In a climate that is currently charged with forward movement for gender equality, there’s never been a more important time for females to exercise our strength. We practice our strength in raising our voices, raising our standards and raising kettlebells and barbells at the gym.
Because how we do one thing is how we do everything. And the way in which we practice our physical strength, nutrition and self care directly influences the way we show up in the world, not only for ourselves, but as an example for others around us.
I want to preface this by saying that the body of this article and its research are intended for pre- and postmenopausal women as well as individuals of any gender identity with a monthly cycle who want to optimize their training and nutrition to gain an edge and feel their best.
However, there are universal knowledge bombs applicable for both men and women, including the importance of protein intake, nutrient timing and strength training. So read on, one and all!
Also, this advice is just that – advice. And although it is based on research, it is not intended to be prescriptive. Please consult with your physician before making any changes to your diet.
Is This Equality?
Why? Because many trials are performed on college-aged men, and despite the physiological differences between men and women, Sims says that lab results are hugely generalized. We the public are made to think that the same protocols effective for men would be fitting and advantageous to women without any consideration of a female’s unique physiology.
This kind of makes me mad. Are we not worth our own field of research? Wouldn’t we benefit from knowing how our unique hormone cycle affects how we train, how we recover and how we should approach nutrition? Doesn’t this feel unequal?
Sims has also written an incredible book that delves into the science behind her work, called 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.
Let’s start with the basics. Period.
After ovulation, leading up until the first day of bleeding is considered our high hormone phase. This is when things get whackadoo. Our core temperature becomes elevated. We have more relaxen flowing through our bodies which makes us more prone to injury. We have trouble hitting higher intensities because our estrogen and progesterone are higher, making it harder for us to utilize glycogen as fuel and causing us to lose sodium at a higher rate. All of this means: more fatigue, less power, less strength. And obviously a need for chocolate to conquer all.
So should you just hide in a hole during your high hormone phase? Is all lost? No! While your high hormone phase is not the best time to hit a PR in the gym, understanding your cycle can help you better prepare your body by matching your training to your physiology, as well as manipulating your nutrition to better suit your unique body!
So how do you do that? Here are the essentials to follow, from advice on optimal fuel, optimal workouts, and optimal nutrient timing to be a badass female all 28 days.
1. Practice a high protein diet.
The more protein you eat, the more lean mass you will incur. The more lean mass you have, the heavier you’ll be able to lift, the harder you’ll be able to push, the faster you’ll be able to move. This higher performance will in turn make you leaner, and well, you see where I’m going with this.
Maiiiii sirenya, it’s the ciiiiiircle of prrrroteeeein!
Protein and its EAAs also help in muscle reparation. When we work out, we damage or break down the muscle. In order to restore and repair this tissue damage, and ultimately get stronger and leaner, we need to properly fuel for this recovery.
So a diet high in protein isn’t just about performance; it’s about properly fueling our recovery so that we can get back to the gym and perform at our best.
How much protein do I really need?
Great question. This topic can be incredibly confusing since there are many conflicting opinions on this. Please note that what is recommended as baseline for survival might not be optimal for “I want to get lean and healthy and lift heavy things.” Right?
Based on current research, most active women should aim for 1.9 – 2.3g of protein / kg of bodyweight per day. If that math makes your head hurt, here’s an equation for you to plug in your own weight and do the math:
- Your Bodyweight (BW) in kg = BW in lbs / 2.2
- Min. grams of protein needed per day = 1.9g x BW in kg
- Max grams of protein needed per day = 2.3g x BW in kg
So, let’s say we have a 123 lb. woman. She weighs 55.9kg. At minimum, she needs between 106g – 128g of protein per day.
(Active men, if you’re reading, a great rule of thumb is 2.2 – 2.5g of protein / kg of BW per day!)
In summary, a diet high in protein will not only optimize performance in the gym, but also aid in recovery after. This will absolutely contribute to a leaner overall body mass and appearance. If you want to get strong and lean, you simply cannot skip this important piece.
What are some great sources of protein?
For Omnivores: organic lean meats like chicken, grass fed beef, fatty fish like salmon, grass fed high quality dairy like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, organic eggs, high quality protein powder (purest proteins are those that come from New Zealand, Netherlands or Ireland.)
For Herbivores: high quality protein powders that incorporate brown rice, pea and hemp. Steer away from soy or highly processed faux meats.
Halo Top, sparingly.
How much is too much protein?
I’m sure we’ve all heard warnings that if we eat too much protein, we can damage our liver. Research has proven it’s simply not true. If the body doesn’t use it, it just will get rid of it. No harm, no foul.
Are there differences between pre- and postmenopausal women?
