It’s that time of year again — the holiday season. The holidays can be stressful for many reasons, perhaps especially for those with fitness goals. You’re eating differently, maybe traveling, and totally off your program. That loss of control over your schedule can cause stress, especially on Thanksgiving, a holiday that seems to be all about that one big meal.
Try thinking of Thanksgiving as just a regular Thursday in a week — Thanksgiving Week. You can maximize your training and nutrition leading up to and after the big day. Whether your goal is building muscle, maintaining muscle, or losing body fat, you can make a plan to get you through the week without going completely off track. So turn down that cortisol, folks — get ready to relax.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Thanksgiving Week Training Options
Thanksgiving Day — a time for delicious beige carbs and lots of rich desserts. As the holiday season crashes through, you’re about to be sold (and baked) a bunch of pies and offered tons of alcohol.
Then, come January first, the culture of diets and new year’s resolutions says that it’s time to join a gym, go on a restrictive diet, and lose all your holiday weight. With this structure and the emphasis on Thanksgiving (and other holidays) as the one day you’re “allowed” to overindulge, you’re set up for failure.
Instead, it helps to zoom out and take a more balanced approach. Your nutrition impacts your training and your training impacts your nutrition, so planning out your workout routine is a critical factor here. You’ve got some options for the week of Thanksgiving that won’t leave you feeling restricted or totally off track. Let’s dive in.
It’s Like Any Other Week
One training option is to go about your normal routine and treat this week like any other in your program. All programs include a few rest days, so you can set Thanksgiving day as your rest day if you’re going to be super busy.
If you’re traveling and away from equipment, you can modify your training days with other workouts, so you can still crush it on Monday through Wednesday. If you have less control over your food, you can make the most of what you have access to. Or, you can utilize the delicious meal as fuel for training.
Even without access to weights, use the extra carbs to fuel an intense bodyweight workout on Friday. Have some delicious leftovers for a post-workout refuel. You might find the extra calories give you some more energy. With or without weights, you can treat this week like any other training week.
Training Deload Week
Depending on your fitness goal, taking a full deload week over Thanksgiving can be a great part of your program. If you’ve been crushing it for months already, plan ahead and let the whole week of Thanksgiving be a time you give your body, muscles, and mind a chance to rest and recover.
That’s not to say you’ll be completely immobile — but you can focus on lighter movement, taking walks and engaging in other forms of active recovery.
If you typically count calories and macros, calculate your maintenance goals and try your best to stay within them. If you do want to incorporate some training to balance things out, check out these deload strategies for the holiday season.
Find Balance In Your Week
Thanksgiving week is one week out of the year. Long-term consistency is what gets you to your goals, rather than a rigid adherence every single day. If it’s not time for a deload week, but you also don’t feel like focusing too hard on your goals, consider splitting up the week accordingly.
Take the earlier days in the week to stick to your program as much as possible. Let Thursday be unstructured — give yourself freedom to enjoy food, free time (if you have it), and relaxation. Then, wake up on Friday and check in — listen to your body.
Are you feeling sluggish and want another day to chill out on your strict goals? Go for it. Feeling restless and want to get a quick workout in and eat some more vegetables? Do that instead.
The amount that you can stray from your schedule, of course, depends on what your fitness goal is. If you’re prepping for a bodybuilding competition, get a solid plan together with your coach to tackle Thanksgiving and stay on track. If you’re on more of a lifelong fitness journey, then remember that a few days off won’t derail the rest of your hard work.
Once you decide which type of training week Thanksgiving week is going to be, set yourself up for success with some tools for your toolbox. Heading into the week, think about things like what it actually means to listen to your body and how you can hit your macros without a food scale.
When it comes to macronutrients, there’s a general rule of thumb for strength athletes to maximize their nutrition and training.
- 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight
- 5-8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight
- 0.5-1 gram of fat per kilogram of body weight
Check out BarBend’s macronutrient calculator to tailor your macronutrients specifically to your body and goals.
