Houdini’s Physical and Mental Training

By on June 11, 2019

Harry Houdini is widely regarded as one of the greatest magicians, escape artists, and showmen of all time. But he was also much more than that. In fact, Harry can be considered a polymath having also been a prolific writer, Hollywood actor, aviator, and inventor of at least one patented invention (a specialised diving suit). Moreover, many of Houdini’s best acts had little to do with illusion or misdirection and much more to do with an incredible command over his own body and mind. In some ways he had more in common with the strongmen of his day: The Mighty Atom and muscle control maestro Maxick. He is most certainly, a true legend. And in this post, we will take a look at Houdini’s training, his lessons, and his life story.

Houdini Training

Harry Houdini: Early Life

Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest 1874, and was one of seven children. One of his brothers, Theodor, would also go on to perform his own escape acts. Houdini arrived with his family in the US in 1829 and took on the name German version of the name Ehrich Weiss.

Houdini and Brother

Ehrich was a keen athlete in his youth; a successful cross country runner, a boxer, a gymnast, and even taking on a job as a trapeze artist at the age of just 9. He then went by the stage name of “Ehrich the Prince of Air.” He would continue practicing boxing, Jiu Jitsu and other sports into his adulthood.

He would continue practicing boxing, Jiu Jitsu and other sports into his adulthood.

Ehrich would also discover his passion for magic in his youth and adopted the last name Houdini as an homage to his then-idol Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (who he later would become highly critical of). The name Harry might have likewise been tribute to Harry Keller, though it likely simply adapted from the short name for Ehrich, Ehri.

Houdini the Magician and Escape Artist

Houdini King of Cards

As a magician, Harry got off to a rough start and struggled to make a living for himself and wife Bess. He began primarily with card tricks, and called himself the “King of Cards” at that time. It wasn’t until he asserted to a police officer that he would be able to escape from their handcuffs (and subsequently performed the feat) that he began to attract media attention. He then became the “Handcuff King” for a while.

Houdini Water Torture

Escaping from handcuffs would thus become his bread and butter, though his act quickly developed to incorporate many more dangerous and exciting escape acts that courted the media and brought Houdini his fame and fortune. He would escape from milk cans, water torture, straight jackets while suspended in mid air, jail cells, uniquely designed handcuffs created specifically to thwart him by master locksmiths, being buried alive, under water coffins, and even the stomach of a beached whale.

Houdini Milk Can Escape

Other displays included his appearing to materialise through walls, swallowing needles and regurgitating them fully threaded, taking blows to the gut, and leaping into rivers from great heights.

Houdini Handcuffs

Houdini’s Training Regime

The real question we’re interested in though is… how. How did Houdini accomplish all this? What was his secret? What was Houdini’s training regime like, and is there anything we can adapt from it?

Houdini BUried

Some of Houdini’s acts were indeed illusions or tricks, and others have been called into question. It generally seems that he wasn’t above occasionally using a trap door or hidden pick.

But many other feats were undoubtedly real, and it is well established that Houdini collected and practiced with hundreds of real locks and cuffs in order to learn to circumvent their mechanisms. Some he could pick, others he could simply break open using the correct application of force. Practicing with these locks was a huge part of Houdini’s training and enabled him to achieve the seemingly impossible. In one of his most famous acts – Metamorphosis – he would be sealed inside a trunk while chained and tied, only to swap places with an assistant on the outside. While there was a trap door involved, he was also quick enough to remove the shackles before the trunk had even been closed and then to trade places with the assistant she dropped a cloak and switched places with him.

Houdini Swallow

Houdini practiced with a single minded determination and commitment, and he seemed intent on developing his body and mind in order to surpass his limitations.

Like Wim Hof many years later, Houdini’s training regime saw him submerge himself in icy water to train his nervous system, and would likewise practice holding his breath for minutes at a time. Reports as to just how long vary from 3-5 minutes, though today some free divers can hold their breath for 10, 15, or even 20 minutes. David Blaine managed to hold his breath for an impressive 17 minutes. This is something I’ll be exploring in depth in future. No pun intended.

