Celebrities like Joe Rogan, Kim Kardashian, and Tim Ferriss have been praising the benefits of ice bath recovery, some of them for years.
But, you might be wondering whether there are actually evidence-based benefits to the cold plunge or if this is just another financially-incentivized recommendation.
So, does ice bath recovery work after lifting? No, you shouldn’t take ice baths to recover after a workout because they reduce the positive adaptions you get from resistance training. However, if muscle soreness is holding you back, ice baths can be used sparingly to recover from cardio-only workouts and after eccentric or high-intensity resistance training.
As a passionate lifter, you won’t want to miss out on information that can help your muscles recover and grow, so read on to understand everything.
In this article, I’ll explain:
- Muscle effects during ice baths
- Benefits of ice baths
- Myths about ice baths
- Common FAQ about ice bathing
So, let’s start by dipping our toes in together!
What Happens To Your Muscles When You Take Ice Baths?
When you take ice baths, your body reacts by slowing down your heart rate and the amount of blood going to your arm and leg muscles. This is called vasoconstriction and it helps keep your body’s core warm to protect your vital organs.
However, this can also make your body work harder to keep you warm and can use up your energy stores quickly while creating waste products.
3 Benefits of Ice Baths
This might come as a surprise, but only a few benefits of ice baths are supported by high-quality scientific studies.
Here are the benefits of ice baths:
- Reduces muscle soreness
- Improved perceived recovery
- Boost mood
Read on to learn more details about each benefit.
1. Reduces Muscle Soreness
If you’ve winced in pain when sitting down after a serious leg day workout, then you know how crippling delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be.
And so, it’s theorized that if ice baths can help reduce muscle soreness, this would result in better training because you’re not limited by extremely sore muscles.
It makes sense on paper but appears to only work for certain exercise types and specific timeframes. A research review by Moore & colleagues (2022) found that ice baths diminish DOMS, but this effect is limited to eccentric and high-intensity exercise only.
For example, ice baths were effective at reducing muscle soreness after eccentric exercise at 48, 72, and 96-hour timeframes but not at the 24-hour mark. And after high-intensity exercise, cold baths helped lower DOMS at the 1, 24, and 48-hour timeframes.
2. Improved Perceived Recovery
You know when you wake up the day after a workout and you just feel good? That’s your perceived recovery.
You might not be able to put your finger on why you feel good (was it a great sleep, solid nutrition, or low stress… all the above?) — but it gives you a bounce in your step nonetheless.
Well, that same comprehensive research review by Moore & colleagues (2022) also found that ice baths improve perceived recovery. Like reducing muscle soreness, this benefit is seen in eccentric and high-intensity exercise only and appears to be time-sensitive.
For instance, cold baths improved perceived recovery after eccentric exercise at 72 and 96 hours but not at the 24 or 48-hour mark. And after high-intensity exercise, ice baths bumped up the perceived recovery of subjects at the 24-hour timeframe.
3. Boost Mood
Ice baths have long been touted to boost mood, and while previous studies noted this after people swam in cold water, the results were deemed inconclusive since physical activity is known to improve mood.
However, it turns out that this ice bath benefit is supported by evidence.
According to a research study done by Kelly & Bird (2021), “Cold-water immersion is a well-tolerated therapy that is capable of significantly improving mood in young, fit, and healthy individuals.”
They had healthy subjects stay in cold seawater (13.6°C) at chest level for close to 20 minutes and found that after this natural ice bath, participants had “less negative mood disturbance… and showed significantly increased vigor and esteem-related effects” when compared to a control group.
Myths About Ice Bath Recovery
Due to their popularity nowadays, ice baths have been speculated for all kinds of things.
Here are the myths about ice bath recovery:
- Ice baths increase muscle growth
- Ice baths increase immunity
- Ice baths build mental toughness
Let’s take a dip together to debunk some myths about ice baths.
Ice Baths Increase Hypertrophy
Bodybuilders, beware! Ice baths officially do not increase hypertrophy — actually, they reduce it.
According to Peake & colleagues (2020), “The present findings suggest that regular cold water immersion attenuates muscle hypertrophy… independently of changes in factors that regulate myogenesis, proteolysis. and extracellular matrix remodeling in muscle after exercise.”
Long story short, ice baths decrease how much muscle you’ll build because they blunt the adaptions you get from your resistance training workouts.
