Do you take cold cold showers after a workout in hopes of recovering quicker or preventing muscle soreness? If so, you might want to rethink this practice. A recent study by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia showed bathing in a cold bath or taking cold showers after a workout to prevent muscle soreness could interfere with the muscle gains you’re working so hard to achieve.
Ice Baths after Strength Workouts
In this study, 21 healthy men did a strength training workout twice a week for 12 weeks. After training, one group soaked their exhausted bodies for 10 minutes in a cool vat of ice water at 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The other men did an active cool-down by pedaling on an exercise bike for a similar amount of time. The outcome? The guys who took the cold bath gained less muscle strength than their counterparts who did an active cool-down at room temperature.
In another experiment, male participants did lower body strengthening exercises. One group did an active cool-down while the other cooled down in an ice bath. This time, researchers took a muscle biopsy from the lower extremities of both groups. Upon examining the muscle cells, they found the muscle cells in the men who took an ice bath were less active and remained that way for up to two days after their strength training sessions.
Taking ice baths after a workout is a popular practice among athletes. The reason? Ice cold water constricts blood vessels, thereby reducing swelling and post-workout inflammation. In theory, exposing muscles to cold also helps flush out waste products and hasten recovery – but it may come at a cost – reduced strength gains.
Another popular practice among athletes is to take contrast showers – a hot shower followed immediately by a cold shower – alternating back and forth. Theoretically, this hastens removal of metabolic waste products after a workout.
Why might exposing muscles to ice reduce strength gains? Previous studies show exposing muscles to cold interferes with cell signaling pathways that support muscle growth. With these pathways suppressed, strength gains are limited. Exposure to cold puts the “freeze” on muscle development.
What about Endurance Exercise?
Some runners soak in ice, cold water after a workout in hopes of recovering faster. An ice bath may be effective for recovery from endurance exercise, but if your focus is to gain muscle strength, an ice bath isn’t the best recovery strategy. In terms of endurance exercise, a study found immersion in cold water did NOT reduce the performance of cyclists significantly compared to passive rest.
Ice baths are kept at a temperature of between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This may not sound super cold – but it’s cold enough to be uncomfortable. According to some sources, a cool, but not frigid, bath with a temperature of between 60 and 75 degrees offers similar benefits and is less unpleasant. Whether or not a post-workout bath at this higher temperature interferes with strength gains is unclear.
Does an Ice Bath Reduce or Cold Showers Muscle Soreness?
When you strength train, it creates small tears in the fibers of the muscle you worked. Depending upon how trained you are and how hard you pushed yourself, the stress of training can lead to delayed-onset muscle soreness, those uncomfortable muscle aches and pains that make it hard to get around the next day.
One hope was that an ice bath would prevent or reduce muscle soreness after a workout, but research to support this idea is lacking. In fact, one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found athletes who used an ice bath after high-intensity strength training experienced GREATER lower body soreness the following day than those who bathed in lukewarm water.
At this point, there’s little support for the idea that taking an ice-cold bath or cold showers after a workout reduces muscle soarness , and doing so after a strength workout may interfere with signaling pathways that promote muscle growth. Plus, a cold water bath is unpleasantly cold!
Is Massage a Better Recovery Strategy?
Are there other approaches to recovery that won’t jeopardize muscle growth or strength gains? How about a massage? Not only does massaging tired muscles you worked feel delightful, research shows it enhances exercise recovery. How so? Researchers at McMaster University discovered massage diminishes the release of inflammatory molecules called cytokines. When muscle fibers are torn during strength training, a flood of inflammatory chemicals is released, which is why you feel sore.
More surprisingly, this study showed massage increases “mitochondrial biogenesis,” the formation of new mitochondria. Fresh mitochondria allow muscle cells to take up more oxygen during exercise. Plus, massage has other benefits – it alleviates stress and lowers blood pressure and heart rate.
Foam Rolling for Recovery
If you don’t have access to massage, you can loosen up tight muscles and tendons using a foam roller. Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, a process that helps release tight fascia, the covering around the muscles. A small study showed that foam rolling aided muscle recovery in a group of runners and reduced muscle soreness.
What about stretching? Stretching after a workout helps to lengthen muscles, but it does little to enhance recovery or prevent after-workout soreness. After a workout, it’s a good idea to do an active recovery rather than just stopping suddenly. After active recovery is the best time to stretch. Still, don’t count on it to speed up muscle recovery or prevent soreness. There’s little evidence that it does.
Other common sense ways to help your muscle recover: rehydrate, refuel, and make sure you’re giving your body the rest it needs after a challenging exercise session. Don’t strength train the same muscle groups within 48 hours of one another. Make sure you’re getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night too.
The Bottom Line
Skip the cold showers or ice bath after a strength workout. It could interfere with strength gains. On the other hand, massage, foam rolling, good nutrition, rehydration, and rest are all things you can do to enhance recovery.
J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Aug;21(3):697-702.
Time. “How Massage Helps Heal Muscles and Relieve Pain”
Science Daily. “Massage reduces inflammation and promotes growth of new mitochondria following strenuous exercise, study finds” February 1, 2012.
National Strength and Conditioning Association. “Stretching After Exercise: Does it Aid in Recovery?”
Runner’s World. “Study: Foam Roller Lessens Soreness After Hard Workout”
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