Cold Water Immersion and Muscle Hypertrophy Key Points
- Most people think cold water immersion completely blunts muscle hypertrophy/
- The study found evidence that the combination of cold water immersion (CWI) and resistance training (RT) modestly impairs measures of muscular hypertrophy.
- Its probably best to do CWI several hours before or after training to minimize the potentially adverse effects of CWI on muscle growth.
- Its best to use CWI infrequently to make continued muscle gains.
Is cold water immersion effective?
Athletes often incorporate various modalities to enhance muscle recuperation and reduce muscle soreness, such as saunas, hot water therapy, massage, cryotherapy, and cold water immersion. (Crystal et al., 2013; Roberts et al., 2014; Wang et al., 2021; Xiao et al., 2023) Cold water therapy has numerous health benefits, like reducing inflammation and soreness after exercise while improving circulation and promoting recovery. Cold water therapy, particularly cold water immersion (CWI), has been the subject of debate concerning its impact on muscle hypertrophy in the fitness and sports community. A previous article on Evidence Based Muscle discusses the Pros and Cons of Ice Baths.
Understanding cold water therapy
Gradual immersion in cold water post-exercise decreases inflammation and swelling in muscles. Although many believe this therapy affects muscle growth and recovery adversely, scientific evidence shows how it improves blood circulation and reduces oxidative stress. It is crucial to introduce cold water therapy slowly to prevent any shock to the body.
Studies have found that CWI can reduce muscle protein synthesis, satellite cell activity, and muscle growth. (Fuchs et al., 2020; Fyfe et al., 2019; Roberts et al., 2015) Previous studies indicated that CWI may reduce muscle damage and discomfort, potentially contributing to a faster recovery of neuromuscular function following a one-off match. (Ascensão et al., 2011) However, results from a different study suggested that a single bout of CWI after a damaging bout of exercise had no beneficial effects on the recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage. (Jakeman et al., 2009)
This article aims to dispel prevalent myths and misunderstandings by combining the findings of a recent systematic review on the effects of post-exercise CWI on resistance training-induced hypertrophy. By examining the available literature and considering the specific application and individual factors, this article presents evidence-backed information to debunk misconceptions surrounding CWI.
Does Cold Water Immersion Stop Muscle Hypertrophy?
Fact: A recent systematic review and meta-analysis examined the effects of CWI on muscle growth. 8 studies met the inclusion criteria. Muscle hypertrophy was assessed using various methods, including DXA, MRI, CT, US, biopsy, and circumference measurement.
The specific method used varied between studies. They all employed cold water immersion (CWI) as the means of cold application. The duration of the studies ranged from 4 to 12 weeks.
All studies included young adults (aged 20–26 years). Four studies employed resistance-trained participants, and the others employed untrained participants.
The study results revealed that the effects of CWI on resistance training-induced hypertrophy found that CWI’s negative effects on muscle growth are modest. (Piñero et al., 2023) However, the quality of the included studies was generally fair to poor, and higher quality studies are needed to draw stronger conclusions. The primary analysis on comparative effect sizes provided evidence of greater relative hypertrophic adaptations with resistance training compared to cold water immersion and resistance training.
The conflicting results could be due to varying experimental conditions, such as differences in immersion time, water temperature, and exercise duration. While more research is needed, current evidence suggests that individuals aiming to improve skeletal muscle conditioning should reconsider applying CWI infrequently as a part of their post-exercise recovery strategy.
Potential risks and precautions of Cold Water Therapy
Proper precautions should be observed to safely perform cold water immersion therapy for health benefits such as reduced inflammation and soreness. Ensure that someone monitors you during the therapy to avoid accidents or injuries. IPeople with specific medical conditions should seek advice from a primary care physician before trying this type of therapy. Hydration is necessary before and after the session for optimal results.
The practical applications of this study suggest that the application of cold water immersion immediately following bouts of resistance training may attenuate hypertrophic changes.
This article’s systematic review with meta-analysis challenges the belief that CWI completely blunts muscle hypertrophy. While CWI may have some attenuating effects on muscle hypertrophy, its impact depends on the specific application and individual factors.
Ascensão, A., Leite, M., Rebelo, A. N., Magalhäes, S., & Magalhäes, J. (2011). Effects of cold water immersion on the recovery of physical performance and muscle damage following a one-off soccer match. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(3), 217-225. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.526132
Crystal, N. J., Townson, D. H., Cook, S. B., & LaRoche, D. P. (2013). Effect of cryotherapy on muscle recovery and inflammation following a bout of damaging exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol, 113(10), 2577-2586. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-013-2693-9
Fuchs, C. J., Kouw, I. W. K., Churchward-Venne, T. A., Smeets, J. S. J., Senden, J. M., Lichtenbelt, W. D. v. M., Verdijk, L. B., & van Loon, L. J. C. (2020). Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes. The Journal of Physiology, 598(4), 755-772. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1113/JP278996
Fyfe, J. J., Broatch, J. R., Trewin, A. J., Hanson, E. D., Argus, C. K., Garnham, A. P., Halson, S. L., Polman, R. C., Bishop, D. J., & Petersen, A. C. (2019). Cold water immersion attenuates anabolic signaling and skeletal muscle fiber hypertrophy, but not strength gain, following whole-body resistance training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 127(5), 1403-1418. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00127.2019
Jakeman, J. R., Macrae, R., & Eston, R. (2009). A single 10-min bout of cold-water immersion therapy after strenuous plyometric exercise has no beneficial effect on recovery from the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage. Ergonomics, 52(4), 456-460. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140130802707733
Piñero, A., Burke, R. F., Augustin, F., Mohan, A., Dejesus, K., Sapuppo, M., Weisenthal, M., Coleman, M., Androulakis-Korakakis, P., Grgic, J., Swinton, P., & Schoenfeld, B. (2023). Throwing cold water on muscle growth: A systematic review with meta-analysis of the effects of post-exercise cold water immersion on resistance training- induced hypertrophy. https://doi.org/10.51224/SRXIV.301
Roberts, L. A., Nosaka, K., Coombes, J. S., & Peake, J. M. (2014). Cold water immersion enhances recovery of submaximal muscle function after resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol, 307(8), R998-r1008. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00180.2014
Roberts, L. A., Raastad, T., Markworth, J. F., Figueiredo, V. C., Egner, I. M., Shield, A., Cameron-Smith, D., Coombes, J. S., & Peake, J. M. (2015). Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. The Journal of Physiology, 593(18), 4285-4301. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1113/JP270570
Wang, Y., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Chen, Y., Yan, F., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Heat and cold therapy reduce pain in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A systematic review and meta-analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials. Phys Ther Sport, 48, 177-187. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2021.01.004
Xiao, F., Kabachkova, A. V., Jiao, L., Zhao, H., & Kapilevich, L. V. (2023). Effects of cold water immersion after exercise on fatigue recovery and exercise performance–meta analysis. Front Physiol, 14, 1006512. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2023.1006512