When it comes to staying at the top of your lifting game, a few factors matter as much as a high-quality recovery plan between training sessions. Some athletes prefer foam rolling, while others swear by low-intensity jogs on their “off” days. For others, it’s all about embracing the cold — specifically, cold water immersion (CWI).
Ice baths, a more casual term for CWI, have risen in popularity in recent years. Fitness guru Wim Hof — who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the wintertime in his underwear and is a staunch supporter of cold exposure — and celebrities such as Joe Rogan routinely riff on the benefits of sitting still in an ice water-filled tub. High-level strength and power athletes use ice baths to enhance recovery from high-intensity competitions and training sessions. Although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, there are some conflicting findings that suggest CWI may or may not be an effective recovery alternative for weightlifters, powerlifters, and other athletes.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
Here are the cold-hard facts and findings on CWI, the potential benefits, and possible detrimental long-term effects on muscle recovery and adaptation as we currently know them.
Benefits Of Ice Baths
- Decreased Muscle Soreness
- Increased Perceived Recovery
- Faster Recovery from Intense Cardio
- Improved Recovery from High Impact Training
- Reduced Cardiac Stress
- A Stronger Immune System
Disclaimer: Exposure to extreme cold can affect people with cardiovascular conditions. You should check in with your doctor before experimenting with cold exposure of any kind, and especially so if you have a cardiovascular condition.
Decreased Muscle Soreness
According to a 2017 study, CWI can reduce inflammation and muscle soreness after intensive bouts of training. (1) The study had 15 participants immerse themselves in water that was 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) for 15 minutes after their workouts. A control group rested in ambient (room temperature) air.
Researchers found that CWI was effective at reducing the inflammatory marker neopterin two hours after participants’ mixed martial arts training sessions. In other words, 15 minutes in cold water may help you reduce muscle soreness after training rather than just chilling in room temperature air.
Increased Perceived Recovery
Cold water immersion can also help athletes feel like they’re recovering better. A 2017 study found that MMA competitors who dunked in cold water after working out reported being less sore than those who didn’t. (1) A 2018 study also employed 15 minutes of cold water immersion (15 degrees Celsius, or 50 degrees Fahrenheit) for participants after a mixed martial arts competition. (2)
Participants who sat up to their torsos in cold water baths actually performed less well on various fitness assessments soon after immersion (sprinting, for example). But athletes consistently reported feeling better — sleeping harder, being less stressed, and reporting less fatigue — after CWI. In other words, if you enjoy slipping into a freezing bath, it’ll probably help you. If you don’t, there’s probably no need to force yourself.
Faster Recovery from Cardio
Need to recover quickly between bouts of intensive cardio? A 2010 study had 41 elite, cis male athletes perform 20 minutes sessions of exhaustive, all-out effort, intermittent exercise. (3) These high-intensity cardio bouts were followed by 15 minutes of recovery.
Participants who used cold water immersion during those 15 minutes recovered faster than those who didn’t. So, if you’re looking to perform multiple bouts of all-out effort, 10 degree Celsius cold water immersion in between sessions can help you come back all the stronger.
Improved Recovery from High Impact Training
For athletes engaging in high-intensity training, a 2010 study found that cold water immersion might boost acute recovery. (3) That is perhaps especially true if the way you’re training is high impact.
MMA fighters in particular seem to benefit in the short-term by CWI, reporting feeling less sore and being less inflamed after sessions and simulated competitions. (1)(2) If you’re feeling tossed around after a particularly intense deadlift or squat session, then it may do you some good to dunk yourself into some chilly water.
Reduced Cardiac Stress
Especially when you’re training in the heat, cold water immersion after your sessions may be able to help ease your cardiac stress from exercise. A 2019 study found that CWI may not reduce your physiological stress levels or otherwise improve hormonal recovery. (4) But after 45 minutes of cycling in a hot environment, the study did find that CWI helped reduce participants’ heart rate faster than passive recovery.
May Boost Your Immune System
A study published in 2014 explored the idea of people strengthening their immune system response through a combination of meditation, breathing techniques, and cold exposure. After participants of the study were exposed to a bacterial infection, it was found that the group that implemented the techniques mentioned above experienced fewer symptoms.
The researchers note that they think the deep breathing was more influential. However, deep breathing often goes hand-in-hand with colder exposure, and they do think cold exposure can help build a stronger immune system over time. (5)
Who Should Try Ice Baths
Ice baths may not be for everyone — and, frankly, they can be uncomfortable, especially to the uninitiated. But if they’re all the rage with folks at your CrossFit box, it’s understandable to wonder if they’re for you. Ultimately, it depends on your training goals — and your preferences.
