Lifting in the Cold

This winter I’ve been training in a garage in Utah, and it has taught me a few things about training in the cold. This probably won’t help the experienced guys that lift in cold weather every winter, but the following tidbits may reinforce what they already know or educate less experienced cold weather trainees.

Night time temperatures have dropped below zero Fahrenheit a few times, but daytime temperatures usually hover in the low teens. When it snows, the temperature will rise to the 20s. My garage temperature is warm enough to slowly melt ice and snow off the truck, but cold enough to make every breath misty. I would not recommend training or storing your equipment outdoors. If you know you’ll regularly be training in a cold room, basement, or garage, then get a space heater.

Your attire will vary

The type of fabric you wear isn’t really a big deal since you’ll just be lifting in a protected environment. If you were going to be outside for longer than an hour and away from shelter, then avoiding cotton would be imperative. Nevertheless, dress in layers and cover your head. Avoid excessive layers and bulky clothing; you don’t want it to impede on your movement. This isn’t a big deal if you’re only deadlifting and pressing, but it is for squatting, cleaning, and so on. Layers will allow you to peel them off if you get too hot, but realistically you would only need pants and a long sleeve shirt with a sweat shirt.

Don’t be a Tommy Tough Guy; it doesn’t make you cool to have less clothing on if it is very cold (though the opposite is true in football). You need to keep your muscles and tissues warm and pliable, especially when you aren’t adapted to the lower temperature.

Warming Up

I suggest warming up inside the house if possible. If your tissues are cold, it won’t be possible to stretch or perform soft tissue work on them (i.e. mobility stuff). If mobility work can’t be done properly, then most readers will have crappier mechanics when lifting, not distribute force across all of the necessary musculature, and ultimately have a less efficient workout. I prefer to wear the clothes that I’ll wear in the garage while doing mobility work; it helps to warm my body temperature and tissues up prior to the general and specific warm-ups. Take more care doing specific lifting warm-ups with the bar; you may need to do a few more lighter sets to make sure your body is primed for the heavier lifting in the cold environment.

Intensity

Training intensity is the percentage of 1RM that is used (Note that this is completely different than having an intense attitude while training). Generally speaking I would not expect to lift at a high intensity when in cold weather, especially when it’s cold enough to see your breath. In fact, I’d go so far as to make other programming plans, like reduced intensity volume work. While intensity lifting is important for top end strength — especially in powerlifting — the potential injury from non-pliable structures isn’t worth the risk. Just don’t expect to be at your best when it’s cold, and especially keep this in mind when you aren’t adapted to it.

Conditioning or Running

If you’re going to do conditioning in the garage itself, it isn’t a big deal to take the sweat shirt off. Conditioning, by definition, is not a high percentage of 1RM and therefore keeping structures warm and pliable isn’t as important. Besides, if you are conditioning after lifting, you’ll be warmed up and primed for the activity anyway.

Keep in mind that the cold air will provide a very different stress than warmer air. First, the temperature itself is colder and will provide a unique stress on the lungs. Second, the relative humidity will increase as air temperature drops; cold air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air. Whether it’s the higher relative humidity or simply the cold temperature, cold air will put a serious hit on the lungs and alveoli — the sacs and ducts that exchange gases with the capillaries to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide. The lungs receive a general stress from the higher ventilation rate due to the intensity of the activity, the trainee’s work capacity, and the adaptation to the type of air that is being breathed. The result is an inflammation that causes a phlegmy cough that will often be gone in the morning (Note that this type of stress and cough can occur in warm weather too).

As for running, or any other horrible-ass activity done outside of the garage, be aware that your structures and tissues will be cold. Progressively adapt them to the activity over a couple of weeks and implement a comprehensive warm-up. Be aware of their exposure to the elements.

Summary

Basically I’m providing the message, “Be careful when training in the cold,” to general strength and conditioning trainees. Athletes or applied fitness trainees (military, LEO, etc.) may need to thrive in this environment and may take more risks while training in it. However, the premise behind training in adverse environments is to take the time to adapt to it instead of barging into it like a pervert in a sex shop. Prepare thy body; make it ready.

