Finding the right workout is always tricky, but if you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) it can be even more difficult to find a workout regimen that aligns well with your cycle and how you’re feeling on a day-to-day basis.
PCOS is a condition in which the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of androgens, or sex hormones like testosterone for example, as well as have multiple cysts on the ovaries. This manifests in hormonal imbalances, and symptoms can include insulin resistance, weight gain, acne, excess hair growth, irregular periods, and even depression and anxiety.
When it comes to working out, Ciara Foy, a Toronto-based nutritionist and hormone expert, tells SheKnows that the most important thing someone with PCOS needs to do is increase insulin sensitivity in order to regulate the processing of insulin in their body. This is because PCOS has an impact on insulin sensitivity, according to Foy: Too much fat in the bloodstream could cause resistance to the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin and blood sugar to spike — that could then be a risk for diabetes or heart disease.
So the way to increase insulin sensitivity is to make sure you are building and keeping more muscle in your body than fat. “Therefore when exercising, building muscle mass is the goal, so strength training is where you want to focus your attention,” says Foy.
What type of PCOS workouts should you do?
“Most people with PCOS would benefit from doing a progressive program of full-body weight training workouts three to four times per week,” Emily Schofield, a certified personal trainer and gym manager at Ultimate Performance, tells SheKnows. “It is important to limit the amount of HIIT training to two 20-minute sessions per week for people with PCOS.”
While HIIT training is an effective tool for fat loss, Schofield says it can increase insulin sensitivity, and too much HIIT can elevate the stress hormone cortisol. No one wants added stress of course either, but cortisol “can also increase inflammation and make PCOS worse,” says Schofield. “The last thing you want to do if you have PCOS is put too much stress on your body, because that can be a disaster for your hormonal balance.”
If you want to do cardio, Schofield suggests an hour at least of low-intensity activity, such as walking and getting in between 10,000 and 12,000 steps over the course of a day. “It’s a great way to increase energy expenditure (and speed up fat loss) while also helping to control stress and reduce cortisol better.”
Below, you can find a complete 28-day PCOS workout program that Schofield put together for people with PCOS.
Sample four-week full-body workout
This four-week plan is based around two workouts — workout A, and workout B. This is what your weekly PCOS workout regimen could look like, but as Schofield says, “These are just examples. There are no strict days you need to keep to — in fact, your work, home, and family routine will probably dictate your exercise schedule.”
Monday – Workout A
Tuesday – Low-Intensity Training
Wednesday – Workout B
Thursday – Day Off
Friday – Workout A
Saturday – High-Intensity Training
Sunday – Day Off
Monday – Workout B
Tuesday – High-Intensity Training
Wednesday – Workout A
Thursday – Day off
Friday – Workout B
Sunday – Day Off
*Repeat week 1 in week 3 of the month, and repeat week 2 in week 4.
“Stick to the tempos I’ve outlined. It’s the time spent under tension – e.g. the time spent in the lowering – that is most effective,” Schofield says. “So, just as an example, if the workout suggests a barbell back squat or goblet squat and the tempo is 4-0-1-0, that will mean lowering the weight for four seconds as you lower your body into the squat, no pause at the bottom, push back up explosively for one second, and then no pause at the top as you progress to the next rep.”
Where it refers to exercises A1 and A2, or B1 and B2, this means a superset. So, you’d perform exercise A1, rest for the prescribed time, then perform A2. That’s one complete set. Then go back and repeat this cycle for the prescribed number of sets.
Each week, Schofield suggests to increase the repetition by one. “So, in week 1, you’d be performing 10 reps of a squat for 3 sets. In week two, you’d be performing 11 reps for 3 sets. In week three, 12 reps for 3 sets, and in week four, 13 reps for 3 sets.”
Low-impact PCOS workout
If you’re looking for a low-impact option, Frame Fitness founder Melissa Bentivoglio recommends incorporating Pilates into your workout routine.
“Pilates is an excellent form of exercise for anyone with PCOS because it provides a low-impact, full-body workout that can help manage several symptoms associated with PCOS,” Bentivoglio tells SheKnows. “Pilates is extremely helpful in managing stress levels and decreasing the risks of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. For people with PCOS, this can be helpful, as chronic stress is one of the largest contributors to this condition.”
Additionally, Pilates can help improve insulin sensitivity, she says, making it easier for the body to process glucose and maintain stable blood sugar levels. “Pilates is all about controlled, deliberate movements, often involving isometric holds,” Bentivoglio explains. “These movements activate the muscles in a specific sequence, which can improve circulation and glucose uptake in the muscles, leading to improved insulin sensitivity.”
Below, Bentivoglio shares a low-impact Pilates workout perfect for those with PCOS.
Pilates roll up
This exercise strengthens your core and stretches your spine, and can be done on or off the reformer. Start by lying flat on your back with your arms extended above your head. Slowly lift your arms and upper body off the ground, reaching towards your pointed toes, and then roll back down to the starting position.
This exercise is great for increasing your heart rate and getting your blood flowing. It targets the deep abdominal muscles as well as the legs and arms, and only bodyweight is required when you’re doing the mat version. Start by lying on your back with your legs extended up towards the ceiling, and your arms reaching towards your toes. Pump your arms up and down vigorously to the side, exhaling upon exertion while keeping your core engaged, navel to spine.
To increase the intensity, lower the legs with pointed toes. The closer the legs are to the floor, the more engagement of the core. It is imperative that you do not arch the back while doing this exercise. Start slow, with the legs elevated towards the ceiling, and work towards lowering them.
Pilates leg circles
This exercise, which you’re able to do on or off the Pilates reformer, helps to strengthen your hip and thigh muscles. It also engages the pelvic floor, and adductors (the inner thigh muscles). Lie on your back with your legs extended towards the ceiling. Slowly lower one leg down towards the ground while keeping the other leg straight and stable. Then, circle your lowered leg in a circular motion, and switch sides.
This can be performed with more intensity by lifting the head, ensuring the chin is off the chest and the sternum is lengthened. The added engagement of the core muscles makes this an effective full body exercise.
This is an extremely impactful core exercise that engages your full body while also improving posture, stability, and balance. To perform the plank exercise, start in a pushup position with your hands shoulder-width apart and your feet hip-width apart; the heels are elevated and your weight is in your hands. Keep your body in a straight line from head to heels, and engage your core, ensuring your scapula is protracted (not sinking into your shoulders or winging your shoulder blades). Hold the plank for 10 seconds before moving into the Pilates pike position.
To perform the pike exercise, slowly start to lift your hips up towards the ceiling, keeping your legs straight and your core engaged; the heels should remain high. Your head gazes towards your knees, the neck is relaxed and your core is engaged from the navel to the spine. Hold the pike for 10 seconds before lowering your hips back down to the starting position of the plank.
Performing these Pilates exercises regularly throughout the week, especially on days off from Workout A or B above, can help improve insulin sensitivity and aid in weight management, says Bentivoglio. Both of those are important factors for the management of PCOS.
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