Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving formally or just see the end of November as the beginning of a drawn-out “holiday season,” many people spend the day eating, drinking, and being merry with friends and family.
While some lifters jump at the chance for a socially sanctioned cheat day, which too often blends into a cheat week once leftovers are factored in, others are on the fence about the potential effects such indulgence has on their fitness plans and hope to avoid counteracting any hard-earned progress in the gym.
Here are some of the most effective tips to get the best of both worlds — an indulgent holiday without sacrificing results.
Most lifters intuitively connect the dots between increased calories and increased exercise. On a cheat day, or any high-calorie day, it makes sense that you might be able to “undo” or minimize any excessive calories by pushing yourself harder than usual in the gym.
This is fundamentally true and mathematically accurate — trying to burn more calories when you eat more calories should create balance — so it’s important not to let your cheat day turn into a “rest day.”
A slew of research has shown that training after a large meal can help to control increased glucose levels. (1)(2) When blood glucose levels rise, the body often goes into fat-storage mode. However, the body’s physiological response to training can hijack that signal and re-route it toward building muscle or burning fat. (3)(4)
By stimulating your body with a good workout, you can essentially shift the physique-boosting odds in your favor when you know you’ll be hitting a cornucopia of holiday goods. If the thought of squatting on a full stomach makes you a little queasy, know that training before the meal, rather than after, has also been shown to be beneficial. (5)(6) Alternatively, taking a simple half-hour walk after dinner is another effective option. (7)
Whether you gather your cousins for a turkey bowl in the backyard or hit the garage gym for a quick lifting session, the key point is to make sure you get some focused activity or exercise when your daily calories take a jump up.
If you do hit the gym for some lifting, it shouldn’t be a half-hearted session with your mind focused more on dinner plates than weight plates. To get the most benefit from a workout on the day of an extra-large meal, treat the session like any other rather than just going through the motions.
To burn the most calories in the gym and outside of it, you need to use sufficient training intensity and ample volume. (8)(9) That means working with weights that are at least 70% of your one-repetition max for multiple sets in the six to 12-rep range.
Ideally, you’d follow a full-body workout focused on big exercises like squats, presses, and rows. This will be an efficient way to train multiple muscle groups quickly and efficiently. If you’re traveling away from home and can’t find a gym, a simple bodyweight workout can still get the job done as long as you crank up the intensity with challenging exercises.
While cardio exercise can be an effective option, it’s hard to beat the intensity and muscle stimulation that weight training provides. (10) Any type of training can help make the best of a big food day, but if you have the opportunity, grab a lifting session.
Another potential way to approach training through the holiday is to crank up your workouts beforehand, putting your body into a state of over-reaching — a short-term scenario where you significantly tax your body’s recovery systems before backing off, setting up a “rebound” that can produce major results. (11)
This could be as simple as squatting every day leading up to the big meal or performing the popular 10,000 kettlebell swing program. Whichever route you take, the general idea is to push hard with a focused short-term plan before the calorie surge, knowing that you’ll ease up and allow your body to adapt.
If you’ve already been pushing yourself for weeks or months and are feeling run down, you may not technically be overtrained, but you might be on the way there. (12) This would be an ideal time to dial back on the training in the short term, flood your body with nutrients, and come back refreshed and ready to tackle a new training plan.
“Relative energy deficiency in sport” is a complicated way of saying that some athletes consistently under-eat and/or train excessively, which affects their performance in the gym or on the field. (13) Adjusting their food intake, as well as their training program, is essential for correcting the hormonal problems caused by insufficient calorie intake. Going whole hog (or whole turkey, in this case,) can play a big role in addressing the problem.
The Thanksgiving table might be the centerpiece of many family arguments ranging from “You’re dating who?” to “You voted for who?” but one of the less dramatic disputes might come from declaring the best dish of the night.
Whether it was Aunt Dottie’s pumpkin cheesecake, Uncle Elmer’s deviled eggs, or Cousin Eddie’s green bean surprise, you can bet it was something made with their own two hands in the family kitchen. It most likely wasn’t simply picked up, paid for, and unwrapped. Not only is homemade food typically fresher and tastier than store-bought dishes, but it’s typically less processed and made with relatively healthier ingredients.
