In the bodybuilding world, wasted time is wasted progress. Everyone pays attention to the basics, such as exercise execution, analyzing progress logs, getting stronger, and consuming the right macros.
Then, sometimes as an afterthought, there’s recovery. Recovery may involve complete rest for a day or two, an invigorating massage, or jumping on a foam roller. The more dedicated among us may even engage in some adventurous flexi-mobility drills.
Perhaps an active recovery strategy should get the same, if not more, attention as diet and exercise, depending on the tool or system used as the recovery modality.
Exercise recovery techniques promise to get us back in the gym fully refreshed and repaired so that we can repeat the cycle of destroying muscle fibers in order to grow bigger and stronger.
Supplements and ergogenic aids used to take up much of the headlines until the new king in town muscled in – cold water therapy.
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Cool Recovery Strategies
You may have heard of cryotherapy, which involves encasing oneself in a chamber of absolutely freezing air that’s as low as -86 to -230 degrees Fahrenheit. This process is used to numb problem nerves as well as treat various cancers and skin conditions through the use of pulsed air or refrigerated gas, normally carbon dioxide.
With reference to bodybuilding, this extreme method of torture is heralded as being able to lower inflammation and reduce muscle soreness. This leads to muscle relaxation and may also slow down nerve conduction, which can provide pain relief.
But where’s a cryotherapy chamber when you need one, and who has $60-$100 to spend on it after every workout? There must be another way, and there is.
You might have seen endurance athletes, MMA fighters, boxers, and now even strongmen on YouTube immersing in ice baths. This process is thought to combat the microtrauma inflicted on muscle fibers during intense training by reducing inflammation and DOMS and temperatures can range from a chilly 50–60°F.
Although this form of recovery is not something you’ll be able to do every day, there is another method that everyone can use at home or the gym. This less extreme method involves an easier to accomplish freezing cold shower.
Apart from enjoying pain, why would anyone want to take a cold shower?
Immersing in cold water has an effect on the brain.
Like a strong coffee, it increases your alertness partly due to the cool water shocking the brain to release the neurotransmitters responsible for controlling fatigue. It also boosts mental arousal and the capacity of your body to store heat.
The Benefits of Cold Showers
Ironically, cold showers can make your body warmer, all things being equal. They help you build your physical and mental resilience so that you can adapt to the cold and can tolerate it much better.
Cold showers stimulate the release of white blood cells which are rapidly deployed once you have a cold, virus or the body suspects there is an invader. This boosts your immune response due to the water increasing your metabolic rate.
Jump into a cold shower and your heartbeat will accelerate. Don’t worry, this will not increase your resting heart rate. The heart has to pump faster to remove the volume of blood close to the skin and divert it to essential organs.
The skin restricts and turns pink once this happens and the cardiovascular system is also affected. Additionally, the first time you switch the water to freezing your breath will automatically deepen.
Inhaling deeply lowers cardiovascular stress. As blood volume is increased centrally, in theory, the metabolic byproducts of weight training (lactic acid, free radicals, inflammation) can be swiftly removed from the body and this can reduce the effects of future DOMS.
So why wouldn’t you make cold water an essential part of your post-workout routine? One fundamental reason – testosterone.
Having any kind of cold therapy after a workout is just about the worst time possible for hypertrophy. It’s been well documented how squats can increase natural testosterone and growth hormone levels. 
Now a 2019 study 3, using the tried and trusted model of squat training with 11 men has confirmed that after 15 minutes of cold water immersion their testosterone levels dipped.
Cytokine levels (chemical inflammatory mediators) which play an active role in muscle repair and recovery are also reduced. This has the effect of blunting inflammation levels which short changes the body’s natural immune response to muscle trauma.
The effect is akin to throwing water on a wildfire to combat a potential flash fire.
It would be better to set up a firebreak and let the fire burn out over a small area to stop it from progressing into a huge outbreak. This is the same strategy the body will naturally adopt during its repair function.
It will let the fire burn out before jumping into full-on recovery mode. It will actually use the inflammation to increase cytokines which are released in the body to stimulate protein synthesis.
CWI thwarts this response and the body can not reach its full repair state. As you are effectively stopping the body from doing what it wants to do, you are limiting the amount of potential muscle size and strength gains you worked so hard to achieve during that workout.
Similar studies have demonstrated that cold water can limit the production of mTOR after training. MTOR dictates the anabolic and catabolic response of skeletal muscle mass, which is a key proponent in stimulating protein synthesis. Limiting this puts the breaks on muscular development and strength. 
Stopping this natural inflammation and repair response halts tissue breakdown which is not the effect we want in bodybuilding. EIMD (exercise-induced muscle damage) should not be counteracted by forcing the body to respond to cold water until the protein synthesis time zone has elapsed.
