Train like a girl
Lifting weights, tracking hormones and training in sync with your menstrual cycle is the future of women’s fitness, reports Jody Scott. Here’s why you need to rethink how you train to build muscle, burn fat and reap the health benefits.
You are not a small man. Stop eating and training like one.” The opening lines of the book Roar by Dr Stacy Sims sum up a movement gaining momentum in women’s fitness. You may have already heard strong is the new skinny … or sexy … or svelte. Becoming stronger, rather than smaller, versions of ourselves marks a refreshing change of focus in women’s fitness.
In fact, we know now, women can handle (and require) even more resistance training than men. But not all women are on board yet. A 2017 study led by University of Sydney researchers found less than one in five Australian adults are doing at least two strength training sessions a week.
More women need to know that laying down lean muscle in our teens to 30s helps us cope better with the demands of pregnancy, breastfeeding, child-rearing and life in general.
Building or maintaining muscle mass in our 40s and beyond delivers health benefits post-menopause, when we lose the protective effects of oestrogen on our brains, hearts, bone densities and metabolisms. Maintaining muscle in old age helps prevent falls, which can be lifechanging. So staying strong is smart, too.
For a long time, we thought men were better at heavy lifting and women were better suited to aerobic activity. But Dr Sims says women can and should lift heavy weights and do plyometric (jump training) work to get strong, fit and fast. “But because they have less testosterone, they will not bulk up like men,” she says.
Dr Sims is an exercise physiologist, nutrition scientist, former triathlete and author who has spent the last 20 years researching how female athletes need to eat and train. She says the differences between men and women “extend far beyond ponytails and sports bras”. Hence the subtitle of her book: Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health and a Strong Lean Body for Life.
Women are typically smaller and lighter, have a higher proportion of body fat and less muscle than men. We burn more body fat during our workouts. We sweat differently. And we need to refuel sooner.
But there is still much to learn about how women’s bodies respond to exercise. And almost everything we know about females, food and fitness is getting a re-think.
That’s because until the early 1990s most research was performed on men. The results were then applied to the other 50 per cent of the population (that is, women) in smaller doses. Excluding women was intended to avoid exposing pregnant females to research trials. But female hormones also complicated results, making men simpler subjects.
Thankfully, things are changing. But Dr Sims says we short-changed women by giving them the ‘shrink it and pink it’ treatment for so long: “It’s time to acknowledge, treat, train and fuel women as the different physiological beings we are.” She says one of the most powerful things a woman can do is use an app to track her period, then sync her training schedule with her menstrual cycle.
“Tracking training, mood and stress can help any woman, from the gym-goer to the top elite athlete, understand her body and how the menstrual cycle can affect her training, recovery, mood and food,” she says.
It’s a radical approach when you consider ‘that time of the month’ remains a taboo topic in sports. Teenage girls may whisper to a teacher that they have their
periods to skip PE classes. Women quietly avoid inversions at yoga. And, very occasionally, an elite athlete may blame menstrual cramps for a disappointing performance.
Of course, races have been won and records set at all stages of the menstrual cycle. But Dr Sims says the rise and fall of hormones during a woman’s roughly 28-day cycle (it can typically range from 21 to 35 days) has a profound effect on her training and performance.
It means when you train is just as important as how you train. Yet, she says, few trainers take this into consideration. “So women are often working against their bodies and getting frustrated when they don’t get the results they want,” she says.
Here’s what all women need to know. Hormones are the chemical messengers that constantly carry important information around our bodies. Our hormones tell us when to eat, sleep, grow, repair, have sex and reproduce. They also make us feel happy or sad. While men’s hormones change during their lifetime, on a day-to-day basis they remain pretty stable.
But for women it’s another story – the levels of our sex hormones fluctuate almost daily and they affect far more than reproduction.
“Basically, we have two hormone phases each month: high and low,” says Dr Sims. “During the low-hormone phase, we are physiologically similar to men in our carbohydrate metabolism and recovery.” The low hormone (or follicular) phase occurs in the first two weeks of your cycle (the arrival of your period marks day one of week one).
This is the best time to train hard, build lean muscle and burn fat. You will also feel less pain and recover faster. “Whether you’re working out, training or racing, it will feel easier when you’re in the low-hormone phase of your cycle,” says Dr Sims.