Research has shown a connection between ultra-processed foods and increased fat gain. (14) Highly processed foods are also more likely to contain high levels of sugar, saturated fat, and sodium — a potentially health-damaging trifecta. (15)
When it’s time to finally sit at the table and dig in, dedicate more room on your plate to the foods made by hand rather than the stuff you can get at the supermarket. Even if it’s homemade mashed potatoes loaded with cream and butter, you’re ahead of the nutritional game compared to sodium-packed, instant-whip potatoes that lack both flavor and fiber.
The same principle holds especially true for desserts. Store-bought cakes, pies, and cookies fall exactly in line with the types of ultra-processed foods that should be on your own personal no-fly list. Even the most decadent homemade pecan pie topped with fresh maple-infused whipped cream would be a better nutritional choice than any off-the-shelf “defrost and serve” pies.
Because the homemade goods are reliably tastier (unless you’re dealing with an atrocious home cook), you’ll be more likely to actually savor and enjoy each bite, making a second or third slice entirely unnecessary.
This tip is a bit obvious, but if there’s one reliable way to set yourself up for minimal fat gain, around the holidays and year-round, it’s to focus on eating more protein and vegetables and less of anything else.
A higher protein intake has been associated with a lower rate of fat gain, even with significant calorie intake. (16) Getting enough protein will also boost your recovery from the tough workout you were sure to complete before eating.
The order in which you eat the food on your plate is an extremely simple yet overlooked way to improve your nutrition. You can control post-dinner blood sugar levels by essentially “padding” your stomach with protein and vegetables before carb-laden foods like potatoes or oven-fresh dinner rolls. (17)
When you sit down to dinner, be sure to grab a generous portion of the bird, but don’t forget to pile on the roasted Brussels sprouts and honey-glazed carrots before getting to the stuffing or yams.
Holiday season or not, most dedicated lifters understand that alcohol intake is generally counterproductive to any physique goals.
Not only does drinking booze impact sleep and recovery, which affects your training, but certain cocktails and hoppy IPAs contain as many calories, or more, as regular soda. The same people in the gym who wouldn’t dream of downing a bottle of sugar-filled pop with dinner sometimes don’t hesitate to throw back a DIPA (double IPA) or a sugary cocktail (or two).
If you are going to imbibe, and it’s certainly ok if you do, stick to lower-calorie options. Mix liquor with soda water or diet soda instead of high-calorie mixers. Or opt for a beer with a lower alcohol percentage (5% or less). Plenty of breweries like Sam Adams, Dogfish Head, Brooklyn Brewery, and even Budweiser make both low-calorie and non-alcoholic options.
Indulging in an adult beverage may be tempting around the holidays, but one of the simplest ways to stick to your fitness goals is to limit your drinking to the bare minimum. If that minimum is zero, even better.
Alcohol intake is shown to be associated with fat gain, so it makes sense that limiting your liquor can help keep you on the nutritional straight and narrow. (18) Of all the food-based debauchery Thanksgiving offers, monitoring or outright restricting your alcohol intake is the simplest way to avoid going too far off the rails from your standard diet plan.
Thanksgiving is often seen as the first snowball in an avalanche of holiday parties, each one making it more and more difficult to stick to a rigid training schedule, let alone keep some semblance of dietary discipline. But, take a breath.
As the saying goes, “how you eat from November to December is less important than how you eat from December to November.” If you’re truly consistent for 48 or 50 weeks out of the year, then you won’t be pulled too far from center over the holidays.
When you’re dialed in to your plan the majority of the time, you can indulge in (and potentially benefit from) what researchers tantalizingly call “planned hedonic deviations,” or cheat days. (19) When you spend that day being de-stressed, not distressed, around friends and family, then it’s all the more worthwhile.
Unless you’re a competitive bodybuilder whose contest is the day after Thanksgiving, you probably don’t have to worry too much about overdoing the big meal. Apply as many of the previous tips as possible, for sure, but ultimately you don’t have to be “that person” who brings a baggie of low-carb beef jerky to the dinner table or who says “no thanks” to grandma’s handmade cookies.
Let the Season Begin
Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be too stressful. Okay, actually, it probably does when you factor in traveling, inevitable family drama, and marking the tip of the iceberg that is that holiday season. But at least now, you don’t have to worry about derailing your progress in the gym. So that’s one stress you can take off your plate, which conveniently leaves a little more room for turkey.
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- Borror, A., Zieff, G., Battaglini, C., & Stoner, L. (2018). The Effects of Postprandial Exercise on Glucose Control in Individuals with Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 48(6), 1479–1491. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0864-x
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