Cold water and muscle recovery has been toted as a synergistic combination for decades. The act of submerging yourself in cold water, also known as cold thermogenesis, is practiced by many people including athletes in ice baths, Wim Hof in his freezing rivers, Tibetan monks in the Himalayan Mountains, and many others with the goal of increasing health and gaining a plethora of supposed benefits.
Despite its prevalence in the fitness, health, and life-improvement industries, many studies have come out that question the validity of this method. Modern perspectives on the utility of cold water for muscle recovery tend to put down the long believed wisdom that cold water is the secret to more gains.
The studies which have been done found no changes in the endocrine system which would be advantageous toward recovery. One study on the effect on cold water stimulation on serum testosterone found that cold water had no significant effect. Another study found that while cold stress (repeated exposure to cold water) increased metabolic rate and norepinephrine, it decreased levels of testosterone.
A meta-analysis done on 36 studies found that overall, cooling treatment lowered DOMS. This would imply that since people feel less sore from working out if they are exposed to coldness, cold water exposure may be beneficial for muscle recovery. Lowered DOMS however would likely result from decreased physiological stress but this decrease of the natural process of stress isn’t necessarily advantageous to optimal recovery from resistance training, so all-in-all there is no proof of better results from workouts if you expose yourself to cold following exercise.
Cold Water Immersion vs. Cold Showers
Based on all the evidence from studies, cold water immersion may be beneficial for fat loss by elevating metabolic rate, improved sperm count by cooling down the scrotum, and overall mood by releasing endorphins in response to the discomfort of cold water, but it is not going to be able to make a substantial difference in your recovery from training.
Specifically, cold water immersion likely will not help recovery because there is not any evidence which supports a testosterone increase from being submerged in cold water and there are not any strong sources of evidence for better protein synthesis or muscle repair following cold water immersion.
Cold showers differ from cold water immersion in multiple ways. While cold water immersion is going to lower your overall body temperature for prolonged periods of times, cold showers simply deliver a shock and douse the body temporarily.
Despite the potential positive effects of cold showers on discipline, cognitive function, and wakefulness, there is little carry over into the world of lifting and building muscle.
One could argue that higher mental acuity might result in better training due to higher focus and motivation, which is a valid point but still only forms an indirect relationship between cold water and building muscle.
The Benefits of Cold Water Therapy For Recovery
One of the more concrete pieces of evidence for the benefits of cold water in the context of improving hormones and muscle mass comes from the effects of colder temperatures on the scrotum.
It has been proven that when the scrotum is exposed to warm temperatures, sperm quality and sperm count are lowered. Conversely, when the scrotum is iced or chilled from cold exposure, sperm count and overall sperm quality go up.
There are multiple studies which have examined the cause and effect relationship between icing the scrotum and improving sperm count, all getting similar results. This study found that when ice packs were applied to the scrotum of infertile men there was a 2-fold increase in sperm density.
Furthermore, there is evidence that after the temperature of the scrotum has been cooled: sperm count increases, voice deepens, sex drive increases, and even performance in the gym improves. However, most of this is gathered from anecdotal reports, as studies are relatively limited, so all of these claims can not be treated as definitive.
These benefits from lowering the temperature of the scrotum seem to be experienced relatively commonly by multiple people. It also appears that in the interest of building muscle and recovering from training, simply applying a cold pack or ice to your scrotum is more effective than any other form of cold therapy like cold immersion or cold showers.
The Negatives of Cold Water Therapy
The negatives of cold water for muscle recovery are that it has been found through some research to reduce the physiological stress response to training, decreasing the body’s ability to repair itself optimally.
Also, cold water has been theorized to blunt the anabolic signaling following training. This study found a correlation between exposure to cold water and worse overall results from training, due to this possible effect.
Wrapping things up, cold water will not hurt the gains you’re making in the gym a great amount but it is also not going to give you any sort of significant boost in muscle recovery.
The positives are that cold water may help with fat loss, sperm count, and mood. Cold water through lowering the temperature of the scrotum may also have a sort of androgenic effect but that is not backed up through verified studies.