Your ovaries increase production of oestrogen after your period ends. Then, around day 12, your oestrogen level surges, as does the level of luteinising hormone (LH), triggering ovulation. Many women feel stronger and more powerful. Thanks to elevated oestrogen, you may be able to lift heavier weights. You may even experience better focus and mental clarity.
But ovulation makes women’s ligaments more lax, increasing our risk of joint injuries. That’s why female athletes are up to eight times more likely to suffer from anterior cruciate ligament knee injuries than male athletes.
During the second half of your cycle, the high hormone (luteal) phase, progesterone and oestrogen levels peak, causing slight decreases in your strength, aerobic capacity and ability to tolerate heat. “I’d be lying if I said that exercise won’t feel harder during those high-hormone days before your period,” Dr Sims writes in Roar.
Oestrogen makes it harder for you to access glycogen (carbohydrate stored in your muscles), so you burn more fat for fuel. But it’s less readily available during high-intensity exercise. And it requires more oxygen, so you fatigue faster. The upsurge in oestrogen also dials down the anabolic (growing) capacity of your muscles.
High progesterone increases sodium losses, delays your sweat response and raises your core temperature by about half a degree Celsius, making you prone to heat stress and more easily fatigued during long workouts. It also breaks down muscle. During this phase you don’t enjoy the same muscle gains from your workouts, and recovery is slower.
Fluid shifts from your blood plasma to your cells, making you bloated, thickening your blood and raising your blood pressure, making you more predisposed to central nervous system fatigue. Exercise feels harder than usual.
The level of the sleep hormone melatonin rises during the luteal phase, so you crave more rest. Your appetite increases by about 1,250 kilojoules a day. Increased sodium excretion makes you crave more salty foods. And those chocolate cravings kick in (although, curiously, it tastes sweeter). Luckily, your rate of metabolism rises by about five to 10 per cent during this phase.
And what about women who take oral contraceptives? “The pill seems to have particularly ill effects on your muscle tissue and strength,” Dr Sims says. “In one study, women not taking oral contraceptives saw a 40 to 60 per cent greater gain in muscle mass from training than their peers on the pill. Other research finds oral contraceptives slow muscle recovery after a hard workout and may dim your aerobic capacity.”
Performance coach Nardia Norman, who has previously worked with the Australian Institute of Sport, says women should keep training throughout their cycle but dial the intensity up or down. But she has one caveat. “As soon as you are bloated or experience tummy pains it is very difficult to turn on core muscles and stabilise,” Norman says. “So you may predispose yourself to injury.”
Before training hard in the low-hormone phase of their cycle, Norman says women need to make sure they are managing stress, getting enough sleep and taking care of their nutrition. “By that I mean eating enough to cope with the demands of training,” she says.
Naturopath Lara Briden tells her patients they need enough key macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) to function at their best. “I see so many young women who have lost their period to a restrictive diet,” Briden says. “Men can get away with a low carb diet, but women need a certain amount of carbohydrate to signal luteinising hormone, which regulates menstruation. The diet that works for your boyfriend may not work for you.”
Complex carbohydrates help your body burn fat and help preserve precious muscle. Dr Sims says ‘low energy availability’ is a big issue for active women, because they don’t have enough energy to support normal everyday health, let alone the added training. For the record, women need about 120 grams of carbohydrate per day to maintain health while men can get away with as little as 50 grams.
Women also need more red meat, because it contains a special type of amino acid called taurine. “Taurine builds bones, calms the brain, and promotes the healthy detoxification of oestrogen, and it can really only be obtained from animal protein,” says Briden. “Animal proteins [from sources] such as meat, dairy and eggs are also a good way to maintain muscle mass, burn fat, rev up metabolism and support healthy hormone balance.”
Dr Sims says women also need more of the key amino acid leucine (found in protein) to prevent the breakdown of lean muscle. Finally, don’t forget fat, which fuels aerobic exercise, supports immune and nerve cell function, and aids in the absorption of hormone-balancing nutrients such as vitamins A and D. Getting stronger means eating and training smarter. Do it #likeagirl or, even better, #likeawoman.
THANKS TO ELEVATED OESTROGEN, YOU MAY LIFT HEAVIER WEIGHTS