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Strength Training for PCOS: Here’s What Works For Me

I was diagnosed with PCOS in 2015 when trying to conceive my first baby. It’s likely that I had this condition long before my diagnosis, but I was on birth control which masked my symptoms for 10+ years, so I can’t say for sure. I’ve also never found out the root cause of it, but I sure am working to manage it.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve gone on to successfully have two healthy babies, but I still struggle with PCOS and the lack of information and solutions out there for those of us who have it. At this point in my life, my main goal is to manage my symptoms and keep my body healthy and strong.

Strength training has played a major role in my ability to manage symptoms and see positive results in my body composition. In this article, I’m going to talk about strength training for PCOS from the perspective of a certified personal trainer but also someone who has the condition.

Keep in mind that, while this article is focused on strength training for PCOS, nutrition plays the most significant role in symptom management. I’ve found that a combination of macro-friendly meals (high-protein, moderate carbs & fats), strength training, and NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is best for PCOS symptom management.

Benefits of Strength Training for Women With PCOS

Before I dive into how I implement a strength training program for PCOS management, let’s first touch on the benefits of strength training for women with PCOS.

While PCOS presents very differently from woman to woman, what we know is that it affects androgen levels in our bodies. With excess androgens, many women experience excessive hair growth, weight gain, irregular periods, and insulin resistance. 

The changes in insulin sensitivity can disrupt our metabolism and cause weight gain over time, which only serves to increase PCOS symptoms. In short, PCOS is largely hormone-based, and exercise can help to minimize symptoms. Here’s how:

Hormones

PCOS is known for affecting ovulation and menstrual cycles. Whether you want to become pregnant or not, hormonal imbalances and subsequent fluctuations can really through you for a loop. Research shows that exercise can lead to improved fertility in women with POCS, so long as they’re utilizing a form of exercise that’s appropriate for their body and ability.

Mood

Exercise helps us to release more of our feel-good hormones, which can help to even out our mood which might be affected by other hormonal fluctuations. Women with PCOS often deal with anxiety, depression, and other mood-affecting disorders, all of which can be alleviated via regular exercise.

Improved Sleep

Regular exercise helps us to fall asleep faster and get an overall better quality of sleep. Sleep is critical for hormone health.

Weight Management

One key symptom of PCOS is an inability to lose weight. When combined with a healthy diet, exercise can help women with PCOS to maintain a healthy BMI. Plus, strength training can help to add muscle mass to the body, which increases your metabolic rate, which translates to more calories burned throughout the day while at rest.

Improved Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is common among women with PCOS. Exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity.

Increased Confidence

One underrated benefit of regular exercise, specifically strength training, for women, is the improved confidence most women feel. PCOS and its side effects can really put a damper on our self-esteem. Hitting the gym and getting stronger is one way to combat that.

Cardio vs. HIIT vs. Strength Training for PCOS

There’s a time and a place for every style of fitness, however, I want to share my thoughts on cardio, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), and strength training for women who have PCOS.

PCOS is a hormonal condition. Hormones are largely affected by stress. Exercise is stress on the body. Stress on the body can cause hormonal imbalances to worsen. This is not to say that exercise is bad for the body or for PCOS in particular. But it is important to be mindful of your fitness routine and make sure that it’s not placing additional stress on your body and hormones.

When it comes to many women with PCOS, focusing more on the strength training side of things with moderate cardio sprinkled in is going to be where they find their sweet spot.

High-intensity training in the form of HIIT or long-distance training can cause PCOS symptoms to worsen for many women when utilized too frequently. Striking a nice balance between strength training to build muscle and improve metabolism and low-intensity steady-state cardio to keep cardiovascular health in check is where most of us thrive.

The “Getting Bulky” Myth

Most women, at one point or another in their lives, have heard the myth that lifting weights will make them bulky. And for women who have PCOS and are already experiencing excess androgens (male hormones), we might worry that weight lifting will only exacerbate the problem.

The truth is, even with PCOS, weight training is not going to make a woman bulky unless that’s her goal and she’s working really hard at it. Females don’t have enough testosterone in their bodies to create large muscles, and muscle growth isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time and a lot of intentionality, so don’t worry about waking up and all of a sudden looking like the Hulk.

In most cases, women find that the look they achieve through lifting weights is actually the look they’re seeking; lean, toned, defined, and curvy. 

My PCOS Strength Training Routine

When I tell you that I’ve tried it all when it comes to fitness and nutrition, I mean it. From endless hours spent beating the pavement and treadmill belt running to group fitness classes and heavy weight lifting, I’ve done it all.

Here’s what I have found that works for me. Please remember that this is only my experience and that you should be consulting with your medical team for specific recommendations for you. 

I personally am a firm believer in utilizing strategic strength training for PCOS, training 4-5 days per week. My body responds best to moderate to heavy lifting (which will be subjective to each individual) and low-intensity steady-state cardio (walking, light jogging, easy cycling, etc.).

Weight training has changed the look and feel of my body and has improved my overall wellness in ways that I would have never imagined. Here’s my current routine:

5 strength training days per week:

  • 2 upper body-focused days
  • 2 lower body-focused days
  • 1 full body day (optional)

My goal during these workouts is to get stronger, build lean muscle, and make progress from week to week which is why I repeat the same workouts for a minimum of 4 weeks before progressing to the next training block.

Additional Cardio & Steps

Currently, I strive to hit my daily step goal and schedule 1-2 cardio sessions per week. These sessions will usually either be 2 20-minute sessions or one 30-45 minute session per week. Aside from that, I don’t add any additional cardio to my routine.

What My Current Strength Training Routine Has Allowed

Although it took me a couple of years to get in my groove, I’ve finally found what works best for my body. My current routine is a stark contrast to my previous weight training routine which included lifting weights 6 days per week with a lot of HIIT and higher intensity cardio mixed in. This type of training left me feeling overworked, under-recovered and always chasing a smaller version of myself, which isn’t a goal that’s conducive to having a healthy body and mind.

These days, my focus is on getting stronger, feeling better, and helping my body to manage my PCOS symptoms. Paired with a healthy diet that prioritizes protein and optimal carbs and fats (macros), I have seen better results in my body and overall well-being.

When I do too much cardio, I lose my period very quickly, even though I am not underweight. It’s important to know and pay attention to how your body responds to certain forms of exercise and nutrition so that you can implement changes that have you feeling your best.

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