Explaining the Wim Hof Method

By on November 5, 2018

Wim Hof is among the people with the strongest claims to the descriptor ‘superhuman’.

This is a guy who can control his own nervous system at will, and his immune system to a lesser degree. He can withstand extreme cold, and has demonstrated the ability to raise his own physical strength and endurance as needed.

Wim Hof method explained

He holds 26 world records. In 2007 he climbed 22,000ft to the top of Mount Everest, wearing only shorts and shoes. Other achievements include running a full marathon in the Arctic circle wearing only shorts, with no prior training, in temperatures as low as -20C. He has spent 112 minutes submerged up to the neck in an ice bath. He claims he can hold his breath for 10 minutes. He once suspended himself from a bar across two hot air balloons, from a height of 6,562ft, hanging from just a single finger. He can perform advanced yoga moves, such as the Shelf.

In 2007 Wim Hof climbed 22,000ft to the top of Mount Everest, wearing only shorts and shoes

And to show he can also stand the heat, Wim once ran a marathon across the 40C Namibian desert without taking a single drop of water. He has demonstrated the ability to suppress his body’s natural response to bacteria, thereby avoiding symptoms such as fever and headaches.

Basically, he’s nothing short of amazing. And what makes him really interesting is that he claims anyone can learn these abilities by applying his ‘Wim Hof Method’. (sometimes just called WHM) This is a breathing exercise combined with a regimen of cold exposure and meditation, that Wim claims can help you to take conscious control over your own nervous system and physiology.

Wim Hof Method Testing

That’s why I’m experimenting with ice cold baths – to try and gain that same ability. It better be worth it!

It certainly sounds pretty awesome, and there are legions of loyal fans to back up his claims, not to mention numerous studies and all those smashed records. The only problem is that the explanation of how all this works is a little strange at times. The information available online is generally rather vague and there seems to be a fair amount of effort made to sell programs – calling into question the reliability of some accounts.

So, let’s take a closer look, and see just what is going on here, as well as what you need to know to start benefiting. This is the Wim Hof Method explained.

The Wim Hof Method Explained

Wim Hof Method

The Wim Hof Method involves three basic steps:

  • Controlled Hyperventilation – Here you take 30 deep, powerful breaths inward, inflating the lungs each time. You then follow this by ‘passively’ releasing that air, simply allowing it to escape naturally a little before taking another deep breath in. This process should have a steady rhythm and if you are doing it correctly, you should notice that you feel tingling in your legs and extremities and that you go a little lightheaded. It is very important that you perform this while sitting down somewhere safe. DO NOT perform this in the bath or anywhere else with a risk of drowning – four men have lost their life this way. Note that I and some other users on Reddit find that performing more than 30 breaths can help the effect to be felt more strongly at first. Start with thirty, try up to sixty if you aren’t getting the response you want.
  • Exhalation – After your cycles you’re now going to take one last deep breath in and then let it escape slowly, all the way.
  • Retention – You will feel a strong urge to breath in. When this happens, take that breath and then hold it for 15-20 seconds. You might feel a head rush. You can repeat this whole process up to three times.

Now immediately after this experience, if you try stepping into a cold shower, then you should find that it doesn’t freeze you in quite the same way. You may even feel as though the water is warm! Likewise, if you were to try and perform press ups, or to lift a heavy weight, then you would notice massively increased strength. In fact, this is especially true if you try performing the press ups with your breath held!

Wim Hof Meditation

Not only that, but you will now feel more awake, more alert, and more focussed.

So, What is Going On?

So, what’s going on here?

A lot of people will tell you that this effect is a powerful demonstration of the importance of oxygen – that breathing in deeply is ‘filling the cells’ with oxygen. Actually though, they’ve got it all backward. In fact, the Wim Hof technique works by reducing our ability to utilize oxygen!

Wim Hof intermittent respiratory alkalosis

What happens when you take those deep breaths, is that you indeed fill your lungs with oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is normally reacts with water to create carbonic acid making blood more acidic – like lemonade. Therefore by lowering CO2, you raise your blood pH and make it more alkaline. This can lead to constriction of blood vessels and reduced calcium levels – hence the pins and needles. Researchers from Radboud University Medical Center refer to this state as ‘intermittent respiratory alkalosis’.

What many people don’t realize is that lowering the blood pH also prevents haemoglobin from offloading oxygen stores. In short, by lowering CO2, you actually prevent the body from being able to properly utilize oxygen. Your blood is saturated with oxygen, but to all extents and purposes, you are in a state of hypoxia.

