Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 124 “How to cycle sync while still building muscle”.
Today we are talking about cycle syncing workouts. Cycle syncing entails adapting workouts based on where you are in your menstrual cycle.
This is popular on social media. But I think many are really misunderstanding what is actually happening from a hormonal perspective. This leads to a misunderstanding of recovery. It can also lead to recommendations that aren’t actually in line with what’s happening with your physiology.
In today’s post, I’ll talk about why to consider cycle syncing and how it may improve how you feel and your results. I’ll educate you on what is changing in your body during your cycle from a hormonal perspective. I’ll discuss where social media is missing the mark when it comes to cycle syncing.
I’ll touch on contraceptives and how that may change things. This discussion will include recommendations for cycle syncing whether you are not on hormonal birth control, if you’re on the pill, or if you have an IUD.
The biggest reason to cycle sync is to optimize our strain-to-recovery ratio.
Because you may recover differently depending on the phase of your cycle, you can adjust your routines so you aren’t working against yourself.
When you can understand that your physiology doesn’t need more stimulus to adapt optimally, it needs better stimulus, you will see better results. You’ll sustain these results because you’ll also feel better.
This comes from understanding how force is traveling through your body with the exercises you choose. Not every exercise is created equal.
The balance between stress and recovery is a constant dance.
If we are training too hard through periods of low recovery, we can build up too much stress from which our bodies don’t have the capacity to heal. This is when chronic stress issues like hormonal imbalances and joint strain can happen.
Remember that stress is good, but only when we recover from it. Stress is the breakdown, where recovery is the buildup. Without proper recovery, you won’t see results.
The idea with cycle syncing is that you understand where your body has greater ability to recover and take advantage of that. And you also understand where your recovery isn’t as good, so you dial back to avoid spinning in chronic inflammation.
You could cycle sync perfectly, but still not see great results or feel good if you are not structured with your programming. No amount of cycle syncing can compensate for lack of proper programming or overuse.
Once you dial in the five basics below, then you can start to cycle sync to dial recovery even further.
In addition, exercise’s most powerful impact on our body is the building of lean mass, not burning of fat.
Building more lean mass improves insulin sensitivity which can improve our ability to use fat as fuel. But the act of exercising itself is not a significant contributor to fat burning.
If your goal is to “balance hormones,” one of the best hormones to improve is your sensitivity to insulin.
Insulin is one of the few hormones that affects every cell in our bodies. Improving insulin sensitivity will therefore have a global effect throughout your whole body.
Building more muscle mass is one of the best ways to do that.
Muscle is a huge storage site for glucose. This can help decrease glucose in the bloodstream, lowering insulin, and improving the cells sensitivity to insulin.
To build muscle, you need five main things.
This is something that a lot of modern women struggle with. With things like Class Pass, people are often going to a few bootcamp classes and some pilates classes and a yoga class. There is no structure in their routine.
Because of this, certain muscles can get overused or underused. You may work your glutes and shoulders on Monday in a bootcamp class and then fry your glutes and shoulders in a Reformer class the next day.
This can stall progress since your muscles need time in between sessions to grow and recover. You may also start to notice joint pain because of this overuse and under-recovery.
Having a plan where you work each muscle group 1-2x on non-consecutive days will get you the greatest benefit with the least cost to your joints.
The angle of force that is applied to a muscle is important. The more direct that angle of force is to the muscle you are trying to target, the better the stimulus. When you can get more specific with how you load your muscles, ironically, you can do less, but see better results. My favorite new maxim, “less but better,” applies to exercise selection big time.
However, many choose an exercise that “works everything” at once all in one move to try to work core and arms and glutes. Example: a plank with a leg lift and a pushup. But because the angles of force are not very aligned to fiber orientations of those muscles, they only get partial stimulus to each of those muscle groups. Which either means they need to do another exercise to get better stimulus, increasing the length of your workouts and unnecessarily stressing your body, or they just aren’t seeing the results because the stimulus isn’t specific enough.
