When it comes to staying at the top of your lifting game, a few factors matter as much as a high-quality recovery plan between training sessions. Some athletes prefer foam rolling, while others swear by low-intensity jogs on their “off” days. For others, it’s all about embracing the cold — specifically, cold water immersion (CWI).
Ice baths, a more casual term for CWI, have risen in popularity in recent years. Fitness guru Wim Hof — who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the wintertime in his underwear and is a staunch supporter of cold exposure — and celebrities such as Joe Rogan routinely riff on the benefits of sitting still in an ice water-filled tub. High-level strength and power athletes use ice baths to enhance recovery from high-intensity competitions and training sessions. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, there are some conflicting findings that suggest CWI may or may not be an effective recovery alternative for weightlifters, powerlifters, and other athletes.
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Here are the cold-hard facts and findings on CWI, the potential benefits, and possible detrimental long-term effects on muscle recovery and adaptation as we currently know them.
Benefits Of Ice Baths
- Decreased Muscle Soreness
- Increased Perceived Recovery
- Faster Recovery from Intense Cardio
- Improved Recovery from High Impact Training
- Reduced Cardiac Stress
- A Stronger Immune System
Disclaimer: Exposure to extreme cold can affect people with cardiovascular conditions. You should check in with your doctor before experimenting with cold exposure of any kind, and especially so if you have a cardiovascular condition.
According to a 2017 study, CWI can reduce inflammation and muscle soreness after intensive bouts of training. (1) The study had 15 participants immerse themselves in water that was 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15 minutes after their workouts. A control group rested in ambient (room temperature) air.
Researchers found that CWI was effective at reducing the inflammatory marker neopterin two hours after participants’ mixed martial arts training sessions. In other words, 15 minutes in cold water may help you reduce muscle soreness after training rather than just chilling in room temperature air.
Cold water immersion can also help athletes feel like they’re recovering better. A 2017 study found that MMA competitors who dunked in cold water after working out reported being less sore than those who didn’t. (1) A 2018 study also employed 15 minutes of cold water immersion (15 degrees Celsius, or 50 degrees Fahrenheit) for participants after a mixed martial arts competition. (2)
Participants who sat up to their torsos in cold water baths actually performed less well on various fitness assessments soon after immersion (sprinting, for example). But athletes consistently reported feeling better — sleeping harder, being less stressed, and reporting less fatigue — after CWI. In other words, if you enjoy slipping into a freezing bath, it’ll probably help you. If you don’t, there’s probably no need to force yourself.
Need to recover quickly between bouts of intensive cardio? A 2010 study had 41 elite, cis male athletes perform 20 minutes sessions of exhaustive, all-out effort, intermittent exercise. (3) These high-intensity cardio bouts were followed by 15 minutes of recovery.
Participants who used cold water immersion during those 15 minutes recovered faster than those who didn’t. So, if you’re looking to perform multiple bouts of all-out effort, 10 degree Celsius cold water immersion in between sessions can help you come back all the stronger.
For athletes engaging in high-intensity training, a 2010 study found that cold water immersion might boost acute recovery. (3) That is perhaps especially true if the way you’re training is high impact.
MMA fighters in particular seem to benefit in the short-term by CWI, reporting feeling less sore and being less inflamed after sessions and simulated competitions. (1)(2) If you’re feeling tossed around after a particularly intense deadlift or squat session, then it may do you some good to dunk yourself into some chilly water.
Especially when you’re training in the heat, cold water immersion after your sessions may be able to help ease your cardiac stress from exercise. A 2019 study found that CWI may not reduce your physiological stress levels or otherwise improve hormonal recovery. (4) But after 45 minutes of cycling in a hot environment, the study did find that CWI helped reduce participants’ heart rate faster than passive recovery.
A study published in 2014 explored the idea of people strengthening their immune system response through a combination of meditation, breathing techniques, and cold exposure. After participants of the study were exposed to a bacterial infection, it was found that the group that implemented the techniques mentioned above experienced fewer symptoms.
The researchers note that they think the deep breathing was more influential. However, deep breathing often goes hand-in-hand with colder exposure, and they do think cold exposure can help build a stronger immune system over time. (5)
Who Should Try Ice Baths
Ice baths may not be for everyone — and, frankly, they can be uncomfortable, especially to the uninitiated. But if they’re all the rage with folks at your CrossFit box, it’s understandable to wonder if they’re for you. Ultimately, it depends on your training goals — and your preferences.
