Garage Gym Training: Building Strength in Cold Weather

Pictured Above: Modern Mature Male’s Strength, Conditioning, and Performance Training Facility

I have been lifting in a cold garage for over four years now. But sometimes I thought about this, how do I lift weights in a cold garage?

Lifting weights in a cold garage may not seem ideal. It is uncomfortable at most, requires massive amounts of moxy and grit, and it seems like a bad idea altogether. However, there are some tips and tricks I discovered through experience and research that may make your experience while lifting weights in the cold less miserable and somewhat satisfying. Some of these strategies involve using a portable heater and protecting some of your equipment indoors, while others require that the trainer(s) wear multiple clothing layers, be physically and psychologically prepared, and constantly move throughout their session to stay warm and limber.

Sometimes in life, the cards may not be in your favor… if you look at it in that perspective. Maybe your biggest problem in life may turn into the missing link you need to elevate your training to the next level.

I train in the morning. It is the only time of the day that works for me. Therefore, I am quite familiar with training in the cold. Most of my lifting takes place during the coldest hours of the day. This morning the gym temperature was 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Believe it or not, I was actually quite comfortable, and I do not use heat.

I also lift outdoors in warmer climate just outside of my garage gym in the street, challenging myself with intense strongman medleys and conditioning sessions in the street. In the summer, it can get very hot and in the winter, it can be brutally cold. While I do find that lifting weights in very hot weather is more difficult than lifting weights in the cold, it is still no easy task. So, I decided to share some information about what I found worked well for me as well as other recommendations I found from other lifters who lift in harsh weather conditions and environments.

The Importance of Layering Up

I typically dress according to how I would be if I am training outside. So, wearing layers is the best strategy that works. Wearing your thick winter jacket or coat is not ideal as it will most likely interfere with your workout. For example, if you are strength training or powerlifting, doing barbell, dumbbell, log, or keg training with your big winter coat does not make any sense but can throw off your form and technique and lead to injury.

So, dress in layers. Get some warm socks. Use a hat or beanie if you want. I do not wear gloves, as I need to continue to train main lifts and gloves would only get in the way. Now some may argue that lifting weights with gloves will challenge the grip therefore could be a plus. I don’t disagree, but when lifting maximal loads, I don’t want to be limited by my hands. Others may counter that tight fitting work gloves will not interfere with grip. For certain exercises, I would agree but the best gloves in the world are not as good as the hands. This is particularly true with exercises that involve pulling maximal loads (e.g., deadlifts, barbell rows, clean and press, etc.). With such movements, I want to grip the bar with my skin and lift as much weight as possible. If you are not doing any barbell work that requires grip strength, you may find that wearing gloves outside to do other exercises like swinging a sledgehammer, lifting odd objects, or performing calisthenics may be more comfortable and practical. In between barbell work sets, you can wear heavy gloves to warm-up your hands.

But some of you may ask, “What should I wear specifically?” So, I will share what I found works well for me and for a lot of other cold gym lifters out there in the world. It is recommended that you should wear at least three layers minimum before going out:

  • Your first layer should be a lightweight, synthetic material that wicks away any moisture. Your first layer of clothing should definitely not be cotton, as cotton will trap moisture close to your body, which increases your risk of hypothermia. I would also highly suggest investing in a pair of neoprene compression shorts/tights to create dense layer of supportive material around the hip, quad, and hamstring region that increases and retains body warmth and protects the area from injury.
  • Your other layers will vary depending on how long you stay out in the cold. For cold garage strength training barbell workouts, you will probably stay no longer than two hours, so, I can get away with a compression shirt, lightweight t-shirt, and a sweater hoodie, totaling 3 layers. If I were to stay out for longer, I would definitely wear another layer of clothing for more warmth.
  • For other workouts that put you in the cold for longer durations of time or require you to lift in the harshest of conditions, you will definitely err on the safer side and continue to layer beyond the three specified above, ideally choosing to layer compression garments before traditional cotton or fleece.

Lifting in a Cold Garage

Invest in a Portable Heater:

The reason that I don’t use heat is that it takes too long for the temperature to rise. I would literally need to start heating the garage in the middle of the night for any noticeable change by early morning. Like many garages, mine is not well insulated. As a result, much of the heat is lost. I’ve tried to heat it in the past, but the cost to do so wasn’t something I was willing to pay. I eventually figured out that it is easier and less expensive to dress appropriately.

If you have a portable space heater lying around at home, this is a perfect opportunity to put it in use. Though it will not make your entire garage warm, it may temporarily give you some peace of mind, which is priceless.

Use a Hair Dryer and Chalk:

Yes, the barbell and metal plates I have in my home gym are very cold in the winter. But after a while of moving some weight around, you will adjust to the cold bar and iron plates. However, where I live, it does not get super cold like other parts of the country. Even though the West Coast is not known for excessive cold weather, a high sustained wind and chill factor can make weather in the low 40’s feel 20 degrees Fahrenheit colder and wreak havoc on the face and skin. Therefore, your best bet is to use a hair dryer to warm-up the barbell. Use the hair dryer for a minute or two before your very first set. You will find that you may not need to warm-up the bar after that since your hands are both adjusting to the cold and warming up the barbell.

Use Chalk! Chalk provides an extra layer between your hands and the bar. You won’t need much to notice the difference. Even a small amount of chalk can make cold bars much more tolerable to hold and lift.

The combination of chalking up the hands and warming the bar makes for a happy lifter. My lifting does not suffer, nor does my wallet.

Keep Moving:

This is one of my favorite tactics. Not really a favorite, just common sense if it is one of your only choices… As humans, we are programmed to move around in order to not freeze to death. So, why not follow our human instincts when we are in a cold gym or training environment? Pacing around, using bands to keep the muscles warm, or just moving your body will distract you from the harsh cold. You will get used to breathing in cold air and will be more loosened up and prepared when doing heavy work sets.

