Could Post-Workout Cold Exposure Kill Your Gains?

Could Post-Workout Cold Exposure Kill Your Gains?

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, Pn2, PPSC

Could Post-Workout Cold Exposure Kill Your Gains?

Inflammation is a dirty word in the health and fitness space. Along with "hormones" (looking at you, cortisol), it's the root of all evil and something we should be looking to squash at all times. If you've been paying attention however, you know the human body doesn't just make stuff up for laughs.

Like cortisol, inflammation plays an indispensable role in maintaining our health. Our immune system creates inflammation to protect the body from infection, injury, and disease. It is both a healing and a defensive response, without which we wouldn't be able to recover from physical injury or overcome illnesses.

Acute inflammation that does not persist beyond a few weeks is a natural healing and recovery process our bodies go through on a regular basis. When inflammation becomes damaging is when it is chronic, lasting for extended or indefinite periods of time. In cases of chronic inflammation and autoimmune conditions, inflammation begins to attack healthy tissues, leading to a host of negative symptoms and increasing the risk of a number of lifestyle diseases like cancer and diabetes.

The Cold Exposure Phenomenon

Thanks to the very real negative health effects of chronic inflammation, "decreases inflammation" has become an everyday phrase in the marketing of diets, supplements, gadgets, and wellness practices. Over the last few years, intentional cold exposure has become one of the most popular internet trends for fighting the evil inflammation empire, while showing other health nerds how hardcore you are.

Whether it's via cryotherapy, cold water immersion, or just being outside in low temperatures, research surrounding the potential  benefits of cold exposure has increased dramatically in recent years and is ongoing. Some studies, including a 2021 Finnish study published in the International Journal of Hyperthermia, have concluded cold water immersion may temporarily suppress inflammatory markers like interleukin-6 (IL-6) and TNF-alpha. In addition, practices like cold water swimming and ice baths may boost the production of anti-inflammatory myokines like interleukin-10 (IL-10).

In addition, anecdotal reports from frequent cold exposure participants cite benefits like stress relief, improved mood, cognitive enhancement, and enhanced immune function.

Sounds like it might be worth a few minutes of discomfort, right?

As stated above, research on intentional cold exposure is ongoing, and scientific evidence is still trying to catch up with the explosion of anecdotal claims touting its benefits. There are two sides of every coin however, so are there any potential drawbacks to cold exposure? When it comes to muscle hypertrophy (growth), the answer may be yes.

Cold Exposure and Muscle Growth 

Long before cold plunging became a social media phenomenon, athletes were taking post-training ice baths in big metal tubs, garbage cans, or whatever makeshift vessel was available. The idea was that the cold water would improve healing and recovery following competition or a grueling workout.

Now that it's trendy, it's commonplace to see internet influencers filming themselves going straight from a workout into a cryo chamber or cold plunge tub, for the purpose of aiding recovery. We have evidence in support of the anti-inflammatory effects of cold exposure, so the underlying logic seems to make sense.

In reality, immediately squelching the natural inflammatory response that takes place following rigorous exercise may not be the best idea if your goal is building muscle mass. That's because acute spikes of proinflammatory cytokines like IL-6 kickstart the activation of satellite cells and muscle repair. While chronically elevated levels of IL-6 may be detrimental to muscle growth, the brief spike following exercise helps boost it.

An Australian research team at the University of Queensland has produced multiple studies on this topic, including a 2017 report published in The Journal of Physiology. They concluded that regular application of cold water immersion following exercise reduced gains in muscle mass and strength following three months of resistance training.

Interestingly, this same research team reported findings that cold water immersion following exercise may not produce as dramatic a local anti-inflammatory effect as previously believed. This suggests that at best, post-workout cold exposure may be killing your gains as a result of suppressing inflammatory markers like IL-6. At worst, it may be killing your gains for some other reason, and not even providing the anti-inflammatory effect most are seeking in the first place.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of this article is not to trash cold exposure as a wellness practice. In fact, this author has utilized both cryotherapy and cold water immersion a number of times in the past, and there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that at the very least, it makes people feel good.

That said, hopping right out of your resistance training session and right into a cold plunge may not be the best practice for maximizing muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. Instead, consider taking your cold dip on a rest day, or several hours apart from your training session.

At the end of the day, is cold exposure beneficial? Generally speaking, it’s likely a net positive in terms of its effects on overall wellbeing. As with many things in life, it’s all in the timing.