If you’re an avid exerciser, there may be times when you feel like you completely crushed your workout, and other times you wonder why it felt so completely impossible. You may chalk it up to not getting enough sleep, stress at work or home, or your mind is elsewhere during a workout, but what if it were more complex than that? What if your athletic performance had less to do with outside influences and more to do with what’s going on internally? What if you could harness your maximum potential by catering your workouts to your menstrual cycle?
Yep, that’s right, your menstrual cycle. It's called “cycle syncing” and the concept has soared in popularity on social media platforms, such as TikTok, with users claiming it’s helped them not only make the most of their workouts but learn more about their bodies and become more in-tune with their physical and emotional needs. But is there any merit to it? We spoke with Aubrey Whitehorn, a physical trainer and fitness manager at Texas Health Fitness Center Dallas* to find out.
What is Cycle Syncing?
Cycle syncing coordinates your workouts with types of exercises that have been shown to pair well with the four phases of your menstrual cycle, which consist of the menstrual phase, follicular phase, ovulatory phase, and luteal phase. Because hormones shift within these phases, along with energy levels, the thought behind cycle syncing is that your workouts should also shift as well to work with your body instead of against it.
The Menstrual Phase (Approx. Days 1-5)
This phase starts with the first day of your period. Chances are, we don’t need to go into depth about the crummy symptoms that come along with this phase — whether it be cramping, bloating, sluggishness, anxiety, or a bevy of other not-so-pleasant things. Needless to say, you’re most likely not feeling your best right now in this phase and your workout may show it.
During this phase, estrogen and progesterone are both low, and you’re dealing with the lowest energy levels than in any other phase.
This is a time when you should also be opting for chill workouts, if you even have the energy or desire to work out right now. Look into a gentle yoga flow, whether in a studio or online, or consider a light walk. If you’re used to high-intensity workouts, this is not the time — not only is your body craving rest and rejuvenation, but Whitehorn notes that your tolerance for pain is also a lot lower, and you’re more susceptible to injuries due to ligaments and tendons being more relaxed.
The Follicular Phase (Approx. Days 6-14)
This phase starts up a few days into your period and it’s perfectly normal if you’re still bleeding by this point. However, you’ll be feeling more energized in this phase due to estrogen and progesterone levels rising. You may find that you also have a better ability to focus and concentrate. This is now the time to really maximize your potential in a high-intensity workout class or weightlifting.
“At the beginning of your cycle, your energy is low, but this phase prepares your body for the follicular phase when you have the capacity to maximize hard training efforts,” Whitehorn explains. “During this phase, your body is also better equipped to gain access to stored carbohydrates making this an ideal time for high-intensity training.”
The Ovulatory Phase (Approx. Days 15-21)
By week three of your menstrual cycle, you should be done with those pesky period symptoms and you should be feeling ready to conquer the world thanks to estrogen peaking and testosterone and progesterone rising as well.
This is probably around the time that you feel like you really excel in your workouts, whether you realize what phase of your cycle you’re in or not. You may be leaping to the top of the leaderboard in that spin class, slamming medicine balls to the ground like a warrior, or hitting personal records with how much weight you can lift. This is also the time in which you’re the most social, so you might want to try out some group classes as well.
“It is good to push yourself during this time since women’s bodies typically don’t have a lot of testosterone but it rises during ovulation, making the process of muscle gaining easier,” Whitehorn says. “However, you don’t want to overdo it, even though it does feel like you can conquer the world right now.”
The Luteal Phase (Approx. Days 22-28)
You’re nearing the end of your cycle and getting ready to start all over, so you may feel less energized than you just were. Estrogen and progesterone levels start high and then decrease when the egg is not fertilized, so you may feel like you have more energy at the beginning of the phase than you do when you’re just a couple of days away from starting your period again.
So it’s also time to start winding down the intensity of your workouts again, but keep your body moving (as it will help with preventing bloating and sluggishness on your period) with light exercise like restorative yoga or pilates. This is a good time to work on enhancing your mobility, and make sure to stay away from hot workout environments.
Is It Worth Trying?
While there is some research that backs the efficacy of cycle syncing, Whitehorn notes that only you can truly know if it will be optimal for you.
“Research has shown how exercise has reduced levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that become a bit like natural painkillers and mood elevators. Cortisol is also said to stimulate your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, creating a boost of energy in your body,” Whitehorn explains. “So, there is a lot of benefit to working out during any phase of your cycle, but especially so in those phases when your energy and mood dips. However, it is important to know how you feel through your cycle as some of us experience more changes than others. Higher pain levels, and mood swings can limit the workouts we want to do so we must listen to our bodies.”
Whitehorn adds that your body is more susceptible to pain and tends to hurt or be sore a little more during a menstrual cycle, so warming up before a workout is recommended to help prevent any injuries.
If you want to try your hand at cycle syncing, you must first know where you are at any given time in your cycle. Tracking can help with that. There are various ways to do so, between manually tracking and using websites or mobile apps to help. It can also be helpful to note your mood or energy levels each day as well so you can get an even clearer picture of how you’re feeling throughout your cycle.
However, if you use hormonal birth control, such as an implant, injections, pills, vaginal rings, skin patches or a non-copper IUD, cycle synching won’t work for you because these methods impact your menstrual cycle and hormone levels. That being said, it may still be helpful for you to keep a daily diary of energy levels and mood to see if there tends to be a pattern or to identify outside factors that may be impacting you, such as sleep and stress.
*FX Well is a managing entity for the Texas Health fitness centers.
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