Cold plunging is all the rage in the fitness and recovery world right now. But what exactly is it and how do you do it? In this article, we’ll define how to correctly perform cold water immersion (cold plunging), the effects of cold immersion, and when to do it to get the most benefits.
Defining cold immersion
To correctly perform a cold plunge, you need to expose your body up to at least your neck, if not your full body, in water that is 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, for 10 minutes. Many people are not getting the full benefits of cold immersion because they are either not exposing enough of their body to the water or not doing it long enough. You can, and should, slowly work up to tolerance to these parameters either with how much of your body you expose or how long you can stay in the water.
The effect of cold immersion
Two different studies, 30 years apart, have shown to have very similar results when it comes to the use of cold immersion. One study looked at cold plunging for 15 minutes in 50 degree F water, 3 times a week, immediately after resistance training. Compared to the control group, who just sat at room temperature for 15 minutes after resistance training, the cold plunge group actually showed LESS muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth)! Another article performed cold immersion for 10 minutes at 50 degrees F, 2 times a week, after resistance training. The control group performed an active recovery session for 10 minutes after training. The control group showed a 17% increase in isokinetic strength and muscle hypertrophy compared to the cold plunge group. The cold plunge group also showed a decrease in myonuclei per muscle fiber. These myonuclei are what stick around in our muscle fibers during periods of detraining to help maintain strength across life (so more of these are better).
**Summary: cold plunging immediately after resistance training can slow down your muscle hypertrophy (growth) and strength
So, when should you cold plunge?
If you are a recreational athlete, who is only training one time a day to maintain life long fitness, doing a cold plunge right after a workout is not the most beneficial. You should however, start your day with it or do it before your workout to reap the benefits.
If you are a competitive athlete who is participating in events such as an Iron Man or the CrossFit Games, you should do it between events to decrease soreness.
The point of resistance training is to create microinjuries to the muscle that the body learns to recover from and adapt to in order to become stronger and more resilient, and cold plunging can inhibit this process.
Another article compared hot water immersion to cold water immersion or a control group who did nothing after resistance training. They found that hot water immersion after resistance training may improve your sleep quality, decrease fatigue, and increase testosterone concentration up to 38 hours post training.
Cold immersion can have some benefits, such as decreasing muscle soreness and possible immune benefits. But, if your goal is muscle growth and strength, hold off on those cold plunges immediately after working out. Consider opting for a sauna or hot tub immediately after instead. Before starting any new routine, consult with your physician first to determine if it is appropriate for you.