Resistance Training in Cold Weather
Danny O'Dell explains how to cope with resistance training in those cold climates.
Resistance training places high internal and external load demands on the human body. It must be physically prepared to meet and exceed these artificially designed stresses. To successfully adapt, conditions within the body must be favourable. Temperature variations, however, can sometimes overpower the metabolic responses of the organism.
Weight training in an unheated building is the gold standard for hardcore lifting. Anyone can go to an air-conditioned or heated commercial gym to lift, but how many lifters look forward to exercising in the ambience of a near-freezing outbuilding gym. It separates the serious true strength athlete from the wannabes.
I am NOT saying a cold environment is a bed of roses, but it can be a strong motivator to keep moving and stay in the correct work-to-rest ratio. Resting is not an option when it is cold. Movement produces heat and heat keeps the body ready for action. Under certain conditions, however, it can be downright dangerous to be out in the cold. If you develop any chest pains when you exercise in the cold, but not when it's warm outside, see your doctor. The cold air hitting your face constricts the blood vessels; this, in turn, raises your blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder to pump blood to the body. The heart rate also slows, so less blood reaches the heart. If your heart is working harder, it needs more blood. But the slower heart rate is bringing less blood which results in decreased oxygen supply. Now your heart hurts.
The United States Air Force conducts one of the world's premier Air Crew Survival Schools. The training provided through this school specifically addresses cold weather survival by stating the following in the instructor's manual:
"Cold is a serious stress source, even in mild degrees, it lowers efficiency. Extreme cold numbs the body and dulls the will to do anything except getting warm. Cold numbs up the body by lowering the flow of blood to the extremities (we use these in ALL of our exercises) and results in sleepiness". (USAF 1985)
The authors of Exercise Physiology state: "the normal heat transfer gradient is from the body to the environment, and the core temperature is generally maintained without physiologic strain. In extreme cold however excessive heat loss can occur, particularly when the person is resting."(Katch et al. 1996)
Resting between sets is normal, especially when working in the 85 to 95% 1RM range. Schniepp et al. (2002) reported the results of tests run on ten well-trained cyclists and their response to cold water immersion.
The cyclists, who were exposed to cold water before a strength-cycling test, showed the adverse effects the cold temperature had on power output. The cold affected blood flow, metabolism, and the balance of agonist-antagonist muscular activity. "These factors will undoubtedly affect the rate of energy production and muscular efficiency." (Schniepp 2002)
Ferritti (1992) and cited by Schniepp et al. (2002) "demonstrated a temperature-dependent relationship on the rate of Adenosine Triphosphate hydrolysis, as a reduction in ATP resynthesis occurs with an associated decrease in the rate of cross-bridge detachment. A relatively greater number of cross-bridge attachments have been found in cooler muscles, increasing power absorption proportional to the external work required to lengthen the muscle." If ATP is slow in breaking down, then power decreases cannot be far behind.
Shivering is the body's attempt to heat itself through muscle action, but it stops at core temperatures of 85 to 90 degrees. Normally a person exercising will not become this cold. If they do, then something is drastically wrong.
We function best at core temperatures between 96 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and exposures to extremes can result in substantial decreases in physical efficiency (USAF 1985). Keeping our core in the suggested efficient range can be easy if a few precautions are taken at the outset. Cold temperatures work against your power production in the weight room, unless you are prepared to address the temperature dilemma. Overcoming the cold is possible, but it takes effort and planning.
Then, to maximize gains in a cold environment, some pre-training changes must take place. Knowledge of how and where heat is lost will serve as a beginning point.
The skin and tissues of the body strive to remain at a constant temperature despite the fluctuations of the external temperatures. Regulation is by the circulating blood removing heat from the working cells. This excess energy is transported to the surface of the skin where it is exposed to the environment.
Heat loss occurs in five ways: conduction, convection, evaporation, radiation and respiration. We will concern ourselves only with the conduction, evaporation and respiration of body heat while in the cold weight room. Respiration will play a role in heat loss if we are breathing heavily during our squats and deadlifts.
According to Katch et al. (1996), radiation of heat accounts for approximately 65% of the total heat loss. Heat is lost rapidly from an uncovered head. The head, neck, hands, armpits, groin and feet all lose heat due to the proximity of the blood vessels to the surface of the skin.
