Borobudur, Java, Indonesia 2004
So you’ve built up a good physique or are looking your best; have you ever thought twice before booking a vacation?
Did you double-check that the place had a gym, perhaps even turned down the opportunity of travel because you didn’t want to ruin it?
I can relate to that. I used to be like that. Truth is, though I traveled a lot* when I was in my late teens and early twenties, (*volunteered in east India for 3 months, traveled across south-east asia, Japan to live, Australia’s east coast, back to India twice again, China) by the time I was 25 I was so heavily brainwashed by commercial bodybuilding marketing bullshit that I had become reluctant to go away anywhere for fear of losing definition and muscle. I thought I had to train 6 days a week and eat six times a day. I even cut two wonderful motorbike trips through the mountains (picture at bottom) short so that I could get back in time to get my “shoulder day” in.
I understand your fear perfectly, but I no longer think that we have to make the choice between being a ripped granddad or an interesting one. Here’s the approach I take now to “maintain” while being away.
Trip: Three months backpacking across south-east asia.
Goal: Maintain your physique, or minimize damage (definition loss due to fat gain, muscle mass loss) while away.
- No access to weights of any kind.
- No miniature food scale/ food with macro labels.
- No supplements or access to them.
- Parties and alcohol consumption sporadic but probably heavy throughout the trip.
- No hangups about meal frequency or training frequency.
- Ideally, though not necessarily, familiarity with skipping breakfast & Leangains principles.
- Regular, recreational gym trainee. (i.e. non-athlete)
“Festival of Colour.” Jaipur, India 2007
The goal of your training is to maintain your current muscle mass. If you’re on a two week break then taking the entire time off training will likely have no effect on your strength or lean mass.
When traveling for extended periods gym access will be infrequent, so it’s best to choose a routine that can be performed anywhere. Generally, strength gains = mass gains. However with a change in exercise selection there will be an adaptive phase where we get progressively stronger in each exercise. Once we plateau the goal is to maintain these strength levels for the rest of the trip, as that will be a good indicator of muscle preservation.
So what exercises?
Chins, dips and pistol squats, three days a week. Here is a rather ironic quote by Arthur Jones.
“You can build both a chinning bar and a pair of parallel dip bars for a total cost of only a few dollars, and those two exercises, chins and dips, if properly performed, will stimulate muscular growth in your upper body and arms that will eventually lead to muscular size and strength that is very close to your potential.
Adding full squats, eventually leading up to one-legged full squats, and one-legged calf raises, will do much the same thing for your legs and hips. Using this very simple routine, when you get strong enough to perform about ten repetitions of one-armed chins with each arm, your arms will leave very little to be desired. Or, instead, you can do what many thousands of others are now doing and piss away thousands of dollars and years of largely wasted effort while producing far less results. The choice is yours.” – Arthur Jones in 1996
I do not agree that this is the best way a trainee should look to progress, that would be barbells, for reasons that are summed up quite nicely here, however these exercises will suffice to help us maintain while we’re away, and can be performed nearly anywhere.
Dips – Could be performed between two sturdy chairs. May break though. So as an alternative you can do pushups and decline pushups. Progress in difficulty by elevating the feet onto a book, chair, bed, etc.
Pistol squats – If you are new to these then go easy for the first few times as it is tougher on the knee ligaments/tendons than the muscles due to the element of balance. Do it between two chair backs in your hotel room to assist yourself when necessary.
Chins – At a local park climbing frame, or even a tree branch. Dry Bags (image right) are portable for travel, useful, and can be filled with water and tied with rope to your waist to add weight like a dip belt.
High Intensity Interval Sprints (Optional) – Great for the legs but not always practical when traveling. Up a hill/stairs. No need to time the interval. Just sprint up to a set point and then walk slowly down. Repeat.
How many reps/sets?
Ideally you’re going to adjust the difficulty of each exercise, whether that be through increased weight or body position (push-ups) so that you reach failure within a 8-12 rep range. 3 sets.
What about Cardiovascular/ Respiratory Endurance (CRE)?
Unless you have an endurance event to go back to, you shouldn’t be too worried about maintaining this as it is quickly gained or lost; muscle mass is not.
“CRE gains are mostly chemical/metabolic alterations… whereas strength increases require architectural changes that happen slowly, therefore strength should be the primary aspect trained for, with any other necessary aspects (such as CRE) focused on temporarily when necessary.” – Michael Wolf
“Daikiretto” ridge, Japan Alps, 2007.
