There are no dumb questions when you coach general population clients through physique transformation. But there are some you get much more frequently.
“Should I do low intensity steady state cardio or higher intensity?”
“Are free weights always better than machines?”
“How long will I have to do this shit?” (A personal favorite.)
Interestingly, the answer to the most routinely FAQ’s is the same: the dreaded “it depends.”
It’s not a cop out. There are many variables that must be considered before giving a helpful answer. And this is especially true for this knuckleball: How should I diet and exercise while on vacation?
To illustrate how tough this issue can be, let me share some of what I’ve seen and heard in my time in the game.
- Women who over diet for a vacation and when they return home freak out that they “put all their weight back on.” Some even report this after just a few days away, effectively ruining half their vacation.
- Bros who stress about finding “a real gym” to train at during their yearly two-week vacation (but train five days a week the other 50 weeks).
- Guys (and girls) who force themselves to take a week off working out, but by day two can’t stop saying how they “can’t wait to get back to the gym.”
None of this is good or necessary or even healthy.
I know, because I’ve been there.
I used to see all things nutrition and exercise in black or white. I did the absolute “best” weight training routines. I only ate food that led to my goals, and when I finally broke down and binged it wasn’t cheating — it was re-feeding or replenishing glycogen or “up-regulating my metabolism.” At least that’s how I’d rationalize crushing a large pizza and a pint of Hagen Daaz.
I approached traveling and vacations the same way. “Where are we staying? What’s the hotel gym like? A Bowflex and dumbbells to 30 pounds? Screw that. Let’s find a hotel close to the nearest Gold’s.”
In classic “young arrogant personal trainer” style, I assumed that my clients should see travel the same way. Especially if they were “serious” like me and wanted to achieve “optimum results.”
My advice was either dismissive (“if you want it you’ll find a way, even on vacation”) or condescending (“calories still count on your honeymoon”) or simply unrealistic (“I bet there’s a gym somewhere in Cancun that has daycare. Bring your kids there.”)
Fortunately, age brings wisdom along with the crow’s feet. I don’t see life that way anymore. Not because I’ve sold out or lost the passion, but because I coach a lot of normal clients. And their influence has rubbed off, making me an (almost) normal person, at least by some generous standards.
With that said, here are just a few things I consider before instructing a client how to approach their fitness and nutrition on the road.
What’s their goal and how far out are they?
As warm and affable as I may be now, some goals warrant a hard-ass approach. If a client is 3 weeks out from a physique show of any sort then I’m sorry, they get very little wiggle room. Access to proper food and adequate training facilities is a must, which means sourcing groceries or meal prep services and Googling gyms that got what you need.
It sucks and certainly isn’t ideal but it’s not impossible. Many a traveling meathead has done it and lived to tell the tale. If you find it too hard then all I can say is next time try not to travel at such a critical time.
But if the goal is further away or decidedly less hardcore (fit into a certain outfit, hit a waist measurement, etc.) then traveling is far less prohibitive. While every body composition goal requires mindful, controlled eating, only the top 1% of them warrant near absolute precision — and those usually involve Speedos and Pro Tan.
Do they need a break?
If someone has been going hard for 12 weeks or more without a break then they likely need one. And while your average “three days a week” commercial gym lifter is in no real danger of overtraining, they definitely could be pushing the envelope in terms of stress and overwhelm. A week of not worrying about training and nutrition (preferably in Bali) is wonderfully restorative, and can be strategically worked into a much larger overall plan.
Oh, and that weight that seems to “fly on” as soon as you step off the plane? Once you return home and resume your pre-vacation diet and exercise routine, it will usually disappear just as fast (provided said routine supported your metabolism to begin with). Scott Abel has some excellent insights on this phenomenon.
So enjoy your damn vacation.
Are they experienced trainees?
This is more for someone with a looming deadline. Any smart coach will tell you that until someone has shown that they can get into shape at least once, you really have no idea how their body will respond to even the best laid plan. Things like travel, be it vacation or business, only makes “the first time” that much more of a challenge.
Have they shown they can get shit done on the road?
Some people act like calories don’t count once they leave their zip code. But it’s not because they’re weak or stupid (well, not always). Travel is a massive disruption in routine, and some either fall back on old (bad) habits or simply eat for pure pleasure or convenience.
For years I worked a road job where I basically ate half my meals out of a rental car. Lunch out of town meant shoveling down tuna and rice cakes or oatmeal and protein powder in a McDonalds parking lot (because they don’t make you buy anything if you have to McPee). I don’t think it tasted bad; it certainly didn’t taste great. But it was simple and it worked.
While I’m not saying that approach is ideal (far from it) it does show a level of “getting it done” that eating on the road can require.
Is it a business trip or a vacation?
This is the most interesting factor, and something I learned through both coaching and personal experience.
Business travel is typically just a workweek on overdrive, with long meetings and airports and hotel beds. As such, things like stress eating and poor sleep can become major issues.
For this type of travel I always recommend sticking to a set meal plan as much as possible (portion control will do) as well as training of some kind once a day. Clients who do so report improved sleep, better moods, and less temptation to crush the in-room mini-bar.
But there’s no need to scour the city for a hardcore gym. It’s more about managing stress and maintaining a rhythm than setting PR’s, so any hotel gym that allows for high-rep, full body workouts will do. Fact is, low rep work on the road can be counter-productive from both a stress and recovery perspective.
Vacations, however, are different. If a client hasn’t taken a week off in the past 12 weeks, my first instinct is to recommend no training or at most once or twice a week, and only if they want to, not because they think they have to — a big difference!
Now if they’ve had time off recently then training on vacation may be a better idea. But I would lean away from set programming in favor of what I call “training experience” workouts, which I’ll cover shortly. Though only if grabbing a workout doesn’t turn what should be a relaxing break into a stressful search for a reverse hyper or dumbbells up to 200 pounds.
What does training mean to them?
Some people only workout because they have to. A few jacked Hollywood actors are this way, and even some professional athletes. Frankly I don’t understand these types (likely socialists who hate Freedom) and would probably avoid them at parties. Not that they’d invite me to their parties anyway unless it was to work as a doorman or move furniture. Assholes.
However, some absolutely love working out, even need it. Their one-hour workout is often the best part of their day, when they can take their mind off work or fricken Facebook and just focus on the iron. It’s like a good therapy session, except with less talking and a lot more squatting.
I love going to cool gyms while on vacation. With apologies to my friends living in L.A., hitting Gold’s Gym Venice has been the highlight of every visit. Because training isn’t something I have to do, it’s something I love to do.
So if a client is heading off on vacation and has similar feelings towards working out, I recommend they do “training experience workouts.” Rather than attempt to follow a specific program, just show up with a rough idea of what you want to train (*cough* arms and calves) and just go with it.
Do new shit. Try different machines. Get a great pump. Copy what that 350-pound mountain of muscle is doing, just for shits and giggles. You never know, he might actually know something you don’t about building muscle.
Above all, enjoy what you’re doing and avoid stressing about it.
It’s supposed to be a vacation right?
Here’s The Big Secret to all this: whether the goal is to burn fat or build muscle, almost any non-moronic plan will work — provided the person believes in it and can sustain the process for a relatively long period of time.
But the long-term caveat is the real kicker. And for a plan to be successful long-term it has to fit the individual, both in the gym and in LIFE. And that means having room to accommodate some other things that make life rich and fulfilling.