Treat PCOS Naturally with Strength Training
Guest post by Erika Volk
Overcoming PCOS takes strength: emotional strength, mental strength and physical strength. In fact, strength training might be one of the most effective tools available to women who are looking to control their PCOS symptoms naturally.
I was diagnosed with PCOS in 2005. After the initial shock of my diagnosis wore off, I was ready to take action. Unfortunately, my doctor had supplied me with a diagnosis and some very vague instructions to lose weight through diet and exercise, and then sent me on my way. I started to change my diet, and I went back to the gym.
Fortunately for me, when I set foot in my local 24 Hour Fitness ten years ago I headed straight for the weight room. I did not have any special insight into how strength training could help manage PCOS. It was all luck; I was simply familiar with strength training because I grew up with parents who were avid weight lifters.
Thousands of workouts, hours of research, several personal training certifications and over 30 pounds later I can tell you that finding my way to the weight room was one of the best things I could have done for my PCOS.
The current research on PCOS and resistance training is limited to just four studies plus one on the way. While we still have a lot to learn about PCOS and exercise, one thing is clear: strength training helps! All five studies have concluded that regular strength training helped PCOS women lose weight.
What exactly is Strength Training?
You may envision dumbbells and barbells when you hear the words strength training, but that is just one of several ways you can strength train. You can use kettlebells, resistance bands, sandbags, and even your own bodyweight to strength train.
No matter what type of strength training you choose to do, it is essential that you keep challenging yourself by following a program that progresses in difficulty. Why? Because the body adapts to exercise and needs to be constantly challenged in order to continue to grow and change.
(Note: I’ve put together a bonus resource at the end of this post that will show you how to create an effective strength training program.)
What I find so amazing about strength training is that it stimulates your body to make some valuable physiological adaptations. Physiological adaptation is the term exercise science nerds use to describe “a metabolic or physiologic adjustment within the body which results in the improved ability to function.” Basically, strength training improves your body’s day to day functioning. Many of the physiological adaptations created by regular strength training are extremely beneficial for women with PCOS.
How does strength training help women with PCOS?
Strength training reduces insulin resistance. Progressive strength training will increase the size of your skeletal muscle and can enhance the muscles’ ability to manage glucose. Researchers believe that these adaptations result in increased insulin sensitivity. Studies have not only observed this change in healthy women, but have also seen type II diabetics improve their insulin sensitivity through regular strength training.
According to Dr. Mark Perloe, (an OBGYN and PCOS fertility expert), “PCOS is less about a woman’s ovaries and more about her insulin resistance.” Since insulin resistance is at the heart of PCOS, increasing your insulin sensitivity can help you manage your weight and possibly improve fertility!
Muscles fight belly fat. Your body dislikes belly fat almost as much as you hate seeing it poke out over your jeans. Excess belly fat puts us at risk for PCOS complications like high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome. In an effort to tame tummy flab, many women gravitate toward exercises like crunches that target the abdominal muscles, but they would see better results from a pair of dumbbells and some squats! Strength training does a much better job of fighting abdominal fat. A University of Pennsylvania study found that overweight or obese women, ages 24–44, who were assigned to an hour of weight training twice a week reduced their proportion of body fat by nearly 4%.
Weight lifters carry less cholesterol. Studies on both healthy women and women with type II diabetes have demonstrated a clear connection between strength training and lower LDL’s (bad cholesterol.)
Having more muscle will help tip the scale – in the right direction! The metabolism stoking effects of muscle can help you lose fat. Muscle is metabolically active, which means it burns calories in order to sustain itself. Every bit of muscle you gain will increase the number of calories you burn each day, thus making it easier to lose weight and keep it off!
Strength training is empowering. PCOS has a tendency to ravage our self-esteem. Strength training is the antidote! Once I stopped focusing on my PCOS and started focusing on getting stronger, my attitude did a 180 degree turn. I went from feeling defeated to feeling empowered, plus I started looking better and had more energy. I am convinced that building muscle is good for the soul!
How do I start strength training?
I recommend that women start strength training by doing a total body workout 3 times a week. A basic total workout should include an exercise for all of the major movement patterns:
- Squat or knee dominant pattern
- Deadlift or hip dominant pattern,
- Upper body pushing, like a pushup
- Upper body pulling, like a row
- and a core exercise.