You’ll notice that the calculator asks you to indicate your activity level. You can play around with this option to get different macros for Thanksgiving week specifically. You might be more sedentary than usual, for example, so changing that option will give you some different numbers to play with.
If you’re taking Thanksgiving as a regular program week for your training, get those macros and try your best to stick with them on the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving. If it’s a deload week, you can still use the calculator to get a good idea of your body’s energy needs. Keep those needs in mind as you take the time to relax.
General rules are great, but you know Thanksgiving is all about protein. Get specific about your nutrition needs with BarBend’s protein intake calculator.
Protein intake is going to be key during Thanksgiving week, whether your goal is to build or maintain muscle or to lose or maintain body fat. Luckily, Thanksgiving is known for having lots of protein options. Even if you don’t eat meat, you can still choose other sources of protein when building your holiday meal.
If it’s a regular or balanced training week, try your best especially to hit your protein goals on the other days in the week, as well. If it’s a deload week, great news — protein is also an important key to recovery so you can maximize your time off.
Many athletes who have a history of disordered eating habits and/or complex relationships with their body image and food might want to avoid counting calories. But if it feels safe for you to do so, it might help to know how many calories you need to maintain your gains.
To help you figure it out, check out BarBend‘s calorie calculator.
Even if you’re not going to keep specific track on Thanksgiving day, you might choose to do so on the days before and after. This can give you a broader perspective on the week, rather than focusing in on one meal.
You may know your recommended macros and protein intake, but you still have the challenge of bringing all this information with you on the go. Enter auto-regulation. You may have heard the term auto-regulation in regard to training, but it can also apply to nutrition.
Auto-regulation is a strategy of intuitive eating where you listen to your body’s hunger cues to help you determine what to eat and when. Just like you can alter your training intensity somewhat according to how your body feels during a session, you can self-regulate to eat when you’re hungry and stop eating when you’re full.
This is a skill that takes practice — perhaps especially on Thanksgiving week. Try using a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) for your hunger, just like you would for lifting weights.
RPE for Nutrition
Check in with yourself and try rating where you are on the hunger scale. (1) Think of one on the hunger scale as being absolutely starving; five as being satiated; and ten as overstuffed and about to be sick. You don’t need to stay at a five, but you probably don’t want to go too far past a seven.
Paying attention to hunger can help you regulate how much you’re eating during that big old feast. Emotional eating, or overeating in response to negative emotions, can also occur because of the other stresses of the holidays, unrelated to food and training. (2)
Notice if you tend to undereat or overeat when you are stressed, or if there’s a difficult conversation or family conflict occurring. Practice mindfulness when it comes to eating, pay attention to your nutrition RPE, and try to enjoy your meal.
Thanksgiving Week Nutrition Tips for Muscle Building
If your goal is hypertrophy, then you’re used to eating in a surplus, in a specific, timed way to help you build muscle. If it’s bulking season, then Thanksgiving week is the perfect opportunity to continue with your goal. It’s normal to gain some fat when gaining muscle, but you can also focus on building muscle while maintaining or even losing body fat.
Stick to Your Program
Building muscle takes more than just eating in a surplus — you’ve got to be hitting your workouts, as well. If you decide to take Thanksgiving week as a regular training week, then do your best to get your training in throughout the week as usual. If you’re traveling or won’t have a ton of alone time for training, try some full-body bodybuilding workouts.
Another way to use Thanksgiving week as a “regular week” is to train on Thanksgiving. No weights on the go? No problem — try a bodyweight hypertrophy workout instead, earlier in the day before you’re weighed down with food coma.
Take the rest of the day to do some light mobility and active recovery, and utilize the big meal to make the most of your gains.
- Follow your regular training plan, allowing flexibility on Thanksgiving.
- Hit your macros throughout the week.
- Practice intuitive eating on Thanksgiving day itself.
- Use extra calories — focus on that protein — for muscle growth.
