Who is Wim Hof?
His wife had taken her own life in 1995 and he was lost in a downward spiral of depression. Despair gripped him as he struggled to keep it together. And he had three little children that still needed a father to look after them. What began for him as a way out of depression following the death of his wife, has now transformed into a world-wide movement in maximizing health, strength, and happiness, and it is growing stronger every day. I discovered Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman,” by hearing him speak about his experiences on the popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast, then saw more of him on a Vice documentary and then on England's Karl Pilkington’s show, The Moaning of Life. After following his teaching for a few years, I finally got the chance to learn from him live, in person. How does this relate to athletic performance, health and well-being? This is how.
The Power of Breathing
As Wim Hof makes the rounds on various shows and podcasts, his breathing technique becomes more and more well known. It’s really simple to learn and practice on a daily basis, and the positive health and athletic performance effects that it produces are nothing short of amazing. By Wim’s breathing technique alone, he has braved the harsh, cold environments of Mt. Everest and Mt. Kilimanjaro, climbing that mountain with nothing on but shorts. He’s run a marathon in the desert- without water - and ran another marathon in sub zero temperatures in the Poland, also with nothing on but shorts. As an experiment, scientist even injected the E-coli bacteria into his body, only to have immune system boot it out like an unwelcome rat. Whereas the E-Coli bacteria would typically cause flu like symptoms including fever and muscle pains, the most he experienced was a mild headache The same thing was tried with volunteers who trained in the Wim Hof Method and they had phenomenal results, reporting far less flu like symptoms than that of the control group (Kox et al.,2014). Wim's ability to directly influence his immune system was studied at the Feinstein Institute, where results showed he was able to suppress inflammatory bodies in his bloodstream, which are the cause of many chronic diseases (Kamler, 2009). He’s even managed to increase his brown fat – the fat that helps to keep you warm and is easier to be converted directly to energy to be used (Kirsi et al., 2009), unlike white fat that acts as energy storage - and in a experiment with scientist monitoring his physiology, he sat in ice water for 80 minutes and suffered no hypothermia, all the while actually increasing his core body temperature by two degree Celsius (Hopman et al., 2010; Pickkers et al., 2011).
How Wim Hof Breathes
How is the accomplished? Easy, you’ve been doing it since you’ve been born;breathe, or as Wim Hof like’s to yell out, “Just breathe motherfucker!” So, let’s talk about the actual act of breathing. Taxes and death are certain, of that we already know, but so is breathing. It's one thing we all have in common and we often take its importance for granted. There's a reason why nearly all meditation styles have some kind of breath awareness embedded into the practice. We breath to survive, we breath with intention to thrive. The respiratory system allows us to breath in oxygen via the trachea, passing it to the bronchial tubes, which divides into smaller passages called bronchioles. At the end of the bronchioles are tiny air sacs known as alveoli, which houses tiny blood vessels – your capillaries - which is where oxygen is absorbed into the blood and carbon dioxide is removed. This process is known as gas exchange. Now to inhale and exhale, we use a dome shaped muscle that sits under the lungs called the diaphragm. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts, moving downward to allow a vacuum-like effect that draws in a rush of air into your lungs. As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes then moves upward to press against the lungs, expelling the air in your lungs (WebMD). In a research study, scientist discovered that after 45 minutes of practicing the Wim Hof Breathing Technique, his oxygen level doubled while his carbon dioxide levels fell (Kox et al., 2012). Before the actual breathing part, the mind and body is primed to be in peak physiological state and focus. (Phongsuphap, Pongsupap, Chandanamattha & Lursinsap, 2008; Wu & Lo, 2008; Paul-Labrador et al., 2006). Getting into a horse stance, we sway our bodies side to side as our arms move in the act of pushing air around, focusing on taking in deep breaths (YouTube “Wim Hof Horse Stance to see what it looks like). Doing this for about 10 minutes focuses the mind as well as energizes the body physically, similar to how it feels after hot yoga practice. This allows us to activate the autonomic nervous system, as Wim proved in one of the studies (Pickkers et al., 2011).
Now begins the actual breathing part, the main event of the evening. First you inhale as deeply as you can through either your nose or mouth (Wim likes to say it doesn’t matter which hole you use, just get the air in), then naturally let the air come back out without forcing it. Leave a little bit of residual air in your lungs. You keep repeating the same process of breathing fully in, and letting go naturally without letting out all the air in your lungs for 30-40 breaths. On the final deep inhale, again let the air out naturally, then hold your breath for as long as you feel comfortable holding, time yourself and aim for 2 minutes. When you have to breathe again, take in another big breath, this time holding it for 15 seconds, now let it out and stay still, becoming aware of what your body is feeling. If at this point you feel light-headed, don’t trip, this is normal and actually means you did it right. Repeat for 3 more rounds and that's your practice for the day! The more you do this, the longer you will find you can hold your breath, possibly even getting up to 3 minutes of breath holds. Even more than that, you’ll find your ability to withstand cold water, cold weather has improved. You’ll also discover that your cardiovascular endurance may have increased, and you may be able to do more max push ups and pullups than you previously had. After awhile you'll find that you get sick less, if at all. To cap it all off, you'll discover yourself in a happier, more energized state.