If you are doing a full body routine, you should take a day off from strength training in between each workout. In order to create those physiological adaptations we talked about, your workout needs to progress in difficulty. Once an exercise becomes easy to perform for 8-12 repetitions, the resistance level should be increased or you can move on to a more challenging version of the exercise.
For Example: a good total body strength program might look something like this:
- A 5-10 minute warm-up.
- 3 sets of walking lunges (with or without dumbbells)
- 3 sets of Pull Throughs
- 3 sets of Dumbbell Bench Press
- 3 sets of Resistance Band Rows
- 1-2 sets of Mountain Climbers
The amount of reps you complete with each set, the resistance level you use and rest in between sets can be adjusted to suit your fitness level.
If you’re ready to get started but aren’t sure how to put together a good strength training program, grab a free copy of my step by step guide. It includes:
- a list of the types of exercises you need
- a basic workout format
- and a schedule
You can access my step by step guide here: https://erikavolkfitness.com/pcosdiva
I know from personal experience that living with PCOS takes strength. I have found both the physical and emotional strength I needed to thrive in spite of a PCOS diagnosis from my love of strength training. Medical research and real life experience have taught me that muscle is my best ally in the fight against PCOS!
Erika Volk is a certified personal trainer, Nutrition Coach, and fitness writer. She holds certifications from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), TRX Suspension Training Systems, Precision Nutrition and is the creator of the PCOS Fit Studio. She believes that lifestyle modifications are the best treatment for PCOS. If you want to learn more about how exercise can alleviate PCOS symptoms, please visit her website at erikavolkfitness.com.
Erika lives with her husband in a small beach town somewhere in Costa Rica. Her hobbies include cooking, hiking, learning Spanish and traveling. At erikavolkfitness.com you’ll find at-home workout plans, healthy cooking tips, and stories about her life in Costa Rica.
I always thought strength training would mess with male hormones and stress hormones like cortisol. Can you explain if this is true or just a misconception?
I’ve heard women speak of these types of concerns before. I think there are many misconceptions surrounding these issues so I am glad you brought this up!
Research indicates that there is no difference in testosterone levels between heavily trained female athletes and sedentary women (Tegelman, et al., 1990). Thus, women will not flood their bodies with androgens by taking up strength training. In fact, if regular strength training helps you reduce your IR, you might even see your androgens normalize a bit.
Regular exercise has been shown to improve the bodies response to stress. However, if you exercise compulsively, or use an inappropriate training program, it will eventually have a negative impact on your health, including your endocrine system.
If you follow a well structured exercise program that includes strength training, cardio vascular training, and time for recovery + sleep and a healthy diet (of course) you should not run into any problems.
Dr. Ginsberg also talks about this particular misconception in her podcast interview with Amy: http://pcosdiva.designbyansley.com/2015/02/interview-dr-dian-ginsberg/
It’s really frustrating that so many people are adamant that insulin issues are “at the core of PCOS”. Many many women, such as myself, have no insulin issues and it is a disservice to us to ignore other potential causes.
I do believe that insulin is at the core of PCOS. I am thin PCOS and haven’t ever had issues with A1C, blood sugar or insulin tests, but for my body, I know there are still issues with insulin. Insulin is very hard to test. Do you tend to gain weight in the belly area? Do you have issues with hypoglycemia? What do you think the core issue of your PCOS is?
Thanks for writing about this. I’m a little confused and I hope you can help me. I’ve heard that strength, cardio, and hiit workouts are all helpful to PCOS. I want to start working out (I plan to use resistance bands for the strength training, zumba for cardio, and my exercise bike for hiit if possible) but I’m bot sure how you fit all three types of workouts into a week. Would you plz explain to me how so that I can get started asap
Strength training REALLY started to help me after only about 6 weeks of regular progressive lifting using the compound exersizes listed above. Forgive the TMI, but for the first time in a very long time I started to notice solidly fertile cervical fluid (egg white) right around my expected ovulation date, and my period became very regular. And my physique improved, too. HIGHLY recommended for women struggling with PCOS.
What’s the best diet or meal plan should someone with PCOS have when strength training being that we need to minimize carbs as much as possible?