If you’ve ever tried to complete a high-intensity workout while fighting menstrual cramps, you’ve probably noticed that your body simply feels different — and performs differently — based on where you are in your cycle. So consider this: Instead of working against those differences, why not try working with your cycle?
You may have heard of cycle syncing (more on that below!), which is the whole premise here. Your menstrual cycle is composed of four distinct phases, and understanding what’s happening in your body during each of these phases is key if you want to approach fitness in a way that meets you where you are during each one.
Don’t know where to start? Our friends at obé Fitness are on hand to break it down.
One thing to note: Everybody is different, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. With that in mind, some of obé’s team members are sharing their thoughts on the value of considering cycle phases when approaching exercise — and offering some suggestions on how to actually put this into practice.
First, let’s break down each phase of the menstrual cycle:
The menstrual cycle has four phases: Menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, and luteal.
Your menstrual phase, which begins when you start your period, lasts for the first few days of your cycle. At this point, progesterone and estrogen hormones are at their lowest — which might explain why you may feel sluggish, low-energy, or unmotivated to move your body at this point in your cycle.
The follicular phase comes next. When your cycle begins, your estrogen levels begin to rise, which is why you may have noticed you feel more energetic as your cycle progresses. “This may leave someone feeling more energized, able to recover quicker, and capable of performing more challenging or complex movements,” says Melody Z., an obé instructor.
Next up: The ovulatory phase, which can take place between days 14 through 16 (during a typical 28-day cycle). “Estrogen and testosterone will be at their peak during this phase,” says Melody. “One may feel especially energetic, recovered, and capable of reaching max efforts physically during their training or even daily activities.”
And then there’s the luteal phase, which takes you through the end of your cycle. “Both estrogen and testosterone will begin to drop, while progesterone slowly rises,” says Melody. “This could gradually lead to someone feeling ‘sluggish’, fatigued, with an increased need for rest and recovery.”
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What is cycle syncing?
Maybe you’ve heard of cycle syncing, which refers to adjusting lifestyle factors based on where you are in your cycle.
In the context of exercise, cycle syncing involves modifying your routine to match those four menstrual phases, keeping in mind how people typically feel during each of them. When cycle syncing exercise, your workouts offer the intensity your body may be craving based on what’s happening with your cycle.
Why is cycle syncing important?
“Physical activity plays an important role in regulating how much the hormonal shifts affect our overall well-being on a daily basis,” says Melody. “By planning appropriate movement selections, in accordance with where one is at in their cycle, you will be able to both take advantage of peak training in high hormone times (meaning estrogen/testosterone), as well as respect the body’s need for more restorative movement during lower hormone phases.”
“Cycle syncing [is] a way to maintain equilibrium during natural hormone fluctuations during the four phases of our cycle,” adds Katherine M., another obé instructor.
“For example, [when] you're menstruating your body's estrogen levels are extremely low. Estrogen is what gives us a ton of [energy]. So when estrogen is low, pushing through an extremely high-intensity workout can do more harm than it does good — it's like pouring from an empty glass. Gentle movement such as yoga, stretching, and pilates are great for not only supporting hormone levels but also can assist in cramping during the beginning of the cycle.”
With that being said, listening to your body is always key. If you’re feeling low-energy during another phase of your cycle, honor that — gentle movement or rest is always an option if you’re not feeling up to something more intense.
Implementing cycle syncing in your day-to-day life
“During the menstrual phase depending on your level of discomfort at the time of menstruation, you can still perform low to mid-intensity activities, such as functional strength-training, pilates, moderate cardio (bike ride, hill walks, jogs, low-impact dance cardio),” says Melody. “As your hormones ramp up [in the follicular phase], you can start to ‘push’ your capacity further. Heavier resistance training, higher intensity cardio (running, boxing, HIIT) and endurance activities would be ideal at this time.”
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During ovulation, you can really ramp up the intensity (if it feels right for your body). “Heavier weight training and explosive power exercises, HIIT sessions, sprints, or higher intensity dance cardio would be great options,” advises Melody.
Finally, when you hit the luteal phase, you may want to pull back the intensity again. Melody recommends moderate strength training, lower intensity cardio (such as jogging, low-impact dance, or boxing), as well as restorative activities like yoga or pilates during this phase.
Working out with your cycle
The team at obé is creating content for people interested in syncing their workouts to their cycles, and adapting the practice just might be a game-changer in your life.
But, at the end of the day, remember this: You’re in charge of your body and you know it best. So if these guidelines don’t work for you or if you need to take a rest day during a cycle phase that links well with high-intensity exercise — that’s okay!
“People should ABSOLUTELY listen to their bodies as it relates to exercise selection, whether or not they are attempting to sync their training to their cycle,” adds Melody. “The best advice is to take advantage of days when you are feeling energized and ready to train by working on improving fitness, scaling back on days where you feel tired or less than optimal for an intense session, and taking a complete rest day when in pain, high discomfort or very fatigued.
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Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, MarieClaire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.