Houdini Coffin

Houdini explained the importance of remaining calm and steady during his escape acts, especially those that involves limited air supply. According to Harry Houdini: Death-Defying Showman, Houdini would practice taking shallow breaths when preparing to be sealed in an air-tight tomb for 90 minutes.  In short, it seems that Houdini had the uncanny ability to monitor and regulate his own autonomic response through sheer will and focus.

Houdini was generally fascinated with the human body, and was constantly exploring concepts like this. One of his notes depicts the human spine split into the five separate regions, helping him to better understand possible mobility.

Houdini's Notes

Houdini’s sketch of the spine

Another aspect of Houdini’s training was training his internal organs. He learned his regurgitation trick reportedly by swallowing objects that were tied to string and then selectively bringing them back up.

He also developed his dexterity to a significant degree. According to friend Al Hirschfeld, he would constantly practice with coins and cards, even while in conversation. He was ambidextrous too – likely as a result of his own efforts.

Houdini boxing

One of the features of Houdini’s physicality that is remarked on particularly frequently though, was his prehensile toes and this factored into Houdini’s training regime in a big way. Again, this was the result of deliberate practice; Houdini used to practice tying and untying knots with his feet. Reportedly he achieved toe dexterity equal to “the average man’s fingers.” This extra dexterity combined with his gymnastic skill could go some way to explaining many of his most daring escapes.

Houdini used to practice tying and untying knots with his feet

Control of feet, hands, even organs, and autonomic response can potentially be seen as extensions of muscle control. This is a concept that was big during Houdini’s heyday, and that was employed by many strongmen in order to accomplish their amazing demonstrations of raw power.

Houdini and Muscle Control

Muscle control, as you will know if you follow the Bioneer, is the ability to recruit motor units and thereby gain more strength and control over large and even smaller, more obscure muscles. Reportedly, Houdini could cause muscles to appear in his hands and forearms and even “swell up” his wrists on cue. Hirschfield recounts that he could control the muscles of his little finger even.

Houdini could cause muscles to appear in his hands and forearms

This would come in handy when escaping from cuffs, employing sleight of hand, or even breaking out of straight jackets. The secret to that trick reportedly involved his expanding his chest and arms as the jacket was placed on him in order to provide enough slack to subsequently escape.

In fact, it has been reported that Houdini learned his ability to take punches to the stomach from strongman The Mighty Atom (Joseph Greenstein), who showed him how to contract his abdominal muscles in the correct way. In fact, they shared an agent! Houdini may also have been taught by Maxick, whose entire schtick was all about muscle control.

Mighty atom

The Mighty Atom

In his book titled simply “Muscle Control,” Maxick explains how you can gain conscious control over nearly any muscle in the body by attempting to flex while moving into positions that make it easier. I will go into this more in a future video too, but it’s something fun to practice doing in your down time. Place one hand on a lat and see if you can flex it gently – or if you can do the same thing in your forearm by “contracting” the hand. Imagine you’re trying to make a fist but also keep the hand open. Once you get it, you’ll be able to command those muscles at will and be more conscious of them during movements. Houdini demonstrated an entirely different use for this same concept, exploring hitherto unknown capabilities of the human body.

Houdini Straight Jacket

Death and Legacy

Many believe that it was taking a punch to the stomach before being properly prepared that ultimately killed Houdini. In fact though, it is more likely that this simply masked the severity of an unrelated issue with his appendix. Houdini died in 1926 on Halloween, at the age of 52, leaving behind an incredible legacy, inspiring countless future performers, and becoming a true cultural icon.

Houdini training

By combining his obsessive passion and dedication, with muscle control, showmanship, a little trickery, and a shrewd business mind, he entertained millions for generations to come.

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.

One Comment

  1. BS says:

    Found this through a Reddit comment. Very well written article, thanks man.

    I’ve been practicing Wim Hof breathing method for a while so I was interested particularly in the bit about free divers ability to go without breathing for so long. I max out at 3-4 minutes using WH method.

    Thanks again for the article!

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