Trying to work your full body in each exercise ends up being stressful on your joints without a huge payoff. Remember: Less but better. Target fewer muscle groups with each exercise, but with better lines of force.
The next important thing for building muscle is progressive overload, including taking each lift close to failure.
This is important . If you are just feeling “the burn”, you aren’t giving your muscle enough stimulus to actually change it.
Getting close to failure means you have 3-4 reps in the tank. If you could do your last rep at the same speed in which you could do your first, then you likely aren’t close to failure.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Pilates and Barre and if those methods can build muscle.
In general, I think there are a few key things that most Pilates methods are missing. Therefore, it’s hard to build muscle with those types of formats. You may build a bit, but it will likely be limited and you may be better off investing your time in a focused and structured training plan like Evlo. Check out more about this topic in this episode of Fit Body, Happy Joints.
This is really what we are talking about today. Cycle syncing is one tool you can use to adapt your workouts based on hormonal perturbations so you recover better.
Bottom line: you need enough protein. We rely on exercise too much for change in our bodies. If it isn’t paired with proper nutrition, you will put in the work without seeing the results.
Knowing that our goal is to build muscle, let’s talk about what is happening during your cycle for someone who is not on hormonal birth control.
I’m going to give generalizations, but please know that your experience may not completely match some of these generalizations.
Studies show that when it comes to the menstrual cycle, the psychological will supersede the physiological. In other words, there could be some preconceived notions or conditioning that have made you believe certain things about your cycle. This will create a real experience for you.
We have been conditioned that our period is the time where we need to rest, may be exhausted, and are more fragile.
But if you look at what’s happening hormonally, that doesn’t actually match. This is when some of our sex hormones are at their lowest, and the time where motivation may be higher, energy may be great, you are more stress resilient and can recover faster.
But many women don’t feel like that. They feel awful during their period.
How much of that is from conditioning vs. how much of that is because of their own hormonal changes and responses to those changes? Hard to know. But I would encourage you to keep an open mind during your cycle with an understanding that your body may be different from what I talk about today.
The idea is not to give you a prescription with these things. Because if you’re going against your own physiology and symptoms because you think you should feel a certain way during a part of your cycle, it defeats the entire purpose of cycle syncing to begin with.
I recommend trying to pretend like you know nothing about how you should or shouldn’t feel during your cycle. Just start recording your symptoms.
The Flo app is really good for recording symptoms and starting to track. You can add mood/energy/physical symptoms like bloating/etc so you can start to get an idea of how you respond.
All of those are great questions to ask yourself. They will give you an idea of how well you are recovering (remembering the important note from earlier).
Because if you’re overusing muscles, this will cause all those symptoms no matter where you are in your cycle. It’s important that you first establish a structured routine before you try to cycle sync.
A normal cycle is 28-35 days, and can be roughly divided in two halves: the follicular phase and the luteal phase.
The follicular phase begins on the first day of your bleed and ends after ovulation.
Your hormones are the lowest at the very start of your cycle- day one of your bleed.
This is where you have an excellent capability to recover and handle stress. This is the time in your cycle where you are closest to a man hormonally.
You may feel more energetic and motivated during your period because of the drop in hormones.
Then after ovulation and if there is no egg implanted, we start the luteal phase.
The goal of the luteal phase is to build the endometrial lining. Your energy expenditure may increase slightly (~100 cals/day) because progesterone is increasing.
Progesterone is a catabolic hormone, meaning it breaks down tissue to increase circulating amino acids to help build that lining.
Because you’re in more of a catabolic state, recovery decreases slightly in the second half of your cycle. Inflammation may also be a bit higher because of this catabolic increase.
You may notice mood swings, sleep issues, lower HRV, and potentially more soreness/tightness if you aren’t adjusting your routine.
This is what’s happening from a basic perspective if you aren’t on hormonal birth control. We’ll talk about how to train here in a moment.
