Applying cold to your muscles after a workout, like using an ice bath or cold water therapy, might improve recovery and restore performance faster. At the same time, soaking in icy water after lifting weights seems to put a stop to your gains, at least if you do it all the time. Several recent studies show that cooling your muscles after a workout impair both acute anabolic signaling and long-term gains.1 2
Earlier studies use cold water baths, immersing the entire lower body up to the waist. In addition, none of them have combined the post-exercise cooling with some kind of protein intake. Eating some form of protein in conjunction with a workout is essential to promote a positive muscle protein balance.
A New Study
A brand new study rectifies both these omissions and adds to the evidence suggesting that you should stay out of the cold after a workout if you want optimal gains.3
During a two-week training intervention, 12 young and healthy men performed 7 training sessions in a progressive manner. They performed 4 sets of 10 repetitions at 80 % 1RM of leg presses and leg extensions each workout. Immediately after the workouts, they immersed their legs in water for 20 minutes. One of the legs was exposed to 10-degree water, while the other was immersed in 30-degree water. At this point, the participants also ingested 20 grams of milk protein and 45 grams of carbohydrate. This combination is known to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
The researchers measured both acute muscle protein synthesis in the legs during the hours following the workout as well as daily muscle protein synthesis during the 2-week period.
They found that the muscles in the legs immersed in the cold water couldn’t take up the amino acids from the milk protein and use them to build new muscle properly. The warm leg didn’t have this problem.
In addition, cold-water immersion for just a few short minutes after the workouts lowered the muscle protein synthesis assessed over the entire 2 weeks. Protein synthesis rates in the leg exposed to cold were significantly lower than in the leg immersed in 30-degree water after the workout.
If you need the fastest possible recovery to perform your best again soon after a training session, an ice bath might be a good idea. Save it for special occasions, though. Cooling your muscles with cold water on a regular basis after workouts leads to lower muscle protein synthesis. In the long run, this likely leads to less than optimal gains. No one wants sub-optimal gains.
- J Physiol. 2015 Sep 15;593(18):4285-301. Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training.
- J Appl Physiol (1985). 2019 Nov 1;127(5):1403-1418. Cold water immersion attenuates anabolic signaling and skeletal muscle fiber hypertrophy, but not strength gain, following whole-body resistance training.
- J Physiol. 2019 Dec 1. Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes.