Working out on Vacation: Part Two
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
In part one of this blog, I dared to talk about a controversial subject: working out when you're away from home. People on business travel say they're too busy, people visiting family say their family has traditional activities they can't disrupt, people visiting friends say they're going to be out late every night, people on beach vacations say they want to relax, and people on tourism vacations say they'll be out walking every day. (I strongly support walking, but we'll get back to this in another blog.) When we leave our normal day-to-day, suddenly everyone's got a reason to skip out on squats. Your butt doesn't deserve that.
One reason people feel uncomfortable about working out away from home base is because they think they don't know what to do. You're out of your routine; you might not recognize the available equipment; hotel gyms are always so tiny. Honest to god this job would be a whole lot easier if hotels would put in respectable gym space instead of a janitor's closet with ten pound weights and a broken treadmill. Advertising a repurposed dungeon as a fitness center is like advertising an enthusiastic woodpecker as a vibrator. You should stay as far away as possible for your own safety.
In part three we'll talk about other location options besides the hotel. Nonetheless, lousy hotel gyms shouldn't keep you from getting some exercise while you're gone. Consistency no matter what is one of the keystones of health. This study found that for new gym goers, the dose for habit formation was four workouts per week for six weeks. If that sounds like a lot, you're right. Ain't no one got time to be missing workouts. For anyone required to travel as a regular or semi-regular part of their job, taking a pass each time you get pulled out of your regular routine simply isn't an option.
Whether you're new to exercise or experienced, it's intimidating to leave the nest and come up with workouts by yourself on the fly. But you can do it! I've got all the info you need right after this adorable baby bird gif.
You might be scared that you'll do the wrong thing, or that you'll parachute into that workout purgatory where you walk around in circles wondering what to do next. So here's how you can come up with your own workout, which is an essential skill no matter how much you do or don't travel. The basics of program design are super easy. Keep in mind this is just a primer, and if anyone were actually reading my blog you can be assured the trolls would come out to tell me every instance in which these rules do not apply, but rest assured: these rules apply. You'll be able to build any kind of workout—cardio, weightlifting, going out for a walk, yoga, American Ninja Warrior—by using them.
Do the hardest stuff first.
The most general rule of exercise is to do the hardest stuff first. If you retain nothing else from this blog, just remember to do the stuff that is hardest for you first and easier stuff after and you'll be good. But here's a more specific breakdown.
1) Mentally challenging before mentally easy.
The stuff you have to think really hard about should be done earlier in the workout. This usually includes things like fast agility movements, movements requiring coordination (you'll see in my video below how badly I suck at coordinating my body), and things that need several parts of your body to move fast at the same time, like the olympic lifts. Your brain gets fatigued just like your muscles get fatigued, so pay attention to it. When your mind starts wandering, move on. And speaking of many parts of your body...
2) Big body movements before small body movements.
In the video's most epically shitty demo, I'm trying to suggest that exercises which use most of your body/many joints at the same time (squats, pullups, split squats, ab roll outs, whathaveyou) should be done before exercises which only use one joint at a time (bicep curls, tricep pushdowns, calf raises, etc). I'm sure you got that point from my single leg bicycle fan but I thought I'd write it out just in case.
3) Physically challenging before physically easy.
Related to number one, but not quite the same. You'll need a really good warmup, and then you want to do all your biggest ass kicking work first. The reason is that both your joints and muscles are organized into primary movers and primary stabilizers. Some joints are meant to provide movement and some are meant to provide stability. Check out this nifty alternating design we've got going on.
Your muscles are similarly organized. For example, your deltoids, traps, and lats are all movers of the shoulder, while your rotator cuff, though it does provide movement, is meant to stabilize the shoulder joint. When you do small shoulder movements first, it can wear out some of the muscles that assist with the bigger moves. This means that your support structures could be compromised when you start doing big things, like bench pressing or kettlebell clean and presses. Do this enough and you're asking for injuries. Remember, when one part of the bodily chain is weak, something else has to work harder to complete the same movement. So do the most taxing work when you're freshest, and save the easier accessory work for the end. (As an aside, pre-fatiguing muscles—or doing exactly what I'm telling you not to do—is a common and controversial training technique in bodybuilding. I wouldn't recommend it for everyday athletes.)
4) More dynamic movements before less dynamic movements.
This goes along with number three but I'm giving it its own category anyway. Anything explosive—running, jumping, clapping pushups, diarrhea—should be done at the beginning of your workout. Anything more sedate can wait until later on. (Although I couldn't resist that joke, I don't ever recommend waiting to go to the bathroom, so even sedate poops ought to be done before the workout if possible.)
Power movements run out of energy super fast, so in terms of both workout productivity and injury prevention, you're best off doing them early. Any type of jumping is nearly impossible to maintain great form and great height after only a handful of reps, and forget about it if you're already tired. You'll just end up more like our little pupper here:
Poor guy. Such big dreams.
You can see a video on my Instagram page of all these concepts put into action for me. Keep in mind that these are representative of me, and may or may not be representative of you! They're just meant for illustration, and for me to look like an idiot every once in a while.
Here are your takeaway program design do's and don't's (wtf? dos and don'ts? do's and dont's? Looks like no one agrees on this one) like this:
-DON'T skip a good warm up. You should be sweating before you start any part of your actual workout.
-DO do whatever is hardest for you first. Could be strength, could be cardio, could be almost anything. Whatever movements are the most physically and/or mentally exhausting for you is your starting point.
-DON'T force yourself through bad reps. When your body stops producing its sharpest work, time to move on. If you notice that your pushups are sagging, your high-knee running is no longer high, or your sprint speed has dropped significantly, let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the door.
-DO switch into medium difficulty mode. If you were working jumping or other powerful leg skills, this is the point where you might change over to goblet squats, lateral lunges, or single leg deadlifts. You're still pushing tired legs, but in a more productive way than just trying to jump to death.
-DO finish your workout with the things you don't have to be quite as razor sharp for. Maybe some hip pre-hab, some glute bridges, or some plank work.
-DON'T spend more time than you have to. Exercise is always about minimum effective dose, especially when you're on vacation and you've got a mimosa calling your name. Get in, get out, get to the pool.
There is always value in going back to basics.
These tips should help you feel more comfortable working out when you're on your own. There's so much fitness information that it can feel like you're at risk of screwing everything up if you don't do it right. You're going to be fine. Try writing everything down on a piece of paper before you start, so that you can just follow it the way you would follow a program written by anyone else. (Yes, I still use pens and paper. Don't forget, being on your phone during your workout ruins your workout.)
As one last part of this "I don't know what to do!" crisis, remember that there is always value in going back to basics. No part of a workout ever needs to be cute or fancy besides the sneakers. If you aren't sure what to do, just focus on improving your basics: Squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge. Choose one or two of these themes and get to work. You can easily do an hour's worth of work just on hip hinging. (And your painful lower back will probably love you for it.)
Alright, that takes care of 50% of the vacation workout problem: not knowing how to put together a workout in a foreign location. Part three of this blog is going to tackle the way more difficult 50%: How to make the vacation workout something to enjoy rather than something to dread. No worries, I got you. This is gonna be you in no time.