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August 20, 2022
Brrrrrrr, baby! Nothing beats finishing a workout with a big old bath packed with ice.
Ice baths, also called cold water immersion, were introduced by a guy named Wim Hoff, and have become a popular biohack to improve performance and other health markers. But whether ice baths are truly beneficial is a heated discussion coursing through the fitness industry.
So, are ice bath benefits worth sitting in frigid water for? Or, are they just another hyped-up fitness trend? Let's chill out for a bit and use this article to discuss all things cold water. If you're interested in ice baths, get ready to take the plunge and bathe in some new information.
We'll go over:
The question remains: Should you take the icy dip? And, will we stop using puns?
At its core, cold therapy, or cold hydrotherapy, is a form of active recovery. In theory, the best time to use it is when you're done crushing a series of tough compound lifts as the extreme cold is said to shock the central nervous system, yielding a variety of benefits.
There are several cold therapy methods. We'll discuss the ice bath in far more detail below and briefly introduce two other common recovery methods. The two other cold recovery methods include:
Taking a cold shower is the cheapest form of cold therapy. It consists of using the coldest water you can with your shower. If interested in soothing your muscles after a chest and shoulders workout (or any strength training session!), this is a good place to start.
These are very expensive and are usually only done at recovery specialist establishments. They consist of a chamber big enough for a person to sit in and then use nitrogen to decrease the temperature.
While more research needs to be done on cold therapy, there are some positive effects on several body markers. Some of these include:
We'll go into more detail on these benefits shortly.
Also called cold water immersion, an ice bath literally consists of filling up a bathtub with ice and water and jumping in. With its rise in popularity for recovery (and after a tough back and biceps workout, trust us, you'll want recovery), you can find a large selection of tubs to use for this, including:
Price-wise, there is a wide range, with prices starting at $100 and going all the way up to $10,000 plus. Check out our post that covers the Best Ice Bath Tubs on the market for more information.
The water in an ice bath is typically between 45-57 degrees Fahrenheit (0-15 degrees Celsius), give or take a few degrees. The best way to get this temperature is to use a water-ice ratio of 3:1. Once this is done, you have an approximate 10-minute wait time before its bath time.
In order to receive maximum cold water immersion benefits, you want your entire body submerged with just your head above water. But be warned! Be sure to get in slowly as the extreme cold can cause a shock to your system.
The proposed mechanisms of cold water immersion occur due to the shock and reaction of the sympathetic nervous system1. Some of these mechanisms include redistribution of blood flow as the blood vessels constrict, a reduction in core temperature and tissue temperature, and added hydrostatic pressure.
These factors lead to the benefits listed below, which are often reason enough to convince many to take the plunge. Let's talk about them in more detail.
The most common reason people use cold water immersion is due to the belief that it will heal sore muscles. We've all experienced DOMS after a tough weight lifting session, and have hoped it would go away sooner rather than later, especially since DOMS isn't necessary for muscle growth.
It's suggested that due to the blood vessels being constricted, muscle and tissue damage has a smaller inflammatory response, leading to less muscle soreness. So does it work?
Let's let the research guide us here. First, a study used cold water immersion on elite Rugby players, finding it caused a reduction in fatigue and a slight decrease in soreness2. Separate research found that ice baths produced a modest positive effect on MMA athletes' perceived muscle soreness. However, there was no performance improvements3.
And a different study examined a group following a heavy resistance leg workout training program. The use of cryotherapy, cold water immersion, and a placebo were used to compare recovery. All differences in outcomes were trivial with some markers actually favoring the placebo group4.
This seems to be a personal decision. If jumping in a cold bath is worth potentially having fewer sore muscles, it may work.
There is some evidence that cold water baths can improve an innate immune response through various mechanisms such as augmenting cytokine production5. It's also been proposed that ice baths can increase antioxidants like glutathione as well as other bacteria-fighting cells such as NK cells6.
If this were true, one would expect to be better prepared to fight bacterial infection and see fewer symptoms of sickness throughout the year. Unfortunately, we could not find data on this, but there are many fitness experts who promise it works.
Keep in mind that cold showers report the same benefit. Also, it requires consistent exposure for meaningful effects.
Cold water can have a pretty big effect on our hormone levels. This includes increased secretion of the hormone norepinephrine, which improves focus and awareness7.
It makes sense as anyone who has been in very cold weather has experienced the feeling of being wide awake. But does this effect last long? Not really. It's also important to consider that if you're fatigued you may be exercising too much. It's important to avoid overtraining and burnout, or it will alter your energy levels.
Regardless, remember this study as we'll discuss it more below.
We're going to just sum up all the other benefits by saying there seems to be a lack of science-based evidence. This includes things like improving your mental state and emphasizing the importance of sleep.
While there are assorted testimonies and theories, there's not a lot to science-based benefits to report on.
