Could Cold Showers Cut Muscle Growth?

could cold showers cut muscle growth

 

Cold water immersion has its drawbacks

Reader Rob pointed me to a study on how cold water immersion after a workout affects muscle growth: Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training.(1) This study has to do with full immersion, but could cold showers cut muscle growth?

First, here’s the layman’s summary of the article:

  • Cold water immersion is a popular strategy to recover from exercise. However, whether regular cold water immersion influences muscle adaptations to strength training is not well understood.
  • We compared the effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on changes in muscle mass and strength after 12 weeks of strength training. We also examined the effects of these two treatments on hypertrophy signalling pathways and satellite cell activity in skeletal muscle after acute strength exercise.
  • Cold water immersion attenuated long term gains in muscle mass and strength. It also blunted the activation of key proteins and satellite cells in skeletal muscle up to 2 days after strength exercise.
  • Individuals who use strength training to improve athletic performance, recover from injury or maintain their health should therefore reconsider whether to use cold water immersion as an adjuvant to their training.

Awhile back I wrote about cold thermogenesis, and what parts of it were hype and what were reality. In short, exposure to cold water does have health benefits, but weight loss is probably not one of them.

Are cold showers the same as cold water immersion?

I also mentioned my habit of taking cold showers, and that the water temperature at the time (November 1) was about 66 degrees F.

These day – end of December – the temperature of my showers is more like 56 degrees F.

When I first read the above study, I dismissed it as being of any relevance to my own practices. The study concerns *immersion* in cold water for 10 minutes. I don’t do immersion and my exposure is much less than 10 minutes, maybe 2 minutes this time of year.

The study doesn’t say how cold the water was. (At least not in the abstract, and they want money for me to read the whole paper.)

But the gains of those who immersed in cold water were cut dramatically. In the group that did not immerse themselves in cold water, “Isokinetic work (19%), type II muscle fibre cross-sectional area (17%) and the number of myonuclei per fibre (26%) increased in the ACT group (all P < 0.05)”.

The cold water group saw no gains in these measures.

In part of the study, they looked at the consequences of a single exercise bout followed by cold water immersion or not, and activation of satellite cells and muscle synthetic proteins was greater in the group that did not immerse. The study authors conclude:

These data suggest that CWI [cold water immersion] attenuates the acute changes in satellite cell numbers and activity of kinases that regulate muscle hypertrophy, which may translate to smaller long-term training gains in muscle strength and hypertrophy. The use of CWI as a regular post-exercise recovery strategy should be reconsidered.

 

I’ve stopped cold showers post-workout

I’m now ready to reconsider taking a cold shower after a session of weightlifting, and in fact I’ve stopped doing so.

This time of year the water is likely cold enough to cut my gains, and besides, why take the chance?

The cuts in gains in the study were far larger than I would have expected.

How does all this work? Athletes who do cold water immersion say that their exercise recovery is better. The better recovery probably comes about because the cold dampens inflammation.

The problem is, inflammation is necessary for muscle hypertrophy. Applying weights to muscles causes signals to be sent telling the muscles to grow, and inflammation is a part of these signals.

Cold showers have benefits, among them activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, better immune function, and an antidepressant effect. But done post-workout, they may very well decrease muscle growth. I continue to take them daily, but not after a gym session.

PS: Check out my latest book, Best Supplements for Men.

PPS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

Leave a Comment:

24 comments
Tuba says December 26, 2015

Never will I hop in cold water. I don’t care what the claims are. I loathe cold water. I will do all the rest except that. I grew up in a cold area of the world and intentionally moved to a hot area of the world. I have left all kinds of cold behind me forever.

Reply
Rob H says December 27, 2015

Hi Dennis, great post, this is definitely an area where more research is needed. Since the report concluded that protein synthesis is blunted for up to 2 days after cold water immersion, my current regime is as follows: cold water immersion at around 7am on Monday (work-out day), strength work-out at lunchtime, then give the cold shower a miss the next morning (Tuesday), but resume cold shower on Wednesday morning, followed by tababta sprints at lunchtime etc..

The thing is if you do it this way (ie missing a day for cold showers), the cold shower days seem that much harder – which in my book is probably a good thing! (ie acute versus chronic/ daily application of a stressor). Only thing is it makes it a bit easier to ‘fall off the wagon’ of taking cold showers (its Christmas and I haven’t had one for several days now.. It’s going to sting this morning!)

Reply
Timo Fischer says December 27, 2015

Wow that’s pretty interesting since I love cold showers but recently moved on to contrast showers. That begs the question are the cuts in gains also happening in contrast showers or cold showers only? I guess the study didn’t include that, would be interesting to know.

Reply
Esoterictrad says December 27, 2015

When I hit my last PRs and put on muscle it was during a period of only taking cold showers so I don’t think they cut gains, or at least the impact didn’t seem noticeable.

This study doesn’t indicate if these people were accustomed to cold water or not, I’m coming up on almost 2 years of only cold showering.

