Birth Control and Fat Loss

When women don’t want to get pregnant, they typically visit the doctor and get on a birth control regimen. Like most women, I did this when I first got married. What I didn’t do, however—and what most women don’t do—was research the effects this would have on my body. It didn’t occur to me to try to learn more, so I simply did what my doctor ordered me to do without investigating any further. This was my first mistake.

I didn’t stay on birth control for very long because my menstrual cycle kept stopping every 2-3 months. This still happened even after I lowered the dosage. After going through that experience, I haven’t been on it since.

Years later, a good friend of mine was struggling to get pregnant. She’d been on birth control for years throughout high school and college—like me, without doing any research regarding what it would do to her. When she and her husband decided to start a family, she stopped her birth control regimen, but she couldn’t get pregnant for over a year. I watched this entire process unfold, and realized, through my experience and hers, that there was more to this process than meets the eye.

As a trainer and strength coach, I’m now in a position that profoundly affects the results women get from their training and nutrition—and I’ve seen, time after time, that women focus strictly on diet and exercise to the exclusion of other factors, like birth control, that consistently come into play when we have goals we want to achieve.

If you’re a woman who trains hard, or you’re a trainer who works with women, there are some things you need to think about with regard to this. Some of you train hard and eat properly without even coming close to getting the body composition results you want. For others, maybe your program worked well for a while, but you’ve stalled out and can’t get things moving again. Maybe things change from month to month, and there’s no consistency to what you’re doing. If any of this applies to you, or to your clients, there are some things you should know.

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There are two main types of birth control*:

1.            ESTROGEN-BASED: This is typically a combination of estrogen and progestin, and it comes in patch, ring, and pill form. One unfortunate drawback of this type of birth control is that it can cause fat gain in the hips and butt.

2.            PROGESTIN: This is a synthetic progesterone administered in mini-pill form and through injections. There’s good news and bad news here. The bad news? Progestin can cause whole-body fat retention. It can, however, give you larger breasts.

* Birth control pills are in and out of your system quickly, which is why you need to take them on a daily basis. Progesterone shots can have a half-life of anywhere from one to four weeks.

So why do these forms of birth control cause women to retain so much body fat? Because when you take birth control, your body responds accordingly. Either your ovaries stop ovulating or the environment is unfit to implant the eggs appropriately. This essentially makes your body think you’re pregnant, and it reacts by preparing to incubate. When it’s in this state, your body is going to need extra nutrients—read: extra fat—for proper development of your “baby.”

Estrogen and progesterone levels are highest at the point of ovulation—which falls around day fourteen of a menstrual cycle. They’ll fall over the next two weeks, and they’re at their lowest when menstruation begins. Research has shown that estrogen reduces the rate at which carbohydrates are utilized during exercise—but that it increases fat burning (also during exercise). High estrogen levels—as demonstrated during the latter fourteen days of the cycle—may also increase your body’s ability to store glycogen in your muscles.

If you do forget your birth control, you can practice Bret Contreras’ newest glute movement, Baby-bell Swings.

How does this affect Carb Back-Loading? Well, this is where Kiefer comes in. “If you’re using estrogen-based contraceptives,” he told me, “you should focus on high-volume training sessions taken to failure. Since elevated estrogen levels are anti-catabolic, they preserve muscle tissue and cause a shift to a predominantly fat-burning metabolism, so you need to really push in the gym to force the use of glycogen reserves during your training sessions.

“This is also when you want to focus on intense HIIT cycles, using a 1-minute-easy:30-second-sprint cycle for 6-10 cycles. This helps to mobilize glycogen stores and increase fatty-acid mobilization. Back-loads on this type of birth control need to be very controlled, and you’re not going to get away with eating carbs every night. You’re better off cycling them to after every other training session. For example, if you train Mon-Tue-Thu-Fri, then back-load on Monday and Thursday in week one, then back-load on Tuesday and Friday in week two.

“Honestly, if you choose to use this type of birth control for a long period of time, you should utilize Carb Nite, or cycle between Carb Back-Loading and Carb Nite. Try four weeks on Carb Back-Loading, then 2-4 weeks of Carb Nite.

“For the progesterone-based birth control options, you’ll want to perform lower-volume training as laid out in the free Shockwave Protocol Manual, or a similar low-volume—but not low-intensity—program. Progesterone is actually catabolic, so you need to be very cognizant of your training loads and rest. Also, progesterone allows carbs to be utilized more effectively, so this is when you’d want to add HIIT in cycles of 4 min:30 sec or 4 min:1 min at the end of your resistance training. Back-loads while on these cycles can be more frequent, but they still need to be controlled.”

For women, birth control seems to be a necessary evil, but you need to know that it can definitely affect your fat loss goals. Continue to train and eat the right way, and you may be able to avoid putting on extra body fat while you’re on it. Getting it off, however, is always going to be a challenge while on birth control if you have any desire to keep substantial carbs in your diet. 