If you’re a regular cold weather trainee, add your suggestions in the comments.

49 thoughts on “Lifting in the Cold

  1. I’ve definitely noticed that longer warmups have helped after I’ve been walking in 20 degrees to the gym. I feel like shit when I rush them and try to get into my workout quickly.

    One thing though:

    “If you were going to be outside for longer than an hour and away from shelter, then avoiding cotton would be imperative. ”

    I’m not understanding the wording of this. What are you trying to get across and why?

    • He’s saying cotton kills if you’re gonna be out in the cold for an extended time, especially unsheltered, but if you’re just gonna be doing an hour or so workout in your garage then cotton is ok.

        • Cotton doesn’t retain heat well when wet, so cotton will keep you warm until you start sweating at which point it’s not good choice. Wool would be a better choice as it retains heat even when wet, or synthetics which dry quickly.

          • I thought it was pretty common knowledge that cotton is very bad to wear when adventuring, so I didn’t elaborate. If cotton gets wet, it does not dry, and cold air temperature can make that wet material stick to your skin, making you colder and potentially inducing hypothermia even in seemingly warm temperatures (like 40 degrees F).

  2. “like”

    The temperature of your current location is not a positive reflection of you or a mark of character. Get over it peeps.

    That being said, -15 just pisses me off when I’m driving to the gym.

  3. I just let my husband workout in the garage first. That makes it warm :D
    We have a space heater, but still, the first few mins with the cold ass bar suck!

  4. I used to lift in my barn in sub-zero weather and i found that gloves were helpful whenever possible, otherwise the cold bar fucking sucked. Either way, you definitely have to get a little space heater that you can stand in front of between sets. And hot coffee is awesome too.

    On an unrelated note, I competed in my first powerlifting meet last Saturday! Loved it, and I’m already planning on another one in March. I went 8/9 (missed attempt 3 on bench) and ended up with a 418 lbs squat, 265 bench and 474 deadlift. The squat and dead were both ties of my all-time gym PR’s so I’m happy even with the missed 3rd attempt on bench.

    Squat:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sutwQ2Y_YDQ&feature=youtu.be
    Deadlift:

  5. Justin- perfect timing. My family and I are house hunting, and we live in Michigan. As much as I hate to do it, space to lift indoors is almost a make-or- break for a home purchase.

    Appropriate ceiling height for pressing is getting hard to find

  6. It’s been hovering around freezing for the last couple of weeks in the UK, and while it’s not extreme, it can make training less pleasant. In fact I’ve been seeing my breath while I train since about october so I suppose that’s a nice gradient to help with adapting. In summer I used to lift then box, I find that boxing then lifting works better for warming up, but reduces the weight I’m lifting.

    I got a pair of ‘running gloves’ to lift in, and they’ve helped a fair bit. The hardest part was finding a purse to match.

  7. I actually lift in my garage in Ohio. My girlfriend went all out one year and got me one of these for my gym. http://tinyurl.com/b6u7apq (not the exact model but same style/size). Does anyone have any idea how long it is safe to run something like this in an enclosed area? I am always worried about it when I turn it on and thus I normally wind up just lifting in the cold.

    • I used to use one of those pretty regularly, though it was more of an upright design. The way they work, they tend to put off a lot of fumes when you start it, but once it gets going, it burns relatively clean. So I’d say you probably don’t want to have it running in your bedroom while you sleep for weeks on end, but if you start it outside, wait five minutes, and then bring it into your garage, you should be fine.

    • Been lurking until now, just 2 months into lifting heavy. Will post about that soon. However, this comment by nexoroth prompted me to register.

      READ THE DAMN MANUAL! Any fossil-fueled heater requires combustion air, and all of these types of manuals say in big letters that you need adequate ventilation, and they will say how much. e.g., open your garage door 6″, or some such. Otherwise you risk carbon monoxide poisoning. It prolly wouldn’t matter for a 1-2 hour session. But it helps to know the basic operational safety rules about these things.