My Experience with breathing like Wim
How do I know this works? I’ve seen Wim Hof accomplish some unbelievable feats – it’s all there if you search it on YouTube or if you Google him. I got a taste of it at his seminar I attended in Brooklyn, where we trained with Wim, going through the movement meditation, breathing exercise, and finally, culminating the grand finale :an ice bath. People were nervous, and justifiably so, because who enjoys jumping into a tub of ice water? Well, the truth was, despite the nervousness, I've never seen so many people excited about immersing their bodies in freezing water. We all had a go and I must say, it was rather enjoyable. I don't know if it was the energy of Wim Hof and all the other participants, or if it's a result of the Wim Hof Method prep work we did beforehand, but it worked because I've never felt so comfortable sitting in an ice bath before. Looking back, it may have been a combination of both; but regardless, I came away from that event more invigorated and happy to pass forth mu experience and knowledge gained to as many people as possible. I did more research after and found evidence showing that through the meditation, breathing technique, and ice exposure, a study showed that Wim was able to increase his metabolic rate by 300 percent during ice exposure, thus increasing his body's heat production (Hopman et al 2010). All this without shaking or shivering, which is the average body's natural response to cold exposure.
I’ve also experienced the positive changes myself, consistently baffling friends, clients, and strangers alike as I run through Big Bear or whatever mountain I happen to be at, in the snow, with only some shorts on. My cardiovascular and muscular endurance has increased substantially too, with a reduction in my run times, thanks to the over-saturation of oxygen to my cells, activation of my autonomic nervous system and the overriding my hypothalamus, and the changing of my body’s pH level to a more alkaline state. All the changes to my physiology from practicing the Wim Hof Technique consistently, has improved my overall health and athletic performance considerably.
Now my experience, though positive, isn't guaranteed to be the same for everybody. Clients that I have implemented this technique on, have all seen benefits, but I don't expect 100 percent of people who give this a try to share the same success. We're all highly variable humans in our genetics, physiology, psychology, and environments we are in, so results are not always going to be the same in terms of level of success. Pro athletes like MMA star Alistair Overeem, surfing icon Laird Hamilton, and the entire Burnley FC soccer team have brought on Wim to help them prepare for their respective sports, seeking him out to get a competitive edge over their competition. So maybe it's worth a try because the benefits are permanent and life changing for the better. If it doesn't work, it does no harm and you can move on and try the next thing. Treat life like an ongoing experiment and have fun while doing it!
Ratini, DO, MS, M. (2014, September 23). How the Lungs and Respiratory System Work. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/lung/how-we-breathe
Kirsi, A., Virtanen, M. D., Lidel, M. E., Orava, J., Heglind, M., Westergren, R., Niemi, T., Taittonen, M., Laine, J., Savisto, N. J., Enerba?ck, S.,& Nuutila, P. (2009). Functional brown adipose tissue in healthy adults. The New England Journal of Medicine, 360, 1518-1525.
Kox, M., Stoffels, M., Smeekens, S. P., Alfen, N, van., Gomes, M.,Eijsvogels, T. M. H., Hopman, M. T. E, Hoeven, J. G, van der., Netea, M. G.,& Pickkers, P.(2012). The influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response a case study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74, 489-449.
Groothuis, J.T., Eijsvogels, T,M., Scholten, R. R.,Thijssen, D. H.,& Hopman, M,T. (2010). Can meditation influence the autonomic nervous system? A case report of a man immersed in crushed ice for 80 minutes. (Zie bijlage)
Phongsuphap, S., Pongsupap, Y., Chandanamattha, P.,& Lursinsap, C. (2008). Changes in heart rate variability during concentration meditation. International Journal of Cardiology, 130, 481-484.
Paul-Labrador, M., Polk, D., Dwyer, J. H., Velasquez, I., Nidich, S., Rainforth, M., Schneider, R., & Merz, C. N. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166, 1218-1224.
Being a fat, unhealthy kid wasn't fun. Chronically overweight, knees hurting, asthmatic, allergic to everything, and tired all the time, I decided enough was enough and started researching ways to get healthy. Years of experimenting, failing, and learning has led me to to the point where I'm at now: living the healthy life and loving helping others find their way to living a life full of health, happiness, and strength. That's how I became a Personal Training and Sports Performance coach.
I specialize in functional strengthening; a term that's been over-used perhaps, but what I believe in is training the body to be strong as one unified piece with optimum efficiency and effectiveness. Yoga and meditation are tools I use as well, having practiced both consistently for 11 years now. Both are an integral part of my life and I enjoy using it in coaching my clients and athletes. Believing a well rounded human being is a complete human being, I also coach Olympic Lifting, plyometrics, Kettlebell training, TRX training, and speed and agility work, just to name a few skills.
A voracious reader, I enjoy devouring books, attending seminars and workshops all around the world; not only related to the strength and conditioning world but checking out spiritual and leadership events as well. Somewhere out in the backcountry, at the gym, or at a local Farmer's Market is where you can find me.
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Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
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