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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 to the fitness world 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.
Table of Contents:
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. 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 here. 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.
You can learn more about this in our article: Do Cold Showers Burn Fat?
These are very expensive and are usually only done at recovery specialist establishments. Cryotherapy consists 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, 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 it's 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! The extreme cold can cause a shock to your system, so get in slowly.
For more details about ideal ice bath temps, head to our article: How Cold Should An Ice Bath Be?
To fully answer the question of what ice baths help with, we will discuss it in two parts. First, we will look at the physiological effects of ice baths. Afterward, we will look at how these adaptations can benefit our health.
Here are 4 physiological adaptations that result from taking ice baths.
Perhaps the most significant physiological adaptation to extreme cold is the narrowing of our blood vessels, also known as vasoconstriction¹.
Ice baths stimulate the postjunctional alpha-adrenoceptors, which in turn trigger the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a significant role in the body's “fight-or-flight” response.
As norepinephrine is released, it can result in a series of things, including:
Cold water constricts our blood vessels, likely as a way to reduce the loss of body heat. However, more blood vessels must pass through a smaller area because the blood vessels constrict.
As a result, as the body is submerged, ice baths cause a quick increase in blood pressure.
Norepinephrine is like adrenaline, except it's a neurotransmitter in the sympathetic nervous system rather than a hormone that's secreted.
But, the effects are very similar. For this reason, the same chemical that constricts your blood vessels also causes your heart rate and respiration to increase.
Because the blood vessels narrow, the blood flow to the areas submerged in ice water dramatically slows down, in terms of volume.
While this only lasts as long as your core temperature is down, there will be less blood volume during the period of ice-water submersion.
During prolonged periods of extreme cold, the end of your nerve endings, just under your skin, can "freeze" and lose sensation.
As a result, when discussing ice bath benefits, ice can mitigate the intensity of moderate pain or completely eliminate it altogether. This is one of the reasons ice packs are used for local injuries.
But, do keep in mind that using an ice bath is not meant to be a prolonged solution. If you maintain that level of extreme cold, eventually hypothermia can occur, which can lead to very serious consequences.
Also, your pain will return as your core body temperature begins to rise, so it should only be used as a short-term solution for pain. When it comes to helping with pain, you may find that cold therapy machines are an equally effective and more low maintenance way of managing pain.
Now that we understand the physiological effects of ice baths, we can discuss how those play out into practical benefits.
Let's talk about six potential benefits in detail.
The most common reason people use cold water immersion is due to the belief that it will heal sore muscles. In fact, this is the main reason why athletes take ice baths.
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.
Extremely cold temperatures can effectively reduce sensation to the point that it has a numbing effect. In addition, ice bathing reduces blood flow to submerged areas, which mitigates edema (swelling). These two factors can make ice baths very useful for treating trauma injuries.
In fact, studies have found that using ice packs is effective at relieving postoperative pain7. Using an ice pack has even been shown to reduce the use of narcotics for pain relief. Due to it being low-cost and low-risk, using ice packs has been encouraged to help treat discomfort after surgery.
Just remember exposing yourself to frigid temperatures for extremely long periods of time can make taking a cold plunge dangerous, so only stay in for the suggested amount of time!
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 overly fatigued, you may just be exercising too much. It's important to avoid overtraining and burnout, rather than covering it up by using ice baths, or it can permanently alter your energy levels.
Your valgus nerve is one of your primary nerves that relays information to and from your cardio and respiratory systems8. It acts as an interface between things such as your lungs and heart and can control your response to stressors.
By stimulating it with cold water immersion, studies have shown the valgus nerve can help relieve stress and help you better handle stressful conditions.
In addition, the constant secretion of norepinephrine and epinephrine routinely places your body under stress. Doing so teaches your body to handle these situations with a calm and clear head.
Studies show that regular ice baths can also improve your mood and well-being.
A study examined the effect of regular cold water immersion on patients experiencing signs of depression9. Patients took one or two ice baths daily, sitting in water at 20 degrees Celsius for 2-3 minutes. This went on for at least several weeks, while some patients followed this ice bath protocol for months.
While the patients in the study weren't clinically depressed, they did experience significant improvements from mild signs of depression. This results from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the blood level of beta-endorphin, in addition to noradrenaline.
While the study acknowledged that further testing is needed, when you consider the cost-effective price and the low risk of negative side effects, adding ice baths, along with a regular workout split, to your mental health routine may be a good idea.
Now, let's discuss the disadvantages, so you can make an informed decision on whether ice baths are best for you.
First, it's important to note that are two drawbacks off the bat that may dissuade you from trying them. One, ice baths can require a significant amount of time, and two, they can be expensive.
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 goal10.
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 adaptations11. 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 does12. 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. Interested in learning more about how cold water impacts testosterone?
Check out our article: Do Cold Showers Boost Testosterone?
An issue with ice baths is when we only talk about their short-term benefits, which include improved recovery time, reduced 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 concluded that cold water immersion had no effect, either positive or negative, on weight lifting adaptations in the long run13.
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 may find it beneficial to 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.
Having said that, if you enjoy taking them anyway, have at it! It won't hurt.
Getting in a bathtub filled with ice increases your heart rate and blood pressure and can have a profound effect on respiratory rate14.
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. Before considering ice baths, be sure to speak to your doctor.
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 session15.
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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