If your training involves getting punched or otherwise slammed around quite a lot, CWI might be able to give you relief. Martial artists who train for their sport at high impact — or who are looking to recover immediately after a competition — might choose to brave some icy waters.
Athletes who Train at High Intensities
Training at high intensities can create a whole lot of soreness — not to mention mental fatigue. Cold water immersion might be just what you need to soothe your immediate muscle aches and recover for your next session.
Athletes Who Enjoy The Cold
Regardless of your sport or training methods, you can benefit from cold water immersion if you love the cold. If you think it’ll make you feel better, it’s likely that it will. That’s why the studies discussed above have found that perceived recovery after CWI is high, even if your hormone levels stay the same.
How to Include Ice Baths In Your Program
If it sounds like ice baths might be a good addition to your recovery routine, you’ll have to be strategic about how to integrate them into your program. As with pretty much anything in training, start with your goals and make sure you’re switching up your routine gradually.
Assess Your Goals
A 2020 study found that cold water immersion may actually be bad for hypertrophy in the long run. (6) Muscle biopsies after sustained immersion in cold water found that the cold exposure reduced the levels of proteins that you need to build up muscles after training sessions. Bear this in mind when considering integrating ice baths into your program. If hypertrophy is your goal, you might want to avoid CWI.
But if your goal is to recover quicker between intense sessions or experience less muscle soreness after a high-impact training, you may decide to move forward.
Find Your Tolerance Level
Most of the studies discussed in this article above had athletes immerse themselves in cold water (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes. If that sounds like a walk in the proverbial park, that’s great. On the other hand, if the idea of even 15 seconds in cold water makes you shiver, remember to build up your tolerance.
Just as you gradually increase your load during training, you’ll have to gradually settle into an effective ice bath routine. If 15 minutes won’t do, start with 30 seconds or a couple of minutes and add time each week until you’re at a level you’re comfortable with.
Periodize Your Recovery
According to a 2021 study, a periodized approach to recovery can help athletes benefit most from CWI. (7) Just as you don’t train the same exact way all year, you don’t need to recover the same way all year. Base your CWI approach on what you’re doing with your training, this study suggests.
Are you going through a particularly high-intensity or high-impact training block? Are you recovering from a competition? CWI might be great for you. If you’re in a hypertrophy block, though, you might want to hold back on the cold water. Periodize your CWI in the same way you periodize your training if you want to maximize benefits.
Should You Try Cold Water Immersion?
If CWI immersion is detrimental to hypertrophy goals and potential long-term training success, how come so many athletes swear by it? What gives? It seems that it’s a matter of perspective.
If you’re assessing the effectiveness of CWI, you need to ask how you’re measuring effectiveness. If your goal is for it to help you feel better, and it does, then awesome. If your goal is to build more muscle or receive tangible improvements in performance, you may want to stick to more tried-and-true recovery methods.
- Lindsay A, Carr S, Cross S, Petersen C, Lewis JG, Gieseg SP. (2017) The physiological response to cold-water immersion following a mixed martial arts training session. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2017 May;42(5):529-536.
- Tabben M, Ihsan M, Ghoul N, Coquart J, Chaouachi A, Chaabene H, Tourny C, Chamari K. (2018) Cold Water Immersion Enhanced Athletes’ Wellness and 10-m Short Sprint Performance 24-h After a Simulated Mixed Martial Arts Combat. Frontiers in Physiology. 2018 Nov 1;9:1542.
- Rowsell GJ, Reaburn P, Toone R, Smith M, Coutts AJ. (2010) Effect of run training and cold-water immersion on subsequent cycle training quality in high-performance triathletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014 Jun;28(6):1664-72.
- Ajjimaporn A, Chaunchaiyakul R, Pitsamai S, Widjaja W. (2019) Effect of Cold Shower on Recovery From High-Intensity Cycling in the Heat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2019 Aug;33(8):2233-2240.
- Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(20):7379-7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111
- Peake JM, Markworth JF, Cumming KT, Aas SN, Roberts LA, Raastad T, Cameron-Smith D, Figueiredo VC. (2020) The Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Active Recovery on Molecular Factors That Regulate Growth and Remodeling of Skeletal Muscle After Resistance Exercise. Frontiers in Physiology. 2020 Jun 30;11:737.
- Ihsan M, Abbiss CR, Allan R. (2021) Adaptations to Post-exercise Cold Water Immersion: Friend, Foe, or Futile? Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2021 Jul 16;3:714148.
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