Ice baths have long been regarded as the hail mary of muscle recovery, but new research from Queensland University of Technology and The University of Queensland is throwing cold water on its supposed efficacy.
In the study, published in the Journal of Physiology, researches asked 21 physically active men to begin a strength-training regimen two days a week for 12 weeks. About half the group withstood a 10-minute post-workout ice bath at a numbing 50°F, while the rest had a warm down on an exercise bike. At the end of the 12 weeks, those who performed an active warm down had more strength and muscle mass than those who cooled down in an ice bath.
A subsequent follow-up study took muscle biopsies from men after they performed single-leg strength exercises, then either took an ice bath or actively warmed down. This time researchers found that ice baths stunted activity within satellite cells—essentially muscle “stem cells”—and activity in pathways needed to build bigger, stronger muscles.
"We found that cold water immersion after training substantially attenuated, or reduced, long-term gains in muscle mass and strength," says Dr. Llion Roberts, one of the study authors.
The researchers surmise athletes who use ice baths after workouts will see less long-term muscle growth than those who choose active warm downs. The reason why this happens isn’t entirely definitive, but their best guess is that cold water immersion reduces muscle blood flow.
Bottom line: While the cold water may numb your sore muscles and help heal injuries, it’s not the best recovery method after a strength session. Here are 10 great recovery methods to try instead.