By Alwyn Cosgrove Men's Fitness
You know it's the holiday season when your girlfriend suddenly expects a run, she's drained your bank account, and your fitness level tanks. But it doesn't have to be that way. You can remedy the first two with a timely breakup (or some intense groveling). And that last problem is an easy fix, too -- all it takes to stay in top shape is smart planning and a little ingenuity.
The holidays generate a lot of unavoidable, often random time drains, such as office parties, family get-togethers, and after-work shopping. They take a chunk out of your life and make it difficult for you to maintain your normal training regimen. But most guys make the mistake of trying to fit their regular workouts into their busier, more unpredictable schedule. Instead, they need an exercise plan that's compatible with their schedule -- no matter how packed it is.
So I've devised a five-step system that uses backward logic in order to create a made-to-fit workout that'll keep you lean and in peak condition. You'll simply evaluate your toughest exercise opponents ahead of time so you can prepare a more effective game plan. Even if breaking up is hard to do, you can't use your girlfriend as an excuse for shrinking biceps. Your net worth, however, is another story.
STEP 1: Calculate the number of days per week you can exercise
Make this a minimum of two days, but don't be unrealistic. If you've been working out five days a week up to now, chances are you might average only three days a week over the next month. Here's a very unscientific formula you can use to estimate a practical number:
Take the number of days you normally exercise each week and multiply it by four. We'll consider that the number of workouts you do in a not-so-hectic month.
Now subtract the number of parties, get-togethers, and gatherings you think you'll attend in December, as well as the number of nights you'll need to shop after work. (Yeah, you, tough guy!) Consider that researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that the average adult goes to more than four parties between Thanksgiving and New Year's.
Divide that number by four and you have the average number of days a week you should strive to exercise. (Round to the nearest whole number.) Consider any additional workouts to be a bonus. If you exercise in the morning or at lunch, after-work activities might not seem to have a direct impact on your training plan. But an increased number of social commitments during the holiday season will have a cascade effect on all parts of your life. For instance, it might diminish your sleep, which makes morning workouts a problem, or force you to work through your lunch hour, eliminating a workout option.
STEP 2: Identify the best days for you to exercise
Now that you have a realistic target for the number of exercise sessions you'll perform each week, choose the days that provide the best opportunity to achieve that goal. For instance, if you know that two of your parties are on different Thursdays, you might want to eliminate that day right off the bat. Perhaps Saturday is a good option, since you don't have to work, but Sundays are bad because you've got season tickets to the Bears' games. (Poor guy.) It doesn't matter what days: It could be Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday; just go with the ones that offer you the best chance of staying consistent. Consider these your official "training" days
STEP 3: Determine the length of your workouts
Estimate the minimum amount of time you'd be able to exercise on the busiest of your training days. That is, base it on the worst-case scenario. Using the example in Step 2, let's say Saturday is pretty open, which narrows down the toughest days to Monday and Tuesday. Maybe you like to exercise in the morning before work, which isn't a problem on Tuesday but is almost always an issue on Mondays because you have trouble getting up on time. You've just identified a potential problem.
The solution, then, may be to exercise during your lunch hour on Monday, or after work. Still, both could be time crunches, since you'll need to factor in a shower if you exercise during lunch, and there's a good chance something could come up unexpectedly if you wait until after work. So base it on what you know: the amount of time you'll have to exercise during your lunch break.
Start with the total amount of time you have and then subtract any time that doesn't contribute to your workout -- for instance, getting to the gym, changing clothes, and showering. The number that's left over is your "base" exercise time that you'll try to achieve in each workout throughout the week. If you have time to spare, that's great -- you can always exercise longer than planned. But this approach ensures that you have a concrete minimum.
Keep in mind that your life might be a lot different than the example. So the key is to think about all the possibilities and variables you might face ahead of time in order to give yourself the best chance for a winning game plan.
STEP 4: Choose Your Mode of Exercise
You can use this plan to create a cardio- or weight-only routine, or a combined program that incorporates both. If you choose the combo, designate a percentage of your base exercise time to each.
In general, I'd recommend two-thirds of all training be devoted to weights and one-third to cardio. So if you have three training days available per week, you could lift weights on two of the days and perform cardio on one, or simply do both weights and cardio on all three days, using the appropriate amount of time for each. In addition, you should always include a warm-up. To keep it simple, just jog or cycle for five minutes at an easy pace, but don't forget to account for the time. Before you move on to the next step, here are some guidelines to follow when creating your workouts.
If you'll be lifting weights:
Perform a full-body workout a minimum of two days per week -- three is ideal—and avoid lifting on back-to-back days.
For each workout, pair an upper- and lower-body exercise, and perform them as alternating sets, resting 30 seconds between each. So do one set of the upper-body exercise, rest, and then do one set of the lower-body exercise. Repeat until you complete all the planned sets of each. Then move on to another pair of exercises.
Emphasize exercises that work as much muscle as possible each repetition. The best lower-body choices: any version of squats, deadlifts, lunges, or stepups. The best for your upper body: any type of press (bench, incline, shoulder), row, or chinup.
Vary your repetitions each workout by alternating between 6-8 reps and 12-15 reps each session.
If you'll be doing cardio:
Perform cardio after lifting.
You can do either continuous cardio or intervals.
If you do continuous cardio, simply try to run farther (on the road or treadmill) or burn more calories (on stationary bikes and rowing machines) in the same time each session. Even though you won't be running longer (since you don't have the time), your workouts will challenge your body a little bit more each session.
If you do intervals, include a five-minute cool-down in your cardio time allotment. For the actual workout, run (or cycle) at the top speed you can maintain from start to finish for one minute, then slow to an easy pace for one minute. That's one round. Do as many rounds as you can, then cool down.
STEP 5: Personalize your plan
Assuming you've completed the first four steps, you now have all the information you need to design an exercise plan that fits your life. Calculate the percentage of time that you'll be doing weights and cardio, and then just follow the directions below for each.
Your weight workout
Roughly calculate the amount of time it will take to perform one set of one exercise. Typically, it's about one minute, depending on the number of repetitions and the speed at which you perform the movement. Add in the 30-second rest period, and it'll take you a total of 90 seconds to perform one set of one exercise.
Now calculate how many total sets you'll be able to perform after subtracting your five-minute warm-up and any allotted cardio time. For example, if that leaves you with 18 minutes to lift, and you can perform one set of one exercise in 90 seconds, you have time for a total of 12 sets. That means you could do 12 sets of one exercise, two sets of six exercises, or even one set of 12 exercises. (Knock yourself out!) But I'd recommend you aim for two sets of each as a general guideline. I find that works best for training as many muscle fibers as possible, which should be your main goal.
Your cardio workout
If you plan to do cardio, calculate the total time available by subtracting your five-minute warm-up (and five-minute cool-down if you're doing intervals) and any time that you've allotted for lifting weights. Then simply perform continuous cardio or intervals for the duration of your designated time.