Article Thumbnail

Is an Ice Bath or a Hot Tub After a Workout Better for My Weary Muscles?

Should I warm up or cool down the puddle I’ve become?

The Bally’s Total Fitness Executive Club’s hot tub was the epicenter for conflicts between the gym’s staff and the gym’s members. Roughly twice a day, a hot-tub occupant would carp about the heat level being several degrees too low, even though club policy mandated that the peak temperature stay somewhere around 100 degrees. 

Apparently, that wasn’t good enough, because we’d routinely catch members creeping back into the maintenance area where the tools, chemicals, washers and dryers were located, along with the crown jewel of the club — the water temperature controls. As an early twentysomething, underemployed health-club employee, there was something uniquely gratifying about catching a fiftysomething, upper-class dude in a sopping-wet swimsuit in the act of sneaking around a section of the gym where he knew he ought not be. 

Locker room attendants got into full-blown shouting matches with club members who insisted the water temperature should be set two degrees higher, while insisting that they could feel each individual degree, and demanding that we pour every scintilla of disposable heat into water that was always turbid as a result of a combination of chlorination and the sweaty runoff from unwashed bodies. It was, they maintained, exactly what their aching muscles required after a workout.

Interestingly, during the exact same era, I’d head home from the gym on Monday nights, flip on WWE RAW, and watch as Brock Lesnar submerged himself in ice baths. After contending all day with whiny Bally’s members as they fought tooth-and-nail over the temperature of their precious hot tub, seeing a beast like Lesnar endorsing an ice bath elevated its usage in my mind as being the post-workout implement of authentic warriors. 

But now it’s time to confront my biases: Just because the most cantankerous club members on earth favored the hot tub above all else, that didn’t render it valueless any more than it made the ice bath paramount simply because it was endorsed by the Next Big Thing.

Which one is better: the hot tub or the ice bath?

Instead of presuming which of the two immersion methods is superior based on which is more badass — obviously the ice bath; only a total lunatic would dunk themself in ice water for fun — we have the results of several studies to peruse. First, we have a study measuring the benefits of heat and cold when utilized in post-workout application devices, and while the results indicate that the application of either heat or cold is always preferential to not engaging with temperature extremes, cold was superior to heat with respect to both pain reduction and strength recovery.

In theory, that should score one for the ice bath. However, although the results of this study are applicable in a very specific sense, they aren’t very practical for our purposes. In this scenario, ThermaCare wraps were used to administer the heat and cold to isolated body parts — i.e., none of the participants had their entire bodies submerged in hot or cold water. Therefore, what might be beneficial through precise application may be substantially less helpful when using a shotgun approach. 

Good point. So what do we find when we look directly at hot tubs and ice baths?

A 2021 study investigating the health benefits of hot tubs and saunas discovered that the heat resulted in the widening of arteries and capillaries and a related drop in blood pressure, along with hydrostatic pressure from the water, which contributed to the return of blood to the heart. In essence, the researchers found that immersion in hot tubs could have effects on a body similar to those caused by working out, albeit without the caloric burn or muscle-building benefits. Furthermore, the designer of the study has proposed that hot-tub immersion might be able to extend some of the benefits of cardiovascular training since it can maintain the elevated temperature of the body beyond the length of the workout.

From a relaxation standpoint, the bulk of the stress-eliminating benefits associated with hot tubs were linked to the pressure of the water flowing through the jets, not necessarily with the heat of the apparatus. Oh, and speaking of the heat, a separate study conducted on athletes who trained outdoors found that regular immersion in hot tubs was guaranteed to raise their tolerance level to heat.

What does that mean?

That the club members at Bally’s who complained about the hot tub being cold probably spent too much time in it, raised their tolerance to heat and began chasing warmer waters that we couldn’t administer to them without violating our policy. Bottom line: It was their own fault (yes, I know how petty all of this sounds).

Fair enough. Let’s change the topic: What can ice baths do for me?

One theory is that ice baths can accelerate the reduction of post-workout inflammation by constricting blood vessels, flushing out lactic acid and reducing fluid accumulation in the tissues. Nonetheless, early analysis of athletes engaging in regular ice baths demonstrated decreased long-term gains in muscle mass and strength. 

Later research got to the heart of the matter. A 2017 study found that ice-bath immersion was in no way superior to 10 minutes of active recovery following a workout. Given the general discomfort of ice cold water, an athlete wishing to reduce post-workout inflammation would probably be more inclined to continue moving at a slower pace rather than stripping down and enduring frigid temperatures. Moreover, a subsequent study in 2019 indicated that cold-water immersion therapy conducted after resistance training inhibited the ability of muscles to absorb dietary protein in order to repair themselves. 

It sounds like I should never take an ice bath!

Don’t tell Brock Lesnar I said that, but it appears to be true. The studies seem to concur that ice baths as a general practice will have a net-negative effect on your body, and they’re also likely to kill your gains, too.

If you think it gives me any pleasure to side with the most obnoxious of all Bally’s members over The Beast — and my ice-bath-loving wife — you’re nuts. But I must side with the evidence wherever it falls. And the truth is, ice baths may be of some assistance with respect to developing and showcasing mental toughness — or even for conditioning your body to withstand frigid temperatures — but as a mechanism for body repair, it’ll definitely just leave you out in the cold.