10 years ago, it was ‘Do you even lift bro?’ (or sis). Now, it’s more like ‘do you even Wim Hof?’.
Ice baths have been a rising health trend in recent years. It’s no surprise with the explosion of podcasts and social media platforms such as TikTok, where ice bath enthusiasts rave about the health and recovery benefits.
Ice baths are a recovery protocol that have been around for as long as pumping iron itself – in fact, jumping into a tub of cold water dates right back to ancient Greece (1). Fast forward to 2023, and it’s a method used by athletes, health gurus, gym-goers, and celebrities across the globe.
Personally, I prefer the idea of a warm bath accompanied by Netflix and a glass of red. However, I may change my mind after we discuss the benefits of an ice bath for those of us who do, in fact, lift.
What Is An Ice Bath?
An ice bath is a form of cold water immersion, similar to other methods such as plunge pools. They consist of submerging the body (not the head!) into cold water following exercise for a set period of time, at a set temperature.
Ice baths are a controversial method due to the risk-reward of things like hypothermia and the unclear degree of the physiological recovery benefits. Research has certainly been hot and cold on them (excuse the pun), with unclear findings as to whether we should cool down on the use of ice baths or keep them running (I’m on fire today).
Science suggests that there are likely subjective benefits, which may be why ice baths have stood the test of time. Maybe, there are also a few ice bath health benefits. So, let’s find out…
What Does An Ice Bath Do?
Exercise can cause fatigue. We need to recover from that fatigue to improve (adapt) and then, we can exercise again. Pretty simple right?
So, what does an ice bath do? Well, the quicker this process occurs, the quicker we can repeat the process to see more improvements. The idea is that ice baths may help speed up this recovery process. The next question is, how would ice baths help with this? (5):
Subjectively (based on our perception)
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) - A reduction in that strangely satisfying muscle ache that you experience in the days following exercise.
Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) - A reduction in the physical effort that you feel an activity requires.
Five Benefits Of An Ice Bath
What are the benefits of an ice bath? There’s likely more, but to keep things simple, I’ll list five ice bath benefits below, followed by a little more information on each of the ice bath benefits;
Transfer Of Temperature
As we’ve discussed, the benefits of ice baths may not entirely occur within the body itself but may be due to perception. Ice baths are what I call ‘mental warfare’. This mental warfare reduces over time, decreasing sensitivity to the cold pain sensation. People often report feeling ‘alive’ and ‘awake’ after ice baths. This is what may also help reduce our perception of DOMS and RPE.
This leads nicely to physiological pain-reducing benefits. The cold sensation can wake up our thermal nerve cells. However, it can also decrease nerve conduction speeds and excitability. This can actually cause reduced communication from our thermal nerve cells to the sympathetic nervous system (10), resulting in reduced perceived pain.
Vasoconstriction is when the blood vessels (vaso) narrow (constrict). In the context of ice baths, this would occur due to the skin and blood vessels detection of cold sensation. The body does this to restrict blood flow and conserve its core temperature. This reduces blood flow to the muscles where we may have just created muscle damage and inflammatory responses (9).
It may very well be that a reduction in blood flow reduces swelling and white blood cell access to damaged muscles (3), resulting in reduced inflammation.
Transfer of temperature
A benefit of using ice baths or plunge pools versus something like a cold shower or cryotherapy is that the body is submerged and in direct contact with a cold liquid, which covers the body. The chances are that the blood vessels will respond better to a liquid that is in direct contact with the skin and can affect the skin's temperature.
What Temperature Should An Ice Bath Be?
A study comparing 8ºC versus 15ºC in rock climbers found that 15ºC could be more effective in promoting recovery (6).
The test used to measure recovery was a hand grip strength test, which may not mean that this is the case for the legs, let's say. However, starting with a warmer temperature may be safer to reduce the risk of hypothermia and gradually expose the body to colder temperatures as you become more comfortable.
How Long Should You Stay In An Ice Bath?
This depends on the individual; overall body mass, muscle mass, and fat mass can affect the time it takes for the body's core temperature to be affected by an ice bath.
Based on the fact that cross-country runners (8-minutes) could feel the effects quicker than American Football linemen (11-minutes) (4), you could start on the lower end of the scale to prioritize safety and scale this up gradually if you have a higher body, muscle, and fat mass, taking into consideration your perceptual response to ice baths.
With All That Being Said, Are Ice Baths Worth It?
So, it seems like ice baths might be worth using to speed up recovery so you can get back in the gym to pump some iron again right? Well, I’m about to throw a spanner in the works. There are two questions I would like to pose in the conclusion:
Is the physiological stress of going to the gym enough to require an ice bath?
Could ice baths interfere with our 'gainz' by hijacking the recovery process?
One key piece of information we can take from benefits three and four is that ice baths don’t technically speed up the recovery process, they interfere with the recovery process.
This means that muscle damage and inflammatory responses aren’t entirely able to take place. If our aim is to build muscle, we probably want these processes to take place (8). This is so our body can experience a stressor, go through the process of recovery and then adapt (I’m swaying back towards the warm bath, Netflix and glass of red).
It would appear that ice baths may be more appropriate for athletes who are competing in lots of competitions (e.g. a football player playing and training twice per week, who needs to recover and be available for games). This is where baths could be especially useful as it doesn’t seem that ice baths have much of a positive or negative effect on strength or endurance (6).
On the other hand, for those of us who do in fact lift, it may be that 7-9 hours of sleep, sufficient protein and stress management are going to be the most effective recovery hacks to keep in mind. This is especially true for those of us who want to prioritize building muscle.
As for the claims that ice baths enhance blood circulation and improve weight loss, I’m not sold. This doesn’t change the fact that they’re perceived benefits to cold water immersion. It also doesn’t change the fact that they have been around for thousands of years and may just make some of us feel good. Weirdly, some of us may even enjoy them.
Essentially, some of us might ot just like getting a pump, but jumping into a cold tub too! If this is the case, you can always opt for a cold shower. This avoids the full and constant contact of our whole body with cold water, and likely the same vasoconstriction experienced in baths, whilst still experiencing a cold water sensation.
If you really are just about the ice bath life, you could also do this on days that are furthest away from your gym days. For example, if you train Monday-Friday, make ice baths a Sunday ritual.
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Written By: Andrew Hyde
Andy has a BSc (Hons) in Exercise Science and an MSc in Strength & Conditioning. He has worked with Leeds United, Science for Sport, the NHS and more. Andy works privately with elite football players and gymgoers who want to improve their performance, fitness, and body composition.
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