Keep Lean in the Holiday Season

The holiday season can be a hard time to stay in shape. The festive food is everywhere, every visit to a neighbour or family member comes laced with gingerbread, hot chocolate and a mountain of assorted treats. Then there’s the Christmas parties, for work, at friends’ homes, maybe even at the gym! And that’s without even looking at the ‘Big 3’ themselves: Christmas, New Years’ Eve and (depending on location) Thanksgiving. Each one of these carries enough caloric threat in the form of cakes, meals and alcohol to take you from single-digit body fat to a soggy midsection in less time than it takes to say ‘Ho Ho Ho’!

While avoiding holiday weight gain entirely may require isolating yourself in some sort of festive-proof bunker, limiting the damage can be far less difficult. All it takes is a little planning and preparation, and you can keep yourself more or less on track.


Maintaining weight and fitness levels is all about balance. If you’re going to be stuffing yourself, you need to make that dietary disadvantage up somewhere! Let me be clear and say that I am absolutely not advising you starve yourself throughout the holiday season. That is a sure-fire way to take you towards a disordered eating pattern of binge-eating. You just have to bear in mind that you need to be stricter than at other times. It’s tempting to rationalise yourself out of moderation by telling yourself you’re ‘messing it up anyway’ but that policy never got anyone any leaner! Even trimming a few hundred calories a day from your usual intake can help to offset the few thousand extra on days when you have an event.

It’s also important to choose your battles. Remember that you don’t have to eat every single thing that gets put in front of you. If you go to a friends’ house and they lay on cookies that they have every single day of the year, consider that it may not be worth your time and effort to eat them. On the other hand, if your friend comes back from the Christmas market with homemade stollen and Christmas cake, it might be a good time to ‘cash in’ on your good behaviour.
If you’re indulging a lot, it may even be a good time to up your cardio a little bit. Again, I’m not a big fan of using specific cardio sessions to offset poor eating. I’m very convinced that this is a bad mental habit to get into. However, if you know that you generally indulge more over the holidays, it could be worth adding an extra cardio session once or twice a week until your eating habits are back to normal.

Build Muscle

If you don’t just want to ‘balance out’ your winter calorie surplus, there is an alternative; start putting on weight deliberately. Remember, the more muscle mass you have, the easier it is to stay lean. Building muscle requires a calorie surplus, which is why so many lifters ‘bulk’ during the winter months. Essentially it’s a way to take advantage of all that food to actually improve your body rather than just maintain.

The keys to a solid winter weight gain are pretty simple. Don’t just pig out and eat whatever, whenever. Putting on a little bit of quality mass does not require you to get fat. Instead, pick your battles as we discussed above, and make sure your protein intake is good and high. In terms of training, you want to increase your overall volume. Whether you do this by increasing your number of sets per exercise, or number of reps per set is up to you. Just make sure you continue to also work for greater strength, as this pretty much always pays off.

If you like lifting, winter can even be a good time to play with something like German Volume Training (ten sets of ten reps per exercise) or the slightly less insane but still intense eight sets of eight. Either way, you give your body plenty of stimulus to grow new muscle, and put those extra calories to good use!


A big problem for many of us is travel. I live a few thousand miles away from my family, so a trip home for Christmas means being away from my gym, my fridge, my supplements, my Yoga studio and all the restaurants that I know and trust to prepare my food the way I want it. Basically, my routine goes out the window! Add to that the actual travelling, the hours at airports and on planes, the jetlag, and it really can be a problem maintaining my fitness.

My secret weapon to deal with travel is preparation. I keep kettlebells at my parents’ house for when I stay there, and I’ll inform them ahead of time what foods I’d like them to stock up on. I take my own food on the plane, so I don’t have to eat what passes for the meals on there. If I’m travelling for a good few days I may even research local gyms and so on before I get somewhere, so that I can sneak off for an hour on a few mornings and train. You may or may not have as much freedom as I do to prepare your environment, but the point is that if you assess your plans and determine your needs while travelling, you can set yourself up for better success. Even if you don’t have gym equipment, here is a really simple body weight workout that you can do literally anywhere:

Daily Routine For Holidays

  • 1 Push-up, 1 Squat, 1 Sit-up
  • 3 Push-ups, 3 Squats, 3 Sit-ups
  • 5 Push-ups, 5 Squats, 5 Sit-ups
  • 7 Push-ups, 7 Squats, 7 Sit-ups

Keep increasing the reps until you start to fail, then work back down. Keep scaling up and down for twenty minutes or so and you have yourself a pretty good workout! You can do this with lunges, dips, jumping jacks, burpees, and dozens of other movements. Just pick three and go! If you take bands or a doorway chin-up bar with you, you have even more options to choose from. It’s easy to stop working out completely on the basis you can’t do your usual routine but I repeat, that’s not a policy that ever got anyone any leaner!

The ‘people’ factor

I feel I should mention at this point that people are going to look at you funny for all of this. When you pull out your bag of beef jerky and plain nuts on the flight, when you leave the house where everyone’s still passed out from the party to go to the gym, when you turn down the store-bought cookies you can eat any time. All these things will have people hassling you about why you’re doing them.

People will judge you and try to actively encourage you to stop. They’ll argue that you, “don’t need to watch what you eat” or tell you it’s, “only one” or even tell you to “lighten up and enjoy yourself for a change.” These peoples’ opinions are worthless. I can almost guarantee that they are the same people who give up the gym mid-November, train hard at the start of January when they make their New Years’ Resolutions, then come sporadically until it’s time to stop again in November. They never really get any fitter, stronger or leaner and make no mistake, they want you to be just like them. Do not fall for this nonsense. You can do whatever you want to do with your body and if you choose not to get fat over Christmas, then that is surely your prerogative!

Bottom line, do what you want to do. If people have a problem with it, that’s their problem.

Staying fit over the holiday period may not be easy, but it’s fairly simple. Pick your battles when it comes to food, offset what you splurge out on (whether that be by building muscle or just working off the excess) and prepare yourself well enough that travelling doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks. If all goes to plan then on January 1st when everyone else is struggling through their first proper workout in months, you’ll be cruising along easily, having taken barely a step back. Who knows, if you follow all of this advice, you may even be leaner and stronger than when you started!

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