We’ll also talk about how to cycle sync if you are on hormonal birth control because the recommendations will be different. This is because hormone fluctuations will be different.
Before we get into how to cycle sync, let’s talk about where social media is a bit off with this.
With a quick Tiktok search, here’s what came up with “how to cycle sync your workouts”:
A few problems with this.
Most of social media is recommending cycle syncing based on an antiquated view of what’s happening during our cycle. This is based on the old misunderstanding and conditioning of our periods. You are NOT a fragile flower during your period. This is actually the time where you have the best ability to recover.
Recommending walking and rest during your period is a missed opportunity where you could actually recover well. This recoverability could lead to better benefits from strength training during this time.
The second issue is that there is no continuity of training. This goes against one of the five basics for building muscle (progressive overload). You’re jumping around between workouts so much that you won’t be able to actually make any kind of progress. Your body needs consistent stimulus in order to adapt. By changing what workouts you’re doing each week, it’s going to be hard to see any kind of progress.
This is just another example of how social media trends are missing the mark with the science behind what’s happening in our bodies.
Let’s get into how to apply this to your training.
Remember: how we feel will supersede what our physiology says. So often we hear that you should feel a certain way on your period. And placebo effect makes you feel that way. This doesn’t mean that your experience is any less real.
My suggestion to you is to not pay attention to how you “should” feel. Even after reading this post. Know there is a ton of variation. I want you to take away tools to adjust your routine based on your own recovery.
I’m never saying “don’t train hard” or “don’t lift”. It’s knowing when to back off slightly because you have lower abilities to recover. Especially if you feel awful and unmotivated and exhausted and maybe even weaker during certain parts of your cycle.
For me, I find it’s a lot easier to give myself grace when I’m 5 days before I’m about to start my period. This is typically when I feel awful and weak in my workouts. This knowledge has given me the ability to adjust without beating myself up about it.
Let’s start with how to cycle sync if you are not on hormonal birth control.
If you’re an Evlo member (or not!), I don’t necessarily recommend adding or taking out strength workouts throughout your cycle. How you’ll sync is by adjusting your effort during the workouts and adding/removing HIIT.
My advice is going to be really simple: if you feel like trash, listen to that.
You can still do the workout on your schedule, but maybe you drop down by 5lb or use bodyweight in our classes where you may normally use a dumbbell.
You still want to focus on getting close to failure if you can, but know that that may happen in fewer reps than usual. Or with lighter weight than usual. Be willing to drop your weight if you need to.
I still want you to challenge and load your muscles throughout your entire cycle, but if you’re feeling like your recovery is suffering, scale back by doing the above.
Here are some generalizations divided by “weeks”. Know that it really could be anywhere from 5-10 days in each short phase.
Day one of your period and around that whole week, you have your best ability to recover. I’d recommend taking advantage of this by lifting, focusing on getting close to failure, and potentially adding 1-2 short HIIT sessions if you’d like.
Remember that I never recommend long HIIT sessions. I don’t recommend 45-60 minute bootcamp classes for women really ever in their cycle. Focus on building muscle + HIIT + your 150 min of light-intensity cardio.
For my light intensity cardio, I feel really good hiking or playing tennis or quicker walks during this time. If you’re an Evlo member, you may feel great taking LICB each day for really the first half of your cycle. If you’re a runner, this may be a good time for some more intense runs.
For me, this is the best week of my cycle. If I can, I’ll schedule important podcast interviews or I sometimes feel like I can go up in weight during this week.
Around ovulation (week two-ish), you may still feel high energy and have great recovery. Continue to lift and add optional HIIT.
Some people may notice they feel amazing around ovulation and high energy. You can take advantage of that by continuing to get close to failure in your lifts + 1-2 short HIIT sessions.
Some people don’t feel great around this time. You may go a bit lighter in your lifts or even do less reps or less sets and skip to the cool down.
My recommendation for week 1’s light-to-moderate intensity cardio still applies to week 2. I still recommend 150ish minutes. You may feel like you have the energy and recoverability to hike or play tennis or whatever you enjoy.
