Hey team, welcome back! Let’s keep this discussion going and talk about how to utilize different training modalities to build and maintain lean muscle mass and bone density while we still have available hormones, even as they begin to flatline. For a refresher on what perimenopause is and what is going on with our bodies, you can check out part 1 of this 3-part series Athletic Performance Through Perimenopause and Beyond. Click here to read Part 1.
No matter where you are in your menopause journey, we can look at strength training in the same way. If you still have some hormones, even though they are fluctuating and declining [or perhaps you have chosen to use menopausal hormone therapy (MTH)] it is important to remember that you still need exercise stress and protein to actually stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Synthetic estrogen does not have the same anabolic, or building, effect that you get from your natural estrogen. It does help maintain lean mass, but it does not help build it. It’s not just about increasing protein, or just about resistance training. You need both to take over the anabolic stimulus that estrogen used to provide.
As our total estrogen declines, we need to focus on how to maintain neuromuscular stimulation and muscle integrity. This is our ability to maintain fast-twitch fiber action and a strong, fast contraction, or power and speed. The types of strength training that we should be focusing on, such as plyometrics, heavy resistance training or other high-intensity work, are all geared towards neuromuscular stimulation and maintaining the muscle and lean mass that we have and making it functional. Long-slow training does not help with that. Not to say that as an endurance athlete you won’t still be doing your endurance base training, but that will be for sport specific performance and will not drive the type of muscle contraction and bone density response you will need when estrogen starts to decline.
High-intensity interval training is alternating short periods of really hard anaerobic work with a shorter, less intense recovery. Repeated weekly sessions have shown to reduce visceral fat, increase lean muscle mass, improve VO2 max markers and reduce overall body fat. The time range for these intervals is between 20 to 90 seconds. The 20 second interval is for sprint training and the 90 seconds is tapping more into longer aspect of high intensity, which is more beneficial for endurance athletes. This may look like a work interval at 85 to 95% of your max heart rate and then your recovery sits around that 70%, so not a complete recovery. These types of sessions should be for a maximum of 30 minutes, if you can go for longer, you are not going hard enough. As mot of us are time crunched athletes, you may be better served to do a 30 min HITT session vs a 30 min aerobic one. Those short 30 min run sessions for example, produce a stress response, without a strong enough stimulation to induce adaptation and thus build strength. Keep your aerobic sessions for sport specific training and focus your remaining time on supporting your body for the long term.
We do not need to do this type of HIIT work every day. One to two workouts per week depending on your sport is enough stimulus to drive change to build lean mass, control blood sugar and change body composition. High intensity workouts, in conjunction with appropriate protein intake post workout, will reduce cortisol, unlike those long slow sessions that result in sustained levels of cortisol in the bloodstream that ultimately stimulates body fat storage. Unless the endurance sessions are completed while remaining complete aerobic (heart rate of 180 minus age, according to the Maffetone Method).
When we look at resistance training, we should consider lifting heavier weights for fewer reps than the standard moderate weight for 10-12 reps. Again, this heavier weight induces neuromuscular stimulation and power with the muscle that you have, instead of just increasing muscle mass, which will be harder as your estrogen levels are flatlining. If you are planning a full body strength session, you can do a few power or heavy weight moves to generate neuromuscular stimulation, add in a plyometric exercise for power (more on this below) and then finish with bodyweight, or moderate weight functional movements that compliment your sport. To really change body composition once your hormones decline, you must change the exercise stress that you have been doing and focus on neuromuscular stimulation for muscle strength and bone density.
While we are talking about resistance training, we also need to look at plyometrics. This is a method of training that involves jumping or explosive movements. It is important to keep in mind that you need to work up to these types of exercises and for some people with bone density degeneration the may is not possible. This is where it would be a good idea to speak to a practitioner for guidance and an appropriate protocol. You start slow and easy with regards to volume (not slow in the explosiveness) and work your way up. It is also important that you move in all planes of motion when doing plyometric exercises. Since plyometric exercises generate a force against your bone, when you move in all planes of motion you strengthen your bones on all sides for even and maximum density.
We should also look at periodization; that is how much to train and recover. The traditional training periodization scheme uses a 3 week build and 1 week adaptation and recovery week. This method does not support the amount of recovery required to be able to train at the intensity needed to achieve neuromuscular stimulation and muscular integrity. A 2 week build and 1 week recovery will be a slightly slower overall build to your performance goals but will allow for adequate recovery to be able to hit the intended intensities and build and maintain lean muscle mass and bone density.
Now, let’s look at the changes in metabolism that occur in perimenopause. In perimenopause we see a decrease in our body’s use of fatty acids at rest, so we end up storing more fat, especially visceral fat. To really stimulate the use of fat instead of increasing the storage, again we look at that high-intensity work. HIIT is a very sharp, strong stimulus that uses a lot of carbohydrate for fuel. The response to that use is to fill the muscle and the liver back up with carbohydrate and use more free fatty acids at rest. So high-intensity exercise that really stresses the body induces another positive response—we end up using more free fatty acid at rest and during our normal activities and decreasing stimulus to keep it and store it.
We also get better blood glucose control in response to high intensity training for two reasons. First, HIIT utilizes carbohydrates/glucose for fuel and also drives glucose into muscle and liver to increase glycogen stores. This removes glucose from the blood stream. Secondly, when you’re exercising, you increase production of the GLUT4 protein, which drives glucose into the cells without using insulin; this also removes glucose from the blood stream. This creates a cascade effect: storage of glucose means that your body searches for a different fuel source at rest, namely fatty acids at rest. As well as you now have an abundance of fuel within your muscle and liver cells for energy when you’re active. The end result is decreased visceral and subcutaneous fat and the available energy to hit your performance targets!
In this post, we learned that when we lift weights, we should be lifting heavy weights to drive neuromuscular stimulation and bone density. We’ve also learned that we need to incorporate high intensity interval training into our fitness protocol for strength and metabolic benefits. This will help with building lean and stronger muscles in the absence of hormones. And finally, we learned that HIIT, plyometrics and resistance training support the utilization of carbohydrates as fuel, which reduces blood glucose levels, increases insulin sensitivity, increases use if fatty acids at rest and decreases visceral and overall body fat. How great is that?
Next up, we will be talking about nutrition strategies to support our athletic bodies through perimenopause and beyond.
Train well and empower yourself.
Strength and Conditioning Coach