How to Lift Weights in the Cold


the author lifting a barbell outdoors while wearing a winter hat

Photo: Beth Skwarecki

This year has brought many new experiences. Lifting at home was a new-ish one to me. Lifting outdoors (necessitated by low ceilings in the garage) came next. And as the seasons changed, I’ve had to lift outdoors in the cold and the dark and the snow. You can do it. Here are my tips.

Safety first

First, you have to get your values in order. I decided I would only skip workouts if I was truly unable to lift, not if I merely didn’t want to. So, first rule: Getting a workout in is more important than being comfortable.

But there is another: Staying safe is more important than getting a workout in. Certain lifts require good traction between my shoes and the ground (like split jerks) so if it’s raining or snowing on clean and jerk day, I’ll swap it with another day in my workout schedule.

These priorities lead to compromises. I don’t trust gloves to keep my grip on heavy lifts, so I lift bare handed no matter the weather. Safety beats comfort every time.

Dress warm

You’ll need to layer up, of course. If you’re familiar with winter sports or if you run in the cold, you know all about this. Put on your fleece-lined running tights, your layers of shirts and hoodies, your hat or headband, your wool socks.

Beware the cords on hoodies, though. I have definitely flipped them up into my face a few times. Tuck them in, remove them, tie them behind the hood. Whatever it takes.

Anytime you’re adding a garment you wouldn’t normally lift in, test it out by wearing it during light lifts. Better to notice that your jacket restricts your arm movement on your warmup set than during a max effort attempt. Fortunately, you’re more likely to subtract than to add clothes as the workout goes on.

But definitely expect some surprises. A few others I’ve noticed:

  • It’s harder to get knee sleeves over insulated leggings than regular leggings, and sometimes they wrinkle up behind your knees.
  • A hat with a giant pom-pom is far less distracting than I would have expected. I wear it every cold day.
  • It’s annoying to put a lifting belt over the pockets and zipper on a regular hoodie, but a cropped hoodie makes dealing with a belt a breeze.

Stay warm between lifts

If you do a lot of circuit style workouts, where you keep your heart rate up between exercises, this won’t be an issue for you. But if you do exercises that require a good bit of rest between sets, I recommend setting up a warm “home base” that you return to while you’re resting.

I lift in the driveway, so my garage is that cozy cave. In there I have:

  • A camp chair
  • A fuzzy blanket
  • A pillow full of dry rice, which I microwave at the start of the workout
  • Extra layers of clothing

Remember how I said I don’t use gloves? After each lift I retreat to my cave, sit in the chair, pull the blanket over my lap, and hold that piping hot rice pillow until my hands feel warm again. (For even colder weather, I’m considering making a pair of small rice pillows out of socks so I can drape them over the spots where my hands go on the bar.)

An electric blanket or heating pad might be a nice addition. If I had a space heater, I might use one, safety permitting.

Plan for everything

Just as with winter running, winter lifting is easiest to get used to if you start before the weather gets too bad. One day, you’ll have to put on a long-sleeved shirt. After a while, you might switch from early morning sessions to lifting after work when the weather is a bit warmer. This allows you to gradually get used to the cold, but it also gives you a little more time to think about logistics.

For example, if it snows, shoveling out the part of the driveway where I lift is top priority. (Ideally, I’ll give it some time to warm up in the sun as well.) I have an old gray bath towel that I use to dry off the mats, or that I can use to dry off my equipment before I put it away, to stave off rust.

It gets dark early these days. Do you have a good source of light? A shop light from a hardware store is a good option if you don’t have house lights that shine in the right place. (Somebody once asked if my lifting videos were taken in the light of my car’s headlights. They aren’t, but that would have been a good idea.)

Finally, you have to be flexible. I check the weather at the beginning of the week to figure out which lifts I should do on which day. If the weather is truly impossible, I can do certain exercises indoors and postpone the rest. Some days, our tips on making the most of limited gym time will come in handy, even if your gym is the great outdoors.



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