Take this big meal and the week overall to practice eating intuitively and still gain that muscle.
Nutrition Deload Week
If it’s a full deload week, it may be tricky to continue eating to build muscle. If you’re eating in a surplus without training, it’s possible you will gain some fat. But, think of this deload week in a larger context. While you might not be following your usual plan, deloading is part of your overall progress.
Your body and muscles need time to rest in order to grow. Your system can also benefit from a break from strictly counting macros and calories, even if you’re not in the gym multiple times this week. Taking a full week off will leave you feeling recovered and even stronger the next time you hit the gym.
- Stay active while resting, taking walks and performing quick mobility workouts.
- Come back to the gym with full force the following week.
- Use the hunger scale and nutrition RPE during meals.
- Eat at maintenance calories as best as you can.
So while you might not be able to gain muscle mass on a deload week, your body will thank you for the break the following week when you’re back at it. Then, you’ll be able to pack even more muscle on.
Balance Between Training and Rest
Sure, a balanced week for hypertrophy could mean strict macros and upper body Monday, lower body Tuesday, full-body Wednesday, and chill out the rest of the week. If you’re training hard, three days in a row without rest or active recovery gets intense.
This level of intensity will likely leave you feeling sore and exhausted, and perhaps more likely to overindulge on the day of the holiday. Instead, you can play around with your days of the week.
Train and try to hit your macros on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday for example, and incorporate high volume work. Use the hunger scale and your fist to estimate out portions.
Try taking two full days to give yourself a small break from your schedule. You can stay closely on track on the other days without overdoing it.
- Train on some of the days, rest on others.
- Utilize high-volume work to build muscle without access to heavy weights.
- Strictly adhere to macros when training to make your gains.
- Focus on stretching and mobility on your off days.
On your off days, mindfully enjoy your tasty food, do some stretching, and relax knowing you’re more or less staying on track with your goals.
Thanksgiving Week Nutrition Tips for Maintaining Muscle Mass
You’ve been building muscle for a while now and you intend to keep it. The thought of being away from the gym and your food scale may send a shiver of panic down your spine. The good news is you can maintain muscle mass even when you’re away from your routine by staying active and adhering to your hunger and fullness cues.
Moderately Train to Preserve Your Muscle
The difference between building and maintaining muscle mass can often come down to nutrition. You may be hitting similar workouts in the gym, but when you’re maintaining muscle you’re not focused on eating as much as you do when building muscle. Instead, you’re eating around maintenance calories and being careful not to go too far over.
If Thanksgiving week is a regular training and nutrition week for you, you’re in luck. Studies have shown that training just twice a week may be sufficient for muscle maintenance. (3) If you’re up for it, let Thanksgiving day be one of your training days. It will give you some more wiggle room for your meal and dessert.
Those extra calories, carbs, and protein on the day itself can go towards maintaining your hard-earned muscle. If that’s not possible, choose Wednesday and/or Friday, and your food will still help you towards your goal.
- Lighten up on your usual training frequency, but keep your volume and load up.
- Train on or around big eating days to use extra calories to maintain muscle.
- Try to hit maintenance calories by aiming for a five-six on the hunger scale.
- Use your fist to estimate a portion of protein when doling out your plate.
Taking walks on your days off is another great way to maintain muscle mass without gaining much body fat.
Rest Up, But Stay Active
Time to sit back and enjoy but still maintain your gains? Add in some light movement and try to eat moderately throughout the week. While a full break is great, you want to stay mindful to not go too far over or under your regular intake. Eating too little to compensate for less movement might lead you to lose muscle mass.
- It’s okay to move a little less during a rest week, be careful not to overcompensate by eating too little to maintain your gains.
- Keep up light movement to stay active — think walking or even jogging.
- Reap the benefits of resting your muscles by going hard the following week.
- Practice mobility exercises or yoga to keep moving well.
Be sure to use the protein intake calculator to keep your protein in check throughout the week — that will be key for maintaining muscle mass.