If your training involves getting punched or otherwise slammed around quite a lot, CWI might be able to give you relief. Martial artists who train for their sport at high impact — or who are looking to recover immediately after a competition — might choose to brave some icy waters.
Athletes who Train at High Intensities
Training at high intensities can create a whole lot of soreness — not to mention mental fatigue. Cold water immersion might be just what you need to soothe your immediate muscle aches and recover for your next session.
Athletes Who Enjoy The Cold
Regardless of your sport or training methods, you can benefit from cold water immersion if you love the cold. If you think it’ll make you feel better, it’s likely that it will. That’s why the studies discussed above have found that perceived recovery after CWI is high, even if your hormone levels stay the same.
How to Include Ice Baths In Your Program
If it sounds like ice baths might be a good addition to your recovery routine, you’ll have to be strategic about how to integrate them into your program. As with pretty much anything in training, start with your goals and make sure you’re switching up your routine gradually.
Assess Your Goals
A 2020 study found that cold water immersion may actually be bad for hypertrophy in the long run. (6) Muscle biopsies after sustained immersion in cold water found that the cold exposure reduced the levels of proteins that you need to build up muscles after training sessions. Bear this in mind when considering integrating ice baths into your program. If hypertrophy is your goal, you might want to avoid CWI.
But if your goal is to recover quicker between intense sessions or experience less muscle soreness after a high-impact training, you may decide to move forward.
Find Your Tolerance Level
Most of the studies discussed in this article above had athletes immerse themselves in cold water (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes. If that sounds like a walk in the proverbial park, that’s great. On the other hand, if the idea of even 15 seconds in cold water makes you shiver, remember to build up your tolerance.
Just as you gradually increase your load during training, you’ll have to gradually settle into an effective ice bath routine. If 15 minutes won’t do, start with 30 seconds or a couple of minutes and add time each week until you’re at a level you’re comfortable with.
Periodize Your Recovery
According to a 2021 study, a periodized approach to recovery can help athletes benefit most from CWI. (7) Just as you don’t train the same exact way all year, you don’t need to recover the same way all year. Base your CWI approach on what you’re doing with your training, this study suggests.
Are you going through a particularly high-intensity or high-impact training block? Are you recovering from a competition? CWI might be great for you. If you’re in a hypertrophy block, though, you might want to hold back on the cold water. Periodize your CWI in the same way you periodize your training if you want to maximize benefits.
Should You Try Cold Water Immersion?
If CWI immersion is detrimental to hypertrophy goals and potential long-term training success, how come so many athletes swear by it? What gives? It seems that it’s a matter of perspective.
If you’re assessing the effectiveness of CWI, you need to ask how you’re measuring effectiveness. If your goal is for it to help you feel better, and it does, then awesome. If your goal is to build more muscle or receive tangible improvements in performance, you may want to stick to more tried-and-true recovery methods.
- Lindsay A, Carr S, Cross S, Petersen C, Lewis JG, Gieseg SP. (2017) The physiological response to cold-water immersion following a mixed martial arts training session. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2017 May;42(5):529-536.
- Tabben M, Ihsan M, Ghoul N, Coquart J, Chaouachi A, Chaabene H, Tourny C, Chamari K. (2018) Cold Water Immersion Enhanced Athletes’ Wellness and 10-m Short Sprint Performance 24-h After a Simulated Mixed Martial Arts Combat. Frontiers in Physiology. 2018 Nov 1;9:1542.
- Rowsell GJ, Reaburn P, Toone R, Smith M, Coutts AJ. (2010) Effect of run training and cold-water immersion on subsequent cycle training quality in high-performance triathletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014 Jun;28(6):1664-72.
- Ajjimaporn A, Chaunchaiyakul R, Pitsamai S, Widjaja W. (2019) Effect of Cold Shower on Recovery From High-Intensity Cycling in the Heat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2019 Aug;33(8):2233-2240.
- Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(20):7379-7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111
- Peake JM, Markworth JF, Cumming KT, Aas SN, Roberts LA, Raastad T, Cameron-Smith D, Figueiredo VC. (2020) The Effects of Cold Water Immersion and Active Recovery on Molecular Factors That Regulate Growth and Remodeling of Skeletal Muscle After Resistance Exercise. Frontiers in Physiology. 2020 Jun 30;11:737.
