Fitness Programs | Best Exercises to Beat the Holiday Bulge

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Best Exercises to Beat the Holiday Bulge

by Jessica Matthews, ACE Exercise Physiologist

Why does it seem that during the holidays, the excess pounds tend to attach directly to our most troubling problem areas? It’s no wonder that late night TV infomercials and fad products tug at our insecurities and promise to tone that problem area in just minutes a day. Unfortunately, the fact is that many of these promises are not based on science — the concept of spot reduction is based on the flawed notion that it is possible to burn off fat from a specific part of the body by selectively exercising that area of the body only, which is simply not true. The truth is that regular exercise (both cardio and strength training) in conjunction with a sensible diet is the only way to truly eliminate excess body fat, and keep it off long-term.

But in addition to eliminating excess body fat, it’s important to also focus on strengthening muscles in order to sport a more sculpted, lean physique. The American Council on Exercise has done the research to uncover some of the most effective exercises for the three most commonly cited “trouble areas” of the body — the butt (glutes), the core (abdominals), and the upper arms (triceps). So when you feel you’ve had one too many egg nogs over the course of the holiday season and they’re starting to show, incorporate the following exercises into your workout routine in order to help you achieve a more toned physique in the New Year. 

The Butt

Ever heard the phrase, ”that dessert just went straight to my behind?” While that isn’t literally true, for many of us, the excess calories we consume throughout the holiday season can result in a bit more “junk in the trunk.”  Research has helped to pinpoint a few tried and true exercises that effectively strengthen and develop the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, the two main muscles that make up what we often refer to as our butt (or fanny depending on where you’re from).

butt exercises

Quadruped Bent-Knee Hip Extension — The name of this exercise may sound complex, but the truth is, this easy-to-perform exercise can be done just about anywhere, using no equipment.  Research conducted by the University of Wisconsin La Crosse found that the quadruped bent-knee hip extension elicited a higher degree of muscle activation (both in the gluteus maximus and minimus) than many other commonly performed exercises, and it can be an effective exercise option for those with knee issues who may have difficulty performing other standing glute exercises.

Forward Lunge — Another great exercise that can be done at the gym, at home, or in your hotel room while traveling is the forward lunge. It is a movement pattern that is performed not only during workouts, but also during activities of daily living, so proper mechanics are extremely important in order to perform this exercise effectively and safely. Once you become familiar with the forward lunge, you can try different variations of the lunge to really challenge your gluteal muscles.

Step Ups — What do you get when you combine a 12-15” step or box with a pair of dumbbells? A highly effective exercise for strengthening the glutes, called dumbbell step-ups, which also mimics actions in our daily lives. When performing this exercise, pay close attention to your knee, ankle and foot position, and avoid rolling the foot in or out when stepping up onto the platform.

The Core

Let’s talk abs. Research on “traditional” abdominal exercises commonly performed at the gym — bicycle crunches and stability ball crunches — found that these exercises are in fact effective at activating both the rectus abdominis and the obliques, two of the muscles which comprise what we often think of as our “core.” The problem, however, is that these exercises, while effective at engaging our abdominal muscles, also may result in a great deal of load being placed on our spines, according to research. (This won’t help your dance moves at this year’s holiday events.) To spare the spine and also develop strong core function (and a more defined midsection if that’s what you’re into) try these exercises, which not only strengthen the muscles of the core, but also focus on enhancing low-back stability.

core exercises

Front Plank — The front plank (and also the side plank discussed below) is a great exercise to effectively target your abdominal muscles while building muscular endurance, which researchers such as Dr. Stuart McGill have found help to lower the risk of developing back issues later down the road. If you’re new to the front plank, begin with holding this exercise for 5-10 seconds. As you build your endurance, you can begin to progress towards holding this position for 30 seconds to upwards of 1 minute.

Side Plank — Research has shown that the side plank not only effectively activates several key muscles of the core (the obliques, transverse abdominis and quadratuslumborum), but that this combination of muscle recruitment actually helps to ensure stability in the spine. As you become comfortable with this exercise you can progress to other variations, ranging from intermediate to advanced depending on your goals and ability level.

Bird-Dog — Although the name of this exercise might have you thinking of two different (yet equally adorable) animals, the reality is that this exercise is highly effective in training the body to stabilize the lower back during movement while also providing a great challenge to abdominal muscles (specifically the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis). When performing the bird-dog, avoid holding the exercise for long periods of time (7-8 seconds should be all that you need); instead, focus on increasing the number of repetitions to build endurance as opposed to increasing the amount of time you hold the fully extended position.

The Upper Arms

One area of the body that tends to get a lot of exposure, especially in holiday dresses, is the upper arms.  To reduce the amount of “jiggle,” you’ll want to strengthen the triceps, the muscles located in the back of the upper arms with some research supported exercises.

tricep exercises

Triangle Push-Up — A variation of the traditional push-up, the triangle push-up involves placing the thumbs and forefingers together with the hands directly underneath the chest. Just like the traditional push-up proper form is key, so if you’re new to performing triangle push-ups you may opt to perform this exercise with bent knees  keeping the hands in the same triangle position before progressing to the full plank position with the body.

Dips — Dips are a highly effective triceps exercise, which can be done in the gym using dip bars or a weight bench. Or, it can be done at home using a sturdy chair. This exercise represents a relatively functional movement (think about the motions you go through when lifting yourself out of your favorite chair), but when done incorrectly it can place a great deal of stress on the shoulder joint, so be sure to focus on proper form throughout the movement.

Triceps Kickback — Using dumbbells (or a jug of water or large canned good), triceps kickback is another exercise in which proper form is imperative — not only for effectively targeting the triceps, but also for safety reasons in order to prevent any additional loading on your spine. If you’re looking for guidance on proper form for this exercise (or any of the other exercises discussed here) in order to maximize your workout and ensure your safety, consider enlisting the help of an ACE-certified personal trainer.