How to Build Your Strength in the Winter

The Benefits of Strength Training

Regardless of your health and fitness goals, it’s an undisputed fact that building strength is a key component to whatever you desire to achieve. Increasing your strength will enhance your bone mineral density, connective tissue density, muscle mass, and fat burning hormonal activity, in addition to providing you with an enhanced resistance to injury and improved performance in sports. Strength training will be beneficial for just about any human on Earth, regardless of age, gender, experience level, or personal situation.

Building strength is similar to improving your skill at an instrument or technique in sport. It takes time and requires dedicated, quality repetitions. Once a given strength level is built, it takes a while to diminish in the absence of training.  And once you begin training again, your strength will return at a much faster rate than when you originally built it up. This has to do with muscle memory and your central nervous system’s ability to adapt quickly to a stimulus it’s already been exposed to. For these reasons, building strength should be a long-term goal, unlike a new year’s resolution to lose 20 pounds in a month or run a 6 minute mile.

Strength training is a worthy endeavor for everyone and it’s something you should commit to now so you can begin to reap the positive benefits for the rest of your life. Other than the health benefits I mentioned previously, building your strength will simply make everything else in the fitness world easier. Squatting will improve your running and nearly everything you do that requires the use of your hips. Pressing overhead and bench pressing will improve everything that requires the use of your upper body and your core stabilizing muscles.  And the best part is, not only will strength training enhance everything else you do, it will also do little to hinder it. If you use an intelligently periodized program like I describe below, you’ll reap the benefits of strength training without sacrificing any of your other goals.

Cycling Your Strength Training

Now I’ve already made the point that strength training should be a lifelong pursuit. But before any of you run for the hills, I want to make it clear that I don’t mean you should be lifting heavy weights every week of the year for the rest of your life. One of the most important aspects of training is variation.  Not only does varying your training allow your body to adapt and get fitter, but it’s also an important factor in maintaining motivation and enjoyment. Our bodies and minds thrive on variety, and if you remain too regimented for an extended period of time, it’s very easy to get stuck in a rut and lose motivation.

I maintain variety in my training and that of my clients by switching up the program to suit the goals and needs of each season. In the Spring and Summer, my goals revolve around enjoying short running events, biking, tennis tournaments, and generally enjoying the outdoors. To suit these goals, I take the gym outside with me during the sunny months, doing track and hill sprints, working on my kettlebell skills, using a weight vest for bodyweight calisthenics, and doing farmer’s walks and other fun stuff for conditioning. I do only a minimum of pure strength training in order to maintain the strength I build during the Winter.

Which leads to the strength cycle in my training. As the end of Fall comes near and winter comes knocking, I find solace back in the gym. Days are short, rainy, and cold, so outdoor sports are put on hold with the exception of skiing. For me, this is the perfect time of year to put in some dedicated work on my strength training. This involves full commitment both in the gym and in the kitchen. During the Spring and Summer, I eat a paleolithic diet that I self regulate to keep my bodyweight and fat levels constant throughout. As Winter rolls around, I start to ramp up my calories, taking in extra protein and fat from meat, avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, and eggs. If your goal is to add strength and keep improving your lifts, you MUST eat. Quality calories from protein, fat, and post workout carbohydrates will fuel your recovery processes, allowing you to build muscle and recover from workouts faster.

It’s inevitable that this will lead to a few pounds of fat gain. Without steroids or fabulous genetics, it’s very difficult to increase lean muscle mass while losing fat at the same time.  It can be done, but only with painstaking calorie calculations and at a very slow rate. Unless you’re a bodybuilder, there’s no reason to try and maintain a six pack while you’re trying to get stronger, especially during the winter. I figure I’ll be spending about 4 months straight with my shirt on, so what’s the harm in putting on a small amount of fat if it means quality muscle and strength gains?

Don’t Chase Two Rabbits at Once

This leads to the overarching topic of trying to chase many goals at once. One camp, to which CrossFit belongs, will assert that you can make quality gains by simultaneously training strength, endurance, and everything in between. Those on the other side of the coin will argue that it’s much more effective to periodize your training by focusing specifically on one type of training like strength, power, or endurance. In the end, this is one of those questions that HIGHLY depends on your goals. For me, I find it much more motivating to attack a small set of goals at once.

