Cold water immersion and active recovery are common post-exercise recovery treatments you’ve read about before at theSuppVersity. With the publication of the latest study from theQueensland University of Technology, this is yet the first article to discuss a comparison of both recovery methods in a nine trained male individuals – a study that shows “that cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for minimizing the inflammatory and stress responses in muscle after resistance exercise” (Peake. 2016).

Just like the previously reported anti-adaptive effects of ice-baths (yes, they will impair your gains, the study at hand adds to the accumulating evidence that cold water immersion, one of the most commonly used post-workout recovery strategies, is everything but a gold standard.

But how do Peake et al. know that? Well, the researchers compared the effects of cold water immersion versus active recovery on inflammatory cells, pro-inflammatory cytokines, neurotrophins and heat shock proteins (HSPs) in skeletal muscle after a standardized intense resistance exercise.

“The resistance training sessions for the two experimental trials were identical and involvedsingle-leg exercises such as 45° leg press (six sets of 8–12 repetitions), single-leg squats (three sets of 12 repetitions), knee extensions (six sets of 8–12 repetitions), and walking lunges (three sets of 12 repetitions). The total duration of the session was ~45 min” (Peake. 2016).

Five minutes after the workout, the subjects either jumped into an inflatable (ice-)bath (iCool iBody, iCool, Miami, Australia) for 10 min (both legs immersed in water up to the waist) or they performed 10 min of active recovery at a self-selected low intensity (on average a meager 36.6 ± 13.8 W) on a stationary cycle ergometer (Wattbike, Nottingham, UK).

Figure 1: Post-exercise changes in CD66b+ neutrophil infiltration, CD68+ macrophage infiltration, and MAC1 and CD163 mRNA expression. Data are presented as the change in the median +/- interquartile range for neutrophils and CD163 mRNA, and the geometric mean +/- 95% confidence interval for macrophages and MAC1 mRNA. ACT, active recovery; CWI, cold water immersion. n = 9. * P < 0.05 versus pre-exercise value (Peake. 2016).

Muscle biopsies were collected from the exercised leg before, 2, 24, and 48 h after
exercise in both trial to access the intramuscular neutrophil and macrophage counts, as well as the inflammatory markers MAC1 and CD163 mRNA, IL1, TNF, IL6, CCL2, CCL4, CXCL2, IL8 and LIF mRNA expression (P<0.05); and the analysis of this data, as well as creatine kinase, subjective feelings of hyperalgesia, the expression of NGF and GDNF mRNA and the levels of B-crystallin and HSP70 showed no difference between the two recovery treatments.

Even simple compression socks will cost you $25+ If you want a complete “compression suit” consisting of shirt, tights, and more, you will probably have to spend roughly $200. Against that background you may be happy to hear that there’s some scientific backup that the money you spend could not be wasted.

Compression garments – do they help? No, they usually don’t look sexy, but they are the latest craze among recovery modalities. The question whether they just sell, or even work, has now been addressed in a systematic review with meta-analysis by Marqués-Jiménez (2016); a paper that found “conclusive evidence increasing power and strength”, “conclusive evidence reducing perceived muscle soreness and swelling” but “no clear evidence of decreased lactate or creatine kinase” and “little evidence of decreased lactate dehydrogenase”. Overall, the existing evidence does therefore suggest that “the application of compression clothing may aid in the recovery of exercise induced muscle damage, although the findings need corroboration” (Marqués-Jiménez. 2016).

I guess, that’s, figuratively speaking, an accolade for the simplest recovery technique there is: low(est) intensity exercise, a recovery modality of which previous studies have shown that it will (a) significantly reduce your blood lactate concentration after various activities (Rontoyannis. 1988) and (b) increase your performance after workouts such as the parallel squat workout in a Y2k study by Corder et al. (2000), the HIIT workout in Connolly, et al. (2003), the supra-maximal exercise tests in Spierer, et al (2004 | see Figure 2), the swimming protocols in Toubekis’ 2008 study, or the 2007 resistance training study by Anna Mika et al. who concluded that “the most appropriate and effective recovery mode after dynamic muscle fatigue involves light, active exercises, such as cycling with minimal resistance” (Mika. 2007).

