It’s common knowledge that deliberate cold exposure can give a lot of benefits in these areas: cardiovascular, metabolic, recovery, mood, focus, and a whole bunch more.
However, you might have heard that while very cold ice baths can help your recovery—which is why you might see star athletes using our Ice Bath NZ in between games—they might not be ideal for building muscle.
Yes, ice baths can kill your muscle gains, but if you’re a cold exposure fiend AND want to build muscle as well, there are ways you can get away with having both in your health and fitness routine.
Strength training for hypertrophy. Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash.
Because who doesn’t want to use the most optimal tools and methods if possible, right?
We did the research on muscle hypertrophy and cold exposure therapy: So, read on to find out how to get the best of both worlds according to the latest research.
Let’s get started.
How muscle is built in the body
Let’s start with how muscle is built.
When you do physical activity like strength training, such as exercising or lifting weights, you put stress on your muscles.
This slightly damages the muscle and creates tiny tears in the fibres of the muscle.
Afterwards, your body repairs the damaged muscle through a process in your cells that forms new strands of muscle protein.
These muscle fibres can then grow bigger, which creates muscle growth, also known as “hypertrophy.”
Many things can influence muscle growth, for example: “Hormones like testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin growth factor, also play a role in muscle growth and repair.” (Source)
Now how do these factors connect to ice baths and cold exposure?
What Ice Baths Do For Your Muscle Growth
As you might know, the shock of the cold and how your body adapts to ice baths influences a lot of what happens “under the hood” in your body.
This can range from changes in metabolism, the release of endorphins, to even things like the change of some of your body fat from white to the more helpful brown fat.
There are several studies about cold exposure that measure the rate that muscle grows—aside from the usual cold exposure studies on recovery and performance—and we’ll outline common questions and science-supported answers to them:
Do ice baths reduce muscle growth?
Yes, ice baths can reduce potential muscle growth if you take an ice bath right after your exercise session.
This is because cold exposure right after exercise lowers the capacity of the muscle to use amino acids from protein you eat, to create new muscle protein from scratch. (Source: Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes)
Ice baths don’t really stop hypertrophy, but instead slow it down.
Bear in mind that the researchers found that the development of strength wasn’t negatively affected, just muscle growth. (Source)
It also makes sense to say that bodybuilders don’t tend to take ice baths unless they’re in a strength competition where performance matters over making gains.
But what about other forms of cold exposure?
Do cold showers kill gains?
We can’t really say for a fact that cold water or cold showers kill gains as much as ice baths do.
Because as of the moment, while there are studies on the effects of ice baths as well as Cold Water Immersion (being neck-deep in cold water), there isn’t really much research on cold showers.
However, it makes sense to think that it can still hurt your gains right after a workout because you’re also exposing your body to the cold.
Is it worth it to take ice baths if I want to build muscle?
So, with all this research and information about cold exposure protocols, you might be wondering if it’s worth it to still take ice baths if you’re a bodybuilder, or if you want to increase your muscle mass.
Yes, it’s worth it to still take ice baths for the loads of other benefits that cold water immersion can give you.
Photo from Pixabay.
This could mean that with improved recovery from an ice bath, you might be able to push yourself more in your next workout, so it ends up being better for your hypertrophy goals in the end.
Whatever the case may be, here’s how to take ice baths without sacrificing muscle gain:
Solution: How to time your ice baths so they won’t hurt your gains
While ice baths and cold water immersion have a lot of benefits on recovery, metabolic health, mental wellness, and the like, you might have other goals, like gaining loads of muscle.
But don’t worry, there’s still a way to maximise your muscle growth while still retaining the benefits of ice baths:
It all comes down to timing.
To put it simply, if you’re trying to gain more muscle, delay your ice baths to 4 hours or more after your strength or hypertrophy training.
And if you really want the most optimal results, just have your ice bath on a different day from your workout, as neuroscientist Andrew Huberman suggests in his cold exposure protocol.
In summary, ice baths can kill or hurt your muscle gains IF you take cold plunges right after your strength training exercise.
However, if you delay the cold exposure to 4 hours or more after the workout, you’ll lessen the inhibiting effects on hypertrophy.
And if you still want the massive amounts of benefits that ice baths can give you, you can still do ice plunges on a different day, and still optimally reap the rewards of both building muscle as well as the restorative benefits of cold exposure therapy.
There’s still time needed for further research on ice baths and building muscle, but whatever the case, the routine you follow is more beneficial than one that you don’t (because it’s too hard, too complicated, or just doesn’t fit with your schedule or something.)
If ice baths make you feel great and make you want to keep on following your fitness routine, then it might be worth it to still take them within the day of a workout if you’re not too concerned with gaining the maximum amount of hypertrophy.
If you're ready to take the plunge and try cold immersion therapy, our portable Ice Bath is the perfect solution for ice baths that can fit your schedule. The easy setup means you can easily time your ice baths to optimise for your fitness goals, such as gaining muscle or improving athletic performance. It also requires no plumbing, and can be easily stored away when not in use. —Delivered straight from Christchurch to your doorstep NZ wide.
Fuchs, C. J., Kouw, I. W. K., Churchward-Venne, T. A., Smeets, J. S. J., Senden, J. M., Lichtenbelt, W. D. V. M., Verdijk, L. B., & van Loon, L. J. C. (2020). Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes. The Journal of physiology, 598(4), 755–772. https://doi.org/10.1113/JP278996
Fyfe, J. J., Broatch, J. R., Trewin, A. J., Hanson, E. D., Argus, C. K., Garnham, A. P., Halson, S. L., Polman, R. C., Bishop, D. J., & Petersen, A. C. (2019). 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), 127(5), 1403–1418. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00127.2019
Leonard, J., & Bubnis, M.S., NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS, D. (2020, January 8). How to build muscle with exercise. Retrieved from Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319151