- Ihsan M, Abbiss CR, Allan R. (2021) Adaptations to Post-exercise Cold Water Immersion: Friend, Foe, or Futile? Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2021 Jul 16;3:714148.
Featured Image: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock
What are the benefits of ice plunging? ›
Being immersed in cold water stimulates leukocytes, the white blood cells that help fight off sicknesses. It also causes the lymphatic system to contract, forcing fluid through the lymph nodes. This process aids in detoxing the body and strengthening your immune system.
Cold exposure has been used as a healing method for centuries. An ice bath can soothe muscles, reduce inflammation, improve breathing, and give your mood a major boost. It's no surprise that boxers and top athletes choose ice baths as an important part of their recovery and conditioning.Why do people plunge in ice cold water? ›
"When you're in cold water, your blood vessels constrict so there's less blood flow to the area, then there's less swelling and inflammation leading to less pain." Many people claim that cold exposure helps boost moods, but this hasn't been proven.What are the benefits of ice? ›
Applying ice to an area of the body for health purposes is known as cold therapy or cryotherapy. It's routinely used in the treatment of contusion injuries to: ease pain by temporarily reducing nerve activity. lessen swelling by reducing blood flow.What are the health benefits of a Polar Plunge? ›
The benefits of polar plunging
After four months, the results were a decrease among the swimmers' tension and fatigue and an improvement in their mood and memory. A separate study followed 36 German swimmers that swam in ice-cold water at least once a week for just five minutes.
Improve General Brain Function
Taking regular ice baths can help improve your focus, concentration, and overall cognitive performance.
When you sit in cold water, your blood vessels constrict. It is thought that this constriction improves post-exercise swelling and inflammation which may cause pain and muscle destruction after activity. Soothes sore muscles.How often should you ice plunge? ›
A cold plunge is when you fully submerge your body up to your neck in water below 59° Fahrenheit (15° Celsius). 59° Fahrenheit—two to four sessions per week for eleven minutes total time—is enough to cause measurable metabolic boost according to Dr. Susanna Soeberg.Is cold plunge good for heart? ›
Cold Plunges for Increased Heart Rate Variability
Cold water immersion has remarkable and beneficial effects on the nervous system. By influencing the body's master communication system, it can have a significant impact on heart health.
It can lead to several health issues, including: heart problems, including an enlarged heart and heart failure. problems during pregnancy, including premature birth and low birth weight. developmental and physical growth disorders in infants and children.
When should you cold plunge? ›
Some people prefer first thing in the morning or midday. You could go at night, just remember that cold plunging has a stimulating effect. We dig it first thing in the morning, it's the perfect coffee jolt! 3.What is the purpose of the Polar Plunge? ›
The Polar Plunge is the biggest fundraiser for Special Olympics Minnesota. All funds raised by Plungers help Special Olympics Minnesota provide year-round training and services to thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities across the state.How long should I ice plunge? ›
The target time of a cold plunge is three minutes. This is why you should build up to a 5-minute cold shower in the weeks preceding your plunge. Three minutes is also long enough to tap into the most desirable cold-immersion benefits, such as improved blood sugar regulation and fat burning.Why do I feel tired after ice bath? ›
Take a five-minute ice bath to release melatonin
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that prompts your body to feel tired and sleepy, making the onset of sleep faster and the depth or sleep greater. While warm bathing might cause a slight melatonin spike, ice bathing causes an even greater one.
A new study suggests that ice baths may help burn body fat. Cold water exposure also appears to protect against insulin resistance and diabetes. Other health benefits were less clear, however.Can ice bath cure anxiety? ›
1 – Cold therapy can lower anxiety levels
Coldwater exposure such as ice baths and cold showers can help lower anxiety and its symptoms. Cold temperature exposure for as little as two to three minutes a day can change the way the body responds to anxiety triggers.
Try to stay in the ice bath for as long as you can, but do not exceed 15 minutes. It is recommended to work up to the recommended 15 minutes without pushing your body beyond its limits. Wear warm clothing on the top part of your body to keep the exposed areas of yourself warm.Why do ice baths speed up recovery? ›
What's the current thinking on the benefit of ice baths? The ice bath and the compression from the water pressure cause constriction of blood vessels. This has been suggested as a mechanism that helps with the flushing of waste products, such as lactic acid, and reducing fluid accumulation from the affected tissue.How long can you survive in an ice bath? ›
Once that response goes away, you're fine…for awhile. Generally, a person can survive in 41-degree F (5-degree C) water for 10, 15 or 20 minutes before the muscles get weak, you lose coordination and strength, which happens because the blood moves away from the extremities and toward the center, or core, of the body.How do you prepare for an ice plunge? ›
Before entering your ice bath, take a few intentional breaths (in through the nose), and then enter on an exhale. Focus on your breathing (in through the nose!), and quiet your mind. Simply count your breaths, and connect with your body as it regulates your temperature.
