With the busy Christmas period and holidays just around the corner, getting to the gym is much harder.

But we've got a piece of terrific news that doesn't involve Santa Claus, Christmas ham, or boxing day sales: you can train for just 13 minutes three times per week over the holidays and keep your muscle gains!

Whilst it sounds too good to be true, it's proven by the best yardstick we have when it comes to planning and measuring our fitness progress: science. 

A recent study examined 34 males who were frequently training with weights, and found that simply 1 set per muscle group (some more sets for legs and back) per workout was enough to maintain muscle mass (1).

The study pointed out that for significant muscle gains, obviously, more time lifting is better. But due to the nature of this time of the year, this news is as welcomed as St Nick himself!

The Christmas Holidays Workout: Minimal effort for maximal results

barbell back squat

The following is the precise regime the study authors had the subjects perform THREE times per week:

Seated Rows: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Military press: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Lat Pulldown: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Barbell Bench Press: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Back Squat: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Leg Press: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Leg extensions: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Note: All sets are performed to muscle failure (muscle failure means performing a certain amount of reps until you physically cannot do another).

You'll notice there are no bicep, tricep, or hamstring exercises in the above workout. 

Given that lat pulldowns can generate the same muscle growth as bicep curls in young men that don't train (2), I'd suggest that you can skip a bicep exercise.

Triceps on the other hand, are not grown effectively with the barbell bench press alone (3). Therefore I'd recommend adding some triceps pushdowns into the mix.

Moreover, your hamstrings are an important part of your leg and overall physique development and are not used significantly during the squats (4,5,6) leg press (7), or leg extensions (8).

But that's no problem. Because if you're happy for your workout to be about 15-Leg press17 mins, take the below into the gym with you with this in mind:

Seated Rows: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Military press: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Lat Pulldown: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Barbell Bench Press: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Lying tricep extension: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Back Squat: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Leg Press: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Leg extensions: 1 set of 8-12 reps

Hamstring curl: 1 set of 8-12 reps

How long can you not train at all before losing muscle mass?

Let's say you can't get to the gym at all these holidays: your children need constant attention, there are too many family gatherings, or, you just want to take a break!

How long can you do that without losing muscle size? Research tells us you're safe for at least three weeks (9).

How to keep muscle gains without training

Most people know the feeling: you take a week off the gym and you look in the mirror and swear you've lost muscle mass.

Well, yes, your muscles are smaller, but you haven't lost muscle tissue. You've lost what's called muscle glycogen.

Muscle glycogen is simply the stored carbohydrates within your muscle that are utilised during exercise. So when you eat carbohydrates, you store muscle glycogen.

What's more, your muscles can look 16% bigger by increasing your muscle glycogen (10).

And this is how your mind starts playing tricks on you: two weeks of no training -- in this case with competitive swimmers -- found a 20% loss of muscle glycogen.

So you're not losing muscle tissue, you're losing muscle size. There's a big difference!

Moreover, further research reveals that each gram of glycogen is stored in our muscles with at least 3 g of water (11). That's the other factor in making our muscles appear smaller.

Calorie intake: Eating to preserve muscle mass

The other important thing to remember is to eat at maintenance calories to preserve muscle mass. Now I know what you're thinking: "It's the CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS! WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO?!"

And you're right!

But the research tells us that maintenance calories (eating the same amount of calories you burn daily) is the best for maintaining muscle mass, as opposed to eating in a calorie surplus and a deficit (12).

Now considering most days in the holidays involve a calorie surplus, I'd suggest on days you have no functions, doing the best you can to eat in a slight calorie deficit (fewer calories than you burn), or eating maintenance calories.

Sticking to lean options like our meals are the best way to ensure fewer calories are consumed.

Protein intake to preserve muscle mass

The other key thing to remember is eating enough protein to preserve muscle mass (13).

How much? Shoot for 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to be safe (13).

So that's the three main things to do over the Christmas holidays to ensure you don't lose muscle mass:

1. Do your 15-17 minute workouts only three times per week

2. Eat at maintenance calories where you can

3. Consume 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day

So enjoy your holidays and limited training sessions, all whilst keeping your hard-fought muscle progress!

References

(1) Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, Grgic J, Delcastillo K, Belliard R, Alto A. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan;51(1):94-103. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764. PMID: 30153194; PMCID: PMC6303131.

(2) Gentil P, Soares S, Bottaro M. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy. Asian J Sports Med. 2015;6(2):e24057. doi:10.5812/asjsm.24057

(3) Brandão, Lucas1; de Salles Painelli, Vitor1,2; Lasevicius, Thiago2; Silva-Batista, Carla2,3; Brendon, Helderson1; Schoenfeld, Brad Jon4; Aihara, André Yui5; Cardoso, Fabiano Nassar5; de Almeida Peres, Bergson1; Teixeira, Emerson Luiz1,2 Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2020 - Volume 34 - Issue 5 - p 1254-1263 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550.

(4) Paoli, A., Marcolin, G., & Petrone, N. (2009). The effect of stance width on the electromyographical activity of eight superficial thigh muscles during back squat with different bar loads. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1), 246-250.

(5) Schaub, P. A., & Worrell, T. W. (1995). EMG activity of six muscles and VMO: VL ratio determination during a maximal squat exercise. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 4(3), 195-202.

Yamashita, N. (1988).

(6) EMG activities in mono-and bi-articular thigh muscles in combined hip and knee extension. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 58(3), 274-277.

(7) ESCAMILLA, RAFAEL F.; FLEISIG, GLENN S.; ZHENG, NAIQUAN; LANDER, JEFFERY E.; BARRENTINE, STEVEN W.; ANDREWS, JAMES R.; BERGEMANN, BRIAN W.; MOORMAN, CLAUDE T. III Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: September 2001 - Volume 33 - Issue 9 - p 1552-1566.

(8) Escamilla, R.F., Fleisig, G.S., Zheng, N., Barrentine, S.W., Wilk, K.E. & Andrews, J.R. (1998) Biomechanics of the knee during closed kinetic chain and open kinetic chain exercises. Med Sci Sports Exerc., 30, 556-569.

(9) Ogasawara, R., Yasuda, T., Ishii, N. et al. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol 113, 975–985 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-012-2511-9

(10) Hansen BF, Asp S, Kiens B, Richter EA. Glycogen concentration in human skeletal muscle: effect of prolonged insulin and glucose infusion. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1999 Aug;9(4):209-13. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.1999.tb00235.x. PMID: 10407928.

(11) Fernández-Elías VE, Ortega JF, Nelson RK, Mora-Rodriguez R. Relationship between muscle water and glycogen recovery after prolonged exercise in the heat in humans. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2015 Sep;115(9):1919-26. doi: 10.1007/s00421-015-3175-z. Epub 2015 Apr 25. PMID: 25911631. 

(12) Magne H, Savary-Auzeloux I, Rémond D, Dardevet D. Nutritional strategies to counteract muscle atrophy caused by disuse and to improve recovery. Nutr Res Rev. 2013 Dec;26(2):149-65. doi: 10.1017/S0954422413000115. Epub 2013 Aug 9. PMID: 23930668/

(13) Magne H, Savary-Auzeloux I, Rémond D, Dardevet D. Nutritional strategies to counteract muscle atrophy caused by disuse and to improve recovery. Nutr Res Rev. 2013 Dec;26(2):149-65. doi: 10.1017/S0954422413000115. Epub 2013 Aug 9. PMID: 23930668.