The majority of humans had to wash in cold water throughout history and yet managed to have muscle and lead hard physical lives. You often mention on Twitter to be wary of average joe related fitness study because it takes the baseline of average and relatively unhealthy people as the normal.

Should we not also apply similar caution to this?

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says December 27, 2015

    I don’t think that that particular stricture applies here; the subjects were “physically active men”, presumably college students. Regarding human history and washing in cold water, I imagine most people weren’t getting into cold water on a daily basis, and for many probably hardly ever. The study was based on cold water immersion immediately after a workout, so I’m thinking it doesn’t apply to much outside of that particular situation.

    Reply
NikFromNYC says December 27, 2015

I’m sorry but you guys are in a silly faddish cult if you “enjoy” taking a cold shower and are positively going to give your body chills and bad circulation in winter not to mention freaking out outerwise cuddly girlfriends as they eject you from lovemaking. Have any of you a sex life?! The cortisol flood alone, of putting the body in worry mode, will destroy your immune response. It’s just silly, an odd luxury of a decadent society full of freakish idiocy. You guys are bad weird, losers instead odd winners. You’ve fallen for the online direct marketers who are con men like Cernovich’s penis pump seller GLL who faked his pickup artist videos using a dozen models, who like Mike promotes for money Victor Pride’s cold shower bullshit. Just join Scientology already.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says December 27, 2015

    Profound. Got a cite for that?

    Reply
      NikFromNYC says December 27, 2015

      Who the hell would *study* or fund a study into cold showers? It’s a general stressor, used in pain studies. It’s like the study of sleeping on a bed of nails, or studying living near a loud highway.

      There’s enough stressors in life for scientists to study. They all find the same thing: poor people living in stressful neighborhoods where their cortisol level is high don’t live very long or healthy lives. The psychology of a cold shower taking person is that of a get rich quick lunatic, and are followers of the same goofy orbiters of Cernovich who in fact sell wacky lifestyle advise. I would recommend Cernovich to the whole world were it not for this huge red flag. The only guys pushing cold showers I see on Twitter are Victor Pride followers, and Victor Pride complains of having terrible sleep, of waking up tired every day, having to work out just to function, to force his body out of fatigue. That’s a recipe for a shitty immune system and eventual premature death.

      Cernovich himself who promotes this guy’s cold showers abused steroids so badly he is still breaking out in nearly full body open sore rashes (!!!), poor guy. I really enjoy his distillation of the old school self-improvement knowledge base, but when his buddy Good Looking Loser was caught red handed faking videos and Mike failed to disown the crook, and Mike’s fans fail to call him out on it, then the whole cold shower crowd I can’t respect. Here is what GLL keeps getting taken down with some sort of legal help, him defrauding the Mike/Victor/GLL enthusiast crowd:

      http://archive.is/CVGda

      Having you take cold showers is a classic cult move, and act of compliance and submission. If you have to jolt yourself into attention that way, you are prone to burning out, I imagine.

      It’s not the cold showers I’m really attacking here, but the way they symbolically render supplicants of the latest self-help gurus ridiculous. Mike even lobbed onto the New Age “detoxing” craze. Ugh. Tried to tell him some biochemistry, being an ivy league PhD, but he just told me to read more. Double ugh. No, “toxins” are not your problem, but worry about them, stressful worry about them, is a huge problem. It’s called hypochondria and it kills.

      Reply
        P. D. Mangan says December 27, 2015

        I really don’t give a shit about any of that. Cold showers have profound benefit, search my blog to find out, I’m not going to do your research for you.

        I mean, I’m supposed to think cold showers are harmful because some guy faked a PUA video?

        Reply
          Steve Johnson says January 10, 2016

          If the glove don’t fit you must acquit.

          If the PUA videos are fake, cold showers you must not take.

          Reply
        Aaron says May 23, 2016

        Check out Wim Hof, which you can learn about from his TED talk or his interview with Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan. Cold immersion therapy, be it ice baths or cold showers, create an immune response not to mention a mental toughness that can’t be beat. Intelligent people are paying attention to cryotherapy, so it’s not merely dismissable as some cultish fad.

        Reply
          AK says May 25, 2017

          I think Wim Hof demonstrates the power of breathing by going into freezing water to show/prove how powerful it is.

          Reply
        Jakub Ihnatisin says April 21, 2017

        NickFrom NYC

        Your dogma is full of empty rubbish, apparently with no experience in cold water immersion (CWI). Your psyche is weak and fragile and do not have enough strenght to force yourself to some sort of “discomfort” without it can be no great achivement in human history. Without pain and strugle is no gain, achivement and succes. I expose myself for two years in the ice water (Wim Hof Method) and I feel like never before. Strong, vital, alert and healty as never before. No diseas. I’m also athlet, physical trainer end ex-professional soccer player, hit the bar/rings and gym at least 5times a week, after every traing session I immers myself immidietly into water between 2-8’C and my pure strenght is growing. I”m not sure about hypertrophy because I’m in good shape and holding 90kg, so do not want more. In conclusion my experience is for me more than any stdudy on this particular subject.