The head is about "8% of the total body surface can lose as much as 30 to 40%" of the total heat loss." This is a substantial amount of heat loss, and if we are to continue to exercise effectively, it must be stopped. Clothing is one line of defence against the cold. Clothing, however, derives its insulation from the dead air that surrounds each fibre, so adding more layers of clothing adds dead air space around your body. The clothing keeps the dead air close to the skin and prevents it from circulating away. "The thicker the zone of trapped air next to the skin, the more effective the insulation."(USAF 1985)
What you should wear
"Likewise, clothing next to the skin must also be effective in transporting moisture (wicking action) away from the body's surface to the next insulating material layer for evaporation." Polypropylene, a synthetic that insulates and dries quickly, can be very effective in this capacity. Good workout clothing should "match the weather", and it should "provide a semitropical micro-climate for the body and prevent chilling." (Arnheim 1989)
The covering should be of synthetic fabric such as polyester, which is lightweight, dries easily and retains its insulating properties even when wet. The fabric should also breathe, i.e. if you sweat, it should allow the water vapours to escape and not be trapped next to your skin. "If the water vapour cannot evaporate through the clothing it will condense, freeze and reduce the insulation value of the clothing and cause the body temperature to go down." (USAF 1985)
As a side note, the old saying of "cotton kills" is accurate in the weight room as well. When cotton gets wet, it loses all of its insulating qualities and remains wet for a long time. Once a piece of clothing becomes wet, especially cotton, heat is transferred outwardly at 25 times its standard rate (USAF 1985). Wet clothing " facilitates heat loss from the body because water conducts heat much faster than air."(Katch et al. 1996)
Take care to layer your workout clothing. This gives you a chance to regulate the heat by removing some but not all as you warm-up during the session. It is even better to have a button or zipper at the top to allow for a stovepipe effect. A stovepipe effect means you open the top part and allow the air to circulate from the bottom of the garment to escape out the unbuttoned or unzipped top portion.
Naturally, good shoes are essential components of lifting gear. You should not go out to lift in the cold with sandals or tennis shoes. Protect your toes and feet by wearing the appropriate footwear.
Exposure to cold
A danger in working out in an unheated room for an extended time comes from exposure to the cold. Frostbite, frostnip and extreme, hypothermia, can result if care is not taken to prevent their onset. Prevention of this is essential. Keeping the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, hands and fingers covered and warm will, in most cases, prevent frostbite and frostnip.
Also, be on the alert for symptoms of hypothermia, a dangerous lowering of the core temperature, which creeps up on a person. Confusion, lack of coordination, and slurred speech are just a few of the symptoms to be aware of when in the cold for a long time. Immediate warming up is needed in the early stage of hypothermia. If advanced stage symptoms are present, then CORRECT MEDICAL TREATMENT IS REQUIRED.
Now you have learned a few of the problems of cold weather exercising it is time to take advantage of the situation. A solid warm-up is essential. A warm-up prepares the body for the upcoming activity by loosening the muscles, moving the blood faster, and increasing the breathing rate.
Arnheim (1989) states in his book Modern Principles of Athletic Training "An athlete may fail to warm-up sufficiently or may become chilled because of relative inactivity for varying periods demanded by the particular sport either during competition of training: consequently, the athlete is exceedingly prone to injury."
Another danger to be aware of is that "peripheral vasoconstriction during cold weather predisposes the extremities to cold injury, the temperature of the skin and extremities may fall to dangerous levels. Early signs include tingling and numbness in the fingers/toes or a burning sensation of the ears/nose. If these signs are not heeded, frostbite may occur." (Katch et al. 1996)
Even though you have more than likely just left your nice warm home to go outside, you still have to warm-up your muscles before working out. Begin by making circles with your arms and legs, ever-widening circles until the outer ranges of motion are reached. These are not ballistic moves; they are dynamic.
Next, do some light cardiovascular work to get the heart rate up into the working zone. 5 to 10 minutes depending on the temperature; the colder it is, the longer this portion needs to be to get physically ready to workout. Exercise selection will also dictate the length and time spent in the warm-up. If larger muscles are being worked, then a longer time will be required to warm them up.
Move on to the movement specific activity, i.e. if you are squatting then do a few free bodyweight squats. Add a bit of weight to the bar and do a few more squats. Continue in this fashion until you are thoroughly warmed up. (But don't do the routine in the warm-up.) Now you should be ready to hit the heavyweights to begin your workout routine.
The cold weather triad of cold temperatures, heat loss, and an inadequate warm-up are invitations to injury if left unheeded.
PS: Keep this in mind as you lift in the cold. There are no mosquitoes around are there? The flies are non-existent, and the fan is not making noise as it blows the hot summer air around. Training does not get any better than this.
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About the Author
Danny O`Dell is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning coach from the USA. He is the author of several training manuals including The Ultimate Bench Press Manual, Wilderness Basics, Strength training Secrets, Composite training and Power up your Driving Muscles. Danny has published articles in national and international magazines describing the benefits of living a healthy fitness lifestyle.