Bring the Barbell Indoors After Training:

Since I train in my garage, this is a no brainer. If you solely have an outdoor gym facility, after your workout, you can move your barbell and other equipment indoors so that it does not get cold and uncomfortable to grip. This is one strategy that you can utilize if you absolutely hate the feel of cold barbells and steel.

Warm-Up Thoroughly:

Just like moving around, this will help you get adjusted and adapted to your work out environment. It will suck at first. Heck, it might even feel cold as hell, but keep moving and do not forget your purpose for training in the cold gym. This tactic not only helps you adapt to extreme environments, but builds resilience to the cold and cultivates fortitude and a sense of personal satisfaction. Utilize this time to build character and challenge yourself to overcome obstacles (improvise, adapt, and overcome).

Prepare Yourself Mentally: 

It is going to be cold. You know that part. So, embrace the suck and challenge yourself. Know that you are training to get stronger and this is but one obstacle in your path of success. Will you let that stop you?

It is definitely not fun to train in the cold. So, stay focused and train your ass off. This can be a good opportunity to shorten your rest times and really push your limits of strength, determination, and mental toughness.

If you do not believe that you can adjust to the cold, consider this. If you live in a cold climate environment, you have probably endured severe rain and sleet, wrestled with sustained wind and heavy fog, and shoveled copious amounts of never-ending snow. As you may notice, when you first started to shovel snow, you are cold, your joints are stiff, and you generally feel terrible. You just have not adjusted to the cold temperature yet. Thirty minutes later, you find your body warm, and you are now shoveling snow at a faster rate to complete the job and remove yourself from the harsh conditions. You may even need to remove a layer or two of clothing since you are now starting to work-up a sweat from shoveling at a sustained rate. The same concept of warming up applies to training in the gym. Once you acclimatize to the cold, your workouts will be more tolerable, you will embrace the suck more, and you will achieve a strong sense of accomplishment.

If you can warm-up when shoveling the driveway, you can certainly warm-up while exercising. I’d much rather wear a few extra layers and warm-up a few extra minutes than need to work extra hours to pay for heat. Some may call my approach crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Benefits of Cold Weather Training 

Working out in the cold also has its benefits. Though comfort is definitely not one of its strengths, here are some reasons why you shouldn’t mind working out in your cold gym.

Improvement in Aerobic Capacity:

Challenging your body in the cold weather is a great way to train your heart and lungs to be more efficient. Your body is working harder to keep your body temperature up and as a result, you can strengthen your workload capacity.

Burn Excess Calories:

Your body does not like change. So, when you train in an unfavorable environment, the body needs to work much harder to get back to a comfortable state. So, if you train in the extreme cold, your body will work harder, helping you burn a bit more calories. It will not be a drastic amount of calories, but it is some extra benefit to motivate you.

Cold Weather Warm-Up:

If you were in a warmer climate or season, you may be more prone to skip the warm-ups due to laziness or time constraints. However, in the winter, your body may feel cold, stiff, and sore more often. So, it is even more important to get your body warmed up and ready to tackle heavy weight on your working sets. After all, nobody will recommend you do a heavy set of squats or deadlifts if you are frozen like an ice cube.

May Reduce Susceptibility to Sickness: 

There are a number of research studies done that have revealed how exercising in the cold may help reduce your flu risk during the winter. This can be helpful for people who need to take control of their lives, be proactive, and promote better lifestyle habits.

Precautions of Cold Weather Training

No one likes to hear bad news, but it would be irresponsible to completely ignore the risks associated with working out in your cold gym. There is a reason why almost all strength related athletic competitions are held indoors with moderately warm temperatures. Our bodies have one less thing to worry, like the annoying cold weather.

Muscle Strains and Tears:

As the temperature plummets below freezing and well below, our body will react to try to adjust for the core temperature drop. Our muscles and tendons will become less flexible and tighten up naturally in cold weather as the blood in our bodies relocates to provide for life saving adaptations. This is one reason why it is essential to warm-up properly and to make sure your body is ready for more intense, heavy sets. Elevating your heart rate through movement, mimicking movement patterns with little to no weight, and using soft tissue massage and mobility work are good ways to make sure that your body doesn’t tense up during cold weather training.

Frostbite: 

This is a common issue in cold weather. Frostbite occurs when your tissues begin to freeze. Blood flow slows down and ice crystals begin to form inside your cells, which kills cellular tissue. If left untreated and unnoticed, this can lead to deadly infections or amputations.

This is one reason why it is recommended to wear layers while working out. While you definitely do not need to bring your heavy winter jacket, you do need to make sure your layers are sufficient to both keep you warm and mobile during the entire workout.

Early signs of frostbite are numbness and discolored skin on a certain area. If you do notice any signs of frostbite, do not aggravate the area. Instead, find warmth inside and treat the area with warm water or body heat. Do not use hot water.

Hypothermia: 

Another important concern to watch out for when exercising in extreme cold weather environments is hypothermia. Extended exposure to cold weather may cause your body to lose too much heat too quickly. A drastic drop in body temperature, usually below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, slows heart rate, breathing, and brain function. Soon to follow, confusion, fatigue and organ failure will occur.

This is another critical reason why dressing appropriately in layers is a must if you need or choose to work out in a cold gym. The multiple layers of clothing help conserve your body heat, and at the same time, do not impact your performance.

While the dangers of working out in the cold do sound extreme and possibly life-threatening, there is no not need to feel fear or trepidation. By following the tips and advice listed in this article and by exercising your own intuition and good common sense, training in a cold gym is perfectly harmless and safe to do.

Stay Strong,

Brett Place