Thanksgiving Week Nutrition Tips for Losing Body Fat
If your goal is losing body fat, the holiday season may seem like a nightmare. But you already have the tools you need to stay on track. Whether you adhere strictly to your goals throughout the week or give yourself a break from training, there are strategies to continue losing body fat or maintain your current weight while indulging a bit.
It’s important to avoid overly restricting yourself, especially if you’ve been in a calorie deficit for a while. Research shows it’s important to eat food you enjoy, rather than focusing on restriction for long-term success. (4) Black-and-white thinking about food can actually lead to increased weight gain over time. (5)
Follow Your Weekly Plan
In your regular program for fat loss, let’s say you do three days of strength training, two days of cardio, one day of active recovery, and one day of complete rest. You can change up the days on which each of these happens to maximize your Thanksgiving week. If possible, do your resistance training on Thanksgiving to maximize your caloric usage on that day.
Conversely, if you usually take a complete rest day on Sunday, consider moving it to Thursday. Let yourself take a mental break from training and tracking calories for the one day. Instead, tune into your hunger and fullness cues and practice intuitive eating.
Drink plenty of water and focus on filling your plate with plenty of veggies — try filling half your plate with vegetables before anything else.
- Adhere to your fat loss program and prioritize strength training throughout the week, but consider allowing yourself to relax — including with your nutrition — on your rest days.
- Stay hydrated on Thanksgiving itself and fill half your plate with veggies first.
- You can help prevent overindulgence by allowing all foods in moderation and going in with the mindset that no food is completely off-limits. (4)
- Think of Thanksgiving as a regular day in your fat loss program, with a little extra room for different foods than you’re used to eating.
If the presence of all that rich food makes you nervous, rest assured that you’ll be back to your routine the next day.
Take a Mental Break from Calorie Tracking
When it comes to losing body fat, a deload week is going to look different than one for building or maintaining muscle. That’s because when you’re losing body fat, you are generally also trying to maintain muscle mass at the same time. If you’re careful about balancing your macros and getting plenty of protein, you can maintain muscle while also losing body fat.
You can use this to your advantage during Thanksgiving week. Maybe a deload week won’t be a complete rest from training, but you can take it a little bit lighter. If you do want a full week off from eating at a deficit, find out your maintenance calories and try your best to stick with them. Be sure to get your steps in and take walks or even short runs when possible.
Just like with other goals, taking a deload week here may not help you continue losing body fat the week of Thanksgiving. But, the mental break from caloric restriction can help you stay on track when you return to your program and lead to success in the long term. (6)
Studies have shown that a one-week “diet break” can actually improve muscular endurance in the long run. (6)
- Stay lightly active, get your steps in, and try a yoga or pilates class.
- Calculate maintenance calories and try to stay within that range.
- Keep protein and veggies high when making holiday plates.
- Use the hunger scale to your advantage, especially during dessert time. You can always steal away that last slice of pumpkin pie and eat it when you’re actually hungry.
So, even if you don’t lose pounds during Thanksgiving week, it’s still a productive week in your journey because you’ll be able to stick to your goals even better when you get back to it.
Maintain Your Fat Loss
Why not mix it all together throughout the week? Although calorie counting seems pretty mathematical, it’s not always exact. Depending on your day-to-day activity level, there’s usually more of a range of calories to aim for every day, rather than one number. (7)
It’s generally a recipe for overeating if you overly restrict leading up to a big meal. Still, you could choose the lower end of your safe deficit range for the days leading up to Thanksgiving. On the day of and afterward, either take a full break from tracking or aim for the higher end of your deficit calories. You can also opt for maintenance-level calories on the day itself.
Think of your calories spread across the week rather than each day, and you’ll have room to play around. This works great for non-Thanksgiving weeks, too. Stay flexible in your approach and enjoy your food as much as you can.
- Find your deficit and maintenance calorie ranges and vary these numbers throughout the week as needed.
