Do ice baths kill your gains?
Ice baths have become a modern trend, with many people touting their benefits including Joe Rogan and Andrew Humberman. The reported benefits are numerous, including reduced inflammation and soreness, increased alertness and mental acuity, and improved exercise recovery.
However, there’s also some evidence that ice baths may actually be counterproductive, specifically for building muscle. In this article, we are going to discuss the effects of ice baths, aka cold water immersion, on muscle hypertrophy and give you some practical considerations when it comes to using ice baths if your goal is to build muscle.
Benefits of Cold Water Immersion
Exposure to cold temperatures via cold water immersion or other forms of cryotherapy, may reduce acute inflammation, modulate the metabolic activity of different cells, reduce the activity of pro-inflammatory immune cells, and induce vasoconstriction, which results in reduced blood flow.
This sounds like a good thing, right?
In some situations, it may be. For example, there is some evidence that cryotherapy can help reduce soreness following exercise. Some athletes use this to their advantage if they have a large workload and must perform their best. For example, soccer and basketball players often have several games back-to-back, and reducing soreness may help them feel and perform better. However, it’s important to understand that inflammation is a naturally occurring process that serves a physiological purpose, and reducing inflammation at all costs may not be a smart idea.
What is inflammation?
It's important to understand what inflammation means. Inflammation does not mean swelling, which is what most people think of when they think of inflammation. Swelling can be a symptom of inflammation, but inflammation is simply a response from our immune system. In response to an injury, for example, our immune system is activated it releases a ton of different inflammatory molecules like interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a). You don’t need to know anything about these, you just need to understand that inflammation is essentially a response by our immune system.
While chronic, low-grade inflammation is bad and contributes to the development of several chronic diseases, acute inflammation isn’t. Acute inflammation is essentially the inflammation that happens right after an injury and is usually resolved within a couple of days.
Acute inflammation is part of the recovery process to help repair damaged tissue. If you blunt acute inflammation, you’re essentially slowing down the healing process, which could prolong the time it takes to recover from an injury. Theoretically, submerging your leg in really cold water following an injury may help you reduce soreness and inflammation in the short term, but it may actually cause the injury to take longer to fully heal since the inflammatory response is necessary for wound healing.
Now, what the heck does this have to do with muscle hypertrophy?
Inflammation and Exercise
Whenever we lift weights, we actually create small tears in our muscles called “micro-tears” or “microtrauma.” In other words, lifting weights technically injures our muscles the same way that a paper cut injures your skin. The mechanisms that initiate wound healing following a normal injury like a paper cut are similar to the mechanisms that initiate muscle repair and growth following resistance training. This means that the inflammatory response following lifting is critically important to actually grow your muscles.
For example, IL-6 is one of the inflammatory molecules secreted by our immune system following resistance training that’s important for stimulating muscle growth. If you blunt this inflammatory response following lifting, you could theoretically be blunting your ability to build muscle.
So are ice baths bad for muscle growth? Let's look at the research.
The Science of Ice Baths
A 2019 study found that a 15-minute cold water plunge immediately after resistance training reduced the release of testosterone and cytokines, including IL-6 and TNF-a, following lifting compared to the control group. Again, this shows that cold water immersion can reduce inflammatory molecules that are important to initiate muscle repair and growth. However, it doesn’t tell us anything about actual muscle growth and repair. Thankfully we have long-term studies looking at the effects of cold-water immersion on muscle hypertrophy as well.
Two studies, one by Roberts et al., and one by Fyfe et al., had participants perform different resistance training protocols for an extended period of time (more than 6 weeks). Participants either performed cold water immersion immediately after their lifting or performed some sort of passive/active recovery modality (ie: stretching, cardio, etc.) Both studies showed that cold water immersion significantly reduced muscle growth compared to the passive/active recovery modalities. They also performed muscle biopsies and showed that cold water immersion negatively impacted specific pathways that are involved in muscle growth including muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown.
Do Ice Baths Reduce Muscle Growth?
Overall, the evidence is pretty clear that ice baths do not help muscle growth. If you want to maximally grow muscle, then you probably don’t want to be jumping into ice baths immediately after training.
Now, this doesn’t mean that cold water immersion kills your gains altogether. While the studies do show that cold water immersion blunts hypertrophy, it doesn’t negate it completely. The participants who did the cold baths still gained muscle, just not as much as those who didn’t. So, to say that cold baths completely kill your gains isn’t totally accurate.
Another important topic to discuss is the timing of the ice bath. Most of these studies that show a negative effect on hypertrophy use ice baths immediately after the resistance training protocol. These processes that initiate muscle repair begin pretty much immediately after training as well. What we don’t know, is whether cold water immersion has the same detrimental effect on muscle growth if it’s separated from the resistance training protocol by several hours.
For example, what would happen if you trained in the morning at 8 am and used cold water therapy much later at 5 or 6 pm? Or what if you took an ice bath first thing in the morning and then trained later in the afternoon?
The truth is, we don’t really have the answers to these questions currently. That being said though, it makes logical sense that the detrimental effects to hypertrophy may be less if compared to taking an ice bath immediately after you train. Hopefully, we will have more research on this topic to have a concrete answer to these questions.
If your primary goal is to build muscle and nothing else, then you'll probably want to avoid ice baths altogether. It's clear that cold water immersion does not help muscle growth, and in fact interferes with hypertrophy. That being said, if you’re an athlete who practices a specific sport and uses ice baths for recovery purposes, maybe separate the ice bath from the bout of exercise as much as possible. Theoretically, this should help attenuate the negative effects on muscle growth.
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1. Tipton, M J et al. “Cold water immersion: kill or cure?.” Experimental physiology vol. 102,11 (2017): 1335-1355. doi:10.1113/EP086283
2. Bleakley, Chris et al. “Cold-water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise.” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews vol. 2012,2 CD008262. 15 Feb. 2012, doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008262.pub2
3. Koh, Timothy J, and Luisa Ann DiPietro. “Inflammation and wound healing: the role of the macrophage.” Expert reviews in molecular medicine vol. 13 e23. 11 Jul. 2011, doi:10.1017/S1462399411001943
4. McKay, Bryon R et al. “Association of interleukin-6 signalling with the muscle stem cell response following muscle-lengthening contractions in humans.” PloS one vol. 4,6 e6027. 24 Jun. 2009, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006027
5. Mitchell, Cameron J et al. “Muscular and systemic correlates of resistance training-induced muscle hypertrophy.” PloS one vol. 8,10 e78636. 9 Oct. 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078636
6. Earp, Jacob E et al. “Cold-water immersion blunts and delays increases in circulating testosterone and cytokines post-resistance exercise.” European journal of applied physiology vol. 119,8 (2019): 1901-1907. doi:10.1007/s00421-019-04178-7
7. Fyfe, Jackson J et al. “Cold water immersion attenuates anabolic signaling and skeletal muscle fiber hypertrophy, but not strength gain, following whole-body resistance training.” Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985) vol. 127,5 (2019): 1403-1418. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00127.2019
8. Roberts, Llion A et al. “Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training.” The Journal of physiology vol. 593,18 (2015): 4285-301. doi:10.1113/JP270570