Now, let's discuss the disadvantages, so you can make an informed decision on whether ice baths are best for you.
There are two major applicable disadvantages worth discussing in more detail.
Even if it might help reduce DOMS, so does active recovery, like walking. Trigger point massages are also beneficial. These are cheaper and much easier to do.
And there are even more serious issues to consider.
Yes. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown that taking an ice bath isn't conducive for trying to build muscle. In fact, the conclusion of one study published stated that cold water immersion should be avoided if muscle hypertrophy is the goal8.
The research concluded that cold exposure has been found to reduce skeletal muscle protein anabolism (muscle growth) while increasing catabolism (muscle breakdown).
While the study just mentioned showed the decrease in muscle size did not affect muscle strength, it didn't improve it either. However, a separate study examined the effects that active recovery and ice baths have on resistance training adaptations9. What they found was not good for those looking to improve their mass and strength through progressive overload.
After 12 weeks of training, researchers found that ice baths attenuate muscle growth. In addition, unlike the previous study mentioned, they also found it mitigated strength gains!
It was discovered that along with reducing the core body temperature, ice baths significantly reduced muscle temperature. As a result, the muscles saw less activity in muscle satellite cells and lower amounts of protein synthesis for up to 2 days!
This makes sense. Think about it: When does cold exposure ever increase activity? To be clear, the participants still gained some strength and size, just not as much.
Due to the attenuation of muscle hypertrophy, a group wanted to see if taking ice baths in chilly water altered hormones, and discovered that it does10. Utilizing ice baths as a form of recovery after heavy resistance training actually caused a decrease in circulating testosterone.
Whether this explains the decrease of hypertrophy or if it is just part of the problem, it's definitely not what you want. Do you recall the study on hormones we told you to remember? It also mentions a decrease in circulating testosterone.
So, we now about the short term, but can ice baths help in the long run? The issue with ice baths is we only talk about their short-term benefits, which include improved recovery time, reducing inflammation, and a reduction in muscle soreness.
But the thing to consider is that true adaptation from training does not occur overnight. Projecting short-term benefits to long-term benefits is done in error.
While noting ice baths work to soothe sore muscles to varying degrees short-term, a review from 2018 concluded that cold water immersion had no effect, either positive or negative, on weight lifting adaptations in the long run11.
Just because cold water therapy doesn't seem to help strength athletes and those following a powerlifting program, there are some bonafide reasons for certain groups to use them. If you fall into one of these groups, you may find ice baths beneficial.
Remember that generally speaking, cold water therapy mitigated muscle growth and strength, but didn't reverse it. In other words, if you're an athlete who doesn't need to gain muscle, feel free to take a cold bath.
This can apply to many professional athletes as well as combat sports.
Even if strength and muscle mass are important, sometimes you need to weigh the pros and cons. For example, if you're an athlete who needs to compete for two days in a row or even multiple times per day, the faster recovery would outweigh any mitigation in muscle growth.
If you find yourself extra sore after a really hard workout, like these assault bike workouts, for example, a faster muscle recovery will probably benefit you more than the loss of potential gains. Mind you, this does not apply to those who train for size and strength.
In our opinion, there are a few groups who won't gain much from an extra chilly dip. If you fall into one of these categories, you may be better off skipping the cold water.
Top bodybuilders and recreational bodybuilders alike should obviously not go ice bathing. Their entire goal is to increase muscle size, and since ice baths may slow this process, why do it?
Strength athletes such as powerlifters and Strongman, or even recreational lifters following a Strongman workout plan, should also avoid ice baths to avoid the risk of losing potential strength gains.
At the same time, these athletes can take advantage of ice bath benefits after an extra intense training block or competition.
You do not need to take an ice bath if you're involved in low-intensity exercise as it does not accumulate enough muscle damage to warrant its use.
Getting in a bathtub filled with ice increases your heart rate and blood pressure and can have a profound effect on respiratory rate12. If you currently have high blood pressure, heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, an ice bath can be too great of a shock to your system.
After looking at all the evidence, cold water immersion seems to have some benefits but likely isn't right for everyone.
It also has similar perks to an active recovery workout, which is another, much cheaper, option. In fact, "Is The Ice Bath Finally Melting" is the title of a review that concluded cold water immersion provides no better benefits than an active recovery session13.
If you want to skip the cold dip but still promote muscle recovery, opt for active recovery workouts, such as walking, biking, or using the elliptical or stair climber at a slower, steady pace. In addition, prioritize protein, get enough sleep, and drink plenty of water.
Follow these four recovery tips, and your body will be fine!
If you are interested in using ice baths to support faster muscle recovery, be sure to check out our article on the Best Ice Bath Tubs. Whether you're looking for a portable or budget-friendly ice bath to one that is sleek and includes its own pump and sanitation system, there is an option available to meet your needs!
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