I just got back into exercising after an entire year off, as my gym just reopened, and I'm so thrilled to be back! I'm so weak but it feels SO GOOD. However, I am also going on vacation for the first time in also forever, somewhere where there might be a dinky hotel gym but not much else. The idea of setting myself back yet again is driving me crazy. What's the best way to keep things going on my vacation so that I don't lose too much of the shape I got back into with the time I've spent? I'm going away for about ten days, if that helps. Should I just not worry about it? Or is there anything I can do?
—Mx. Joseph Gordon Levitt (a pseudonym)
Most of us haven’t been on a real vacation in a really long time. I think my advice here would be the same no matter what, but especially here and now, in the year of our lord 2021: don’t worry about exercise on your vacation, I’m begging you. You work; you toil; you’re leaving town for maybe the first time in over a year. You should enjoy your time off, or at least resist putting a lot of pressure on yourself about trying to replicate your routine while you’re away. Here is why.
One week off of really anything doesn’t make that big of a difference in the grand scheme. A fridge-magnet-ism from the lifting world is “no one will know you took a day off a year from now”; no one will know you took a week off, either. Even if you haven’t worked out in several years, or all your life, several years or your whole life plus a week or two of vacation does not make a difference.
Also for you specifically, LW, you should know that light weeks (which we will get into below), or even off weeks, are a treasured and time-honored tradition in weight lifting. Breaks are part of the ecosystem. If I’m organized about it, my vacations will happen at a time that I should be taking a week off of lifting anyway; if it doesn’t, well, that’s unfortunate. But I do this not out of laziness (well), but because it’s important to give myself a little extra time to recover periodically, aside from the multiple days off per week. Various parts of our biology, like our muscles and nervous system, get tired in different ways, and they need rest from exercise just like they need exercise in the first place. Some programs have people take a week off every month, which is aggressive; most people who lift heavy weights like I do seem to take a light week or off week every 2–3 months.
You might feel guilty about time off because you only just started getting back into it. I feel like we’ve all experienced the mode of feeling like we can’t be fully “off” because we haven’t been meaningfully “on.” For me this might take the form of, to make up an entirely hypothetical example, sweatily sitting in front of the TV for several hours while a show plays that I can’t really watch or enjoy because I have 30 minutes of work I need to do, that I can neither bring myself to do nor forget about. But if I simply sat down and did the work, I could put it out of my brain and just enjoy the TV.
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This also happens with working out, especially when I don’t have programming to follow; I know I should work out for all these reasons, but I pussyfoot around and stew in guilt instead of checking the box and moving on with my life. It’s much easier to enjoy downtime when the uptime we haven’t dealt with isn’t hanging over us. But I really want to encourage you not to think about working out like this. Even if you were to take a huge amount of time off, it will never be as hard for you to get back to where you were as it was to get there the first time thanks to muscle memory.
However, I realize there are situations where it might make less sense to take a week off. Maybe the timing truly is bad, like you just started getting in a groove again and worry your one week off will run into several more weeks of increasingly tenuous excuses, or maybe that much sitting around would actually un-relax you to the point that it’s hard to sleep.
I’ve had a lot of experience with anxiously trying to hold onto my gains at any cost across the globe, and with trying to let them go a bit in favor of enjoying a place that in all likelihood I probably won’t come back to again because I’m a rolling stone. So aside from just letting it go for a week (which, if you’re not in that place now, I hope you can get there eventually!), here are some things to try.
Work out in the hotel gym, or your room, but not in the way you think.
This tip is not so much about the novelty of “use your hotel gym,” but more about, “don’t get stressed out about trying to precisely replicate your usual workout’s movements and level of difficulty with dinky hotel gym equipment,” or with no equipment at all, because you can do quite a bit with way less.
Here is the thing: you will lose a little bit of fitness in a week away from lifting, but not a lot. As Girls Gone Strong co-founder Molly Galbraith told Greatist, even light exercise will keep your muscles in shape for as long as four or five weeks. You can stay right where you are by doing anything for a week, even if it’s a lot less than what you usually do. You would need your heavy weights to keep progressing, but even light stuff during your vacation will let you pick right back up where you left off when you get back.
My Go-To Feeling-Lazy Do-Anywhere Workout
If I were doing that, it would look like maybe two or three days a week of a 20-minute-ish workout like this, all moves for 3 sets of 10:
This is even easier if there’s a whole gym, but it can be hacked together in your room pretty easily.
If you are nervous to lose your heavy lifting progress, I strongly recommend giving this a try sometime; I think you will be really reassured how little of a difference it will make to do this instead of seeking out a fully-decked gym.
