Things I Learned Vacationing in the Developing World

Man, do I love vacation time. It's the best time of year for resting, recovering, reflecting, and replanning.

To assist me in completing these tasks, I ventured to the tropical paradise of Bali[1] this year for some R&R with my family. Nothing like an idyllic setting for completing the onerous tasks identified above.


Surely, resting is the true purpose of any vacation. I can never understand those people who go on vacation and then rush around like mad things trying to “experience” everything that a destination has to offer. Even funnier are the people who constantly have a camera at the ready taking literally thousands of snaps. These people need to go home and view the photos just to determine what they did on their vacation (that is if they can even remember where they took the photograph and of what).

Nothing beats sleeping in, kicking back, and planning the day over a couple of mid-morning brews. You need to be careful, however, that you don’t take this too far. My brother-in-law was one of the multitudes of people who joined our Bali pilgrimage. Watching him rest sloth like by the pool led to him earning the Jersey Shore-esque nickname of “the Coma.” I swear that on more than one occasion I saw resort staff contemplating whether they should check his pulse for signs of life and commence CPR or leave him to his fate. Good job, Dave.


We all know recovery is important and that it's something most of us know intuitively we could do better. Sometimes the “need” to train overwhelms all else and we end up doing an extra session or adding extras to an existing session. Pretty soon, we're feeling ancient, looking decidedly ordinary, and turning into Angry Man at the drop of a hat. By the way, why isn’t there an Angry Man superhero or super villain? I’d buy it. Anyone out there gifted enough artistically to put together an inaugural issue?

Two great things about vacationing in Bali:

  • It costs as little as $8–10 for a ninety-minute Balinese massage.
  • You have time to get a massage every day.

Getting a massage and having time for one gives me that professional athlete feeling where all I need to do is train, eat, and recover. The tragedy is it lasts for only the two weeks of my vacation. A Balinese massage is a combination of restorative massage, pressure point activation, and reflexology that leaves you feeling great. I may have stretched the point in my last comment—the first massage is agonizing, but the subsequent ones are blissful. Consider yourselves warned. If you ask for it “strong,” you can even become the human surfboard (is this another potential superhero?) and have your masseuse walk up and down your spine. Good times.

Recovering does not mean, necessarily, that you don’t train at all. It should, however, mean that you train differently. I'm a big fan of brief, intense workouts during my normal training. I'm an even bigger fan of it when on vacation. Why spend extra time training when it will take you away from the beach, the pool, the 'all you can eat' buffet breakfast, cheap beer, or any other leisure pursuit. As a consequence, my training was restricted to every second or third day, depending on my motivation levels, with no session lasting more than forty minutes from go to woe. How did I accomplish this? Easy, I stripped a normal workout back to the minimum and went from there. I rotated through two workouts as follows:

Workout 1

  • Warm up and mobility
  • Deadlifts, 8 X 2
  • Shoulder press, 5 X 5
  • Kettlebell swings, 1 X 50

Workout 2

  • Warm up and mobility
  • Bench press, 8 X 3
  • Chins, 5 X v5
  • Kettlebell swings, 1 X 50

The weights used would have been in the 60–70 percent of my one repetition maximum with the exception of the kettlebell swings, which were done as a finisher to maintain some conditioning. This “program” was simple to set up, easy to do with a minimal time investment, and was in line with my current training goals.

If you have ever contemplated the “I’m not doing jack shit” protocol discussed by Jim Wendler in 5/3/1, surely a vacation is a great time to do it. I suppose my workouts could be considered a variation on the Triumvirate but really I aimed to cycle through four big exercises in two workouts while adding a finisher for a bit of conditioning.


Vacations give me time to think about things that would otherwise be immediately be dismissed from my mind due to other stresses or reconsider things that I knew but had forgotten. Some random reflections from my vacation were:


The great thing about Bali is while I trained in commercial gymnasiums, no one minded me doing deadlifts. Either that or they were too polite to tell the crazy tourist that he couldn’t do them in their gym. The use of chalk may have helped me to confirm this one way or the other. Maybe next time. What was interesting was the number of people who watched me doing deadlifts, some of whom even asked me what muscles they worked or commented on how heavy the weight was. (Isn’t relativity a great thing? My deadlift maximum is about 40 percent of the world record. I guess their maximum must be less than 5 percent.) What surprised me was that no one asked me how to do the exercise correctly, what an appropriate set and repetition protocol would be, or if I could show them how to do the exercise and critique their form. Maybe it was all too hard. Just goes to show that most people have little or no understanding of the major exercises and their role in a training program. I also suspect that most trainers have little or no concept of the deadlift as an exercise let alone the ability to teach it.

Treadmills and the state of the fitness industry

Training in commercial gyms brought home to me how little most people understand about exercise. The number of people I saw who were walking or jogging on the treadmill when I arrived and were still there when I left astonished me. You’re on vacation people. Surely, you have better things to do than walk endlessly on a treadmill while watching television shows in a foreign language. Here’s a hint—walk, jog, or run outside or at the beach! Better yet, get off the treadmill and do some sprints, kettlebell ladders, dumbbell cleans and presses, or anything else that gets the heart pounding in less time with a greater after burn.

Big exercises

There are only a handful of key exercises and these should form the basis of your training program. To me, these exercises are the bench press, squat, deadlift, military press, and row. Each strength session I do includes at least one of these exercises. Interestingly enough, the only one of these exercises that I saw anyone else do was—you guessed it—the bench press. This must have been because one of my sessions fell on a Monday and I was able to confirm that Monday is bench press day for most people in Bali as well as in most parts of the world.

