Pandemic Programming Part 3: A Lifter’s Survival Guide
Lifting outdoors or in an uninsulated space can be tough. The learning curve is steep and the risk of missing workouts is much higher. But you can overcome these obstacles and thrive while training in the elements if you properly prepare.
Pandemic Programming Part 3: A Lifter’s Survival Guide
By: Monica Rosenberg, RN
Coach Monica graduated from nursing school Summa Cum Laude and received her RN license in 2019, beginning her career concurrently with the pandemic. She’s battle-ready to engage head-on with helping you conquer obstacles. Monica has always held the belief that “the best way through is together as a team” close to her chest, and that’s what you will be. Get Coaching from Monica.
I have been lifting outside since March of 2020. Before that, I always trained in a climate-controlled facility. Lifting outdoors or in an uninsulated space can be tough. The learning curve is steep and the risk of missing workouts is much higher. You have to deal with rain, sun, darkness, ice, humidity, bugs, snow, heat, and cold. But you can overcome these obstacles and thrive while training in the elements if you properly prepare.
Beat the Heat
Rising temperatures over the summer was the first adversary I faced while adjusting to training in the (not) so great outdoors. Hydration is key here. I recommend having plenty of water on hand and even some type of sports drink to replenish your electrolytes if it’s extremely hot outside (above 87°F for me). When the body is too hot, we produce sweat to try to cool ourselves off. Besides losing water, we also lose electrolytes, like sodium. It’s important to replenish these electrolytes during your workout if lifting weights for a prolonged period in this type of climate. I adjusted my workout times to be in the early evening when the heat wouldn’t be as brutal.
Sun’s Out, Gun’s Out
Prior to gyms shutting down back in 2020, I had never trained outside before. Given my chalk-white complexion, the sun and I do not get along very well. Chalking up my hands is the only way the rest of me manages to look tan. To nobody’s surprise, I burn easily and it’s not very comfortable crisping up while trying to get my lift on. Sun protection is critical—sunglasses, sunblock, and sitting in a shady area between sets. Long sleeves and bucket hats may not be ideal if the temperature is over 90°F. SPF 9000 and a towel to wipe off your hands after applying is helpful, as most sun protection products have a greasy feel.
There’s more than just heat and sun to combat in the summer. Humidity is one hell of an opponent. It makes it hard to breathe, like you’re wading through water during sets. Combined with plenty of water and perhaps a sports drink, chalk up a bit heavier—and don’t be afraid to use straps if you find your grip slipping at lighter weights. Grip failure is no reason to miss reps! Besides these slight training modifications, humidity is one reason I tried to keep my plates and barbell inside when I was not training, so that they’re not exposed to moisture and then rust. Now I lift in my garage but, even so, the humidity can creep into my space. I have yet to invest in a dehumidifier but maybe it’ll make an appearance on my Christmas list. I oil my barbell about once a week or every other week to combat the tropical terrors of the outdoors. Whether it’s heat, humidity, or the sun, early evening workout times seemed to work for us as it dimmed the harshness of those conditions. Lifting earlier in the morning may also work in your favor but it’s not my personal preference.
Honestly, this is one of the most annoying elements. Lifting while it’s drizzling isn’t bad, but it’s not me I’m concerned about. Rain poses a threat to my equipment. Metal and water equals rust. A little rust on the outer rims of plates has some rugged appeal, but I don’t want the sleeves of my barbell to seize up and not spin freely. It won’t always be clear skies and sunshine when it’s time to lift, so before having the ability to lift in a garage, I invested in a tent to put up when it rained and snowed. It was easy to put up when I was with my buddy Andre, but due to my height, it was tough to assemble on my own. A step stool may be handy when assembling it by yourself. When purchasing the tent make sure your rack and bar will be completely covered. Also important: What’s your lockout height for the press? Make sure there will be enough overhead clearance. Being vertically challenged, practically any outdoor tent on Amazon worked for me. Downpour? Thunder and lightning? Stay inside. Despite what your t-shirt says, you’re not Thor.
Critters. Insects. They were a pain! Mosquitos were our main issue. We tried our best to avoid them by lifting earlier in the day. When night fell, they were the worst. There will likely be mosquitos at any time of day in the summer, so bug spray is a wise investment—or maybe some tiki torches on either side of your rack.
Besides the bites being irritating, every little blood sucker is siphoning hemoglobin from you, a precious protein transporting oxygen to your muscles. The audacity! On one occasion we encountered a gigantic spider (extra small spider if you’re from Australia) that made our rack its personal domicile. The nerve of being a squatter without actually lifting anything. While we did appreciate the horde of mosquitoes laced up in its thick web, it was still trespassing. Rest in peace—both to the spider and broom that was collateral damage in its extermination.