Figure 2: The 2004 study by Spierer et al. is also interesting, because it shows that the benefits of active recovery on the performance and perceived fatigue after supra-maximal exercise tests may vary according to the training status of the study subjects; with less trained or simply sedentary subjects benefitting more (Spierer. 2004).

Now, Peake et al. are certainly right, when they point out that their “findings indicate that cold water immersion is no more effective than active recovery for reducing inflammation or cellular stress in muscle after a bout of resistance exercise,” there’s one thing that will have to be done in the future: a comparison of active vs. ice-tub recovery on the longitudinal adaptational response (VO2max, power, strength, hypertrophy) to various training modalities. After all, any modulation of the post-exercise inflammatory response, be it via cold water immersion or light exercise, could exert detrimental effects on your “gainz” (in the broadest sense of the word) – the only pertinent study by Yamagashi, however, shows that this is not the case and using an active recovery protocol at 40% of V̇O2peak significantly enhances, not impairs, the endurance adaptations to HIT (Yamagashi. 2016).

SuppVersity Classic: “Cupping for Pain, Health & Performance | Must Be Good, if Phelps Does it, Right? Let’s See What the 100+ Studies Say” – The “cups” come in various forms and sizes… and no, there’s no meta-analysis yet that can tell you what the optimal size and form for the treatment of a given problem would be

Bottom line: If you’ve been thinking about buying an ice tub, forget it. There’s, as Anthony Barnett pointed out in his 2006 review, a profound lack of evidence of positive effects of current recovery modalities such as massage therapy, contrast temperature water immersion, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), stretching and EMS. Eventually, the time and money you spend on any of them between your workouts may thus be wasted – plus: a simple 10-minute ergometer ride at an extremely low exercise intensity can likely do the same as any of the en-vogue but costly recovery techniques, devices and modalities.

With the recently published PhD study by Yamagashi, there’s also initial evidence that active recovery strategies won’t, as it has been shown for ice baths, impair the adaptational VO2max response to high-intensity exercise…

Whether that’s also the case for resistance training and the corresponding training goals hypertrophy and strength, however, will have to be elucidated in future long(er)-term studies in trained and untrained individuals.


  • Barnett, Anthony. “Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes.” Sports medicine 36.9 (2006): 781-796.
  • Connolly, Declan AJ, Kevin M. Brennan, and Christie D. Lauzon. “Effects of active versus passive recovery on power output during repeated bouts of short term, high intensity exercise.” J Sports Sci Med 2.2 (2003): 47-51.
  • Corder, Keith P., et al. “Effects of Active and Passive Recovery Conditions on Blood Lactate, Rating of Perceived Exertion, and Performance During Resistance Exercise.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 14.2 (2000): 151-156.
  • Marqués-Jiménez, Diego, et al. “Are compression garments effective for the recovery of exercise-induced muscle damage? A systematic review with meta-analysis.” Physiology & behavior 153 (2016): 133-148.
  • Mika, Anna, et al. “Comparison of recovery strategies on muscle performance after fatiguing exercise.” American journal of physical medicine & rehabilitation 86.6 (2007): 474-481.
  • Peake, Jonathan M., et al. “The effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on inflammation and cell stress responses in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise.” The Journal of Physiology (2016).
  • Rontoyannis, George P. “Lactate elimination from the blood during active recovery.” Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 28.2 (1988): 115-123.
  • Spierer, D. K., et al. “Effects of active vs. passive recovery on work performed during serial supramaximal exercise tests.” International journal of sports medicine 25.02 (2004): 109-114.
  • Toubekis, Argyris G., et al. “Swimming performance after passive and active recovery of various durations.” Int J Sports Physiol Perform 3.3 (2008): 375-386.
  • Yamagishi, Takaki. “Role of active and passive recovery in adaptations to high intensity training.” (2016).

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