This is why hyperventilation can cause us to pass out – the brain has become unable to utilize oxygen. It’s why during a panic attack, the best thing you can do for someone is often to hand them a paper bag to breathe into. This practice, called ‘rebreathing’, allows the hyperventilating individual to recycle CO2 and thereby release oxygen before they keel over.

Sonic Drowning

Likewise, were you to keep performing the controlled hyperventilation process for too long, it would likely cause you to pass out.

That’s why the breath hold is a stroke of genius. It allows the carbon dioxide to build up again in the body. Now the blood is saturated with oxygen that it can use and blood pH therefore returns to normal about 85 seconds into the hold.

This entire process also stimulates the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline – the hormones that we associate with the fight or flight response. This may be the body’s ‘panic response’ to the lack of available oxygen. But it could also be due to stimulation of the vagus nerve. This is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves and literally translates as ‘wandering nerve’, referring to its branching nature that sees arms reaching the neck, chest, and abdomen. Its job is to allow the body to monitor the state of various bodily processes and functions and this feedback in part allows for the regulation of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn control the ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’ responses respectively. In short, the vagus nerve’s job is to ramp up and down the metabolism in response to such things as temperature, oxygen levels, input from the gut and more. This is a largely unconscious process – or at least it was until Wim came along.

Pulse Oximeter Wim Hof

In previous posts and videos, I’ve discussed how breathing in a calm, controlled, and regular manner can help us to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm ourselves down we are telling the vagus nerve that all is well in the body and that we are calm, and it responds by lowering the heartrate and getting to work with processes like digestion and muscle building. It follows that by breathing in a more panicked manner, we can ‘ramp ourselves up’. This increases focus and attention, and even boosts the metabolism to encourage fat burning. Direct electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve has been approved for treating a range of mental health issues (reference).

Wim Hof Breathing Technique

Stimulating a sympathetic response increases the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we would want to suppress inflammation when running from lions and tigers. This is no time for a swollen ankle! That explains why it might be that practitioners of WHM are able to prevent an immune response when injected with a bacterial toxin thereby fending off flu and cold symptoms (study). Additionally, this has potentially profound implications for those suffering from problems associated with inflammation. And seeing as there is a potential link between inflammation in the brain and depression, this might also help to explain why some people find WHM helps them to feel so good.

This has potentially profound implications for those suffering from problems associated with inflammation

And the adrenaline might also explain why Wim Hof practitioners claim they experience an increase in strength as well. Adrenaline results in a short-term increase in strength by improving muscle fiber recruitment. Studies show that even just shouting when training can raise adrenaline to a sufficient extent as to increase average strength by as much as 31% (study). The most extreme version of this is something I’ve talked about a lot before: hysterical strength – the kind of superhuman surge of strength that allegedly allows mothers to lift cars off of their trapped children. The Wim Hof method may just be the best pre-workout going. Epinephrine levels seen in WHM practitioners have been found to be even higher than those seen in people about to take a bungee jump (study) – so it’s no wonder that they can do those extra press ups!

Long Term Effects

So, to put all this simply, when you use the Wim Hof method, you are temporarily making your blood more alkaline, while also triggering a short-term surges in adrenaline and other excitatory neurotransmitters. But these are only short term benefits – like really short term. The real question is whether regularly using the Wim Hof method has any utility beyond that.

Wim Hof explained

EPO is secreted in response to reduced oxygen, which stimulates the production of red blood cells – improving the ability to perform endurance tasks for long periods. Over time, our body adapts, and we become better at producing this EPO. This has a similar effect to high altitude training and is an example of SAID: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. By using low oxygen as a stressor, we’re able to trigger adaptation and become better at performing in that state. Seeing as EPO is so sought after by endurance athletes, this has immense potential for marathon training and the like.

The next part of the Wim Hof method is cold exposure. In your highly focused and pumped state, it becomes much easier to endure the cold. Thus, once any light-headedness has passed and you’ve taken a moment to enjoy the sensation, the next step is to take a cold shower or bath. Or in my case, go and do some pull ups outdoors.

Cold exposure

Cold exposure then contributes numerous additional long-term benefits. In one study from The European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, it was found that exposure to cold water (14C) was able to raise lymphocytes to a small but significant degree. It is thought that once again, cold is able to act as a stimulus or stressor, in order to train the immune system to get stronger.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the cold that makes us sick. The cold can suppress our immune system making us vulnerable to infection if we were already at risk. But in healthy individuals, repeatedly challenging the immune system like this only causes it to grow stronger with time.

