“You can do this vs. I can do this,” Barbell Medicine Podcast, Episode #150: Claire Zai on Hormones, Programming, the Menstrual Cycle, and More

Do women need to train differently than men? What are the considerations when training a woman versus a man in lifting? These are some of the interesting questions that Claire Zai explores in this conversation, and while I’m a bit late in getting this out, I think it’s an important topic to be sure to cover.

The podcast begins with some chatter between Jordan and Claire, with some discussion of the sort of research she’s currently doing on what gets people into the doors at the gym. I followed the link to her questionnaire. I hope you do, too!(1) I think this is useful information, and I hope her research finds some clues to the barriers people have to lifting so gyms and trainers can work to make them more inclusive spaces.

Eleven minutes into the podcast, they begin the discussion of sex differences in lifting. I love that the first point Claire makes is that if someone has the same goals and experiences, she starts in the same place! She then mentions that there are often differences in the goals of women from men,(2) with different aesthetic preferences. This is a topic I’d like to delve further into. I have long suspected that my own aesthetic goals point towards my queer sensibilities–I’m not looking to meet some feminine ideal, only stronger. I enjoy being bigger, with visible muscles in my shoulders and arms. I’d like to have a little pec cleavage to join my breasts, and I love that the stronger I get, the more pronounced my quads and calves have become. I fully recognize that these preferences don’t meet gender norms, and the closer I get to achieving the look I want, the higher likelihood that I will be met with resistance from folks who are more comfortable with clear lines of gender expression. I hope researchers like Claire continue to ask questions about this and that over time, perhaps folks will get more familiar with the variety of aesthetics a person might choose to present themselves as and work towards.

I am thrilled that Claire then goes into the subtle gendering of gym spaces, including the color choices, fonts and messaging that gyms use to “motivate” their members. I don’t need a gym to be purple with Britney Spears playing overhead (although, I have plenty of love for Britney!) to feel welcoming, but I completely agree that a more aggressive, dark space is less welcoming for women and other folks looking to feel safe in a lifting space. I also agree that the gym culture plays a huge role, and it starts with the ownership. There needs to be clear cultural expectations of inclusivity and consequences for members who act or speak in ways that make it a less positive space for others. I have lots to say on this, so I will be sure to write a post on gym culture soon!

The next section of the conversation switches to hormones–menstrual cycles and birth control–and how they may influence athletic participation and performance. Claire’s information here on the relatively small differences within a cycle is new for me. I have waded my way through much of Lyle McDonald’s epic Woman’s Book, and he puts a lot of stock in hormone cycling and its importance for optimizing training and recovery. But Claire’s information, perhaps based on more recent research, suggests the very reassuring possibility that estrogen variation within a cycle has a negligible impact on muscle building. Anything that helps me be more chill and less Type A in my training is good by me!

The conversation ends by touching on pregnancy and training guidelines for pregnant women. I really love Jordan’s point about this being a period of time when our goals would need to change away from performance and towards health. I consider my lifting to be a mostly healthy activity for me, but to be honest, that isn’t a very motivating notion for me most of the time. The concept of health is so imprecise; what am I getting done right now?! If you’re prone to the same sort of thinking, I could see it being a challenge to make that switch, or maybe not–having that new life gestating could make it feel like a much more in-the-moment goal!

This was a great conversation, and I hope you all take the time to listen to it! If the world really wanted to make my day, we’d begin to see these sorts of considerations being brought up in all sorts of training and nutrition conversations all of the time. It shouldn’t have to be a special “focus on women’s needs” episode–women’s needs belong in every conversation about activities women participate in, integrated and considered whenever a related topic is brought up. We’re a long way to getting there, but a person can dream!

Did you give this podcast a listen? Want join the conversation? Leave a comment below or find Progressive Strength over on Facebook! I look forward to hearing from you!

Barbell Medicine Podcast Episode 150

(1) Here’s the link to the study. Not sure how long it will work, but give it a go!

(2) Throughout this conversation, Claire and Jordan refer to “women” as synonymous with “people born with a uterus.” I would expect that the cultural considerations may vary for women who are not born with a uterus, and how great would it be if we were having a conversation about making spaces truly inclusive to all gender identities?! I have begun to hear researchers discussing hormones of men who were born with a uterus and then began to take exogenous testosterone, so the experiences of those folks are certainly beginning to help us broaden our understandings of the impacts of hormones on all sorts of health metrics.

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