By Brittney Bergen
Ever have those days where you walk up to the barbell and an easy warm-up feels like 90%?
Or how about those sessions when 90% moves so fast your training partner tells you to put some weight on the bar? (Ah, I love those days!)
As a lady lifter, you can often thank your hormones for the way your strength seems to swing back and forth like a pendulum.
I used to be jealous of men and their hormones. I thought testosterone was the best friend of the lifter (it’s used as an anabolic steroid, after all). More testosterone = more muscle and strength, right? Guys had it so easy.
I knew as women we had a tiny bit of testosterone and heard that lifting heavy and getting a good night’s rest were ways to naturally boost this androgen, but I had no idea how female hormones affected my training.
Eventually I started paying attention to the timing of those workouts where the empty bar felt ridiculously heavy and when a 90% squat moved like a warm-up. I noticed how I felt in my training with respect to visits from our collective favourite aunty – Flow. I figured my lady bits and hormone-stimulating glands must’ve had something to do with my ability to move a heavy barbell on any given day.
And so began my research on the topic of female hormones and strength sports – in the gym, in journals, and in the experiences of other lifters. I decided to compile everything I know so that you can skip over the stage of seeing your female hormones as the enemy.
It’s time we embrace estrogen and progesterone with open arms to maximize our gainz. Raise your shaker cup, ladies, because we’re about to harness the power in our hormones to get hella-jacked and strong!
Hormonal Heavy-Lifting Harmony
What if our female hormonal cycle wasn’t the enemy, but instead a beautiful system put in divine right order to aid us in our quest for maximum lady gainz? What if we saw our hormones not as inferior to men’s when it comes to training, but unique and wonderful?
I used to believe that:
- The spike in progesterone that happened the week before my period left me weak
- The increase in testosterone the week after my period (at the time of ovulation) made me stronger
- Estrogen ran in the background, doing her thing while progesterone and testosterone decided my workout fate
This was a limited view.
It’s time to get to know the beauty that is our hormonal cycle! That way, we can adjust our training to fully unlock the womanly warrior strength that’s hidden in the celestial code of our menses. (That’s a sentence I thought I’d never write!)
Meet The Family: Female Hormone 101
Let’s look at the way these sexy chemical messengers benefit our training!
- a natural anti-inflammatory
- improves cognition
- supports maintenance of healthy bone density
- called the “relaxing hormone”
- a natural anti-inflammatory
- a natural diuretic (prevents water retention and bloating)
- works with estrogen to improve cognitive function
- related to insulin sensitivity (When progesterone is low our insulin sensitivity is increased and our body uses carbohydrates more easily for energy)
- increases ability to make gainz (build muscle)
- increases bone mass
- increases sex drive
- may improve cognitive function, spatial awareness, and encourage risk-taking
Contrary to what I once believed, the spike in female hormones is probably not the most guilty culprit making our performance in the gym feel sub-par. Our strength, power, and stamina suffer the most when our sex hormone levels collectively drop.
The Bread and Butter of Our Hormonal Cycle and Training:
Based on the functions of these hormones here’s what I’ve found to be the best strategy for working harmoniously with my hormones:
- When thinking of estrogen, think improved cognition and reduced inflammation
- When considering progesterone, think relaxation and an inverse relationship with insulin sensitivity
- When estrogen is high and progesterone is low it’s a good time to push strength and rely on carbohydrates for energy.
- When estrogen and progesterone are both high, it’s great to work on mobility and to hammer technique at moderate weights, relying on fat for energy.
- When testosterone peaks, it’s a great time to go for PRs, and you don’t need many carbs to hit them!
And here’s a detailed description of how to make the most of days 3-11 of your cycle:
Days 3 – 11: Get the Gainz
Because estrogen is climbing and progesterone is low, this is an awesome week to make the gym your second home!
- You’re going to be feeling strong, and mentally alert
- Your insulin sensitivity is also high, so this is a great time to have pre and post workout meals packed with carbs
If you’re a CrossFitter:
- Push hard and hit the program with full intensity
- If the WOD calls for a max, hit it
- If you’re doing a Girl WOD, go full-in
If you’re a weightlifter or a powerlifter:
- It’s a good time to go heavy or to hit high volume days
- Attack the barbell with intensity
- Consider going a little heavier or doing an extra set
- Add in supplementary accessory work to train your imbalances. (E.g. If you’re quad dominant, consider adding in some hamstring accessory work like hamstring bridges or single leg Romanian deadlifts.)
- Work on adding mass! If you want to bulk up any area, your body is going to love volume right now and your pain tolerance is high. Hypertrophy is your friend! (E.g. If you want to be a trap queen, add in 4 x 10 shrugs. If you want a bigger booty, follow your lifting session with 5 x 10 sets of a lunge variation. Your body is going to love insane workouts like Angie right now, so embrace high reps!)
Click here to get the full detailed description on how to work harmoniously with your hormones through each of these other stages:
- Days 27-2: Just Show Up + Recovery
- Days 12-16: Hit a PR!
- Days 17-26: Keep it Moderate, Mobilize, and Master Technique
If you’re not ready to download your full female training guide, here’s the…
Summary of the Entire Guide to Gainz and Hormonal Harmony:
Alas, we don’t have high testosterone all the time to get strong and jacked AF. On the plus side? We aren’t covered in thick body hair and we tend not to bald in our 20s and 30s.
We have higher levels of these cool hormones: estrogen – an anti-inflammatory that enhances our cognition, and progesterone – a hormone that helps us relax.
By getting intimate with our hormonal cycle we can maximize our gainz in the gym:
- Push harder in training from days 3-12 of your cycle (the end of your period and the days that follow). Fuel these workouts with carbs.
- Go for big Ovulation PRs when your body temperature and strength spike around days 12-16. Surprisingly, you won’t need many carbs to hit big numbers or best a workout time.
- On days 17-25 focus on technique and mobility. Keep the weights and workouts moderate. Rely on fat from food and from your belly to fuel your workouts.
- And right before and the first few days of your period? JSU – just show up, and move. You’ll feel better from moving, but now isn’t the time to lift anything heavy or to PR your Fran time. Your body is probably craving pizza and ice cream. I give you permission to indulge (just once) and call it a refeed day. Then go home and have a bubble bath because this is also a good time to focus on recovery.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat some sushi for dinner because – thanks to low progesterone levels – I’m especially insulin sensitive today. (And combining full glycogen stores with estrogen levels that are climbing towards that spike in testosterone should make tomorrow’s front squats go at least as well as today’s back squats.)
Competitive athlete wondering how this is all supposed to work with your program or competition days? Get your guide now, I explain all those deets in there.