4 holiday workouts to stay fit on the go

The most scientifically effective exercises you can do with a ham.
Person at gym dressed in a Santa suit doing a holiday workout on the bench press
Even Santa squeezes in a holiday workout or two. Pixabay

This post has been updated. It was originally published on December 21, 2016.

Every year, we gleefully give ourselves permission to sit around gorging our belts off over the holiday break without a single workout. Sadly, this is not the best way to ring in the New Year. Yes, it’s only a week, but …

A lot of buzz-killing science indicates that the pounds we put on over the holidays seldom come entirely back off. While that extra weight is usually no more than a pound or so, it adds up over time. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine even suggested that the cumulative effect of holiday weight gain is one of the principle causes of mid-life obesity.

Look, we all deserve to let off some steam as we hide from the cold, cocooned in the love of our families and friends (and bourbon-y egg nog). And it’s not realistic to sequester yourself from the festivities just so that sugary temptations never enter your field of view.

The compromise is exercise. Evidence shows that engaging in a relatively intense workout before heading to a meal, rather than spiking the appetite and awakening an even more ravenous version of yourself, can moderate your hunger levels and promote healthier food choices. The reasons are complicated—appetite is driven by the brain, stomach, fat cells, genes, glands, habits, and history, among other things—but the short answer is that exercise appears to regulate hormones that let the body know how much fuel it actually needs. This could prevent people from continuing to eat merely for the sake of eating.

[Related: The best home fitness equipment]

It’s not a bulletproof system—remember, appetite is super complicated, and habits can override hormones. But if you want to have fun, increase your likelihood of making good dietary choices, and get a head start on that weight loss resolution, it’s smart to squeeze in a workout or two between the hearty meals, endless cookies, free-flowing booze, and aforementioned egg nog.

Of course, you’re at your parent’s place, not a gym, and it’s freaking cold outside, man. That’s why we talked to fitness writer and personal trainer Jake Boly, CSCS, to devise four workouts that you can perform in the toasty comfort of your childhood home.

The workouts

To get the most bang for your buck, particularly when you’re not working with heavy weights, one of the best ways to exercise is with fast-paced circuits. “It’s basically a series of exercises performed in an unbroken chain,” says Boly. Once you’ve completed all the exercises, you rest, then start the circuit all over again.

The benefits of this exercise are myriad: “Circuit training combines the benefits of strength workouts and cardiovascular exercise,” says Boly, and its high intensity fires up the metabolism, which keeps you burning extra calories for hours after you’ve showered off your funk and started at the buffet. (Try to stick to small plates though.)

Here are four different circuits you can try using only what’s available at home.

The Paper Plate Workout

Find one or two paper plates that you can place between your body and the floor (or wall) as prescribed. This is a super cost-effective way to mimic the effect of Valslides, discs that easily slide along the floor or the ground. These discs provide an unstable training surface that places a significant demand on your stability and balance, making workouts harder. Grab the plates and get to work.

Hamstring curl: 6 to 8 reps

Lie on the floor with your knees bent upward and the plates under your feet. While pushing into your heels and ideally lifting your butt off of the ground, extend your legs out straight and then bring ‘em back to the starting position.

Cossack squat: 8 to 10 reps per leg

This is a lateral exercise to strengthen the thighs, particularly their outer muscles. Start by standing with the feet together and the plate under one foot. Slide that foot out to your side into a sideways lunge—the idea is to move as far and deep as you can, but shorter and shallower is fine. Reverse the movement.

Wall sit: 12 to 15 reps

Stand against a wall and hold the plate on your upper back. Slide down into a sitting position as you push against the wall from your heels—just make sure you’re not chipping any wallpaper. Push back up to the standing position.

Extended plank: 20 to 30 seconds per arm

Put yourself in the top of a push-up position with one hand on top of a plate. Move the hand around! Based on your core strength, you will be able to try different movements. For beginners, simply keep the arms extended and, if you’re able, move your hand in circles or in the shapes of the letters of the alphabet. Stronger folks can try doing this in the bottom of the push-up position with their elbows ben..

