The relationship between hormones and fitness is complex and oft-ignored that may impact client motivation and performance. Understanding it a little better may help breakthrough mysterious fitness roadblocks your clients are facing, especially women.
It would be nice if everyone could wake up every day feeling energetic, motivated, and ready to conquer the world. Or feeling like progress was made after every 5 AM fitness session. Unfortunately, our bodies function on their own terms that may not align with our best intentions and efforts to succeed. There are factors that periodically keep us in check to let us know when to push and when to pull back.
Although men do experience hormonal changes, they typically have a predictable shift day to day, month to month, and mostly involving testosterone. In a nutshell, healthy men begin their day with highest levels of testosterone and levels decrease over the course of the day, dipping in the afternoon. Perhaps the most beneficial time for them to perform lifting routines would be earlier in the day when testosterone is high. (Although some camps argue lifting at night will help raise testosterone levels.)
Women on the other hand have several hormones (including testosterone!) that shift every day, all month, and at many different levels. As personal trainers we are likely to program for both men and women, but for now the focus will be on female hormones. Let’s dig deeper into how these hormone levels affect your female clients training and what you can do to help benefit their progress during these shifts.
Female Hormones and Exercise
First things first. Ask questions.
Is it OK to have a conversation with your female client in regards to their menstrual cycle? Yes.
Your client came to you for guidance in all areas fitness-related, so knowing what their body is doing not only with fitness and nutrition, but also with their cycle, is important. Should your client be on hormonal birth control/contraception, her situation may be slightly different. Find out when her cycle starts and ask her to track health habits for 1-3 months. Many fitness trackers also track menstrual cycles, which can be even more helpful. This will help you both determine energy levels, reveal nutrition relationships, and even sleep patterns.
Below are some key factors your female clients might tracking daily that will help in planning their sessions to benefit them most.
*When was the first day of her menstrual cycle and how long did it last?
*What are her training routines? Have her log what she does daily for workouts–all varieties including rest days.
*What was her energy level like for her chosen workout? Did she drag or was she energetic?
*What were her eating habits throughout the month? Did she eat balanced, nutrient dense foods or indulge at specific intervals?
*How are her sleeping patterns? Does she fall asleep easily and stay asleep, or awake during the night? Do number of total hours per night vary? Does she have interrupted sleep due to external factors (like children waking her up?)
*How were her moods? Happy, anxious, focused, or scattered?
How will answering these questions and tracking contribute to the end goal of becoming healthier? The answers to these questions are all clues to the complex and dynamic interplay of hormones your client experiences on a daily basis. Not only will tracking these things daily help her see patterns, it will educate you both on what kind of shifts in her routine will better fall in line with her natural hormone levels, lining her fitness routine up with how she is feeling any given day.
Looking for Patterns
First, divide the month in half: The first half “phase one,” second half “phase two.” Explaining the processes that take place during these phases will help your client get a better understanding of what her body is doing and over time you will learn to adjust the programming accordingly.
This phase begins the first day of their menstrual cycle and continues for approximately 15 days (some cycles may be longer or shorter). During this time, days 1-5 the hormones estrogen and progesterone are at a low; utilize this time with her to focus on low-impact/slow simple movements or even stretching sessions. Your client’s energy will likely be lower also, so program accordingly.
After this period is over your clients energy will begin to increase, estrogen begins to rise. On days 5-13 you can ease her back into the more intense strength training and perhaps longer cardio sessions. Take advantage of this time to work on “gains” as your clients will respond better physiologically. This is also an ideal time to use carbs as fuel. Your client will also have a short window where there will be a peak in their testosterone and progesterone together so get some heavy lift days in towards the end of this 13-day window!
Let the ovulation begin! Around day 14 estrogen peaks and progesterone is still high. Your client may feel “warmer”. Her metabolism is elevated; working out in a cooler climate or even swimming may be a good option for a few days. Days 15-28 are a great opportunity for some HIIT workouts as her body will be utilizing more fat for fuel than at other times of the month as progesterone starts to decrease. (Appropriate for fat-loss clients!)
Recommend or program one or two HIIT sessions mixed in with higher intensity yoga sessions as your client comes closer to the end of this month-long cycle. You may notice towards the end (around day 22) energy begins to decrease again little by little, so slowing back down and incorporating more traditional weight training sessions with rest periods would be ideal.
Ask regularly how your client is feeling energy-wise as you proceed throughout the month; sleep is often affected so be mindful of how she is recovering.
Hormones are Unique to the Individual
Each client is individual in every possible way. Even if they are on birth control or perhaps in menopause, it is important to program according to unique hormone fluctuations. This guidance is most appropriate for those not artificially altering the body’s hormonal balance, however it will still benefit to track consistently to get a good, if not better, understanding on how to train and progress your client.
If you are not comfortable asking such pointed and personal questions (certainly valid of a male trainer working with female clients), not all is lost. Gathering as much information in a professional manner is part of coaching and application. Over time you will see the benefits in gathering this information and both you and your client will continue to have great success!