Christmas or no, in the Northern Hemisphere, December is the butt-end of the year.
Around the midwinter solstice the weather is either wet, or cold, or both. There is barely any sunlight to synthesize vitamin D and understandably lots of our mammalian brothers choose to sleep through the gloom and wait until the spring.
Sadly, for humans that is not a choice – we must keep going. For the undisciplined, gym visits begin to drop off and become sporadic. Chances are, if you don’t work from home, then you leave for work in the dark and get home in the same. Oftentimes we are faced with an inner voice “can I be bothered?”.
Low vitamin D robs us of our energy, and we get sick and tired. Add into this the festive combination of poor-quality food in high quantities and alcohol in even higher quantities and you would think you are looking at less than favourable conditions for your fitness and muscular development.
But fear not!
Like the star that appeared unto the Three Wise Men I am here to show you the way. In this article, I will outline why Christmas is the best time to make serious gains and show you how to set yourself up for the year of training to come.
Putting on muscle and improving in strength can both be boiled down to a very simple equation. Muscular Development = Stress + Recovery. You must first lift the weights to stress the muscle, then you must eat enough and rest to allow the muscle to repair itself, hopefully growing bigger and stronger afterwards. This is as basic as it gets. Lots of people eschew the gym during the holiday season and it’s perfectly understandable.
You’ve worked hard all year, why shouldn’t you have December off? But if you think about our equation above, it makes perfect sense to keep training through the festive period.
Christmas x-factor one: calories
One of the joys of Christmas is the food.
What other time of year can you tuck into chocolate for breakfast and not feel guilty?
As a lifter, you almost certainly track and monitor your dietary intake regularly. Let’s say that you’re on a maintenance phase at around 3000 calories a day and have been since the summer. Your lifts are steadily going up, your bodyfat and scale weight are steady; you feel good.
Suddenly, December rolls around and for three weeks you are averaging 5000 calories a day. Let’s be honest, most of those calories are trash. A bit too much alcohol, a higher-than-average amount of processed sugar.
Is this cause for panic? Certainly not.
A 2014 study involved feeding 29 men 40% more calories than maintenance every day for 8 weeks. Yes, 8! And what did they find? The men each gained around 0.2lbs of fat a day.
Remember that ‘fat’ gain and ‘weight’ gain are not the same – you can eat a huge meal and go up 3lbs on the scale instantly. But if you are sensible over the next couple of days it will soon melt away again.
The 2014 study shows that it is very hard to put on meaningful weight, even over an 8-week period.
So what are you waiting for? have that slice of Christmas pudding! My advice would be that unless you have a competition coming up soon after Christmas, ignore the scales for a few weeks.
You may add weight after a festive binge, or your dietary choices may be causing you to hold more water than usual. Either way, it’s easily remedied, and this is not the time to be worrying.
Christmas X-factor two: time
Now we have established we’re not getting fat with our Christmas indulgence (despite what our brain may be telling us), let’s think about the other reason we eat. You don’t need me to tell you that if you want to get big, you must eat big. So, treat Christmas like a socially acceptable mini-bulk and use your increased calories as fuel for some epic workouts.
Unless Ebeneezer Scrooge is your employer, chances are you will get some time off work over the festive period, and in European countries it is not uncommon for people to take 10-14 days off at the end of December.
With great time-off comes great responsibility, get yourself in the gym and use this time wisely. One of my favourite festive training traditions is to put whatever program I’m following on hold and really mix things up.
For example, I might try and hit a new 1RM on a range of different lifts over the holiday period, fueled by the excess calories we talked about earlier. On Monday I might test my Back Squat max, on Tuesday Bench, Wednesday I may take off (after going to a Christmas party on Tuesday night), Thursday back on it with a Deadlift 1RM, and Friday test my strict and push press.
Alternatively, if I’ve been lifting for strength a lot in the run up to Christmas, the festive lifting season might be better spent getting the reps in. A two-week burst of a modified Gironda 8×8 protocol or the infamous German Volume Training 10×10 can give you the perfect outlet for all the calories you have joyfully accrued.
Sometimes, the festive season is a fun two-week window to really focus on a lagging lift, like your Strict Press. It’s also a good time to have fun in the gym, learn a new movement (like power clean or hang snatch) or just try something like a challenge workout. Be creative, and have fun – remember that lifting weights is supposed to be enjoyable.
Lots of hardcore gyms have meet ups on Christmas Day itself, but your average commercial gym will likely be closed for 24 hours minimum.
Personally, lifting on Christmas Day itself is a bit much for me, you do need some time to spend with your loved ones. But you can bet Santa’s beard that I’ll be there as many other days in December as possible.
Christmas x-factor three: sleep
Let’s say that you have taken my advice and have been spending the end of December eating and training like a mad man. The third part of our equation is rest, and it is arguably the most important factor of all.
Sleep is something that many of us neglect, we are on the go constantly leading busy and hectic lives. Our quality of sleep is often impacted by the environmental stimulus around us; screens, noise and stress.
The early bird catches the worm… and weighs less. Fascinating sleep study
For months now here at Herculean Strength, we’ve been extolling the benefits of sorting out your sleep schedule. One of the many beneficial effects improving your sleep can have for men, for instance, is to double their testosterone levels. Yes, you read that right: DOUBLE their testosterone levels.
Another study, from 2011, shows that the early bird really does get the worm, if by “gets the worm” you mean “stays in shape”. By contrast, people who go to bed later, so-called “night owls”, put on weight more easily.
The researchers, from Northwestern University, knowing that sleep duration had already been linked to obesity, set out to investigate whether early birds or night owls put on weight more easily.
The researchers took 52 people aged between 18 and 71 and followed their daily sleeping rhythm for seven days. The researchers also got their subjects to note down what, how much and when they ate.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT THIS FASCINATING STUDY, AND LEARN WHY SLEEP IS SO IMPORTANT TO OPTIMAL HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE
Christmas should be a chance to press pause on our schedules and catch up with friends, family and most important of all, sleep! As a lifter, you should know that the benefits of sleep on our health and wellbeing are myriad. It increases your natural release of growth hormone, and low-levels of sleep are associated with low testosterone.
Our ancestors, even before Christianity, recognised that the darkest and coldest time of the year might be the ideal time to relax and let go of the stresses of the world. Remember that Christmas was originally 12 days of feasting and parties.
If you are eating huge meals and training like an elf on overtime, then you owe it to yourself to ensure that your sleep levels are topped up in December also. Your body will thank you, you gains will thank you and you might just find yourself on Santa’s ‘nice’ list.
When it’s dark and cold outside, and the food is plentiful and bad, it can be easy to give up on the gym. But, played correctly, the combination of high calories, more free time and a gentler schedule can lead to lots of fun, and lots of gains.
While everyone else is sitting in a food coma on the 27th December, you are making progress, and that is a great feeling.
Leave the ego at the door with the mistletoe, turn a blind eye to the scale-weight for a couple of weeks and have yourself a merry lifting Christmas!
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