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Are Cold Showers and Baths Really Bad for You?

Should you quit taking cold showers, using cold water immersion, or icing those sore muscles after a workout?

By
Ben Greenfield
11-minute read
Episode #247

Cryotherapy, cold thermogenesis, icing, and other forms of cold exposure are all forms of recovery that I personally use nearly every day. In the article, “How to Use Cold Weather to Lose Weight,” and also in my article, “Cold Temps for a Hot Body” I outline many of the practical ways I do this—from keeping my office temperature cool to morning and evening cold showers to body cooling gear to compression gear with ice to cold baths.

Of course, the application of cold to an injured area or to a beat-up muscle is hardly a new concept. The Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the use of cold therapy to control pain and swelling in the 4th century B.C., and the Roman physician Galen described the use of cold compresses for analgesia following soft tissue injuries in the 1st century A.D.

During the Middle Ages, ice was used for pre-surgical anesthesia, and ice therapy has been extensively used in the athletic training and physical therapy for the treatment of sports injuries for many years. But despite the seeming widespread acceptance of tossing a bag of ice on an injured ankle or aching shoulder, several years ago there was a surge of doubt concerning icing’s efficacy across the Internet.

The arguments a few years ago went something like this: when an injury occurs, your body creates inflammation as a healing response. So, if inflammation is the body’s natural way to heal an injury, why would you want to block this inflammatory process with ice?

Furthermore, there were claims that icing may increase the permeability of lymphatic vessels (tubes which normally help carry excess tissue fluids back into the cardiovascular system). Once this lymphatic permeability increases, there may be risk of a large amounts of fluid back flowing into the injured area, causing more swelling than may have occurred if you didn’t ice in the first place.

I addressed both of these concerns, and why icing really does work, in my article, “Tips For Burning More Fat With Cold Thermogenesis (And Why Icing Really Does Work).

But now new evidence has emerged in the form of two brand new studies—studies that suggest cold water immersion and icing may actually impair strength gains, make your muscles smaller, or slow down recovery. In today’s article, you’ll learn all about these new studies, and whether you should quit taking cold showers, using cold water immersion, or icing those sore muscles after a workout.

The New Studies Against Icing

The first new study that suggests cold may not be all it’s chalked up to be is entitled, “Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signaling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training.”

In the study, researchers investigated the effects of the combination of strength training and cold water immersion through two separate studies. In one study, 21 physically active men strength trained for 12 weeks, 2 days a week, with either 10 min of cold water treatment or active recovery without cold water after each training session. Strength and muscle mass increased more in the group that didn’t get exposed to the cold water. Work capacity, muscle fiber size, and the number of cells per muscle fiber also increased in the active recovery group, but not the cold water group. In another study, nine active men performed a bout of single-leg strength exercises on separate days, followed again by either cold water or active recovery. The number of satellite cells and also the amount of phosphorylation (both of which cause muscle growth) increased more after the exercise with active recovery compared to the cold water immersion.

So, what does all this geek speak mean? It indicates that cold water immersion may attenuate the acute changes in satellite cell numbers and activity of kinases that regulate muscle growth (hypertrophy), which may translate to smaller long-term training gains in muscle strength and hypertrophy if you use cold water immersion after a workout. The researchers concluded that “use of CWI as a regular post-exercise recovery strategy should be reconsidered."

The next study, entitled “Does Regular Post-exercise Cold Application Attenuate Trained Muscle Adaptation?” examined the effects of regular post-exercise cold application (icing) on muscular and vascular adaptations induced by moderate-intensity resistance training. In this study, subjects did a workout consisting of 5 sets of 8 wrist-flexion exercises at workload of 70-80% of the single repetition maximum, three times a week for six weeks. Half of the subjects immersed their experimental forearms in cold water for 20 min after the wrist workout and the other half served as control subjects without any cold water. Measurements were taken before and after the training period for wrist-flexor thickness, brachial-artery diameter, maximal muscle strength, and local muscle endurance.

Wrist-flexor thicknesses of the experimental arms increased after training in both groups, but the extent of each increase was significantly less in the cooled group compared with the noncooled group. Maximal muscle strength and brachial-artery diameter did not increase in the cooled group, while they both increased in the noncooled group. Local muscle endurance increased in both groups, but the increase in the cooled group was lower compared to the noncooled group. The researchers in this study concluded that “Regular post-exercise cold application to muscles might attenuate muscular and vascular adaptations to resistance training.”

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.