By Illie Zeneli
“Women are not small men.”
That’s the main message from one of my favorite books on fitness and women’s hormones, “Roar” by Dr. Staci Sims. It’s a beautiful thing seeing women pursue their fitness goals and even outperforming men in many cases. I spent the past 10 years of my life as a personal trainer and I have really tried it all: cycling, bodybuilding, pilates, HIIT, CrossFit... In those years, I learned what style of training is best for me. But regardless of what style I chose, I completely neglected my hormones in the process.
Unlike men, women have a symphony of hormones that fluctuate throughout the month. This is called our infradian rhythm. We have 3 main hormones doing a lot of the heavy lifting, they are: testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. On top of that, they all feel different when they are in balance vs out of balance.
- In balance feels like: healthy skin, regulated body temperature, and balanced mood
- Out of balance looks like: irregular periods, water retention, breast tenderness, weight gain, mood swings, hair loss and thyroid issues
- In balance feels like: increased energy, better mood and easier weight loss
- Out of balance looks like: fatigue, depression, low libido, poor memory, joint pain, hair loss, acne, oily skin, and body hair
- In balance feels like: stable energy, good sleep, healthy hair, clear skin
- Out of balance looks like: insomnia, low libido, PCOS, anxiety, headaches, short cycles and mid cycle spotting
(Just a disclaimer, the hormones we get from hormonal birth control stop this symphony completely and pump artificial versions into you instead which can also look like the above. You cannot track your ovulation window since you do not ovulate on the pill and your symptoms will be more sporadic since we are getting the same hormones daily instead of in its natural flow state.)
Our hormones are extremely sensitive and even the smallest things can throw us for a loop, even our workouts.
Have you ever wondered why some days you feel like you are full of energy and can hit your goals much easier, but on other days it feels like you are going backwards? Your hormones might be to blame for that. BUT there is a way to biohack your body and workout in harmony with your symphony.
Every woman goes through 4 main phases of their cycle: Follicular, Luteal, Ovulation, and Menstruation. Understanding each phase is going to be the key to how you exercise so you don’t cause unnecessary stress on your hormones.
Follicular Phase 💪🏽
This phase starts the day after your period ends and normally lasts around 7-10 days. I'll explain later on how to track this. During this phase your progesterone and estrogen (and energy) rise. This is the time where you will benefit from cardio, HIIT, running, and lighter weight lifting.
Ovulation Phase ⚡
This phase is barely a phase at all, but instead it's one to three days out of the month that you are ovulating and the most fertile. Your estrogen is the highest, so you will also have the most energy during this phase! You will be in a great mood, full of energy so you can continue on with your workouts as usual - and maybe even PR.
Luteal Phase 🍂
This phase is the 10-14 days before your period. Your body is preparing for menstruation, so progesterone and estrogen drop, causing your energy to bottom. Therefore, it's likely that you won't be lifting super heavy. This is your time to utilize the sauna, get your steps in, participate in yoga, pilates and also make smart caffeine choices since you won't have the energy you did two weeks ago. If you weight lift you can definitely continue to do so but just simply have compassion with yourself that these won't be the weeks that you are hitting a new PR or even lifting heavy as normal. I like to think of this phase as “Autumn” because everything is cooling down, taking is slow before we hibernate for “Winter”
Menstruation Phase 🔴
The “Winter” phase, is always a great phase to simply relax and take a break. Take this time to nourish the body properly with bigger meals and get in your minerals in that you will be shedding through your menses. Light walking, yoga, and stretching are the preferred movements during this phase. Overexerting yourself during the wrong phase can cause a long list of issues since exercise is a form of acute stress. Although exercise is so important to balance hormones, knowing exactly when to ‘go hard’ and when to just chill and take it easy is going to be foundational for making your body feel safe to do its job.
Learning about your cycle is a total power move and for those of you that have never learned to track your cycle there are some important tools and sources to look out for. I personally use a device called TempDrop which is a band you strap to your arm while you sleep and connects to an app that tracks your temperature. Another option is taking ovulation tests that you can find at any convenience store and simply tracking monthly. Once you know your ovulation you can not only predict when you are the most fertile but also how to train for your cycle.
Although “women are not small men” and there is some planning that goes into our workouts - it is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our hormones and overall health. No more wondering why you aren't hitting your PR, why some days you feel you need more caffeine, or why you may not be sleeping well. Syncing your workouts to your cycle will also help you emotionally since many of us get down on ourselves for feeling weaker some days. With that said, have compassion for your lady parts because our hormones are just here to help!