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Researchers from Texas A&M University in College Station have discovered that women who had been doing resistance exercises and taking oral contraceptives at the same time appeared to gain less lean muscle in comparison to women who did the same type of exercise but did not take oral contraceptives.

One of the lead researchers, Chang-Woock Lee, said that this finding was meaningful for identifying a potential new factor that may be independently associated with the characteristics and variability of muscle responses to a controlled resistance exercise training program since they have not been known by now.

The study included 73 women aged 18 to 31 who were all healthy individuals. They all took part in a whole-body resistance exercise program, which lasted ten weeks and involved three sessions per week. Thirty-four women took oral contraceptives while the rest (39) did not. They had to make sure they consumed the right amount of protein to encourage muscle growth.

Significant differences have been found between the two groups with regard to lean muscle mass growth. Lean muscle mass grew by 3.5% among the women who did not take oral contraceptives, compared to 2.1% among the women who did. The researchers were surprised at how significant the differences were - averaging about 60%.

The difference was only seen in lean muscle mass gain, while strength gains and arm/leg circumferences changes were fairly similar among these two groups.

The women who took oral contraceptives have also been found to have lower levels of three anabolic hormones in their blood and significantly higher cortisol levels.
Anabolic hormones are muscle building hormones, while cortisol has the opposite effect on muscles.

Three takers of oral contraceptives have also been found to have lower levels of DHEA hormone at the end of the training period while DHEA levels did not change among any of the women who did not take oral contraceptives.

Although the study observed negative effects of oral contraceptive use on muscle gain in the context of resistance exercise training, the researchers said that more studies were needed to help explain the reasons behind the results.

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This would have been important information for a female body builder. One would expect that additional estrogen in oral contraceptive would increase the deposition of subcutaneous fat, thereby resulting in less gain in the percentage of lean muscle mass. The fact that strength gains were similar in the two groups would suggest that the use of birth control pills would not have hampered athletic performance. This is good new for women who engage in other competitive sports. It is somewhat troubling, however, that oral contraceptive use had resulted in significantly higher level of cortisol, a stress hormone.
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