Ok, so this might not be the first thought on your mind, but work by a Swedish scientist suggests that this might be exactly what you need to do. Here's why.

Training optimisation and prevention of overtraining female athletes

Last week, we discussed psychological overtraining. The term 'overtraining' is banded about a lot, and the truth is that, for most people, psychological overtraining is far more of a threat to long-term progress than physiological overtraining. For athletes, however - and particularly female athletes - components of both are common. Yet, prior to the publication of the work by Lisbeth Wikström-Frisén, research into how women's bodies respond to training was sorely lacking.

Wikström-Frisén's thesis

Wikström-Frisén's recently published thesis is the result of many years of work. As one part of this, she created three groups of athletes, all of whom had to undergo two months of leg training sessions (3x per week) prior to commencement of the study to ensure that all were experienced and competent in the exercises.

One group (n=19) performed high frequency (5x per week) leg resistance training during the first two weeks of their menstrual or pill cycle (the follicular phase), and the other group (n=19) during the second two weeks (luteal phase). During the other two weeks of their respective cycles, they performed leg resistance training only once per week.

The control group (n=21) performed the same exercises 3x per week. This way, every group performed the same number of sessions per cycle, and thus the effects of training periodisation could be seen.

A strength gain algorithm was used, whereby the athletes performed 3 sets of leg presses and leg extensions, each of 8-12 reps. The weight was increased whenever the athletes exceeded their rep target on a given set, consistent with recommendations by Kraemer et al. 2002 and Ratamess et al. 2009. Strength was assessed from jump tests and isokinetic peak torque measurements of the knee flexors and knee extensors.

Results

Wikström-Frisén's work found that high frequency resistance training during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle, where oestrogen dominates, resulted in significant strength gains and increased lean muscle mass, when compared with either the control group or with performing high frequency training during the luteal phase. What's more, the athletes in the group performing high frequency training during the follicular phase reported much greater enjoyment of their training, as assessed by a Profile of Mood State (POMS) questionnaire measuring tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and vigour.

Why this is important

In the modern sporting environment, training has to be maintained year round, with a very short 'off season.' This is also the case for non-professional athletes, many of whom may push their bodies and minds to their limits to achieve their goals, without any designated off season whatsoever.

Thus, any way to optimise a training programme so as to allow for rest days without sacrificing gains and performance is highly valuable. Female athletes are particularly vulnerable to the physiological and psychological side-effects of overtraining. Endurance and aesthetic athletes in particular, whose body fat percentages are lower, frequently experience disruptions in their hormone balance.

One manifestation of this is of course a disruption to (or complete cessation of) the menstrual cycle, but up to 60% of female athletes (not only elite level) experience at least one of the 'female athlete triad' (Brukner & Khan, 2010). This consists of:

  • Low energy availability
  • Low bone mineral density (making the athlete more vulnerable to injury and stress fractures, and at the extreme end of the scale, irreversible bone mineral loss)
  • Menstrual disturbance (similarly, can cause short or long term fertility problems, as well as mood disturbances such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and increased mortality).

Indeed, hormonal disturbances can become such a problem in some female athletes that the work of naturally produced growth hormone is actually inhibited (Nakamura et al. 2011).

If the greatest gains are experienced during the first half of the cycle, this suggests that there could be considerable benefits from structuring resistance training programmes to focus on high frequency, high intensity workouts during the follicular phase, allowing the athlete a physiological and psychological recuperation period during the luteal phase, perhaps comprising basic maintenance workouts, or the more traditional style one-body-part-per-week 'bro splits.'

Training the same body part five times per week? Really?

The results of Wikström-Frisén's work speak for themselves, but she's certainly not the only one to implement this methodology for strength and power gains. Chad Waterbury is a vocal online proponent of high frequency training. As he points out, the quads of football players and the lats of swimmers aren't the result of once-a-week gym sessions. Menno Henselmans, too, is a strong advocate of high frequency style training programmes - and the list goes on.

Yet the risks of overtraining and psychological burnout when sticking to a high frequency programme are obvious, particularly for those training the same routine alone, without the benefits of a personal trainer to provide fresh workouts every few months. In this way, Wikström-Frisén's work may be even more valuable to serious, non-professional athletes. The results of the mood state questionnaires in particular are helpful in guiding individuals to structure a workout programme that can deliver optimal results and fitness for life, without the all-too-common periodic burnout.

 

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References

Brukner, P, and K Khan. 2010. “Women and Activity-Related Issues Across the Lifespan.” In Clinical Sports Medicine, ed. Carolyn Pike. Maryborough: Meehan, Nicole, 749–72.

Kraemer, W. et al. (2002). “Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults.” 34(2): 364–80.

Nakamura, Yuki et al. (2011). “Hormonal Responses to Resistance Exercise during Different Menstrual Cycle States.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 43(6): 967–73.

Ratamess, Nicholas A et al. (2009). “American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 41(3): 687–708

Waterbury, C. (2012). "High Frequency Training." In Contreras, B., bretcontreras.com/high-frequency-training

Wikström-Frisén (2016). "Training and hormones in physically active women with and without oral contraceptive use." umu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:955835/FULLTEXT01.pdf