One of the people I saw bench press, however, left me gasping in amazement. When I arrived, this person was involved in a boxing session with a trainer who didn’t look particularly challenging, as neither of them was sweating heavily. At the end of this, the person wanted to do some “bench and abs." They proceeded to do a couple of warm-up sets and then set themselves up for a one repetition maximum. After unracking the bar, they were promptly stapled by it. LOL. Once the trainer had helped to replace the bar, the client noted that he must have been fatigued from the boxing session. The trainer agreed. WTF? Who does conditioning before strength training? How did the “trainer” permit this?

I don’t think I've ever seen anyone as unstable on the bench as this person was. His form (on the eccentric portion only; I can’t comment on the nonexistent concentric portion) was dreadful. His trainer did nothing to correct even the basics of his set up, hand positioning, or bar path. In his defence, bar path doesn’t matter much when you get stapled.

It got me to thinking about how many trainers out there have their clients bench press while having almost no idea how to perform it correctly. Tell a trainer that the bench press is a full body exercise and monitor the looks you get. There is almost a complete lack of understanding of foot placement, tensing the abdominals, arching the back, retracting the shoulder blades, driving the head into the bench, flaring the elbows, and driving the legs as part of the lift. This lack of understanding of basic exercise technique is a sad indictment on the state of the industry.

Bizarre training routines

I love watching women train (apart from the obvious reasons) because you get to see an amazing bunch of truly strange routines being completed. Two stood out for me on this vacation. The first was the lady who jogged on the spot for the best part of forty minutes while performing various dumbbell military presses, lateral raises, front raises, and pectoral flies with a set of light dumbbells. The only thought that crossed my mind was welcome to the wide world of shoulder tendinitis.

The other was the lady who while walking on the treadmill proceeded to do a single jump every so often. I wanted to ask what it was all about, but she left before I got the opportunity. Does anyone reading this have any idea what this was about? Is there a new protocol that I'm completely unaware?

Incidental exercise

Incidental exercise is an underestimated component of training and recovery. Put simply, this is exercise or physical work that you do during a given day that isn't part of your structured training. Walking to the shops, climbing stairs at the shops, gardening, and cleaning the house are all examples of incidental exercise. Given the traffic jams around the centre of Bali, it was far easier to walk between shops and bars than to take taxis, resulting in large amounts of incidental exercise for the family (and much grumbling from the kids). Swimming in the pool to escape the heat also counted as incidental exercise.

Consider for yourself how much incidental exercise you're getting and is there scope to do more or less depending on your training goals? If you're trying to lose weight, can you increase your incidental exercise? If you're fatigued or looking to gain weight, can you reduce your incidental exercise?

Manual labor

Bali isn't big on the use of machinery for anything but particularly in the construction industry. Almost every task is completed manually by teams of workers. I think I saw one crane and less than three concrete trucks across the fifteen or so hotel construction sites I walked past. "So what?" you ask. The Balinese people work hard, much harder than your average westerner. As a result, your average Balinese is much leaner and more muscular. Manual labor is, in my view, a key determinant of this as is the following point. Who needs to hit the gym when your average work day is one ongoing workout?

Diet and portion sizes

The local diet is big on rice and fresh vegetables supplemented with meat and fish when it's available. All food is freshly cooked with processed food almost unheard of within the local villages. The meat and vegetables are much closer to organic than we are used to and taste better for it. The chicken in Bali is sweeter and more moist that I normally get in Australia. My theory on this is that Balinese chickens are free to roam and eat what they want. They aren't battery hens. I’m sure someone will rain on my parade and send me pictures of Balinese coops, but for the moment, I'm blissfully ignorant.

The caveat for eating food in Bali is that the hygiene standards are variable. “Bali belly” is a well-known malaise among visitors and not a pleasant experience.

My other observation on food in Bali is the serving sizes in restaurants. The average portion size for a main meal in Bali would be half to two-thirds of the average serving size in Australia. There is always enough on the plate to leave you satisfied without leaving you overfull and bloated. This is something to bear in mind when sitting down to dinner—am I eating too much, a sufficient amount, or not enough to achieve my goals?

This simple diet with limited portion sizes is also a key factor in keeping the indigenous people lean and healthy.


Now that the vacation is over, I've been considering my training and nutrition goals for the upcoming year. To this end, I have decided upon the following:


  • Maintain my existing strength levels.
  • Reduce body fat levels to the extent that my abs are visible (for the first time in recorded history).
  • Deal with my lingering elbow and hip flexor conditions.


  • Reducing my lifting sessions from five each week to four
  • Increasing my mobility and prehabilitation sessions from one each week to two
  • Removing processed food from my diet to the maximum extent possible
  • Eating organic or near organic foods wherever possible
  • Reducing the portion sizes for meals
  • Leaving food on the plate when eating at a restaurant
  • Monitoring my body fat levels on a monthly basis
  • Springing for a monthly massage (at about eight times the price of a massage in Bali)

I hope I have provided you with some food for thought regarding your training and nutrition habits based on the observations of a simple man on a family vacation. Now that we are into the New Year, you may wish to consider completing the reflection and replanning components for yourself to help set some goals and methods for achieving them for the year ahead.

A personal goal is to submit one article per month to elitefts™ for consideration. There—I’ve said it in public. I now have the entire readership of the site to keep me accountable. The pressure is well and truly on!

[1] Bali is a small island that forms part of Indonesia. It is tropical in nature with average temperatures of between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit each day. Bali contains some of the friendliest people in the world. It is part of a developing country, so don’t expect the same standards you have come to be accustomed to in the developed world. However, the shopping, weather, and local beer are world class.