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Strength Training

The Strength Training Guide For Women: How to Work Out For Your Body

May 30, 2023

The benefits of strength training for women include improved muscle strength and lean muscle mass, joint health, energy levels, and bone strength. Strength training exercises have also been linked to increased cardiovascular health, reduced stress levels, improved sleep quality, and increased metabolism. 

Strength training can help women meet a wide range of fitness and health goals, from counteracting natural effects of aging like declines in bone density or loss of muscle mass to supporting overall wellness or aiding in healthy weight loss efforts. 

As WHOOP experts have noted, research on athletic performance has overlooked many populations, including women. According to a study done on sport and exercise science research conducted between 2014 and 2020, just 6% of athletic performance research focuses on women. As a result, many fitness programs lack meaningful, research-backed data specific to women. 

Following is our strength training guide for women, designed to answer questions about optimizing a fitness program based on factors like hormones, the menstrual cycle, and life stages unique to women. 

Strength Training and Hormones

Strength training is one fitness activity that has a clear, direct effect on hormone levels in the body. Research has linked resistance training to elevated levels of anabolic hormones, including testosterone, insulin-like growth factor 1, and human growth hormone. 

The levels of these three hormones all naturally decrease in the body with age in both men and women, and this decline is thought to contribute to age-related changes like reduced muscle mass and function. Women also experience declines in the hormone estrogen after menopause, which has been linked to lower bone density and decreased strength. 

One study examined the hormonal changes that occurred after women between the ages of 19 and 69 completed an endurance or resistance training session. In both groups, there were increases in testosterone, estradiol (a form of estrogen), and human growth hormone after the exercise sessions were completed. 

This study indicates that cardiovascular exercise and strength training can increase levels of anabolic hormones and estrogen in women, and can do so across their lifespan. 

These findings suggest that strength training for women can be a valuable technique to address hormonal imbalances and age-related declines in certain hormone levels. Strength training exercises can be an effective natural alternative to hormone-replacement medications and are beneficial at any age.

Menstrual Cycle and Training

A study of WHOOP members found that 69% of respondents had never received education about how the menstrual cycle can affect everyday activities like sleeping, fueling, and training. 

Hormonal changes aren’t limited to age-related declines in hormone levels in the long term. Many short-term changes in hormone levels occur due to the menstrual cycle. 

The first 14 days of the menstrual cycle, or the follicular phase, see hormonal changes like increases in estrogen levels and declines in progesterone levels. 

These changes are associated with increased energy and elevated mood, which Dr. Stacy Sims dives into in the WHOOP Podcast. Research has found that strength training during the follicular phase can be more effective in increasing muscle strength and mass – which Dr. Sims agrees with, “If you’re prioritizing lifting in the follicular phase, you get better hypertrophy and muscular control.” 

WHOOP studies have also found that recovery and performance are higher during the follicular stage. Scheduling your most intense strength training exercises for the first two weeks of your menstrual cycle may help you get better results. 

After the follicular phase, ovulation occurs. Some research has linked this stage of the cycle to increased injury risk. One study of female soccer players found that twice as many muscle and tendon injuries occurred during the late follicular phase around the time of ovulation. 

During this part of the cycle, avoiding maximum-intensity strength training and focusing on injury prevention strategies like stretching can help minimize the risk of strains and other injuries. Dr. Stacy Sims recommends, “During ovulation, we start seeing changes in our neurotransmitters, changes in mood, changes in cognition – and also changes in metabolism. This is where we need to do some steady state work and then, as we start getting closer and closer to the onset of the bleed, maybe the four or five days before, when we have a peak of hormones, we want to deload and look at functional work.” 

After ovulation is the luteal phase of the cycle. During this stage, the core body temperature increases, and research has found that this rise in body temperature can hurt overall fitness performance. 

Optimizing strength training for women during the luteal phase means focusing on low-impact exercises and prioritizing recovery. Movements that put less demand on the body but still increase strength, such as those with low to moderate weight and higher reps, are best during this phase. Adding these exercises and scheduling rest days is essential during this stage.

During menstruation, strength training for women is highly individualized. If there is significant pain and cramping, pausing strength training exercises or focusing on gentle movement and recovery can be beneficial. In other cases, moderate or typical levels of exercise may be well-tolerated. 

For some individuals, strength training can mitigate symptoms by relieving cramps and elevating mood through endorphin release. You can track your menstrual cycle with WHOOP and get personalized recommendations on sleep and training based on the phase of your cycle. 

Strength Training Through the Life Stages

A WHOOP survey found that 30% of members were uncomfortable discussing pregnancy with friends, while 45% weren’t comfortable discussing menopause – yet these critical life stages can have significant effects on one’s physiology and habits.

Can you lift weights while pregnant? Whether or not strength training for women is suitable during pregnancy is an especially popular question — and one best addressed by having a discussion with your physician. Make sure to discuss any changes in your fitness routine to ensure safety during your pregnancy.

Generally speaking, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, resistance exercise and lifting weights during pregnancy is safe. A study between WHOOP and West Virginia University School of Medicine found that increased activity of pregnant women led to improved HRV and resting heart rate 

From Dr. Shon Rowan, lead researcher on the study: “The guidelines for pregnant women around exercise have changed, but not in a wide-scale or well-known way. Contrary to past recommendations, this study found that any type of activity during pregnancy is beneficial. This isn’t necessarily driven by intensity, but duration.”

Research has also found that strength training can offer pregnant women unique benefits. One study found that strength training was linked with increased energy levels and lowered fatigue during pregnancy. Another study found that a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training effectively maintained optimal blood pressure during pregnancy.

During menopause, many physiological changes occur, including slowed metabolism, reduced bone density, and a loss of muscle mass. Strength training can be useful in counteracting these effects by helping maintain muscle mass, preventing declines in metabolism, and boosting bone health. 

Research has also found that strength training can positively impact some symptoms of menopause, such as decreasing hot flashes and reducing fat mass. Additionally, strength training has been associated with better sleep quality, reduced feelings of depression and improvements in self-efficacy, suggesting that it can significantly impact both mental and physical health in women going through menopause. 

With the WHOOP journal, you can toggle through life stages, including trying to conceive, pregnancy, perimenopause and postmenopause, to effectively track how your body changes and receive personalized recommendations. 

Get Personalized Insight with WHOOP

Strength Builder from WHOOP provides a comprehensive view of how strength training affects your body. WHOOP is the first wearable to account for both cardiovascular and musculoskeletal load. By quantifying the response of your muscles to a strength training workout, you can better adapt your training routine to meet your goals or life stage, and you can better optimize your recovery. 

Get unmatched insight with Strength Builder to unlock all of the potentials in strength training for women.

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