The Men Who Work Out on Christmas Day

·6-min read
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image

It’s an early rise for Mikey Smith, who, for the 19th year a row, is pulling his gym gear together on a cold Christmas morning. The 42-year-old has a busy day ahead, but he won’t be unwrapping presents or stuffing the turkey just yet. First, the bodybuilder has an appointment at his gym, where he’s aiming to deadlift 240kg as part of an intense three-hour workout.

Smith’s still prepping for next year’s BodyPower Expo in Birmingham, and his regime doesn't stop just because it's Christmas. He’ll be working out on the big day and eating a clean Christmas dinner too.

That’s very much in contrast to rest of the UK. Research shows that 33% of us do no exercise at all over the festive period, with one million Brits waiting until February to get back to their regular routine.

But there are some men, and not just bodybuilders, who won't be taking Christmas day as a rest day.

Daniel Herman, founder of sports nutrition brand Bio-Synergy, has been working out on December 25th for the past 10 years. His current programme includes two hours of cardio, 20 minutes of tai chi and what to us sounds like a soul crushing two-hour back and biceps workout.

“As I get older, it’s more important that I train consistently,” he says. “I don’t want my kids to be embarrassed of their dad, and a lot of our extended family have had illnesses and died young. It puts fitness high on the agenda. I want to add years to my life, and I think you need to start putting in the groundwork now.”

Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image

Like Herman, Nick Wardle, 40, will also continue to train over the festive period. As the founder of the Body Transformation Centre, he noticed a “significant increase” in men who broke their routines during Covid-19 lockdowns and needed his help to get back on track. He says Christmas can be equally detrimental, if you're not careful.

“These were guys who were in the gym six times a week,” he says. “They’d lost their mojo because they’ve had their routine broken by Covid. Christmas can upset routines and see people regress too.”

Unlike Herman, though, Wardle favours short, sharp bursts of exercise, so he'll complete a four-mile run, deadlift 130kg for 12 reps and finish with some bodyweight dips this Christmas day. He admits that when his family see him decked out in training gear on December 25th, they do question why he does it.

“I used to be overweight as a kid, and then I just got hooked," he says. "I was training every day and I developed a really bad relationship with exercise and food. It became very obsessive and unsustainable as I just couldn’t keep up the momentum. It forced me to really rethink my approach.”

Wardle says that rather than being an example of his obsessive nature, he now works out on Christmas day to protect his mental health. “It keeps my head sane,” he says. "There was one point in my life where I felt I had to train daily because I felt I needed to achieve the specific result. But now, I work out at Christmas purely for me."

Unsurprisingly, both Herman and Wardle’s routines pale in comparison to Smith’s intense bodybuilding regime, which sees him fly out to a Miami-based boot-camp for the first two weeks of December.

“I call it warm weather training,” he says. “You feel like crap when it’s winter here.

“There’s more of a bodybuilding culture in Miami – the lifestyle focuses more on training and nutritious eating. It’s a lot easier to avoid the Christmas build up which entails more eating, drinking and temptation.”

When Smith returns from Miami he keeps to his strict diet, which ensures that the only weight he gains is from lean muscle. That means indulgent treats remain off the menu and Christmas dinner has to be adapted too.

“My Christmas dinner looks like everyone else’s, but I keep mine nutritious to stay within my macros,” he explains. “I have chicken and make Yorkshire puddings by hand so the batter isn’t loaded with salt and additives. I still have carrots, roasties, all my greens, but I just don’t smother them with fat, butter and rubbish."

“I do love my gravy, though,” he says.

Festive Fun or an Xmas Obsession?

In the past, friends have expressed concern about Smith’s level of commitment. They're not just worried that he's MIA at the beginning of the festive period, they worry about his weight loss too, especially when his body fat percentage fell to just 3% for a competition.

“You could see my cheekbones jutting out of my face,” he says. “There was some concern I was being too obsessive.” But while exercising at Christmas may seem like evidence of his obsession, he says that if you’re looking to get fit and lean then the holiday season is a time that you can use to your advantage.

Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image
Photo credit: Marina Petti/Getty Image

That’s not a theory supported by Vanessa Gebhardt, training and mindset coach at Freeletics. She argues that a short break over the Christmas holidays is actually beneficial to those looking to shape up.

“If you’ve trained consistently in the months and weeks leading up to the festive break, your body will be in a routine and you’ll find it easier to slip back into your healthy habits, meaning that a short break will not be detrimental to your health and fitness goals,” she explains. “Research shows the reduction in physical stress on your body can actually be beneficial in reducing cortisol levels, which in turn can reduce body fat.

“A study of well-trained runners found that for the first ten days of inactivity there is minimal decrease in VO2 max, which is a person’s capacity to take in, transport and then use oxygen during exercise.”

Gebhardt adds that strength training is also unlikely to be affected should you take a few days off your routine over Christmas. “Research in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that 14 days of rest caused little change in bench press or squat press performance.”

Performance Physique head coach Arj Thircuhelvam, who also coaches the Team GB sprinting team, is in agreement with Gebhardt. He urges his athletes to have a “deload week”, and says there's no better time to schedule it in than over the festive period.

“Christmas is the ideal time to maximise your training via periodisation with a little forced recovery time,” he says. "By taking short breaks in your training programme, i.e. a few days during the festive season, you will also avoid the negative effects of accumulated training."

Thircuhelvam adds that if you have a compulsion to exercise, prioritising it over other facets of your life may be symptomatic of a bigger issue.

“Designate time for both family and friends, as well as training,” he says. “It’s a problem when all you can think about is exercise or it’s what you think of first in the morning and last thing at night, every night.

“An effective programme is one that allows for adaptation and flexibility. Remember, we grow when we’re resting.”

Still, that won't stop Smith, Herman or Wardle, who'll be putting in work this Christmas day. "It’s easy to break the cycle and all of a sudden you haven't done anything for six months,” says Wardle.

“After all, the body doesn't know it’s Christmas,” adds Smith.

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