Women Need Flexibility to ‘Cycle With Their Cycle’
It’s a crappy reality, but the female menstrual cycle is not usually factored in enough by PT’s due to ignorance, which is a big mistake. The reason for this is that the majority of PT’s and people doing strength training are men, and they haven’t stopped to understand what impact women’s ever changing hormonal shifts have on their ability or willingness to undertake physically demanding activity.
So, they build plans assuming you can train like them. Every day is the same in their mind, and performance is purely down to mindset, sleep and nutrition. And whilst women can and do train in this male-conceived linear fashion, training can sometimes feel easy and other times incredibly hard, depending on where a woman is in her monthly cycle.
Men and women have an ever changing balance of hormones (your bodies chemical messengers) throughout the day to illicit action, being awake, wanting food, feeling full and going to sleep amongst many many other things. Your hormones map to the circadian rhythm (the rhythm of the sun) and when you body needs something to change. This repeats daily, and a pretty consistent fashion.
However, women have an added complexity. Their sex hormone levels are changing every single day! Just take a look at the graph below.
What this means is that from one day to the next, your performance and relative perceived exertion can drastically change. We have an excellent article by Michelle that goes into the four phases, and what you can expect to experience in terms of energy, motivation, mood, strength, hunger, craving and weight change.
So, whilst the most important aspect of strength training is progressive overload (read on), a good programme needs to respect that this must be achieved in the context of the females motivation, energy and relative perceived strength capacity based on her menstrual cycle.
Check out Cycle With Your Cycle – How To Phase Your Training & Nutrition With Your Menstrual Cycle for an understanding of each phase, identifying similarities in your feelings and energy, and practical training and nutritional guidance to take full advantage of your bodies hormonal changes.
In Summary, think about this high level guidance.
PHASE 1 (Day 0-7)- Early Follicular –
Start that new training programme or diet. Smash those heavy weights. Carbs aren’t the enemy. Try on those jeans you’ve been eyeing up.
PHASE 2 (Day 7-14) – Late Follicular –
Challenge yourself with higher intensities and prioritise traditional strength training. Consider re-feed or diet breaks, as insulin sensitivity is increased.
PHASE 3 (Day 14-21+) – Early-Mid Luteal –
Set your next PB. Increase fats and proteins if you’re hungrier, and start to lower carbs
PHASE 4 (Day 21-28+) – Late Luteal –
Adjust training to lower weights whilst increasing reps, more flow-based movement and ditch the HIIT. Build in mindfulness practices, grab a couple squares of Dark Chocolate, control the carbs and avoid trigger foods.
When It Comes to Muscle Growth, Progressive Overload Is Key
Progressive Overload is a intuitive and simple concept, but it is surprisingly ignored by the majority of people who exercise.
Progressive Overload is all about increasing the demands on your muscles through time. By making small but consistent increases in imposed stress to your muscles whilst being safe, your muscles in turn break down and then are repaired with additional strength potential. The idea is that you look to make progress from week to week on every workout.
Progressive overload can also be expressed by this calculation, where the goal it to INCREASE the volume week to week. It doesn’t always have to be about how heavy the barbell or dumbbell is.
Volume = Reps x Weight x Sets
So, you can increase the Volume in one of 5 ways:
- More Weight on the Bar
- An extra Rep(s) per set
- Another Set(s)
- Slow down the negative/eccentric part of the lift – e.g. the lowering of the dumbbell in a bicep curl
- Performing the exercise with ever improving technique
Interestingly, whilst point 4-5 are not part of the Volume equation, they can make a big difference, as they in effect make the exercise harder (i.e. more stress) for the targeted muscle(s).
In order to Progressively Overload, you will need some means of tracking your workouts. There are many Apps to choose from. A simple and effective one is Stacked by my friend Mike Matthews. Or, you can just print out the suggested workout below and scribble down your progress. The key is to know what Weight, Reps, and Sets you actually performed last week were, so you can go about making safe incremental volume improvements.