Are ice baths good for your skin? ›
In a nutshell, a cold plunge into an ice bath can help the blood flow to your skin all over and give you fresh, taut, healthy-looking skin in just a few minutes.How do I prepare for my first cold plunge? ›
For complete cold plunge beginners, you can develop your tolerance by taking a quick dip (30 seconds) or regular cold showers. Start with a warm shower and end with five minutes of cold. This will help you become more immune to the cold.Is cold plunge good for arthritis? ›
Cold Therapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis Relief
For example, when symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis appear to flare up, applying a pack of ice to the inflamed joint or submerging that limb into a bath of cold water may be a useful approach to take to help ease any discomfort.
Lowered Body Temperature
When you take a cold shower or spend a few minutes in your cold plunge, your body's temperature will dramatically decrease. As a result, your body will release chemicals—such as melatonin—which researchers believe induces sleep.
Cold water immersion and active recovery are common post‐exercise recovery treatments. A key assumption about the benefits of cold water immersion is that it reduces inflammation in skeletal muscle.How long do you have to cold plunge to get benefits? ›
The target time of a cold plunge is three minutes. This is why you should build up to a 5-minute cold shower in the weeks preceding your plunge. Three minutes is also long enough to tap into the most desirable cold-immersion benefits, such as improved blood sugar regulation and fat burning.How often should you do a cold plunge? ›
A cold plunge is when you fully submerge your body up to your neck in water below 59° Fahrenheit (15° Celsius). 59° Fahrenheit—two to four sessions per week for eleven minutes total time—is enough to cause measurable metabolic boost according to Dr. Susanna Soeberg.Should you cold plunge everyday? ›
Taking ice baths will do many things for your health and well-being—the trick is to do it Daily. This isn't a once-a-week type of thing, you need the daily cold plunge to get all of the benefits.Is the cold plunge worth it? ›
Whatever the primary motivation, there are many benefits to cold water plunging. Studies have found this therapy can help with improved circulation, reduced inflammation, and increased energy levels. The practice is also said to improve mood and promote better sleep.What should you do after you take an ice bath? ›
Avoid taking a shower right after an ice bath. It is better to let the body warm up on its own instead of shocking it with hot water. If after several minutes you cannot seem to get warm on your own, take a warm shower to raise your internal body temperature.
Does cold plunge help with weight loss? ›
Taking a cold plunge in an Ice Barrel can activate the brown adipose and muscles in your body. Once activated, Irisin and FGF will be released. These two hormones burn up the white fat tissues resulting in weight loss.How long is too long in a cold plunge? ›
When taking a dip in your cold plunge tank, it's best to keep sessions to times of no longer than 10 minutes. With Cold Water Immersion there is no set time limit and it can be anywhere from 1 -10 minutes. The goal is to initiate the "Fight or Flight Response", and that can be done relatively quickly.Should you cold plunge in the morning? ›
A cold plunge first thing in the morning will also do wonders for your energy levels. This is because plunging yourself into cold water activates your body's fight or flight response.Do ice baths help mental health? ›
When you're stressed, the vagus nerve signals your body to release stress hormones. When you take an ice bath, the cold water has a calming effect that activates the vagus nerve to decrease stress levels and to help reduce tension and anxiety.Does ice water help anxiety? ›
Hormones. We know cold water immersion increases production of mood-elevating hormones and neurotransmitters (beta-endorphins, noradrenaline and dopamine) that can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety by changing the chemistry in our body and brain.Do ice baths lower blood pressure? ›
Long baths or showers that are too cold or too hot could excessively lower or raise a person's body temperature. If a person's body temperature drops below 89.96°F (32.2°C) , a person may experience: a decreased breathing rate. a drop in blood pressure.Can you do a cold plunge at home? ›
The Cold Plunge uses a plug and plunge system, with hardly any work required at all. To set it up, all you have to do is fill it with water from the hose, turn it on, set the temperature that you would like, and you're good to go. You'll receive all the benefits of an ice bath without any of the hassles.