Cold Exposure

Wim also believes that continued cold exposure over time will train the vascular smooth muscle aiding circulation and making the cold easier to bear with time. This could also lead to improved overall ‘thermal regulation’ – the ability to adapt and function at different temperatures. And I really like the idea of this – of being comfortable in cooler and warmer weather – and constantly able to perform my best as a result.

This also occurs through an increase in brown adipose tissue. Brown adipose tissue, also known as brown fat, is a type of fat that helps to convert food into body heat. Animals that hibernate actually have higher levels of brown fat, as do new-born babies. This might also mean that the Wim Hof method could contribute to long-term weight loss seeing as brown fat actually helps us to burn more calories. In a study looking at mice, it was found that adding brown fat would result in weight loss and improved metabolism (study).

The Mind-Body Connection

But none of this still quite equates to ‘controlling your own nervous system’. That’s what I’m really interested in, and I wonder if it is hyperbole? Surely, you’re just inducing a minor panic attack and calming yourself down again through breathing. That’s not quite the equivalent of gaining superhuman control over your faculties.

But in fact, there are some possible explanations as to how this training could help accomplish this.

Batman G-tummo

For one, subjecting yourself to the icy cold forces you to control your own response. You need to stay calm in order to make the freezing air or water more bearable, and this in turn might make you better at remaining calm in high stress situations. You are training yourself to deal with any type of stressor – becoming tougher and mentally more hardy and resilient.

I’ve talked in the past about how becoming domesticated has made us soft and weak. I very recently talked about how the Spartans would train in just a single thin cloak, in any weather. The Wim Hof Method then is the perfect antidote to this.

Moreover, you learn to recognize these different states within your own body. You learn what being ramped up feels like, and you learn how breathing makes you calmer. This may act as a form of biofeedback, and that in turn might establish enough of a link between different triggers and the responses they cause in the body.

Goku flow state

One piece of research has shown that simply by getting participants to check their heartrate once every three hours can eventually result in their being able to actively control it through thought alone (report). Maybe being more aware of your sympathetic nervous system can help you to gain greater control over that.

Maybe it could help you to eventually trigger the calm focus associated with a flow state? This makes even more sense when you consider the meditative component of the method – the calming concentration you are supposed to enjoy straight after the breathing technique. This would be a perfect time to listen to your body.

Wim didn’t stumble on his method purely by accident, but rather after a period of research and exploration. He drew inspiration from the vase breathing and visualization techniques seen in g-tummo meditation that allows Tibetan nuns to gain control over their own core body temperatures (study). This is possible even to the point that those nuns have been able to dry out wet towels!

Wim Hof Meditation

I’ve talked about the benefits of body scan meditations for better mind-muscle control in the past. I suspect that we have possibly just scratched the surface of what our mind is capable of controlling.

Conclusions

So overall, what can we take from all this? Firstly, Wim is an awesome nut. Secondly, there clearly are some potential benefits to the cold exposure and breathing technique. That said, I also think it wise to practice just a little caution. Starving the brain of oxygen may sound alarming and for good reason. Listen to your body and don’t get to the point where you’re likely to pass out. Wim constantly stresses the importance of not ‘pushing’ the method, you definitely shouldn’t try it if you have pre-existing health conditions, and I urge you to do your own research. Still. It’s very cool.

Col Exposure Wim Hof

For me, I’m just beginning a new training routine that involves training outdoors in the cold at 7am. I’m in the UK and we’re heading into November, so it’s going to be cold. I’m hoping this is going to toughen me up in itself, but I’ll be combining that with the Wim Hof method to hopefully get even greater benefits. I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Tuan Ba, Pham says:

    Hi Adam,
    thank you the correct explanation with the breathing. Many people misunderstood the mechanism.
    I believe as you stated, the breath holding (retention phase) is important since the oxygen is starting to go into your body! I found out that no matter how many breathing you do (more than 50) in one cycle, you can not reach a long retention time! The retention time become automatically longer with the number of cycle (breathing and retention).
    Another finding is when you have some kind of cold feeling in the night, or itching on the skin, you can practise the Breathing in, half 5 to 10 sec during you push the air to all body parts. In doing so you get a warm feeling throughout the whole body, after 50 to 10 sec, breath out and then repeat the cycle as many you like. After 10 or 15 times you really feel good and all this symptoms are gone. Calmness comes!

  2. pham tuan ba says:

    What many people don’t realize is that lowering the blood pH also prevents haemoglobin from offloading oxygen stores. In short, by lowering CO2, you actually prevent the body from being able to properly utilize oxygen.
    This statement is not correct since when you breath out CO2, the blood becomes more alkaline meaning that the PH value is increasing! not decreasing as mentioned above.

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