How to Keep Your Core in Fighting Shape During the Holidays

Go full "Ghost of Christmas Present," if you must. But thy midriff shalt pay.

Updated December 22, 2023 3:54 pm
An old painting of a Christmas feast: "The King Drinks" by Jacob Jordaens. You can indulge like this while still keeping your core in shape this holiday season.
Feel free to indulge this holiday season, but remember liquid calories this time of year can reach 400 to a single glass.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty

For the next few weeks, everyone will be in too good of a mood to care about whether they’re getting into bad shape.

Straight-faced adults start cooking with marshmallows. Limited-edition beers have names like “Fa La La La La Winter Ale.” By and large, this is a welcome and refreshing thing, a well-deserved decompression after another year of deadlines and bills and news alerts that make you want to walk into the ocean.

But a little decompression can morph into rampant overconsumption if you’re not careful, which is a real shame, considering the month immediately following this one is most Americans’ personal fitness Super Bowl. Unsurprisingly, resolutions have a hard time sticking when there’s still pecan pie sticking to your ribs.

Why should you care about your midsection when you’re wearing an ugly sweater over it? Isn’t that an eleventh-hour assignment for Memorial Day Weekend? Well, core strength isn’t seasonal. And neither is low back pain, shoddy balance, nor poor posture, which are all unfortunate byproducts of an unchecked paunch.

The most wonderful time of the year is arguably the best time of the year to monitor and hone your core; as you’re unlikely to be taking your shirt off anytime soon, the endgame shifts from a shallow desire for showy Love Island abs to establishing a consistent, sustainable routine that’ll pay dividends across the wellness spectrum.

From the culprits that you probably want to avoid, to the scorchers that’ll help you burn them off anyway, here’s a gift-wrapped guide for keeping your core in fighting shape during peak feast season.

Indulgences That’ll Get Ya

Most wellness blogs post annual “naughty lists” of foods you should never, under any circumstances, load onto your plate. The inclusions aren’t especially surprising. Think: sugar cookies, fruitcake, fudge, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, pigs in a blanket, turkey skin, etc. And yes, as that’s pretty much just butter eight different ways, you should be wary of all the above. They’ll certainly do your core no favors on their own.

But instead of casting foods as naughty or nice, it helps to determine which ones energize you and which ones exhaust you. Of those that are more likely to put you in stupor on the couch, try to determine the few that you really like, which you can’t imagine the holidays without. (I’m historically a fruitcake fiend.) Feel free to skip the others. And amongst your chosen treat(s), try not to nosh the whole tray in one sitting.

It’s less beware, more…be mindful. This ties into a practice dietary experts call “intuitive eating.” You don’t have to flog yourself for putting back a pile of peppermint bark. But it helps to notice (and remember) how that choice may have impacted your afternoon.

Also relevant this time of year? Liquid calories. A seasonal beer like Anchor Brewing’s annual offering or Great Lakes Christmas Ale usually comes packed with calories, sometimes over 200 to a beer. And a hearty glass of eggnog is going to push 400 calories.

When the liver’s preoccupied with alcohol, it has an extra hard time burning fat, and that fat tends to collect around the belly. Too many beers will set your core strength back, period, and that’s to say nothing of the sleep debt that accompanies a few weeks of festivities. Consider mixing in a few merry NA options here and there instead, which will free up your next morning, and generally weigh in under 100 calories a pop.

Crunches ≠ the Answer

Of all the core exercises out there, crunches and sit-ups are an overrated relic. They ought to be left to yesteryear’s fifth grade Presidential Fitness Test.

To put it bluntly, the move is a waste of time. The crunch, along with its cousin, the sit-up (which has a longer range of motion — that’s the one someone holds your feet down for), more or less constitute ab-training’s most ubiquitous move. If you go to the gym at any time of the day, some sorry soul will be in the corner knocking them out in the hundreds. But they also represent abdominal work at its most useless, as they encourage the myth of spot reduction (you can’t eliminate fat in a single section of the body) and pull on the hip flexors.

When I was younger, I used to finish full-body workouts with 300 crunches. I loved it…because crunches are the ultimate “counting exercise.” You can reach a high level of repetitions without that much effort. (Contrast that with the agony it took me to reach just 10 pull-ups.) But that’s because the hingeing, momentum-fueled motion of crunches allows you to cheat, and recruit your lumbar spine to knock each rep out. It can make you feel pretty accomplished, but over time, it’s also going to tighten/shorten your muscles, and create pain from the lower back all the way up to the neck.

What should you be doing instead? Planks are an excellent place to start, as an isometric exercise that’ll target all of the core, and can actually eliminate back pain. (Check out our extensive planking guide here.) Meanwhile, moves like bicycle maneuvers, reverse crunches, Spiderman pushups, ab halos, Russian rows, lying heel taps, V sits, banana holds and something called black widow knee slides all provide dynamic, alternating movements that hit the abs, the deep abs, the obliques and your thighs…without causing issues down the line.

The “Push-Pull Routine” Is My New Favorite Lifting Hack
For those looking to work smarter instead of harder, start here

Walk It Off…or Go a Little Bit Farther

Trainers recommend training your core with ab-specific exercises twice a week, max, but if you’re exercising frequently (and properly) in other arenas, you’re engaging your core all the time anyway.

Pairing compound lifts like squats, deadlifts and presses with versatile moves like farmers walks or suitcase carries will strengthen your core as an inevitable byproduct of building your chest, back or shoulders. It’s a pretty sweet deal. So if you don’t have a gym membership yet, but intend to get one, use these weeks to get the local lay of the land…before a legion of wide-eyed wanderers arrives next month. (But don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of.)

This is also an excellent time of year to jumpstart a walking habit. Assuming you’re not Buddy’s dad in Elf, you don’t have to prepare a pitch for “the board” on Christmas Eve and are looking forward to some time away from the desk. Take advantage of it. Go for the constitutional that you’ve been missing out on, to the tune of a half-hour amble each day.

It’ll put your posture on the mend, which will bolster your core in kind. You’ll probably find yourself in a better mood, too. Consider: some of the coldest, darkest corners of the world are where people are best at embracing the wintry outdoors. They know better than anyone else that movement is essential these next few months. Hunkering down is okay, but we’re not meant to hibernate.

If you really latch on to some opportunistic, digestive rambles this season, consider taking them a little faster…and farther. Unsurprisingly, running is dynamite for the core, capable of strengthening its muscles, stabilizing its joints and eliminating fat cells en masse. Cold-weather running is a particularly special edition of the activity, which can catalyze the conversion of white fat (the inflammatory fat linked to heart disease) to brown fat (naturally occurring fat that produces heat).

As a lifelong runner, I recommend mixing up your cardio and starting slow. For “speed” sessions, head to a nearby track and run four laps, sprinting the straightaways and jogging the ends. For endurance-minded fare, work your way up to a steady-state four miles. Put on a podcast and wear gloves. You’ll be okay, and your core will be stupendous.

Eggnog Happens

It’s a hard sell for some, but wrapping wellness into such a festive portion of the year doesn’t have to feel like a punishment. It can actually amplify the season by ultimately bequeathing you with more energy, focus and patience. Finding a feasible fitness goal — like making sure your core doesn’t go to shit — can keep your progress humming along, while even providing a head start for the year ahead.

Yes, shit (eggnog) happens. That’s okay. But should the term “I survived the holidays” be so common in our lexicon? Probably not. And it doesn’t have to be. Charles Dickens once wrote ‘“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” It’s a noble pursuit. But if we’re going to respect all mankind for every month of the year, let’s afford the same respect to your midsection.

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