The goal of your food intake is to minimize muscle losses and minimize fat gain.
If you’ve been watching your macros for a while you should have a reasonable ability to “eyeball” quantities of foods and guess their macros. I often tell people that when eating out they can compare portion sizes to the palm of their hand, fist or thumb, etc..
In reality though, when done over an extended period of time (as when traveling), things can get quite sloppy, so I would advise a far more relaxed approach.
- Keep skipping your breakfast. You’ll find that despite the new time zone it doesn’t take your body long to get back into a rhythm, and it won’t be as tough as you’re used to fasting. Skipping breakfast is particularly useful when traveling as it frees up time.
- If you’re really busy one day then don’t be afraid to skip lunch as well, and just have one big dinner.
- Don’t stress too much if you can’t eat at the same times each day.
- Rest days: High protein and fat, keep carbs low. Go with a steak and salad, or some chicken skewers and veggies found at the market. Skip your starches like pasta, breads, and rice on these days.
- Training days: Same as the rest days but add back in the starches. If difficult, don’t worry too much about keeping fats low but make sure you get in your protein.
- For maintenance, as a very general guide, if you eat slowly on a training day you should feel fairly full, and on a rest day you should feel that you could eat more, but not be too hungry. Hunger is unlikely to cause any issue as your days will be busy and this will keep your mind off it anyway.
- Using hunger as a guide, eat more or less starchy carbs on each day accordingly.
- When traveling don’t be afraid to order off the menu. Ask the waiter or manager for what you really want and see if you can come to some sort of agreement. Today I had a lazy “breakfast”, 7 eggs scrambled, a couple of sausages and a cucumber (love them, and I can’t stand salad).
- If you decide to keep track of stomach measurements do it weekly, and as long as your strength is maintained then feel free to adjust food intake based on hunger accordingly. If you’re getting fatter, feel free to eat less but don’t worry too much about fat gains as this can be taken care of when you get home.
“Dragon Skyline” Route aka. “Biker Heaven”, Wakayama, Japan 2009.
Hopefully if you put these two things together you’ll come back from your travels still in respectable condition.
It’s likely that the first few gym sessions back your top barbell lifting stats will suffer but you’ll soon get them back up there. (The more advanced you are the longer it will take.)
There may be a little fat gain but this will soon come off again with a quick cut.
All in all a month or so later no one will know you’ve been away and you can continue pursuing your physique goals without the need to die a boring old bastard.
Mid-way through a climb up a limestone cliff in Phi Phi yesterday morning do you think muscle catabolism was on my mind, or the spectacular view that was before me?
Build up a good body and go and enjoy it. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Are you really going to pass up rafting, scuba diving, jungle trekking, mountain climbing, sky diving, cliff jumping, meeting new people and having the time of your life just because you might regress a little with your training?
Live your life. Please don’t be an idiot like I was. If you want to go travel, do it. You’ll be a better person for it.
Hope this was helpful.
Playing around with fire Poi. Ko Tao, Thailand 2004
PS: Volunteer work or long hours working in a supermarket when I was a student took me to most of these places. None of it was gifted. If this sounds like fun to you, work for it, save, then go do it. Travel questions most welcome in the comments also.
>After reading this post I received a mail from a couple of old clients saying that they have been using this relaxed approach while being away with success. Matt was happy to share:
“Just thought I’d shoot you an email after I saw your latest blog post. It’s been over 2 months now travelling and I think I’ve managed to maintain the leptin sensitivity I expect I gained on your protocol. Body fat has dropped (sadly so has muscle) despite being in El Salvador for a month, where the main protein source is maize. 😉
After leaving El Salvaor I’ve just been focusing on protein, with low to moderate carbs. Training has been a variety of slow eccentric hold rep bodyweight stuff – dips, pushups, L-sits, lunges and pistols with pullups when I have access to somewhere to pull up from, and I’m working towards planche and handstand walks as a hobby too 🙂
Anyway, attached a (admittedly flattering) pic. Thanks again!”
I put the small comparison picture in the bottom right of Matt’s condition when he left for his travels. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on whether any muscle drop is relevant.
Sorry if you’re one of the people that’s been waiting for your story to be put on the results page. Haven’t forgotten about you, I’ve been having a little issue with “jump” links not working within posts. I’ll get more up soon.
Still taking on clients. More details on the coaching page.