Premenopausal woman have a harder time maintaining lean muscle mass than men, since the monthly hormonal cycle can have a catabolic effect on the body. Simply put, the rise and fall of progesterone and subsequently cortisol throughout the cycle can make it hard to maintain lean muscle mass, and easier to store fat. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense! Storing fat enabled women to survive on less calories during famine (more on this later).
Postmenopausal women also have a hard time maintaining lean muscle mass and healthy bone mass due to onset of menopause, and eating a diet high in protein along with regularly strength training can mitigate the catabolic effects of aging and the sudden lack of estrogen.
Conclusion: EAT MORE PROTEIN! Maintaining a diet high in protein for a woman of any age can have nothing but positive effects on her performance in the gym and total lean body mass.
2. Don’t fear carbs.
For women, from an evolutionary standpoint, it was more advantageous for them to store fat during famine to require less food while they cared for the children. Obviously, we are far from this way of life now. However, our hormones still operate with this “survival instinct” in mind.
This is one explanation of why a low calorie, low carbohydrate or intermittent fasting diet can be counterproductive and even in some instances dangerous for women. It can lead to menstrual, endocrine and/or thyroid dysfunction. Not to mention it can cause the body to want to store fat versus shed it, the latter generally being the goal for most women I work with.
So, how many carbs should I eat?
For maintaining healthy cognitive, hormonal and endocrine function, women are encouraged to intake no less than 120g of carbohydrates per day. Even for short amounts of time, a low carb diet is discouraged, because it will throw off the balance of hormones and end up putting fat back on after the low carb phase.
Severely low calorie or intermittent fasting works similarly in that it stresses the body out, elevating cortisol levels. Cortisol has a direct effect on abdominal adiposity, and therefore, adhering to a very low calorie diet or fasting for prolonged states can have the opposite effect on women that is usually desired.
If the baseline is 120g of carbs, how many carbs should a woman who is strength training at higher intensities eat?
3g of carbohydrate / kg of bodyweight is ideal.
For an endurance athlete? The amount increases to 4.5 g of carb / kg of BW.
We will refer back to our 123 lb. woman.
She is aiming to hit 106 – 128g of protein / day, and anywhere from 120 – 150g of carbs / day to maintain a healthy life.
Now, she recently started lifting at a higher intensity, 3x/week of strength work plus 2x of interval training. She should aim to eat 168g of carbs per day.
She changed her mind again! She is training for a half marathon, so now she should aim for 251g of carbs per day.
Again, carbs are not the enemy. They supply us with energy to not only go the distance in the gym, but to also maintain proper baseline health. Do not fear carbs. Carbs do not make us gain weight. Eating too much food in general makes us gain weight.
Remember the basics: in order to lose fat, we must eat a high protein, hypocaloric diet. To find the best amount of calories for you and your goals, consult a registered dietician, nutritionist or nutrition coach/trainer!
I do NOT recommend relying on My Fitness Pal calculations, as the algorithms are calculated on averages. You, my love, are NOT average. Furthermore, in my experience, the calories MFP spits out tend to be far too low. That’s just my two cents. Hire a pro!
Is there ever a good time to fast as a woman?
Yes, fasting overnight is awesome! Set a time to stop eating at night, let’s say around 8pm. If you wake at 6am and eat upon rising, you will have fasted for 10 hours. This can type of fast can actually have positive effects on our health as women. When we sleep, men and women alike, our cortisol levels rise. But as women, to combat our natural tendency to store fat, we want to make sure to break the fast upon waking to lower our elevated cortisol levels.
What’s the best thing to eat in the morning to break a fast?
If you aren’t hitting the gym within three hours of breakfast, a breakfast high in protein and healthy fat (especially omega 3’s) could be ideal. The balance of protein and fat helps regulate our hormones, aids in satiety and is said in some instances to be beneficial to those who experience anxiety as well.
If you are working out within three hours of breakfast, steer clear of fats and instead replace with healthy carbs. In short, fats take up to three hours to digest, and can cause GI upset if they are still in your system while training.
3. Consider your nutrient timing.
How should I fuel post-workout?
If your goal is fat loss, remember that the biggest two catalysts to creating change are eating a high protein, hypocaloric diet. That’s the foundation of fat loss. Nutrient timing however can come into play to help us with performance. This is universal for both men and women.
As stated above, you want to avoid fats three hours post workout for similar reasons: fats take a lot of energy and blood flow to digest, and can divert focus away from recovery. You want your body to be able to use carbs and protein for recovery, and not be distracted by processing fats.
As far as timing, females have a much narrower window of timing for optimizing recovery post-workout, therefore it is recommended to eat a small meal or shake fortified in protein and carbs within 30 minutes of your workout.