        Peac be with you my friend.

        Reply
Robert17 says December 28, 2015

I first learned of cold exposure when Tim Ferriss popularized Ray Cronise’s work. Ray suggests chronic mild exposure as opposed to the acute exposure, that say, an NFL football player does after each workout..sitting in an ice bath. A good example would be to lift weights in a cool room, as opposed to warmer. The thing is, how many of us reach the core heat and inflammation of a professional level athlete? Sitting in cold water produces the hunting response, which improves circulation, and theoretically should improve recovery. If I remember correctly there was research recently that showed when a cell crossed a certain temperature threshold, the body would shut it off as a safety maneuver. As more and more cells overheated and “turned off”, fatigue set in. Stanford University has patented some sort of water cooled gloves, because they discovered the body could cool rapidly through the hands and feet…which in times past came in contact with the ground. They claimed these gloves allowed for an almost steroid like effect, where athletes could work out longer and more often, thereby achieving faster gains. But, what if instead of trying to cool down, we increased the temperature of the switch off, if at all possible. I am currently working out, followed by 20 minutes in the hot tub. This also increases circulation, and I’m hoping increases the amount of work I can do before stopping. I then finish if off with just a couple minutes of progressively cooler showering. When I do it right, I get almost a high. Dr. Rhonda Patrick, in her podcast on saunas, explained the endorphin/dynorphin connection, and how heat exposure can prime you for endorphins.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says December 29, 2015

    Thanks, Robert, very interesting. I remember hearing about those Stanford cooling gloves and how the inventors were raving about it. I’m thinking that if they were that good, wouldn’t everyone be using them by now?

    I’m thinking that finishing a workout with a sauna may be better than a cold shower, although maybe recovery would be worse.

    Reply
      Paul says December 31, 2015

      I take a sauna, along with a cold shower, after every single workout. Is that 20-40 second cold shower enough to retard any muscle gains?

      Reply
        P. D. Mangan says December 31, 2015

        My take on that is there’s a window, so if you don’t take that cold shower immediately after the workout you’re probably OK. Also, the length of your showers is very short.

        Reply
Joshua says December 29, 2015

I’ve been waiting for someone to address this question, ever since I read about that study last summer. We don’t have a solid conclusion, but it does seem like some caution is warranted. I’ve been trying to hedge my bets by doing a sort of modified contrast shower, in which I subject the body parts that just got exercised to hot water, and the rest to cold water (e.g. after an upper-body session, only subject lower body to cold water). I really have no idea if this is an optimal strategy, but it made intuitive sense to me. On non-lifting days I just go whole hog and let the whole body feel the cold water. I can’t say I’ve noticed any big differences no matter what I do (gaining muscle for us naturally skinny dudes is just hard, period). I’d love to see research on contrast showers, but I’m not aware of any. If anyone knows of any research, or even anecdotal evidence here, feel free to share.

Reply
Ragnarok says January 2, 2016

I’ve been cold-only for ten years now, and I’m more buff than ever. In all that time I’ve never had a cold or flu. Taking a hot shower now makes me feel lethargic; the only time I touch the hot tap is when I’m in there with my girl.

Reply
andy says July 4, 2016

Hi,

Based off of the studies regarding CWI and the blunting of anabolic signaling, I may adopt your stance – not engaging in CWI, post-workout.

However, I also agree with you that there are a lot of benefits to CWI.

With that in mind, do you have a recommendation in regards to how long you would wait before engaging in CWI, post-workout? (e.g., If i worked out in the AM, and just took a lukewarm shower afterwards, would it be okay to take a cold shower in the evening)?

Thank you for your time

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says July 4, 2016

    Hi Andy – I think your suggestion works well. The effect of a cold shower on a workout is likely confined to the immediate couple of hours or so after it. Taking a cold shower in the evening would probably have no effect on gains.

    Reply
Ironthumb says October 3, 2016

Well, here’s the truth here:

Cold water therapy is great for athletes,

why?

Because it allows them to train often by reducing inflammation.

Athletes do not depend on conditioning per se to succeed in their craft, the more OFTEN they can train, the more they can practice their skill and “grease the grove” like what the Bulgarians say.

But NOT so for someone who trains for muscle growth. Since muscle growth is dampened by cold therapy.

Saxon loved cold baths, who knows how huge he could have been without them.

Reply
Nick says April 22, 2017

Colour me skeptical of cold showering. If we do so much else to try to emulate the 2 million years of human evolution prior to the 15 thousand agricultural period (LCHF feeding, intensive exercise, get out in the sunlight), why should we take cold showers or jump in cold water? Would paleo man have done this? Kinda doubt it.

(Plus, it’s just friggin’ painful.)

Reply
AK says May 25, 2017

This week 3 of cold showers. I take showers 2x per day. Will go back to contrast (warm/cold) showers to compare.

Reply
Add Your Reply