Repeat this circuit three or four times, resting for 90 seconds between each one.

The Bodyweight Workout

Nothing beats the classics. These bodyweight exercises are what are called closed-chain movements, which means they may teach your muscles to work more effectively even when lifting weights.

Air squat: 15 reps

Your standard bodyweight squat: Hold your hands in front of you for balance, drop your hips back and down to the floor (or as deep as you can), then push up through your feet.

Incline/decline push-up combo: 5 reps each

First, perform five push-ups with your hands on the edge of your couch, then five with your feet in the same spot. The variety helps to work the entire pectoral muscle.

Split squat: 7 reps per leg

Either in your standard lunge position—or, to make things harder, with your back foot on the edge of that couch—bend your front leg, lower your rear knee to the floor, and push back up. Make sure your chest is tall—imagine a person in front of you needing to read the letters on your t-shirt.

Pike push-up: 8 reps

Think of the down dog position in yoga: You want your butt high in the air and your arms, back, and legs straight. Lower your head to the floor between your hands and push back up.

Up and down plank: 10 reps

Start at the top of a push-up position, lower yourself down onto your elbows, then get back up into your starting position. That’s one rep. If this is too tough, just perform a standard plank for 30 to 45 seconds.

Repeat this circuit three or four times, resting for 90 seconds between each one.

The Backpack Workout

In sandbag training, instead of using the weight of a barbell or dumbbell, you use a canvas bag full of sand. “The shifting, unstable nature of the sand makes it much more challenging to the core and to your joint stability,” Boly notes. You can mimic this instability with the bag or backpack you brought to your parents’ place, filled with as much weight as you like. Just make sure there are two spots on the bag where you can hold on tight.

Thrusters: 8 reps

Supporting the bag across under the chin, squat down and, as you stand back up tall, push the bag overhead.

Romanian deadlift: 8 reps

Keeping the back and arms completely straight and the legs as straight as you can to complete the movement, hinge at the hips and pick the bag up off the floor, driving your heels downward. Keep your core tight.

Rotational lunge: 6 reps per leg

Start standing with the bag held in front, then step back into a lunge as you pass the bag over your front leg. Finish the movement with the bag to the outside and slightly below the leading leg’s thigh. Use your hips to push back up to the top of the movement.

One-and-a-quarter bench press: 6 reps

Lie on the floor with the bag on your chest. Push it up a quarter of the way, lower it, then extend the arms all the way. This gives the muscles more time under tension than the average bench press.

Shoulder press: 6 reps

Hold the bag under your chin and then push it straight up overhead. For extra difficulty, try lowering it sideways onto a different shoulder with each rep.

Sit-up and reach: 12 reps

Lie on the ground with your knees bent and the bag held over your face, arms straight. Sit up, keeping the arms straight, and try to reach the bag toward the wall in front of you. Come back down.

Repeat this circuit three or four times, resting for a good two and a half minutes between each one.

The Christmas Ham Workout

Finally, the workout we’ve all been waiting for. Christmas hams are heavy, and if you put one in a bag and hold the bone with a dishtowel, it could make a pretty solid substitute for a kettlebell. If the chef is raising a fuss (some people are so finicky), you can also put something heavy in a tote bag and use that as the kettlebell for this workout.

Swings: 12 reps

Stand with the weight between your legs, hinge at the hips, then explosively thrust your glutes back into the upright position. The weight should sail up toward eye level. Keep your core tight and your back and arms straight and remember: It’s not a squat. All the power should come from the hips; the shoulders finish the exercise, they don’t start it.

Goblet squat: 10 reps

Hold the weight under your chin and push your hips back into squat, pushing your knees out to the side and tracking the knees over the feet.

Shoulder press: 8 reps

Hold the weight under your chin and then press it up over your head. Don’t hit your chin.

V-up: 8 reps

Lie on the ground with your arms extended behind the head, holding the weight. In one movement, lift the legs (keep them straight) and the upper body off the flor, reaching the hands toward the toes.

Repeat this circuit three or four times, resting for two minutes between each one.