You’ll find various online forums inundated with the question, “Why Do Bodybuilders Take Ice Baths?”
I mean, it makes perfect sense for a professional athlete, marathon runner, and even a combat athlete to take an ice bath.
It is often seen as the ideal way to promote recovery and start the healing process.
But, why are bodybuilders joining in on this craze?
Let’s find out.
Why Do Bodybuilders Take Ice Baths?
Bodybuilders will take ice baths to help reduce inflammation and improve recovery. In fact, ice baths are generally used by a wide variety of athletes for the same purposes. However, there have been numerous scientific studies in recent years that prove that certain other methods could be more beneficial. Contrast therapy, so switching from cold to hot-water baths (or showers) can be even more effective in terms of recovery. In fact, there is also research which shows that active recovery, e.g. cooling down a stationary bike, is probably better than an ice bath.
1. Ice Baths Can Reduce Inflammation
The main reason that bodybuilders, and athletes in general, take ice baths is to reduce inflammation and promote recovery.
When you sit in an ice bath the blood vessels will constrict, plus various bodily functions will slow down due to the cold temperature.
This includes slowing down the metabolism, tissue breakdown, and swelling.
Additionally, this process can reduce fluid accumulation in the tissues, which is typically what causes inflammation after a hard workout.
As soon as you step out of an ice bath the blood vessels dilate, i.e. open back up again, and this helps to flush waste products out of the body.
This includes flushing lactic acid out of the body.
Your body and the tissues will warm up when you get out of an ice bath, which increases blood circulation, and can help to relax the muscles.
Most pro bodybuilders will train each muscle group multiple times a week.
If their workouts are particularly intense this could cause inflammation and swelling of the muscles.
In the worst case scenario this could even mean that an athlete will need to rest and avoid training a muscle group until the inflammation subsides.
So, an ice bath is typically viewed as the ideal way to stop this from happening.
2. Ice Baths Can Improve Recovery
This overall process can actually help to reduce or negate delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
This ideal for a bodybuilder who may be training daily, and multiple times a day, in preparation for a competition.
The less the muscles ache, the more effective you can expect your workouts to be.
Therefore, you could say that ice baths can help to speed up the recovery process.
You have to take into consideration that if certain muscle groups haven’t recovered this could impact the training of another muscle group.
Sore pecs and triceps could affect your shoulder training.
If your hamstrings ache you may not be able to squat as well.
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Aching biceps will make doing weighted pull ups so much harder.
And these are all considerations for a competitive bodybuilder.
3. An Ice Bath Doesn’t Need to be THAT Cold
Now, before you run off to plunge yourself into an ice bath in the name of inflammation reduction and overall recovery there are a few things you should be aware of.
Ice baths may actually not be the best way to aid your overall recovery.
Plus, from a bodybuilder’s perspective they may even have an impact on muscle growth.
I shall cover all these points in the following couple of sections.
But first, it’s important to understand what an ice bath is.
The name itself conjures up ideas of just filling a bathtub with a few thousand ice cubes and jumping straight in.
However, this is probably a great way to give yourself hypothermia, damage some nerves, and end up in a lot of pain.
Ice baths are actually a form of cryotherapy.
Just in case you weren’t aware, cryotherapy is typically used to treat various skin conditions, and even some cancers.
The aim is to reduce blood flow to a certain area of the body, which in turn can reduce nerve activity and therefore relieve pain.
Most cryotherapy treatments are only for specific areas of the body, so will use extreme cold to freeze tissue.
However, an ice bath is generally for the entire body, so it doesn’t make sense to use extreme cold or freezing temperatures.
So, you should submerge yourself in very cold water, up to chest level, and stay there for 10-15 minutes.
But, a temperature of 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit will suffice.
So, as you can see, nowhere near freezing, but still uncomfortable enough to make your face contort.
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4. Contrast Therapy is Better Than an Ice Bath
Now, you may recall that I mentioned that ice baths can slow down various bodily functions.
And these include the metabolism and tissue breakdown.
While this all sounds fantastic, this can actually inhibit muscle growth.
Okay, you certainly won’t ache as much following a workout, but this may not be the ideal way to grow muscle.
In fact, when it comes to building muscle you want your metabolism to be firing on all cylinders.
Plus, tissue breakdown and repair is how the muscles grow bigger and stronger.
Many bodybuilders have cottoned-on to this fact and therefore use alternative methods of recovery.
One approach that seems to work much better is contrast therapy.
In essence, this involves switching between hot and cold.
So, you initially immerse yourself in hot water for one minute, switch to cold water for a minute, and then you continue to alternate between the two for a set period of time.
This will ensure that blood flows to your organs when immersed in cold water, and then to your extremities when hot.
Basically, your circulatory system is in a constant state of change, thus ensuring your body gets the best of both worlds.
Contrast therapy can be done in both a bathtub or simply by having a shower.
5. Active Recovery is Better Than an Ice Bath
There have been various studies into ice baths, and as it turns out they may not be as effective as most of us think.
As I’ve alluded to above, muscle tissue damage signals to the body that a specific area needs to be repaired and built up more.
This is how muscles grow.
However, when you take an ice bath you remove this signal, which means that you have also removed the stimulus for growth.
So, even though reducing inflammation seems like a great idea at the time, it could in fact be hampering muscle growth.
A study published in 2015 revealed that cold water immersion actually reduced long-term muscle and strength gains.
But, performing active recovery, such as cooling down on an exercise bike, had greater long-term muscle and strength benefits.
So, from a bodybuilder’s perspective it is probably better to allow the muscles to initially ache, and focus more on active recovery.
Jordan Yeoh’s Active Recovery Workout
Bodybuilders take ice baths, the same as most athletes, to reduce inflammation and speed up recovery.
However, cold water immersion can actually affect muscle and strength gains in the long-term.
So, as a bodybuilder, you would be better off using either contrast therapy or active recovery.
This will ensure that you don’t impede the breakdown and repair of muscle tissue.
Bodybuilder Dean Hartwig’s Workout & Nutrition Program
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.