Listen to Julia Ladewski’s experience with Carb Back-Loading: “it’s not a new diet, it’s a new life.”

Feature Image By: MrGobi

 

  • Jason

    Good stuff! Female clients almost never consider birth control as an obstacle to fat loss. (note: estrogen and progesterone don’t peak together, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstrual_cycle)

    • Jason

      Not sure why that link got cut off. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstrual_cycle

      • http://www.facebook.com/julia.ladewski Julia Kaufman Ladewski

        Correct. They don’t peak together. I really struggled with putting in the vast details of the cycle, but kept it simple for the point of the article.

  • Julia H.

    Great read. Thanks, Julia. I think women really do not consider the effects birth control will have on their body aside from the obvious prevention of pregnancy. I, like you, followed my midwife’s advice blindly after the birth of my second daughter and have since not felt like my normal old self–and that was 2 years ago. I’m 2 weeks post-removal of an estrogen-based IUD and I already feel better. Hopefully the stubborn thigh and abdominal fat will follow!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dancerninja Kristin Laine Newman

    Wonderful article. I’ve used BC on and off for years, never had a problem making weight as a martial artist or weightlifter. I consider myself lucky. However, I always have these sneaky suspicions about what could be good/bad for strength gains as a powerlifter.

    I’m planning on really pushing for the Mirena IUD, as it only releases a 14-20ug of hormone a day, whereas with pills you’re looking at ~150ug a day.

  • Lindsey

    Great article! I think the other thing that needs to be brought to light as well though is that often times the pill masks what’s really going on in your body. I was on the pill for years and got my period every month. I have been off the pill for over 5 months and have not gotten a period. The pill masked the fact that my body is not producing sufficient progesterone on its own (probably due to low body fat). I think trainers need to be aware that this exists as well because no one ever told me that while I was working hard to get lean, I was doing so at the expense of my hormone levels.

  • heather

    Hello, thanks for the article. I found that getting off the pill, after being on for years, caused me to start holding fat in my belly, thighs and hips (woman places). This is confusing to me…I didn’t think getting off would cause fat gain. Any thoughts on that? Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000393272129 Diana Davis

    I have had body fat issues. I think years of ED messed me up. Last may, I found I had basically NO estrogen. I went off of BC to take an FH uptake test and perhaps balance myself out. (other reasons led to no FH test yet). I have NOT had a period since, and my estrogen, while creeping up, is still low. Although I am 2 years free of the eating disorders, I have only recently begun to track my caloric intake and nutrient balance properly-I was still eating a little low.
    I train pertty ahrd, and am strong…but the body fat is still there. Is it the LACK of estrogen that is in my way to success? My belly, thighs, hips and butt are just embarrassing. I’m not terrible; some poeple would love to look like me. But I don’t look like I work out at all!

  • Louise

    I’d like to know what affect breastfeeding has in this regard. I am really struggling with fat loss as much now as when I was on birth control.

  • Nicole

    Interesting. After being off hormonal b.c. for the past ~4 years, I have an appointment on Monday with my gyn and was totally planning on getting back on it…. to help combat cravings and mood issues that seem tied to my cycle. I have a very “straight” shape (even more so now that I’ve started lifting) so I’m curious to see if b.c. will actually affect my body fat levels/distribution.

  • Jo

    This is an awesome post and something I have been very interested in since I started my interest in fat loss/weight lifting. I had the implant in for over 2 years and during that time I find it so hard to get into the shape that I was before, my fat burning diet didn’t have the same effect as it did pre-implant. So I had it taken out in May this year and within 6 weeks I had dropped a stone and was lifting heavier than ever before. Coincidence?? I think not! At the moment I am having a rest from any form of contraception but I am a bit stumped on where to look next. I am 29, no kids, not ready for kids but luckily my other half agrees that I shouldn’t be pumping extra hormones into me, so I am happy enjoying being 100% natural again and watching my PB’s go up up up!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ines-Subashka/597090074 Ines Subashka

    That was a really interesting read. Thank you!

  • Mallory

    This is interesting because I have considering going off the ring. Although I am lean at 16% bodyfat I’ve heard terrible things about going off the ring and gaining tons of weight.I never gained when I was on it but now I’m terrified to go off it after being on it for four years and losing all my incredibly hard work.

  • Brandon

    What if a client is using a birth control like Marvelon that is a combination of both synthetic estrogen and progesterone (ethinylestradiol and desogestrel)?

  • Emma

    Hi hope this gets a response as its pretty old but ive just gain a crap load of weight i even look pregnant well early stages but im not my but and hios make me feel gross and my belly omg this is like i was after i had my daughter i stopped taking the pill levelen a couple of weeks ago how do i rid my sepf of this hormones and extra body fat i need gone by july 17as im off to greece . I train everyday eat clean well the odd burger prob once a week home made and drink enough water to drown a fish HELP please so sick of these gimics pay half ya house repayment and well tell you to take garcinia crap i genuinely want realy help