Question of the week: "Do you train males and females differently?"

Often I get asked, “Do you train males and females differently?” The short answer is no. I do not prescribe different exercises based on biological sex.

My belief is that there are certain movement patterns that everyone should train and aim to master. I like to focus around push, pull, deadlift variations, and “core” movements. In terms of importance, I program pull, deadlift, and “core” variations first. When writing programs for clients, I like to follow the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple Stupid). A great resource to consider is Rob Miller’s, The Map of Athletic Performance.

Without going into too much detail, you can see that we spend much of our sport life in beginner and intermediate phases, sometimes never exiting these phases. This also applies to training. Very little portions of a persons training fall into the advanced or elite category. The basics create a foundation that can be built upon for years to come. Basic movements can yield great results.

Now back to the original question, “Do you train males and females differently?” The long answer, “Yes.” Let’s talk about the dreaded “m-word.” Let’s talk menstruation.

Review of the menstrual cycle (for the sake of this article):

From this chart, we see that the menstrual cycle has two main phases with two other focal points. The main phases are the follicular phase and luteal phase. The two other focal points are menstruation and ovulation.

Timeline (varies from person to person):

Day 0-6: Menstruation

Day 0-14: Follicular Phase

Day 14: Ovulation

Day 15-28: Luteal Phase

Based on the physiological changes occurring, I do believe the menstrual cycle can be used as a great training tool. SAY WHAT?! Hear me out.

Follicular Phase:

-During the follicular phase, women tend to have a higher tolerance to pain. Does this mean you should start punching yourself? No. Does this mean you might be able to push a little extra volume around in your training or attempt to maintain a faster running pace with less discomfort compared to other times during the month. Yes. You may also benefit from greater force-generation capacity.

The body also seeks out carbohydrates for fuel during this phase. During the first 14 days of the menstrual cycle, aiming for higher intensities and volumes is more realistic due to these factors.

KEY POINT: Feel free to push the envelope a bit here. If you’re feeling good, this is a good point to try a little more. As you approach ovulation, keep in mind the rate of injury starts to rise, so focus on form under load towards the end of this phase.

Ovulation:

Around day 14 (can vary from day 10-14), ovulation kicks in. At this point, relative strength will still be elevated and force generation will still be at your monthly prime time slot. When ovulation hits, it is not the worst time to go for a personal record in whatever endeavor you’re training for.

The kicker, injury rate is also elevated during ovulation. Estrogen concentration increases during this time. Estrogen can hinder collagen synthesis and neuromuscular control. The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that women were three times more likely to suffer an ACL injury while ovulating. This was found in participants who were not on birth control. 

Women that are on birth control have more steady levels of estrogen over the course of a menstrual cycle. This leads to less ACL vulnerability over the course of a cycle.

In another study, women were found to land from jumps differently during ovulation. Could this tweak in landing mechanics lead to a tweak in the knee? 

KEY POINT: The take home is to do technical maxes through this phase. Focus heavily on form if you’re going to try for a PR during this phase. Maybe even shift your focus to something with less injury chance (example: a 3-RM versus a 1-RM). This finding will definitely benefit from further research, as it is not 100% clear what causes the increased risk of tears during ovulation. Studies have focused on ligament laxity, landing mechanics, and estrogen receptors in the ACL. The effects of increased estrogen on neuromuscular control should, at least, be considered.

Luteal Phase:

When looking at the luteal phase, it is often noted that body temperature rises during this time. The change in distribution of blood flow can have an effect on cardiac output. This leaves you less efficient at a level of exertion compared to what you would be without the increased body temperature.

Managing all of this can also become more difficult when PMS kicks in. Premenstrual syndrome has the potential to be downright debilitating. Not only does the body experience a decreased level of efficiency, the variables of pain and discomfort get added to the mix.

The luteal phase also shifts back to having fuel focus on fats. Fats will not give you the same power result as carbohydrates. Focus on a more medium volume lifts and overall maintenance until you are back into the follicular phase.

Overall risk of injury seems to drop once the luteal phase is reached. Ligament laxity returns to normal. Other factors just provide limitations.

KEY POINT: Focus more on medium volume lifts and training. If you’re having an off training session, it’s most likely the feeling of decreased efficiency kicking in. Kick back on the volume and intensity and get ready for the next follicular phase by focusing on form and maintenance. You may be able to complete training as scheduled. It just might not feel as great.

So how can you apply this to your life or career?

Individually and in Personal Training Settings:

  • The first step is to figure out the length of your cycle. Then using the chart above, you can figure out a rough estimate of when follicular and luteal phases occur. After that, it’s all about how you structure your programming.
  • Focus the “go getter” weeks during the beginning of the follicular phase.
  • Once ovulation is projected, put an extra heavy emphasis on form.
  • Finish out the menstrual cycle with medium volume training during the luteal phase. Take a little extra time to work into the training (smaller jumps with weight, etc.). One way to navigate this is to use ranges during this phase. For example, set a back squat to 2-4 sets at 80% of your maximum. If you warm up and make it through a few sets feeling solid, finish out the four sets. If you feel like crap, hit two sets and then move on. This way you still get meaningful work, but don’t beat yourself up mentally and physically when it is not in the cards.

Strength & Conditioning Settings:

  • Luckily teams often seem to have menstrual cycles that sink up. Finding ways to properly approach athletes about this subject will help in the long run. It will be easy to plot a general timetable and then program monthly training around these phases. Athletes will appreciate knowing that menstrual cycles are factored in to training and will also appreciate the understanding of why training will feel different during the follicular and luteal phases.
  • One thing that must be understood is that a season or event is not always going to line up with peak performance timetables in a menstrual cycle. Overall training weights and volumes can be maintained over the course of a cycle even though physiological changes is continuous. Being aware of the physiological changes that occur is crucial to the focus of training. Being aware that performance can be maintained throughout is also important to the psyche of an athlete or team. 

The research behind the power of the menstrual cycle continues to grow and I am hopeful that the research will eventually highlight a form of causation. That being said, we can make meaningful changes based off of current research to better service ourselves, our clients, and our teams! 

 

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