Does it ever feel like, compared to our male counterparts, goals such as weight loss and strength training are more of an uphill battle? The truth is, women share a common reality that is often overlooked when trying to lose weight, gain strength, or just be healthier. That reality is the menstrual cycle. PMS, bloating, cramping, heavy bleeding—all these common symptoms have a way of showing up just when you’re on the right track.
I love the points personal trainer James Smith makes in this video. It’s refreshing to hear a male personal trainer acknowledge the fact that the monthly cycle isn’t always easy to work with. Women are working with an ever-changing physiology, unlike men, whose hormone levels are more stable. Not only that, but as Smith says in the video, “The variability of the effects of the menstrual cycle on people is huge. For some people, there [are] no issues whatsoever . . . others are affected very badly by it.” That variability makes things a bit more complicated for women.
The good news is, the menstrual cycle doesn’t have to derail your workouts or other health plans. With some planning and a bit of tracking, the twists and turns of female physiology can be manageable.
I had the opportunity to ask Smith some additional questions about his experience training women throughout the menstrual cycle and was surprised at how much emphasis he placed on understanding the physiology at play. “I personally think that knowledge about the menstrual cycle at a basic level should be mandatory when personal trainers are considering training females,” Smith says. Amen to that. Here are three pieces of advice Smith has to offer for working with the menstrual cycle:
01. Be Flexible
The hormonal shifts that are at play during your monthly cycle can make you more susceptible to injury. They may also impair your balance, coordination, and strength. For example, this meta-analysis found that female athletes in the pre-ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle were more prone to ACL injuries than women in the post-ovulatory phase.
For the just-looking-to-get-fit, average gym goer, Smith recommends some simple switches to lessen injury risk during sensitive phases. For example, you might trade the free weights—which require more balance, skill, and coordination—for weight machines during certain stages, such as the follicular phase, which lasts from the first day of your cycle until ovulation. The high estrogen levels present during this phase can make you more prone to injury or lessen strength and coordination. So if you seem unusually clumsy, consider which stage of the cycle you are in and adjust your routine as needed.
02. Have Smart Expectations
The mental game is huge when it comes to sticking with a fitness plan. It can be discouraging when you feel like you’re turning a corner and making progress, only to be struck with PMS symptoms. Smith recommends taking a tailored approach to tracking in order to account for the menstrual cycle:
“With my own clients, I ensure they’re up to date with what to expect—even [when it comes to] the simplest of things like getting them to compare measurements from the same parts of their cycle. . . . Quite simply, physiology and something as simple as water retention could be the difference between someone sticking to their diet or throwing in the towel.”
For instance, Smith recommends comparing week one of your January cycle to week one of your February cycle, instead of comparing weeks one and two of the same month. Knowing what to expect at different phases of the cycle will help you set realistic expectations and stick to the plan.
03. Understand Your Cycle
Perhaps the most important key to success is to understand your cycle. Smith noted that the most common pitfall he sees is a lack of knowledge about the impact the cycle has on nutrition and fitness. It’s easy to underestimate, and even easier to ignore.
Having a general knowledge of the hormonal shifts that occur each month is important, but understanding your own physiology is crucial, since there is so much individual variability. I have found that keeping a daily journal to detail how I am feeling, foods I want, or how I felt during and after workouts has helped me get to know my own cycle. If you want to delve even deeper, track your daily signs of fertility, such as basal body temperature and cervical mucus. There are also apps that can help you with tracking. Not only does charting help you know what to expect in the gym, but it may also help you prevent and manage some of the more unpleasant symptoms that come along with your monthly cycle.
As Smith notes, “There is no magical fix for the cycle, but if the right considerations are made during different times of training, the whole ordeal can be much easier to manage.” When you’re working with a new body chemistry every day, that’s encouraging news.