Doing Workouts To Build Muscle? Then Ice Baths Could Wreck Your Hard Won Gains

Dunking your workout-battered bod into an ice bath is a rite of passage for many top athletes, and teams. Whether you’re tennis player Andy Murray or the Boston Red Socks, it seems ice baths are popular as ever, so you might assume that they have the sports-science seal of approval.

Not so: brand new research suggests that if your goal is to pack on lean muscle, then a dip on the rocks could be disastrous, damping down the muscle-building process exactly when it should be firing up.

RSNG spoke to author of the brand new Maastricht University Medical Centre study, published in ‘The Journal Of Physiology’, to find out why ice baths are a bad idea for muscle-building and exercise recovery, and what you should be doing post-workout instead…

RSNG Your study found that ice baths post-workout block the protein-generation process in muscles that kicks in after exercise – did this surprise you? CASPAR FUCHS, SCIENTIST ‘There is quite some evidence nowadays to show that post-exercise cold-water immersion has a negative impact on muscle hypertrophy. However, our findings nicely show that one of the (most important) underlying mechanisms is that you lower muscle protein synthesis.’

‘This could also have a negative impact on muscle repair, as you also need to make new muscle proteins to rebuild your muscle with new and functional proteins (instead of the damaged ones). So it may also impair recovery (at least) to a certain extent.’

I would say that supplementing with creatine may help in some situations

RSNG Why do you think some athletes have gravitated to ice baths as post-exercise recovery? CF ‘I think the psychological aspect plays a major role here. When athletes undergo an intense exercise session they often feel/ experience muscle soreness in the hours and days after the exercise.’

‘Applying cooling reduces that feeling of soreness/ pain, which make them feel better “recovered” and therefore they feel that they can optimally perform faster after the exercise session again.’

‘Studies have shown that muscle soreness can be reduced when post-exercise cooling is applied. However, it may also be that this is primarily a ‘placebo effect’. Nevertheless, if athletes feel better then it may be worthwhile, in some situations, to apply this strategy.’

RSNG I’ve also heard that alternating hot and cold immersion can help with injury prevention and exercise recovery – is there any solid evidence for this? CF ‘There is some evidence that contrast water therapy, as it’s called, may be another good way to recover from a workout. However, I think there should be more evidence to show its physiological effects.’

‘I would say that if an athlete really feels better when applying contrast water therapy, then it can be applied. I do not think that it will provide major benefits, but on the other hand, small improvements may be beneficial for elite athletes.’

RSNG Given the results of your study, what three things would you suggest people who are doing hypertrophy workouts should do post-workout to encourage muscle growth? CF ‘To most people this probably sounds boring, but it really comes down to ingesting the right nutrients as well as take appropriate rest (and sleep well). Ingesting sufficient amounts of protein after your exercise session will help you to optimally recover and adapt to that exercise session.’

‘Depending on your exercise session, I think it is safe to say to ingest between 20-40 grams of protein. Also try to aim for ~8 hours of sleep. Those are the main points. Then if you really want me to name another thing that may help in hypertrophy, I would say that supplementing with creatine may help in some situations for some individuals (although that does not necessarily have to be taken post-workout).’

RSNG The idea of a short metabolic window seems to have been disproven – what general guidelines would you put forward for sensible post-exercise nutrition, to encourage muscle growth? CF ‘True, in fact the window of opportunity is very wide. I think that if you’re a high-level bodybuilder looking for the smallest improvements to gain muscle mass and strength, its worthwhile to take protein in close proximity to your workouts. If you’re a recreational athlete or someone that simply wants to look a bit better in the mirror, then simply exercise is by far the most important thing to do.’

‘If you then eat sufficient protein in your diet, on a daily basis, (up to ~1.6g/kg body mass/day, spread over the day), then you will generally be fine.’

Most people are looking for some magical solution but it really comes down to hard-work, proper nutrition and rest

RSNG Do you think people overlook the obvious when it comes to post-exercise routines – ie not getting enough feet-up rest or sleep? CF ‘I think that’s a good point! Most people are looking for some magical solution to their goals. However, there are none. It really comes down to hard-work, proper nutrition and proper rest.’

‘If those are in balance, then over a period of weeks to months you will see changes. It does not happen faster than that.’

WHAT NEXT? Looking to build a ripped six-pack? Then read our interview with double Olympic Gold Medallist gymnast Max Whitlock where he reveals his abs secrets…

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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.

You can read the full text of the study, performed at the NUTRIM School Of Nutrition and Traditional Research In Metabolism, Maastricht University Medical Centre, as published in The Journal Of Physiology, here