Once the egg is released the Luteal phase begins. This phase is about day 15 through day 28. Our estrogen levels drop, and progesterone increases. About 5-7 days before your period, both estrogen and progesterone begin to decrease. With low levels of both hormones, this is when you usually begin to feel PMS symptoms, including low energy.
So, how do we take all of this into account when it comes to our training? First off, if you plan your workouts, aim to schedule your harder workouts during the follicular phase of your cycle, and more maintenance workouts during your luteal phase.
For pre-menopausal women, the closer they get to the menstruation phase of their cycle, the more likely that their energy and ability to recover is lower. This doesn’t mean you can’t workout, or that you can only consider specific modes of exercise. It just means that you need to be more in tune with the signals that your body is sending.
As a coach, one of the first things I do when my client walks in the door is find out how they're feeling that day. Did they sleep well? How was work? What’d they eat before they saw me? All of these questions help me gauge whether they’re prepared for the work I had planned. If the answer is no, it is my responsibility to adjust the workout to a lower intensity. The goal is to help people live healthier and better. To me, this means being able to go about your daily tasks without your workout negatively affecting your performance, and being able to get back to the gym in the next day or two.
All this to say, listen to your body. It is completely normal to feel more tired, or even weaker during the time leading up to your period. You’re not actually getting weaker, slower, or losing progress. Instead of beating yourself up about it, give yourself grace, and take care of your body. Sometimes what you need is a light movement session, lower weights, or easy an easy cardio session. In my experiences with clients, working out in the days leading up to - or during - a woman’s period actually makes them feel better.