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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

13 thoughts on “Birth Control & Muscle Gains

  1. 14%? I don’t think so.

  2. Lol at 167 lbs. and < 14%. Also I think most trainees have a lot of other things they ought to worry about optimizing before their birth control.

  3. Interesting. So I wonder about menopausal women still very active in the gym. The drop in estrogen also works against gains. In fact it wreaks havoc on recovery and so much more. Going on hormone replacement can help but would be interested to know how much and what is still compromised.

  4. I guess you failed to find this study which showed no difference in a double blind placebo controlled trial.

    J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Sep;22(5):1625-32. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31817ae1f3.
    Effects of combination oral contraceptives on strength development in women athletes.
    Nichols AW, Hetzler RK, Villanueva RJ, Stickley CD, Kimura IF.

    Division of Sports Medicine, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, USA.

    This study was designed to investigate the effects of combination oral contraceptive agents (OCAs) on strength and torque production in collegiate women softball and water polo athletes who participated in a 12-week strength development program. A double-blind research design was used to mask subjects to the main outcome of interest. Thirty-one women collegiate softball and water polo players were divided into experimental (OCA users, n = 13), and control (non-OCA users, n = 18) groups. All subjects participated in the same supervised 12-week preseason strength development program. One-repetition maximum bench press (1RMBP), 10-repetition maximum leg extension (10RMLE), isokinetic peak torque bench press (IKBP), and isokinetic peak torque leg extension (IKLE) data were collected at weeks 0 (pre-test), 4, 8, and 12 (post-test). Significant increases in strength and torque production over time were identified regardless of group for 1RMBP, 10RMLE, and IKLE. No significant differences in IKBP torque production occurred during the 12-week strength training program. No significant differences in 1RMBP, 10RMLE, IKBP, or IKLE occurred between the OCA users and the non-OCA users groups. It was concluded that, within the limitations of the study, the use of combination OCAs did not provide sufficient androgenic effect to increase strength gains beyond the stimulus of the training protocol.

  5. Interesting. There seems to be studies that both support and deny the effect of combination pills on muscle building (as noted in comments). I don’t know enough about academic practice and biology to try to find why their results might differ… maybe it was a fluke of either study’s sample group.

    I am on the mini pill (progesterone only) and wonder what the effects of it is besides removing my uterus lining. I am stopping the pill this month because I suspect it is the cause of my out-of-control appetite (impossible to be satisfied unless I’m eating every other minute of the day, even I don’t enjoy the food in my mouth…). I have not found it’s affected to my strength gains so far, though.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Amy. After reading this post, I took a look through the scientific literature on the effects of OCs on performance an body composition and found that there certainly are varying results. The most common complaint stated by researchers was that the sample sizes of the participants were too small. The manuscript mentioned here (Lee et al. 2009) seems to have one of the largest sample sizes of all published reports on this topic. I have always been a competitive athlete, but I have been using OCs since I was 18 years old. Makes me wonder what my performance would be like if I wasn’t supplementing with synthetic estrogen. Thanks for your 2 cents!

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  8. I really appreciate the kind of topics you post here. Thanks for sharing us a great information that is actually helpful. Good day

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  9. To say that taking the ocp increases levels of estrogen is something of an oversimplification. The pills level out the amount of estrogen in the body and may, for many days of the month, actually be keeping estrogen levels LOWER than normal, because they are interrupting the feedback loop that causes estrogen to spike then slowly decline mid-cycle. Not saying it isn’t having an effect somehow, but to visualize it as just because it is making your estrogen levels high is inaccurate.

  10. Nice blog. I would like to see some more blogs on this topic. I like to study about this subject as I am doing career as a doctor.
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  11. Lifting ways always helps increase bone density, which is important for women during or after pregnancy, but I think women`s powerlifting is a step too far…

  12. Very nice! These kinds of posts always inspire people, which is good. My brother is also working to build his muscles. He does exercise and with that taking kratom supplement. I hope it will help him to build his muscles.

  13. I also found these two studies. The first (1), that Amy quoted from the American Physiological Society which showed OC impaired lean muscle gains and the second (2) from Journal strength and Conditioning research that showed no significant differences in strength.
    So…. my take home message. Both articles report no significant differences in strength but both studies are looking at different things. The first study has performed a hormone profile from blood samples and looked at lean mass gains. The second study is ONLY looking at strength gains from a variety of tests.
    Be very careful when reading these papers as methodology and stats analysis is often very different. It is only relevant to the study group and the limitations are usually fairly large.

    I agree understanding female hormones, OC and strength is a bit of a mind field. There are not a lot of good studies yet, so individual feedback and progress is actually really useful.
    I thought your entry was interesting and a much needed debate for women’s training.

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