Did you hear that resistance training is one of the best forms of exercise for PCOS, but are still not convinced or ready to commit?
Women often avoid resistance training in fear of becoming too muscular and favour aerobic exercises. But here is the thing: All women should work on building muscle, especially women with PCOS.
In this post, you will find out how having more muscle may benefit your PCOS and what exercise you can perform to start building muscle. I will also give you 7 beginner weight lifting tips to get you started.
Before I outline why having more muscle can be beneficial for your PCOS, let me answer a common question:
Won’t I get bulky?
The simple truth is maybe. Given you have PCOS, your testosterone levels may be higher than women who do not have PCOS and as such, you may find that you put on muscle a little easier. But whether you will look ‘bulky’ is dependent on your genetics and other factors aside from hormone levels.
PCOS and Insulin Resistance
Around 70% of women with PCOS suffer from insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas in response to spikes in blood sugar. The role of insulin is to unlock the door of the cells to allow sugar to enter. The cells use the sugar for energy.
However, in a condition like insulin resistance, this process does not happen, instead, the cells in the body have trouble absorbing glucose in the blood. As a result, there is a build-up of sugar in the bloodstream. Even though the cells no longer respond to insulin, the pancreas continues to release the hormone because sugar is still floating in the bloodstream.
It is the high insulin levels which cause the ovary to produce excess amounts of testosterone, resulting in the PCOS symptoms like infertility, irregular periods, weight gain, acne. But good news:
Women can reverse their PCOS and insulin resistance.
You might be wondering:
How can muscle help my PCOS?
Below are some of the key benefits having more muscle can have for women with PCOS.
The Benefits of Muscle for PCOS
Increases Insulin Sensitivity
As I mentioned above, one of the problems women with PCOS struggle with is blood sugar imbalances and high insulin levels. While studies show all forms of exercise are great for treating insulin resistance, researchers have found exercises that focus on building muscle are better.
Researchers found that each 10% increase in muscle was associated with an 11% relative reduction in the risk of insulin resistance (1). In other words, an increase in muscle density can improve insulin sensitivity and as a result, reduce the likelihood of suffering from Type 2 Diabetes.
Astonishing, isn’t it?
When we contract our muscles during exercise, we increase the rate of glucose uptake. Which means glucose transport is activated, independent of insulin, through muscle contraction. Regularly using our muscles allows the glucose in the bloodstream to be used for energy helping the cells becoming more sensitive to insulin.
Boosts your metabolism
Weight gain or trouble losing weight is a common PCOS symptom. A study found women with PCOS, with or without insulin resistance, have a lower Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) (2). BMR is the number of calories your body burns at rest, e.g., breathing, sleeping, sitting.
Many women with PCOS are also often led to believe that if their metabolism is slow, they have to live with it and that there is nothing they can do.
But this is not true.
One way to boost your metabolism is to build muscle (3). Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means it burns more calories when your body is at rest.
Boosts your confidence
With all the symptoms that come with a PCOS diagnosis, a woman’s confidence is low. I have personally found from my own journey and listening to others in the PCOS community, that building muscle boosts your confidence.
As you build muscle and sculpt your body, your attitude towards yourself and life changes. You start to feel good and more confident.
So What Exercises Build Muscle?
To build muscle, you want to follow a resistance training program. Resistance training is any exercise that involves your muscles contracting, such as:
Weight lifting – This exercise involves lifting free weights, like dumbbells and barbells.
Calisthenics/bodyweight – You don’t need free weights to create resistance. Bodyweight exercises are a great way to build muscle.
Resistance band workouts – A huge difference between weight lifting and resistant band workouts is the tension. With free weights, gravity dictates where the weight is coming from. Therefore one part of the movement may have more resistance. Resistant bands, however, maintain constant tension on the muscle you are targeting.
Is there a best resistance exercise for PCOS?
There are pros and cons to each of the resistance training exercises so I wouldn’t say there is a ‘best’ one. All variations are effective at building muscle, which is the goal here. When choosing your resistance exercise, I recommend going for the one you most enjoy and see yourself doing in the long term because consistency is key to seeing results. So, if you have never tried any of them, I suggest giving them all a try!
Beginner weightlifting tips
- Focus on form and technique – This concerns all lifters but even more so beginners because it is important to learn and execute the movement correctly before increasing the weight to prevent injury.
- Warm up and cool down – Warming up get your body ready for your work out. Stretching may be best done after you warm up when your body temperature has increased and your muscles are loose. A cool down is also important to include at the end of your workout to help your body return to its resting state.
- Focus on the compound lifts – These are exercises that use large and multiple muscles during a single movement, such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. Including these compound exercises will result in faster muscle growth.
- Train each body part twice a week – Research has found training each muscle 2x a week over 1x a week increases muscle growth and strength(4).
- Follow a program – As a beginner, following a program will help you get started and will take the thought out of what to do when in the gym. But also, following a structured program will help ensure progression and will challenge you resulting in faster muscle growth.
- Fuel your body – Women with PCOS are commonly told to follow low-calorie diets to lose weight. However, if you want to build muscle, you need to make sure you are fuelling your body with enough food to help it repair.
- Schedule rest days – Exercise is a stressor on the body. While regular exercise lowers inflammation, over-exercising can increase inflammation in the body. Women with PCOS already suffer from underlying inflammation. Therefore scheduling rest days to avoid over-exercising is important.
The Bottom Line
Choosing the right exercise for PCOS is key to achieving hormonal balance. All women with PCOS should include some form of resistance training in their workout to help them build muscle. Don’t be afraid to put on muscle because you might get ‘bulky’. The benefits of having muscle for PCOS are incredible and encouraging.
Find a resistance training program you enjoy and can do regularly. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve going to the gym and lifting weights; resistance training for PCOS can be done with bodyweight exercises or resistant bands. If you do opt for weight lifting, make sure you always focus on form and technique, include compound lifts and always schedule rest days to avoid over-exercising and injury.
Despina Pavlou is the founder of PCOS Oracle and a Certified Personal Trainer. She is on a mission to raise awareness about PCOS and empower women with the knowledge they need to reverse their PCOS naturally.