There’s No Such Thing As The Perfect Long-Term Workout Plan
It would be easy for me to say that the training block as put together in this BREAK-THE-MOULD Body Plan is the perfect training programme. That it meets all of YOUR specific needs today, and forever. That would be a lie. I cannot assume your weaknesses, priorities, movement preferences and neurotype without consultation and spending some time working out with you. Moreover, you don’t need a perfect plan.
What you need is a well-programmed exercise programme that respects the key principles of hypertrophy and strength training, has a bias towards supporting a generally admired physique and phases out in replacement for your next training block. Why?
Well, like with anything, your body gets accustomed to the demands you put through it. It finds a way to get more effective and efficient when presented with predictable and consistent workloads.
Now, the beauty with strength training is the concept of Progressive Overload. We can continue to make exercises more difficult, all whilst staying in an anabolic state. This could in theory just keep going on and on with the same workout plan.
However, there is a HUGE benefit of mixing up your strength training – to practice different exercise variations, hit other muscle groups or fibres make your overall body strong, and perhaps most importantly throw new stimulus it’s way that it is not trained to do. The newness factor gives you those ‘newbie’ gains again per se, and you want to keep hold of those all year round if possible.
That said, there is little to no value in randomly doing a bunch of strength exercises every time you go to the gym, as many people do when they get into a big box gym. With this random approach, it’s far too difficult to master the movements and exercises, and is too inconsistent to make any material strength gains. Plus it’s really challenging to track any progress you do actually make.
So, the guidance is to have a phased-programme, where you keep constant with a training schedule for 6-8 weeks, take a deload week, and then moving on to the subsequent training block.
This means, that you will have 5-8 training blocks during the course of the year. They will be very similar in intent and some of the core exercises, but you will have variations, exercise selections, rep ranges, rest intervals and the like adjusted to switch the focus and keep the body adapting. This is exactly why every eight weeks there is a new #HyperWorkouts Training block!
The #HyperWorkouts Female-Centric 8 Week Programme – Training Block 1
So here it is, the AUG-18 #HyperWorkouts special edition – focussed on getting you off to the races in building your best feminine body.
The Training Block has been carefully considered, with female clients in mind. Truth be told, this was actually written for my wife Michelle, after understanding what she liked, disliked and felt a lack of in her prior training programmes.
The KEY CONCEPTS are:
#1 – A core of Progressive Traditional Strength Training, combined with restorative and optional aerobic sessions to meet the typical psychic needs of women
#2 – A Parasympathetic Session built in, to ensure there is balance between beast mode in the gym and a crazy home/work life. Signing up to a weekly Yoga or Pilates session will be incredibly restorative to the mind and body
#3 – Considered entirely optional, there is flexibility to include 1x class-based aerobic session, to satisfy many ladies need for hard cardio work in a fun and community environment. Spin / Tabata / TRIP being preferred, as Bike HIIT-style training has a mild anabolic (muscle building) effect on the body. Whereas steady state cardio and running is catabolic (breaking down muscle).
Additionally, consider avoiding lots of bodyweight/rep classes, as this will unnecessarily fatigue the very muscles we are trying to strengthen through heavy reps and sufficient of recovery time.
#4 – 8-Week Female-Specific Strength Training Block – design specifics
- Consisting of 3-4* Strength Training Sessions (*option to perform Session 1 twice)
- Progressive Overload is foundational – requiring more volume to be achieved from week to week to illicit muscle and strength gains.
- Each session is considered full-body, but there is a bias to Upper Body and Lower Body in Session 2 and 3
- A strong focus on the big compound multi-joint lifts that provide best bang for your buck
- Emphasis on development of Glutes, Thighs, Arms, Shoulders and Back, whilst de-emphasising Traps, Chest, Obliques and Calves
- Each day has two Strength Rep-Range exercises that are considered the centre piece of the workout. They will be the most demanding section of the workout
- Additionally, each day has four exercises in two superset pairs that are focussed in the Hypertrophy Rep-Range. Less intensity here, but more reps and less rest time
- Each day has a finisher for metabolic conditioning and active recovery. 5-10mins of steady state cardio, HIIT or abs circuit. Purposely designed to be minimal, and must be conducted at END of workout
- Menstruation Flexibility offered for the Late Luteal phase where it may make more sense to reduce intensity of the heavy lifts in favour for more reps and movement*
- Suggested mobility and activation work considered optional. Considered priming movements, to get into required range of motion and activate the desired muscle groups ahead of heavy strength work.