Men have a larger window, but I would even say for men and women alike, your body will be most ready to utilize your nutrition for recovery during that 30-minute window.
I’ve heard chocolate milk is the best post-workout recovery food?
Contrary to popular belief, for women specifically, 0% fat greek yogurt is actually the ideal food to intake within your 30-minute recovery window. I highly recommend brands like Siggi’s because the dairy is grass fed, and there are little to no added sugars.
If you’re dairy free, don’t stress! A blend of high quality pea, brown rice, or hemp protein powder mixed with plant-based milk and half a frozen banana with some berries should do the trick! Just think: protein and carbs. No fats.
4. Lift heavy and often.
For premenopausal women, however, we can adapt our training to better match our cycle to promote optimum strength and recovery. How?
Let’s refer back to the phases on your cycle. The low hormone phase (Day 1 of bleeding leading to ovulation) is the best time to hit the gym and work strength and power. Because of the low estrogen and progesterone, your body will be capable of higher intensities, and in fact you are capable of a 10% increase in the weight you can lift the day before ovulation. Following a traditional strength or power program three times a week and hitting more interval type training is best suited for this phase.
During the high hormone phase, things get trickier. Lifting heavy and expressing power becomes more challenging. Recovery is also more difficult. Fatigue is higher. During this time, it is more beneficial to follow a hypertrophy-type template to maintain neuromuscular adaptation (aka continue developing strong, lean muscle). What does that look like? Higher reps, less intensity. Aim for 10-15 reps versus your heavier lifting days which would look more like 5 – 8 reps.
For postmenopausal women, lifting heavy is the way to go. Sims recommends avoiding higher intensity training, to ditch the long endurance training (unless it brings you joy!), and definitely add in three days of heavy lifting. This will preserve muscle and bone mass to keep you stronger, healthier and fit!
Bonus 1: Cheat Sheet!
- Nutrition and fitness should be adapted to fit your unique female physiology for optimum health and performance.
- A high protein diet is crucial for maintaining strength, neuromuscular activity, and lean body mass. It also helps slow the aging process and maintain healthy mass in postmenopausal women. Aim for 1.9 – 2.2g of protein / kg of bodyweight.
- Resistance training is crucial for maintaining strength, neuromuscular activity, and lean body mass. It also helps slow the aging process and maintain healthy mass in postmenopausal women.
- Adapting your training to your cycle can provide you with an edge in terms of performance. Low hormone phase: focus on strength and power (lower reps, higher weights, higher intensities). High hormone phase: focus on hypertrophy (higher reps, lower weights, lower intensities).
- Intermittent fasting, low carb, and severely low calorie diets can have adverse effects on females, including hormone, thyroid and endocrine dysfunction, and cause women to store fat and increase abdominal adiposity (belly fat).
- Aiming for a minimum of 120g of carbs is ideal for women. For the female lifter: 3g of carbohydrate / kg of bodyweight. For the female endurance athlete: 4.5g of carbohydrate / kg of bodyweight.
- For fat loss, the biggest rocks to focus on are maintaining a high protein, hypocaloric diet. For performance, however, adding nutrient timing can be beneficial. Avoid fats three hours before and after your workout. Aim to eat a blend of protein and carbs before training (optional) and within 30 minutes after training (essential) for optimal performance.
Bonus 2: Fighting PMS Fatigue
- 1 baby aspirin or white willow bark
- 250mg of magnesium
- 1 gram of omega 3 fatty acids
- 2 grams of branched chain amino acids before and after your workout. The leucine and isoluceine levels help to mitigate central nervous system fatigue.
- Salt on your food
All of the above products help downregulate the effects of the higher estrogen and progesterone. Also worth noting: by applying the regimen above along with a clean diet and consistent fitness routine, you can actually change the length and intensity of your period naturally over about three months time without needing to rely on oral contraceptives to alleviate symptoms (if you’re into that!). All of the items listed above can be found here, along with Dr. Stacy Sim’s book and other recommended products listed in this article!
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that female physiology can and should warrant differences in approaches to training. This is not to say we are any less equal in terms of badassery in the gym, power or strength. In fact, tapping into our unique differences can help us be stronger, healthier, more athletic, and own our femininity.
Also, despite the slight differences in muscle tissues between men and women, studies have shown that pound for pound of lean mass, women are just as powerful and resilient as men, and the gap is closing every day with the advent of women like you, taking the time to read about your fitness, your physiology and your unique superhuman powers.
In the words of Dr. Sims, “Women are not small men.” Damn straight. We are women. Hear us roar!
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Schedule a Strategy Session at MFF