Are ice baths killing your gains?
By Coach Hunter Bennett
Ice baths have been a go-to recovery method for athletes for years – but only recently have they really hit the mainstream.
The idea behind ice baths is that, by immersing yourself in cold water, you can reduce muscle soreness, improve circulation, and speed up recovery after a tough workout.
However, there is growing evidence that ice baths may negatively impact gains in strength and size.
Do ice baths kill your gains?
When you train, your muscles experience tiny micro-tears that lead to inflammation.
As bad as it may sound, this inflammation is a necessary part of the muscle-building process. This is because it signals the body to repair and rebuild the damaged tissue, resulting in stronger and more resilient muscles.
However, ice baths interfere with this process.
Studies have shown that ice baths blunt this inflammatory process, which weakens the signal telling your body to repair and grow stronger.
With this in mind, research has shown that people who weight train and perform ice baths regularly experience smaller increases in strength and size than individuals performing the same program without the ice baths.
Now, this isn’t to say ice baths are useless – but it does certainly impact how you should use them.
The Benefits of Ice Baths
While discussing the potential drawbacks of ice baths, it is also important to highlight the benefits.
Because they do blunt inflammation, ice baths can reduce muscle soreness and accelerate recovery after training.
This is particularly important in sporting contexts where athletes need to play games a few days (or in some cases, hours) apart.
Additionally, ice baths have been shown to improve immune function, increase metabolism, and enhance mental clarity – all of which makes them an enticing option for health-conscious people.
Which begs the question – how can you use ice baths without killing your gains?
How to Use Ice Baths Without Killing Your Gains
If you choose to incorporate ice baths into your recovery routine, you can use them in a way that minimizes their negative effects – and the first one relates to timing.
By waiting at least 4 hours after a workout before taking an ice bath, you give your body some time to experience the inflammatory process that signals growth and repair.
This means ice baths are going to have less of impact on your gains if you schedule them on your recovery days (no gym at all), or first thing in the morning before training in the afternoon.
Additionally, there may also be merit in limiting the duration of your ice baths.
While it may be tempting to stay in the cold water for as long as possible, this can be counterproductive. In fact, 10-15 minutes appears to be the optimal duration for an ice bath, with anything longer than reducing blood flow and potentially hindering recovery.
Lastly, it’s important to avoid using ice baths too frequently.
While it may seem like a good idea to take an ice bath every day, this is more likely to impair muscle growth and repair. Try and keep to 2-3 times per week at a maximum.
Are ice baths killing your gains: take home message
Are ice baths killing your gains? The answer is not a simple yes or no.
While there is some evidence that ice baths can interfere with the muscle-building process, they do have other benefits. The key is to use ice baths in a way that minimizes their negative effects by following the tips in this article.
Want to read more? Check out our article on minimalist strength training