As you can see, it is very similar to all other AdapNation #HyperWorkouts in terms of structure and emphasis. And the reality is, ladies can easily and healthily use any of these workouts – they are NOT guys only.
That said, this starter programme is a good place to start as it’s structure and intent is straight forward, it doesn’t have overly complex variation movements, and the rep ranges are typically better suited for novice female strength trainers who will have a natural bias to higher reps in comparison to guys. Moreover, this training programme emphasises and de-emphasises certain muscle groups in favour of what women typically prefer to develop from an aesthetic perspective.
* Check out Cycle With Your Cycle – How To Phase Your Training & Nutrition With Your Menstrual Cycle for more details on Menstrual Cycle Based Approach (MCBA) to training. The below table may also be helpful in working out how to dial down weights but maintain relative intensity in the late luteal phase. If you are scheduled to lift a heavy 6, you could drop the weight down from 85% 1 Rep Max to 70% 1 Rep Max, and complete ~10 Reps.
#3 – REST & RECOVERY
Listen In… Rest Is As Important as Training!
I know, another bombshell! This sounds like more counter intuitive guidance. You might be thinking “Steve wants me to Eat More, Strength Train, Move Less and now Take More Time Out! I think he just wants to get me fat.”
Absolutely not the case. I was a 6-7 day a week’er for much of the last 12 months. I was making improvements, because I was nailing the plan including getting sleep and taking restorative supplementation, but the improvements seemed slow. Moreover, I kept getting more and more aches and pains, continued to suffer with irritability and generally felt like I was beating up my body. I was getting my 7-8h most nights, which is a big part of rest, but it was often really uncomfortable.
The straw that broke the camels back was a feeling of coming down with an illness, yet I know I didn’t have the flu. I was chronically fatigued. I was exhausted, but was unwilling to listen. However, once I stopped ignoring the importance of adequate rest for maximal muscle restorative and growth, my symptoms disappeared and all my metrics increased positively.
If you are someone who is constantly in ‘beast mode’ all of the time at work, family duties and the gym, you would benefit greatly from taking a read of the Chronic Exercise & Life Fatigue –> GAS’d Out, Not Making Progress Or Stressed? Article I wrote as I began to understand the importance of having some ying to my yang. Some really interesting insights around what actually happens in your body, how it responds to stressors, and optimal recovery times dependant on workout type.
When you do any form of exercise, you cause some damage to the muscles. Tiny amounts in the likes of a brisk walk, and fairly significant amounts in a gruelling 3 Rep Max 90min strength training session.
Again, it sounds counter intuitive, but you actually break down your muscles when you work out. It’s what you eat and how your adequately rest that allows the muscle tissues to be repaired and restored with greater strength and size.
How To Think About (& Respect) Rest & Recovery
- Read up on the Chronic Exercise & Life Fatigue Article that talks through stress, recovery and adaptation.
- As a general rule of thumb, leave 48 hours between intensely strength training a muscle group.
- Make sure you get 7-9 hours sleep per night – This article describes why it’s so important, the consequences of not getting enough, and top tips to a better night sleep
- Whilst this strength training programme has you training 3-4x a week on different muscle groups, it has a full-body impact. As such, try to leave one day in between Session 1 & 3.
- Try and get some proper downtime, away from the mental stress and demands of life.
- Get in some parasympathetic activities, such as deep breathing, mindfulness practices, yoga, strolls in the park, reading, hot bath, massages etc
Continue reading for the final instalment, that gives guidance on what things to measure as well as the important Stages 2 and 3 that help shed the any unwanted fat…
Continue Reading 👉 BREAK-THE-MOULD PART 5 of 5 – Lift, Measure, Cut, Repeat 😊
Follow this and other topic areas in our longer-form Articles series as they unfold, as well as the AdapNation Food Diary for healthy meal inspiration and AdapNation’s #HyperWorkouts for free training plans. Comment if you have questions or ideas.