One study found that “Preliminary evidence suggests that CWI may blunt resistance signaling pathways following a single exercise session, as well as attenuate key long-term resistance training adaptations such as strength and muscle mass.” 
Tensiomyography is a newer approach to measuring the mechanical response of CWI as an effective recovery method. So far, it is finding the exact same results as all previous methods for measuring its effectiveness.
At best, results are paradoxical – one study will show it is an effective recovery method, others will refute the claim.
Endurance athletes are a different standard altogether. Those not concerned with packing on masses of muscle like cyclists and marathon runners have seen the benefits of ice baths and freezing showers.
Is There A Better Time To Approach CWI
Cold water immersion appears to limit inflammation. If you are experiencing inflammation and severe DOMS several days after a training session this is usually signaling overtraining or severe muscle tissue trauma.
If this is continuing for days after a workout this is not ideal as having too much inflammation in your body is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular and degenerative disease.
The tax on your immune system will be very heavy. Once the immune system is under duress, it deploys large amounts of glutamine to transport nitrogen around the body to counteract rising levels of inflammation and flush toxic waste out of the body. 
If you are experiencing pain your natural stores of l-glutamine may be running low. Glutamine is used widely in the muscle repair process and it is also used as the primary fuel for the immune system.  When it is depleted it will take longer to recover from workouts and you will be more susceptible to illness.
Taking a cold shower at least 36-48 hours after your previous workout seems like a better time to apply CWI as protein synthesis approaches its baseline.  It can potentially limit the inflammation and flush out exercise waste caused by cortisol, free radicals, and adrenaline.
Inflammation causes tightness, restricts mobility, and can affect the cardiovascular, nervous, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems.  Short term it is good in the muscle-building process, but long term it is extremely negative for overall health.
If your training schedule is more condensed than this you just won’t be able to apply this technique without risking the chance of damaging your muscle gains. If you train 5-6 days a week, multiple times a day, or every other day this won’t help you recover any faster. In fact, it may do the opposite.
However, If you are in a muscle maintenance phase, cutting, or not trying to add mass there are potential gains to be garnered not at the expense of a drop in testosterone if you apply CWI after the 48-hour protein synthesis window.
Happy Days Are Here Again
Competitions can raise anxiety levels which can have a negative impact on your immune system. Long training cycles and potential overtraining syndrome (OTS) can raise tryptophan (essential amino acid) levels and decrease branched-chain amino acid levels. 
As BCAA levels decrease the brain can use the more readily available tryptophan to convert to 5-HT. 5-HT is responsible for increasing serotonin (enzymatically transformed from tryptophan), which is known as the happy chemical as it increases mood.
However, having too much 5-hydroxytryptamine is linked to heart problems and acute anxiety, which makes sense as the more you worry the more stressed you become. 
Austerity treatments like exposure to the cold and taking a cold shower not only boost your mood but a 2008 study demonstrated it may be a natural analgesic treatment for depression.  The study hypothesized that cold water engages the sympathetic nervous system to release noradrenaline from the brain and raise beta-endorphin levels in the blood.
Exposure to cold water excites the peripheral nerve endings in the skin which sends a surge of electrical impulses to the brain. This response, in itself, may produce a natural antidote to depression.
To be honest, I have become so used to taking a cold shower most mornings that I actually look forward to the body shock. Some mornings, I can acclimatize to the temperature pretty quickly, but in others, I am just counting down the clock in my head that tells me enough is enough.
For a cold shower to be effective you need to go through the pain barrier and wait until your body adjusts to the temperature. This can take up to 1 minute. Once the skin turns pink, hang in there and go to your happy place.
I’m prepared to take a cold shower most mornings as I’m only training 2 days a week right now due to Covid-19 restrictions. I’m also working at maintaining my current muscle mass so I’m reaping the therapeutic effects, namely in the vein of waking myself up in the morning, being less stressed, and able to handle the cold UK winter environment with greater ease.
Even so, I won’t take a cold shower close to one of my training sessions as I don’t want it to mess with my test levels and pause any post-exercise inflammation. But enough about me…
No Drastic Changes To Action Plan
This method has to be used in the right context if you are to adopt it into your recovery plan. Just like nutrient timing has caused a lot of controversies, based on yep – the “timing”, the research on CWI has proven it to have negative consequences for the bodybuilder aiming to pack on muscle mass if it’s performed shortly after a training session.
It can also lower testosterone, so stick with the DOMS, or try to work them out on a roller. For now, nutrition, ergogenic aids, and sleep offer the best recovery solutions.
Eddie Eastwood is the founder of X Boom Fitness, a bodybuilding & fitness resource aimed at anyone over 30 looking to get in shape. You’ll find practical workouts and the latest muscle intelligence based on research and trial and error.