- Let Thanksgiving be a full break from meticulous tracking, but stay focused on the other days in the week.
- Some light movement after a big meal can help with digestion.
- If you notice you are emotionally eating, don’t panic. For many people, stress generally leads to more overindulgence. Remember that it’s only one day, and you can get back on track tomorrow.
Drinking enough water on a day when you’re not tracking can also help you auto-regulate. So, don’t forget to hydrate.
Thanksgiving Day Nutrition Tips
You’ve made your plan, gotten through the week so far, and now it’s time for the big day. How can you make the most of your Thanksgiving day meal for each fitness goal? Let’s dive in.
For Muscle Building
If you’re generally sticking with your macros for Thanksgiving, take the meal as a time to enjoy some extra calories and more fat than you might normally eat. Eat breakfast and another smaller, protein-rich meal earlier in the day, if that’s something you usually do.
For dinner, fill your plate with veggies, enough protein, and delicious carbs. Allow yourself to have dessert if you want it. If you decided to train on Thanksgiving, all the more reason to enjoy this decadent meal as muscle-building fuel.
For Maintaining Muscle Mass
If you chose to rest it out this week but still want to maintain your muscle, go into the meal with balance in mind. You want to get sufficient calories and nutrients to hold onto your hard-earned muscle.
You don’t want to go overboard, but even if you do, remember that just one meal is not going to make you instantly gain body fat. If you’re up to doing a little exercise this week, timing it around the big meal can be beneficial to your goals.
For Losing Body Fat
Research suggests that you’re setting yourself up for long-term fat loss success by telling yourself that nothing is off-limits. (5). For your first plate, consider taking a small amount of everything that looks good to you. Be sure you’re getting enough vegetables and protein to maintain your hard work.
Tell yourself that you’re allowed to get seconds if you want to. This can reduce the urge to pile everything on your plate and overdo it. Stop between plates and check in with your hunger scale. Decide whether you want more and what you want more of.
If you love dessert, allow yourself to sample the desserts, too. You can also balance it out. Maybe you’re more into savory than sweet, so you’re going to have some extra stuffing and mashed potatoes, but go for some fruit and a small slice of pie for dessert if you’re still really full from the meal.
Choose Your Thanksgiving Week Structure
Thanksgiving week lets you choose between continuing fitness and nutrition as usual, fully resting, or balancing both. Pick which option works best and is most realistic for you.
Remember that any nutrition goal is usually a part of a longer-term plan to live a healthy lifestyle. Consider thinking of Thanksgiving week as one where you might eat or train a little differently than normal. Then you can get back to your usual routine.
- Ciampolini M, Lovell-Smith HD, Kenealy T, Bianchi R. Hunger can be taught: Hunger Recognition regulates eating and improves energy balance. Int J Gen Med. 2013 Jun 17;6:465-78.
- Frayn M, Livshits S, Knäuper B. Emotional eating and weight regulation: a qualitative study of compensatory behaviors and concerns. J Eat Disord. 2018 Sep 14;6:23.
- Yang, Yifan, Bay, Pang B., & Wang, Yongtai R. Effects of Consecutive Versus Non-consecutive Days of Resistance Training on Strength, Body Composition, and Red Blood Cells. Frontiers in Physiology. 2018; 9.
- Akkermann K, Hiio K, Villa I, Harro J. Food restriction leads to binge eating dependent upon the effect of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;185(1-2):39-43.
- Palascha A, van Kleef E, van Trijp HC. How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):638-48.
- Peos JJ, Helms ER, Fournier PA, Krieger J, Sainsbury A. A 1-week diet break improves muscle endurance during an intermittent dieting regime in adult athletes: A pre-specified secondary analysis of the ICECAP trial. PLoS One. 2021 Feb 25;16(2):e0247292.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Subcommittee on Military Weight Management. Weight Management: State of the Science and Opportunities for Military Programs. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2004. 4, Weight-Loss and Maintenance Strategies. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK221839/
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