In the Winter, I get satisfaction out of putting all of my efforts toward getting stronger both in the gym and in the kitchen. Similarly, I enjoy seeing my rapid improvements in power and quickness in the Spring as I begin to drop body fat and start sprinting again. Chasing multiple goals, or two rabbits at once, has always frustrated me and stagnated my results. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to train for strength and seeing your lifts stall quickly because you’re watching your diet too carefully in an effort to stay lean. If you chase strength and leanness at the same time, it will either be a very slow process or your end up achieving neither.

How to Attack a Strength Cycle

When I get back in the gym, my main focus is regaining my technique in the main exercises I use for strength training:

  • Back Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Weighted Pullup

Just to be clear, you can’t train for strength on Nautilus machines, in a yoga studio, or on a swiss ball. The term ‘strength’ has been thrown around a lot lately in the fitness world and in most cases is used incorrectly. Strengh is the ability to maximally exert muscular force and cannot be gained or expressed using light weights and high repetitions. The health and performance benefits from strength training come only when you use structural (spinal loading) exercises at a weight of 75-95% of your 1 rep maximum, which means 2 to 6 reps per set at the most. Simply put, the exercises I listed above are not optional. They are crucial to developing strength and need to be learned.

One of the best ways to implement these exercises into a prepackaged strength program is by using Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength template. This exposes you to squatting and pressing 3 times a week, with an off day between each training day for recovery.  The template is so basic that it only involves two workouts, alternated, adding weight to your lifts each time.

Workout A
3×5 Squat
3×5 Bench Press
1×5 Deadlift

Workout B
3×5 Squat
3×5 Press
5×3 Power cleans

Workouts A and B alternate on 3 non-consecutive days per week.

If you’re looking for a little more variety in your strength training cycle, a great option is to try Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 Program. With this program, you’re training three days per week similar to Starting Strength.  However, each of the 4 workouts of the 5-3-1 program concentrates on a single lift. This program gives you a some leeway to add in some of your own assistance work after the main lift and even a little light conditioning.

A. Squat + assistance
B. Bench press + assistance
C. Deadlift + assistance
D. Military press + assistance

Starting Strength and 5-3-1 are two of the best prepackaged strength training programs you’ll find.

Building Around Your Own Goals

Regardless of how you choose to tackle this, the main messages I’m trying to get across are the importance of strength to your overall fitness and the benefits of periodization. Even if your goals aren’t in line with mine, I would still contend that a cycle of strength work every year would be beneficial even to an extreme endurance athlete who is far on the other end of the spectrum. If you’re a distance runner or triathlete, use the off season to decrease your endurance volume, save your joints, and build strength in the weight room.

If you don’t have any fitness goals, get some! I see so many people training the same way year around and at the same time they’re wondering why they’re not making progress or enjoying themselves anymore. Most of these folks are just going into the gym and ‘punching the clock’, trying to stay healthy and look better naked. It’s far more motivating and enjoyable to train for individual sports, team sports, and racing events. Even if it’s only recreational, it gives you something to strive for and a reason to prepare. The other benefit of setting goals and taking up sports is that it naturally sets you up for periodization. You experience the ebbs and flows of being in season and out of season and you adjust your training to match.

As I said before, we thrive on variety. Every Spring when I get out of the gym, I’m sick of pure strength training and would like nothing more than to get out on the track or the tennis court. Then like clockwork, as November rolls around, I find myself longing to get under the barbell again on a consistent basis. Regardless of when and how you go about it, take some time every year to re-dedicate yourself to strength training and you’ll reap the benefits.

Tom Woodward

I'm a personal trainer and nutrition consultant in San Francisco. I train clients for athletics and general health and fitness. I played high school baseball and basketball, college golf, and now play competitive tennis. My information and thoughts on health and fitness can be found at my website, Fitness Unchained.

2 thoughts on “How to Build Your Strength in the Winter

  • November 9, 2010 at 12:34 am

    As I was reading your post I kept coming up with the “Well what if…but..” questions and then you answered all of them as continued. I never used to like the winter time back when I ran competitively. It was so hard to stay motivated when it was raining out. Now that I don’t have to run, I too like going up to the mountain for a day of exercise.

  • November 8, 2010 at 3:36 am

    Hi Tom

    Thanks for such an interesting and informative post. I think you covered every aspect of strength training that I would need to keep me fit and healthy. It’s coming up for summer here in Oz so on topic for us here in the southern hemisphere. Thanks for sharing.

    Patricia Perth Australia


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