Birth Control & Muscle Gains

Article written by Amy Payne

Your nutrition is 100% in check and your training is spot on. You rest, hydrate, and take your vitamins but your gains in the gym seem relatively low for all the work that you put in. Have you ever considered that little blue pill could be doing more than stopping your body from ovulating? Yes ladies, your oral contraceptive (OC) may be making your gains in the gym harder to achieve. I was hitting the gym hard; my nutrition was completely dialed in, but still wasn’t seeing the gains I had hoped for. My husband suggested I quit taking my OC as it may be counter acting the ability for my body to build muscle. I was game; did some digging and this is what I found.

So exactly what oral contraceptives are we talking about here? Any that contain the female sex hormone estrogen and its counterpart progesterone. So let’s ask the question, what is the main purpose of estrogen? Estrogen is actually the grouping name for the hormones, estrone, estradiol and estriol. Estrogen is primarily the hormone that creates sexual feelings and urges in females and is also responsible for stimulating the characteristics that make a woman a female, i.e. boobies. So now you are probably thinking well yeah duh…but what does the pill have to do with my lifting? Well, when you pop your pill it increases your hormone levels of estrogen. When women have too much estrogen in their bodies they may feel bloated, retain water, gain weight, notice tenderness in the breasts, and most severe suffer from blood clots. Research has found that OC also alter normal hormone levels, decreasing levels of a woman’s natural muscle building hormone.

Texas A&M conducted a study with 2 groups of women ranging from 18-31 yrs. of age who went through 10 weeks of resistance training with the same set and rep schemes. Both before and after the trial, researchers found, women using oral contraception had dramatically lower blood levels of natural anabolic — as in muscle-building — hormones than did recruits not on the pill. The anabolic hormones included DHEA and its more abundant sulfated form, DHEAS. Compared to non-pill-users, women taking oral contraceptives also had substantially higher concentrations of cortisol, a hormone associated with the breakdown of muscle. At the conclusion of the study researchers stated, “We were surprised at the magnitude of differences in muscle gains between the two groups; with the non-OC women gaining more than 60% greater muscle mass than their OC counterpart.”

Since I have discontinued my use of oral contraceptives for more than a year now, I have added 75lbs to my squat, almost 40lbs to my bench, and nearly 25lbs to my deadlift! I am moving more weight overhead and feel stronger overall. I continue to train hard, eat to fuel my body, hydrate and rest, and the gains keep coming. I am currently sitting at 167lbs with my body fat less than 14%.

Now I am not saying to just come off all forms of birth control, be safe and be smart. But if you have everything dialed in and you are working your ass off, you may want to check out what your OC could be doing to you besides preventing pregnancy.

Oral Contraceptive Use Impairs Muscle Gains in Young Women Chang Woock Lee1, Mark A. Newman2 and Steven E. Riechman1,3 1 Health and Kinesiology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 2 Human Energy Research Laboratory, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 3 Nutrition, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX

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