And while the exact mechanism is unclear, it’s theorized that ice baths cause a reduction in blood flow which then diminishes the number of amino acids (the building blocks of protein molecules) that are delivered to the muscles after exercise.
Ice Baths Increase Immunity
The evidence to support that ice baths increase immunity is inconclusive at best. But that hasn’t stopped popular news outlets, social media influencers, and ice bath companies claiming otherwise.
The most common study they cite is from 2016, where Buijze & colleagues showed that “A routine hot-to-cold shower resulted in a statistical reduction of self-reported sickness absence but not illness days in adults without severe comorbidity.”
Unfortunately, self-reported studies like this are inherently biased since none of the study conditions can be tightly controlled.
Logistically, the researchers just weren’t physically able to be in the homes of the 2380+ people to monitor their water temperature, length of shower and objective sickness measures over 30 days.
And because of that, we simply can’t use this study as conclusive evidence — even though the results are interesting.
Ever wondered if you should skip your workout because you’re sick? Check out Powerlifting With A Cold: Should You Do It? (Science-Backed) to know if it’s worth it.
Ice Baths Build Mental Toughness for Life
Unlike a good ol’ soak in a relaxing hot tub, getting into an ice bath is far from a pleasant experience.
It’s cold. Like, real cold. Oh, and you need to submerge your body up to your neck to get the greatest benefit. Doing this when the water is colder than 15°C is just… hard.
Will repeated exposure to ice baths build your mental toughness, so you can withstand the shock of cold water better in the future? I have no doubt.
Will they improves your resiliency, so you can better manage a powerlifting injury? I’m skeptical.
But will ice baths harden your mind, so you can handle life's adversity? Not a chance.
Do Ice Baths Help Improve Your Exercise Performance?
Yes, ice baths after a workout help improve your exercise performance — but only in very specific situations like after you’ve done eccentric (slowly lowering weight) or high-intensity training.
Should You Take Ice Baths After Working Out?
No, probably you shouldn’t take ice baths after working out.
I say “probably” because it depends highly on what kind of workout you’re doing.
For example, a meta-review by Malta & colleagues (2020) found that “the regular use of CWI associated with exercise programs has a deleterious effect on resistance training adaptations but does not appear to affect aerobic exercise performance.”
Based on this evidence, post-workout ice baths are fair game after cardio workouts but shouldn’t be used after resistance training workouts.
That said, there is one exception.
Recall that one of the most significant benefits of ice baths is that they can reduce muscle soreness after eccentric and high-intensity exercise only.
Because of this, I’d recommend only using cold baths after the resistance training workouts during your most intense training blocks if you find your soreness is severely limiting your workouts.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Should You Stay in Ice Bath Recovery?
For the greatest benefits of ice baths for recovery, you should stay in for 10 to 15 minutes. However, you should work up to this timeframe safely over multiple weeks by increasing the time and lowering the water temperature in small increments while monitoring yourself closely for signs of hypothermia.
What Should You Not Do After an Ice Bath?
Avoid taking a warm or hot shower after an ice bath. To get the greatest benefits of ice baths, let your body warm up independently instead of using external heating methods. If you can’t get warm within a few minutes of an ice bath using clothing and light exercise, take a warm shower to ensure your safety.
Should You Submerge Your Hands and Feet in an Ice Bath?
Yes, you should submerge your hands and feet in an ice bath. You should place as much of your body in the cold water as possible except for your head. This ensures that more of your skin will be in contact with the cold water so that you can maximize your results from the ice bath.
Can Ice Baths Improve Mental Health?
Yes, ice baths can improve mental health. Research by Kelly & Bird (2021) showed that ~18 minutes of chest-deep seawater submersion at about 13.6°C results in “ less negative mood disturbance… and showed significantly increased vigor and esteem-related effects” when compared to a control group.
If you want to maximize your training to the fullest, then our article How Often Should Powerlifters Deload? (Depends on 5 Factors) is a must-read!
Thanks to some thorough research reviews in recent years, ice baths have been proven in specific situations to reduce muscle soreness, improve perceived recovery and boost mood.
While unlikely to radically change your life, ice bath recovery can be used effectively to help you in your health and fitness goals when used sparingly and with intention.
Want to try ice baths for yourself? These are the Best Ice Bath Tubs on the market.
About The Author
Kent Nilson is an online strength coach and copywriter, residing in Calgary. When he’s not training, coaching, or volunteering on the platform at powerlifting meets, you’ll likely find Kent drinking coffee or enjoying his next Eggs Benedict.