The Dark Side
At first, I did not find the lack of sunlight to be disturbing. However, that soon changed when I could no longer see the knurling well enough to evenly set up. More tragically, it was nearly impossible to capture a clear enough video for review, even with the flash on. We couldn’t rack up PRs and not have a clear video to celebrate!
Without the resources to install outdoor lights, the tiki torch idea would actually double as a solution for the darkness, too. I did find that adjusting the brightness on the video after it was taken would help with visibility. Our best bet was to move our training earlier in the day. This isn’t the worst element of outdoor training, but it can make it hard to set up.
Frosty The Gainzman
Depending on where you live in the world, cold temperatures and snow may be a factor for you when training in the great outdoors. When fall and winter come to New York, it not only gets darker earlier but the temperature becomes a significant factor around 30°F. It may be in your best interest to train when the sun is out in the afternoon. In the winter, wearing black and absorbing the warm sunshine will give you a slight advantage. As with anything, the body will adapt and won’t feel so cold when you’ve been training in these conditions for a while. Nevertheless, the appropriate attire is important for both safety and comfort.
Pants are a personal training adversary of mine, due to most not passing the squat test (i.e. being able to perform a squat without risk of tearing the article of clothing), but staying warm is the name of the game here. During 2020, I hadn’t been squatting heavy lately due to the uneven ground, wooden rack, and lack of safeties, so having warmer clothes that fit more snugly was not as much of a concern for me. While looser sweatpants may be easier to squat in, there will be more room for cold air to get in through the leg openings. For this reason, it may be beneficial to pull your socks over the legs of your pants to get a tighter seal without impacting your ability to squat. Maybe put shorts on underneath for an added layer, and thick socks if you can still fit into your lifting shoes with them. It’s fairly easy for your toes to get cold. Long sleeves, thermal hoodies, hats, and thermal underwear are all decent choices, too. Even with the cold temperatures, I don’t lift with gloves on. I do recommend putting on gloves between sets or putting your hands in your pockets to keep warm.
Regardless of what you choose to wear for arctic training, it may be a good idea to pop your clothes in the dryer for a few minutes prior to your scheduled session. Think of it like a head start for your workout. You could also do jumping jacks or some other cardio warm-up prior to training outside. I own an air bike and I have yet to use it before a lifting session outdoors. A minute or two on a bike wouldn’t be a bad idea to grease the joints, but take care to not begin sweating, as this will lower your body temperature rapidly in cold weather.
Try to keep your sessions to 45 minutes or less with as little rest time as you can manage. Try to not sit around between sets—keep walking and stay covered. Exposed skin could lead to frostbite. Change the weights right after you finish your set. Don’t waste time during your warm-ups, and try to keep rest periods under five minutes between work sets. The goal is to get in and get out as swiftly as possible. The colder it is, the less time I’d spend outside and the shorter my rest periods would be. This may mean some changes to programming, in the form of AMRAP or EMOM sets to cut down the duration of your workout. Doing something is better than doing nothing at all, and losing momentum in training can make it harder to start back up.
If you do train outside, keeping your equipment indoors until you’re ready to train keeps the barbell and plates warm (i.e., not painful to grip) and it gives you a good warmup in the form of setting up your training area! If you train in a garage without a heat source, it may still be worthwhile to keep your bar inside for the sake of your hands. You only really carry the plates to load the bar but you WILL be gripping the bar every set you perform.
Ice Ice Baby
When I know it’s going to snow, I put down some rock salt beforehand so there’s less chance of it freezing into ice. I would wait until the snowing calmed down, or try to squeeze in your session before it starts, if possible. You don’t want to shovel, lift, and then have to shovel again. Luckily, the few times I have lifted in snow, it stopped falling at some point and I could shovel it away without worrying about another layer accumulating. If it doesn’t stop heavily snowing on your training day, you may just have to take a rest day from traditional barbell work. That doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate with your coach and do something productive inside—but see how you feel after shoveling.
Even with a generous salting outside, snow is usually accompanied by ice. It’s incredibly important to chip away any ice from where you’ll be standing during your lifts. It would be awfully dangerous to slip with any amount of weight in your hands or on your back.
I would shovel my driveway, clean off my car, shovel my backyard lifting area, and then lift later in the day after hot cocoa and food. Take a break between shoveling and lifting. Get out of your wet clothes from shoveling—put on dry clothes and warm up. This is one scenario where I would opt to wear my snow boots to lift. After shoveling and chipping away the ice, the ground is still wet and it could re-freeze. Snow boots have better grip on the wet ground and your feet will stay warmer with layers of socks.
In early 2021 I’ve had the privilege of clearing out my garage and have been able to acquire a metal rack, complete with a pull-up bar. I’d love to hear how everyone else has been adjusting to training since March of 2020. Have you gone back to your gym? Did you build a home gym? Has your gym closed? How did you adapt and how did your training adapt? Has changing how you train changed you?