    • Damn you. Totally fell down the internet rabbit-hole of YouTube Rocky training montages.

      After extensive data collection and montage review, I have determined that to get better at anything, especially working out in the cold, you have to grow a fucking beard.

  8. This is my first winter training in my garage.

    We haven’t had much lower than 25F at night so far and my garage seems to keep about 10F warmer than outside temp (although more humid).

    Usually I find that a pair of gym shorts under a pair of sweats helps keep the hips warm throughout the workout. The hoodie is also a must have. I like zip up so I can easily remove through the workout as I get warmer, and put back on quickly too.

    I don’t keep my bar inside though, and i find that so far it doesn’t really make that much of a difference in my training (i’m not doing anything super heavy right now as I’m coming off a few month intentional layoff). The cold is annoying for warm up sets with pressing, but not much worse than that. I reserve the right to change my mind when the temps get in the single digits.

    Mobility inside, in the same clothes as I’ll train in is a must though. Getting warmed up in a warm place really helps. I also find that doing some stretches inbetween sets helps keep everything warm during longer rests between work sets.

    Lastly is that I need to be diligent with using lotion on my hands after lifting. My hands have a tendency to crack in the winter and the cold steel only makes it worse. After lifting, I wash my hands to remove garage grit and slap on some lotion, which is helping keep those hands in good enough shape.

  9. I workout in my garage near Chicago, and it hasn’t been very cold here yet this year. I find long undies or under armor pants below my sweats to make squat warm ups more efficient.

    Pros: feels manly, head steam, Rocky IV fantasies, much more difficult to hit the dick on your cleans (acorn penis)
    Cons: cold bar, long warmups, fine line between warm and sweating

    I have this heater in my garage and it works great to get the temp to a more tolerable level.

  10. Question for Justin or anyone else that could help. I’ve been following the site for about 2 years now and appreciate all the info. My dad has been lifting with me twice a week for the past year he has gone from not being able to squat (high bar) the bar to full depth to doing 175# for 5 good and deep. He was just diagnosed has having a rotator cuff tear and will have surgery next Wednesday. The injury was not from lifting, but from working on houses. He will be in a sling for 6 weeks and have physical therapy after that. He is obviously disappointed in not being able to squat for awhile. Any suggestions of what he could do in the meantime to keep coming to the gym. He lifts at my house and I have a rack, bench, platform, bumper plates, iron weights and a full set of dumbells. He’s 62 years old about 190lbs. Thanks

    • There are different types of bars that allow a person to squat one handed. A safety squat bar would be the best bet, but you or your gym may not have it (and that’s understandable). If you don’t, you could have him leg press and figure out a way to do quality proximal hamstring work. GHR stuff may fill the hamstring void, and maybe you can figure out a way to secure weight for RDLs or good mornings.

  11. Long time no comment for me been hella busy with moving across the country and what not. Just so happens I moved to Utah from Ga and I’ve deffinately noticed that sometimes a longer warm up is needed to feel ready to go.

    • So much awesome! “You can feel the energy going in an out of your body, similar to an offensive lineman.” So he plays in the Prison Leagues, eh? Or “I have to pull harder at the bottom of the movement to overcome the drag of the bar.” And here the rest of us dummies just added more weight to create more drag on the bar. Or four half-chin ups and a huge WOO! right into the camera.

      Thank you Maslow.

  12. I always wanted to be strong enough to put that kind of bend in the bar, might have to look into that…lol

    Seriously though I have also seen videos of guys training with bamboo bars that bend and shake similar to that. Might have even been some Westside guys (should probably look into that before posting). Supposed to hammer the stabilizers I guess.

  13. My garage ranges from 18*F in the winter to 108*F in the summer. Tennessee is a weird and crazy place. I like the cold better than the blazing heat.

    I’ve got this heater and love it when the temps are cold http://www.mrheater.com/product.aspx?catid=41&id=116

    The worst thing is the bar being so cold that it hurts your hands. The pullup bar is the same way. I’ve thought about getting a heat gun or hair dryer and trying to heat them up a little but never done it.

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