After ovulation, when you enter into your luteal phase, your recovery starts to drop a little. Continue to lift and be aware of how you’re feeling during your workout. If you’re struggling to recover, take out HIIT.
I don’t personally see much difference in this week, so I keep everything about the same. I really keep things relatively the same from week 1-3ish. But again, track and take notes for yourself.
From a light-intensity cardio perspective, play it by ear. I don’t change much during this time, but you may back off a bit if you’re noticing your recovery is struggling.
Your recovery is lowest during your late luteal phase, the last 5ish days of your cycle.
This may be where you start to experience PMS symptoms, feel motivation waning, and struggle with some of those recovery metrics. You may find that light weights feel heavier, it’s harder to connect to muscles, etc.
During this phase, I usually have to go a bit lighter. I don’t beat myself up when I stop a set sooner than I usually would.
Again, I’m still loading and challenging muscles. But I may be taking modifications where I have more ground/wall support. For example: doing ball wall sits instead of sissy squats.
This would be a good time to remove HIIT and maybe even lengthen the time you’re in savasana. This helps to improve parasympathetic drive and recovery. Adding meditations can be great for this, too.
For cardio, I focus on long/slow walks. My limbs always feel “heavy” during this week, so I just try to keep my body moving with easy walks on most days.
Overall, remember that it’s going to be day-by-day. Wake up and assess how you feel, and adapt accordingly.
If you have a longer cycle *like your cycle is closer to 30 days instead of 25) the part of your cycle that lengthens is the follicular phase, not the luteal phase.
The time between your period and ovulation is what’s lengthening and your luteal phase stays about the same length of time.
This is good news because it means that you have more time in that high recovery state.
This is going to be pretty similar to the no birth control recommendations. You just may feel less severity of symptoms/fluctuations.
So in general:
Good recovery during the first half of your cycle: 1st day of your bleed to about 2ish weeks in. If you don’t have a period, you’ll have to get in tune with how your energy changes throughout the month.
You may feel stronger, can increase weights a bit, and potentially add HIIT if you want.
Second half you may feel like recovery dips. You can take out HIIT and you may feel like you need to drop weight a little bit. Again, maybe not.
When I was on a hormonal IUD, I tried to track my cycle and honestly did not have success with it.
I didn’t feel a big change in my recovery levels, so I didn’t change much. You certainly can try, but know that it may not be as pronounced or as important to cycle sync.
With most oral contraceptives, the recommendations are going to be a bit different. Because the hormones build in your system as you go through your pack, your recovery is going to change as those hormones build.
In general, the last five-ish days of your sugar pill and the first five-ish days of your active pill are going to be where recovery is the best since the hormones from the pill have dropped.
You can bookend your HIIT during those times if you’re going to add HIIT. And you may notice you can lift heavier or feel stronger during those times.
In the middle, you may feel your recovery dip a bit, in which case you could drop weight if you need to (remember, you may not need to!) and potentially take out HIIT.
You have to get good at adjusting based on your symptoms of recovery. I’m going to say these questions again:
Maybe write those down somewhere and start to ask yourself those questions during your cycle.
When your recovery is good, think about these things:
When your recovery is struggling:
I hope this was helpful and empowering. Remember that we have a 14-day free trial of Evlo, where our goal is to help you build muscle by working with your physiology instead of against it.
I like to view Evlo as being as close to personal training as possible in a video class format. All of our teachers are Doctors of Physical therapy. We constantly educate you during class. We can anticipate what people may need based on our knowledge of pathology and anatomy and give cues/recommendations accordingly. We release new classes Monday-Friday so you don’t have to do the same workouts twice. Our hope is that you build muscle with less wear-and-tear and zero guesswork.
And if you’re already an Evlo member, thank you for being here.
Listen to Dr. Shannon Ritchey, PT, DPT as she integrates the most current literature with her experience as a fitness trainer to give you tangible takeaways to improve your fitness.
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