Search icon

Fitness & Health

17th Mar 2021

Do ice baths help you burn fat or boost recovery? Experts have their say

Alex Roberts

If you’re a regular in the weights room, experts say you “should reconsider using ice baths”

Ice baths are all the rage right now. Alongside outdoor swimming, their use has skyrocketed since the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep across the globe.

Numerous athletes and celebrities are known to regularly take the plunge.

Whether it’s Lady Gaga, Kevin Hart, ‘The Body Coach’ Joe Wicks or NFL defensive end JJ Watt, many famous faces swear by cold water therapy as an essential component of their fitness regime.

Does any of this stand up to science, or are people merely plunging into a freezing cold bandwagon? We spoke to experts and examined the evidence.

Why are ice baths used?

According to Nicola Rawlinson, a Performance Physiologist at world-leading Loughborough University, ice baths fall under the wider concept of “cold water immersion”.

Rawlinson, part of the team that created health and fitness app ORO, said that ice baths are “a tool that athletes sometimes use within their recovery strategy.”

The practice “involves submerging all or part of the body in cold water” after training or an event. The intention is to “accelerate the time it takes for the athlete to feel able to perform at their best again.”

Do ice baths work?

While ice baths may have some uses, they should probably be avoided if you’re attempting to build muscle and gain strength.

Scientists at Maastricht University found that ice bath therapy reduces blood flow, swelling and inflammation.

For injury prevention, this might help. For injury healing, the results would probably be even greater. But this isn’t necessarily what you want if your primary fitness goals concern muscle and strength gain.

For this, scientists assert that a degree of inflammation and cell swelling is actually necessary in order to get bigger and stronger.

Nicola Rawlinson said “inflammation is the body’s stress response to heavy exercise and is involved in the signal cascade that prompts adaptation”.

In other words, inflammation after training “is your body saying ‘I wasn’t strong enough to cope with that stimulus because I’ve experienced muscle damage, so I need to be bigger/fitter/stronger for next time'”.

Are ice baths pseudoscience?

Summarising the results from their study, Maastricht University’s Cas Fuchs said: “Everyone exercising, whether they be weekend warriors or elite athletes, wants to get the most out of their workouts.

“Our research doesn’t discount cold-water immersion altogether, but does suggest that if the athlete aims to repair and/or build muscle, perhaps they should reconsider using ice baths.”

Loughborough physiologist Rawlinson would also agree.

“When it comes to chronic muscular adaptations such as hypertrophy (muscle gain), the general consensus seems to be leaning towards a blunted adaptation as a result of chronic cold water immersion (CWI) use.”

The use of cold water therapy should be strictly limited, Rawlinson added.

“Given the current lack of conclusive evidence… I would generally recommend athletes only use this strategy during intense competition periods.”

Is the occasional ice bath going to hurt? Probably not, but if your use is chronic, then experts agree that you are hindering your results in the gym.

No posts have been found