Try out a local gym.
This might feel over the top to some, but in the modest amount of traveling I’ve done, I’ve found I have a lot more fun essentially trying to get the experience of what it would be like to live wherever it is, versus trying to cram in an agenda of seeing the top 25 most heavily-trafficked tourist sites. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and in good conscience, I would never recommend anyone visit the Empire State Building or Times Square in New York, so why would I do that kind of stuff elsewhere? I skipped the Louvre; I regret nothing. It’s all online. There are better museums.
When I went to Berlin, I squeezed in a trip to a “McFit,” which as far as I could tell was sort of Germany’s version of Planet Fitness, in that they were everywhere. But they were AS cheap as Planet Fitness, and way higher quality, with tons of power racks everywhere, and an absolutely impeccable level of cleanliness. Europe, or at least Germany, is killing the gym game, and I never would have known this otherwise. (Germans, you should try an American gym; you’d be horrified in a way that would delight me personally.)
All the McFit patrons—who were all 5’9” white guys—very carefully laid down a towel on any seat before using the equipment. I realized this too late and was just sitting directly on every bench in sight, revealing myself to be disgusting American. I don’t think I was getting looks of disgust, per se, but I felt a lot of people deliberately-not-looking in my direction so they wouldn’t be tempted. I find this stuff fascinating. Meanwhile in America, all Planet Fitness has are Smith machines, ellipticals, and a “lunkhead alarm” with which they torture my people and drive us out to the balkans of “Hank’s Black Iron Temple,” where we live in peace and harmony, far from the violent purple of the Planet Fitness ab crunch machine.
Trying out a different gym elsewhere can be a nice experience in a few ways: if your gym normally sucks and is overcrowded, maybe you’ll get to try one that’s a ghost town, except for some lifting diehards. Maybe yours is clinically neat and clean, and you can try something grittier. Also, I’m not sure if you’ve experienced this, but people who share your interest in working out are not easy to come by. In any of these cases, maybe you’ll make some new lifting friends! I’ve had some really delightful times with people who noticed I wasn’t one of the regulars, and they complimented me on my deadlift. It’s a sweet experience, to be a mediocre powerlifter on tour.
Build some sort of athletic thing into your vacation.
I definitely don’t mean that every vacation needs to be a purposeful athletic retreat with four hours of yoga every day. But if you’re not going to a city, there’s probably a solid hike somewhere around, most ideally to some sort of swimming hole. I went once to a Croatian national park, the centerpiece of which was a handful of very beautiful lagoons at the base of a waterfall that you could swim in.
It wasn't free-free to go, but it was probably about a third the price of a Six Flags, and you could buy beer inside. A perfect experience. Also in Croatia, my partner held up our little tour boat playing volleyball like a loon on the beach with some very kind and welcoming locals. (This is not a paid promotion for Croatia; it’s simply a good country.) If you’re going somewhere with water, there’s probably kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling. Instead of working out in your room, one hundred percent do these things instead.
What about food and dieting?
I think the same rules should apply here: Ideally, you would not worry about it.
If you have been trying to lose body fat with a caloric deficit for a while, you might consider a "diet break.” When I’ve been in a caloric deficit for a long period of time (let’s say 8–12 weeks), it actually helps the overall project of cutting body fat to take a break from the deficit for a “maintenance period,” where I eat an equilibrium amount of calories for a couple weeks, or even a month. My body weight doesn’t change during those maintenance periods, but the break restores my metabolism and overall vibes.
This practice seems strangely little-known among all the 1200-calorie-diet pushers, but nutrition specialists recommend it to people who have been dieting, whether they return to dieting after or not. Renaissance Periodization suggests that a maintenance phase after three months of dieting should be at least a month long, so vacation is a nice time to overlap with that; Legion Athletics suggest the diet cycles can be shorter, to the tune of eight weeks on and 1–2 weeks off. Some studies actually show people lose more body fat and keep it off this way. Hopefully you have a professional advising you on this, if it’s a struggle beyond the math of it.
And if you’re not dieting? I hope you are not even thinking twice about this and just eating all the local cuisine you can get your hands on. And it doesn’t have to be rare/based Croatian beer; during a camping trip near Long Lake in upstate New York last year, I would go hiking and then drove into town and ate the burger above every single day. I didn’t mean to, it just kept happening because it was an actually phenomenal burger.
So to sum up: Don’t worry about it. Enjoy vacation. You are more resilient than you think. A week doesn’t make that much of a difference to anything related to responsibilities, but can make a massive difference related to having a fun fucking time getting out into the world again.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights