Women's training should be slightly different than training for men. The reasoning behind this is easy to see if you the hormone pattern between men and women. Men are generally fairly easy to modify, simply because hormone levels are very stable. We have a good amount of testosterone, smaller amounts of estrogen and you can basically draw a straight line between one month to another. If you're low on testosterone, cool, let's lift weights, eat red meat and have more sex. Boom, testosterone levels fixed. For women it's a far more complex process with their overall fluctuation of hormones due to their monthly menstral cycle. This hormone profile is both based on a loosely defined 28 day cycle, with some amount of variance from 24-30 something days.
And it changes based upon the woman, the age, environmental factors and dietary influences! So we have a large amount of variance in one woman hormones compared to the next. The amount of overlap in hormones can cause problems as well, or the lack of production of these hormones during pre / post menopause also causes a huge amount of variation.
The reason these fluctuations in female hormones cause so much difficulty is that the hormones in questions have different effects on the body, both in a good and bad way.
During the Follicular Phase, when a woman starts her cycle she has a couple great things going for her as her estrogen level starts to rise to an abrupt peak. Her insulin sensitivity is increased, which enables a woman to store carbohydrates more effectively and keep in control of her food intake. So eating a bit more carbohydrate may be warranted during this phase, while consuming less overall fat calories.
Her Leptin signaling is also improved or more sensitive, which allow her to be more in control with her nutrition as well. Leptin basically helps us tell whether we are full or not by sensing stored calories and current intake of calories. This is often down regulated in sensitivity for individuals who are overweight or obese, so they can't sense when they are satiated and have adequate calories to burn.
On the training side of the coin, estrogen helps combat muscle soreness and enhances recovery from hard exercise, leaving her less overall sore and able to build muscle much more easily. This would point towards having harder, more volume based workloads toward the start of the menstrual cycle.
While all these things are relatively positive their are also some negative side effects of estrogen that can impact fat gain in the hips and legs during this phase, as well as decreased tendon strength. But all in all fairly easy to accumulate some good bouts of training and successful fat loss if nutrition requirements are not exceeded.
Once the estrogen levels have peaked, generally around the 10-16 day of the menstrual cycle, the body undergoes an abrupt shift, with estrogen levels falling to very low levels and progesterone which has been slowly rising comes up to peak shortly thereafter. This switch largely changes both the training environment and nutritional requirements within a womans' body.
During this stage of the menstrual cycle, a woman will experience a variety of symptoms, including bloating, cramping, mood swings, irritability and the unrelenting search for mass amounts of chocolate. And here are the reasons for this...progesterone.
Progesterone takes control of the hormonal dominance and starts wrecking a bunch of havoc within a womans' body. This is largely a lot more drastically 'bad' than the influence of estrogen to a certain extent as this portion can be more devastating in terms of fat gain and bloating, along with a difficult time with training.
Progesterone will have a boost in overall metabolic rate as well as increase in heat production. Sounds great right? Extra calories burned per day can be a great way to lose some extra pounds, but wait there's more.
Along with an increased metabolic rate, also comes with an drastic increase in cravings. Hence the constant hunt for tasty, sugary treats during this portion of a woman's cycle. Additionally, as due to a survival mechanism a woman's fat storing enzymes are turned on full blast, along with a decrease in insulin sensitivity. So this is definitely not the time to consume a whole bunch of tasty carbohydrates in mass quantities even though you want them more. Hmmm, not good.
To top all of that off, you're level of muscle soreness and amount of muscle protective functions are lost as well. Plus, it's not very easy to push hard through a tough workout when you're bloated and feel like crap. This makes training difficult and gaining muscle mass is more challenging.
And then let's go into the bloating. This is caused by the conversion of progesterone into aldosterone or receptor site blocking on water regulation mechanisms within the body. This can be made worse when women are eating too many carbohydrates and having a lot of sodium that only adds gas to the fire that is currently going through a woman's body.
How to Make this Work for Fat Loss and Training
Now that you have a brief overview of what the overall picture is going on inside the "typical" woman's body (typical being the norm, which not very many women follow the exact norm, but we have to have a baseline somewhere) you can tell that training and nutrition for women is far more complex than that for your typical male with standard hormone levels. Hell, even if they're not normal, it's quite an easy fix in a sense that you're not trying to manipulate multiple hormone levels at once each month.
This topic is complex and intricate. To say that the answer is right around the corner would be foolish of me, but there is a process that we can implement to help make a woman's nutrition and training a bit easier and more appropriate for each stage of her cycle.
Here is a template of one of the workouts that I've developed from the research conducted from Lyle McDonald's and Dr. Cassandra Forsythe's insights.
This workout I call the Hormone Flux Workout One. Now, keep it mind it's designed for building strength and power during the early phases of a woman's cycle, while tapering off into a De-Loading cycle toward the end of the cycle with a greater focus on conditioning.
So you really have to be conscious of when your cycle is happening. A great method would be to keep track of your monthly cycle on a calendar or app to make sure you're on track with your training program. If you have questions please send me a message or if you would like a custom program, that can be arranged as well.
It's a small start, but we're slowing cracking down on the answers to training women appropriately and in a way that helps you feel great throughout the training process with minimal slow downs, injuries and other mishaps.
But believe me, we're not done yet. There's still more to roll out as we learn more and finally emerge ourselves in more focused research on women's training and dietary patterns. To date there are only about 1 in 4 studies that actually include women in their research (and while they are included in their research very little can be found about where they are at in their current cycle, which could skew results drastically).
Again here's the Hormone Flux Workout One. Please feel free to comment if you've notice some significant improvements in your overall level of training and well-being.
Jesse “Captain Smash” Howland is the owner of SMASH’s Strength Lab, which offers targeted personal training to reach a variety of fitness and physique goals. A natural bodybuilder, competitive powerlifter, certified personal trainer, and nutrition coach, Jesse is often the go-to resource for personal training Ottawa. He studied Exercise Science at Oregon State University and even trained at the world famous Gold’s Gym. He’s a former US Army Captain with the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a former blog writer at Veterans Fitness Career College, and former Chief Executive Officer at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). His workouts and personal training are army-inspired to help reach your weightloss, athletic, or physique goals.