Breathing for Performance [Wim Hof Method, Buteyko Breathing & More]
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Breathing and Respiratory Muscles in Athletic Performance
I first found out about Wim Hof as a young magician watching my biggest inspiration David Blaine meet Wim in his Frozen in Time street magic and ice endurance stunt television special in the year 2000. Wim Hof – the “Ice-man” was setting world records for sitting in boxes of ice and holding his breath underwater. It wasn’t until recently, however, that the science and the Wim Hof Method became really popular, so I thought I’d dive into it seriously…
When we look at videos of Wim himself leading the Wim Hof Method, it looks like 50% science and 50% hypnosis-like suggestion – from my opinion as someone who is into both fitness and suggestion for my work! It’s always been awesome to look at new types of training methods and that’s exactly what we’re going to look at today: respiratory training, the Wim Hof Method, Buteyko Breathing and other ways of harnessing the cold and breathing exercises to stay healthy and perform better!
These include claims about improving immunity, boosting performance, rapid recovery, and a much-improved capacity for thought. These are all claimed to be linked to something as simple as proper breathing techniques and using the cold to your advantage.
Stick with us to learn how breathing affects your wellbeing, exercise performance, and beyond. We’re also going to cover ways to improve your respiratory health – from small changes to dedicated training.
The Modern Lung: Inactivity and Respiratory Health
Breathing isn’t only essential for your continued existence – it’s a crucial process that places a hard limit on your athletic performance. If you’re interested in getting better at endurance, or simply improving your overall recovery, improvements here will show up everywhere in life.
You already know that exercise and activity are important for your health – they improve the way your heart performs, improve mental health and help you control bodyweight.
The effect of exercise on respiratory health is among the most important concerns. As a culture we’re living inactive lives – the last century has seen more convenience and less exercise. It’s also seen a rise in cardiorespiratory disease and death rise consistently. This is directly related to poor fitness and reduced respiratory wellness.
Fitness training can help you fight this: it increases the volume and efficiency of the lungs, which is an essential aspect of overall health. Increasing lung strength and health brings direct benefits to the heart, which is important since heart disease is the #1 killer in the English-speaking world.
If you’re not already convinced that you need to worry about your respiratory health, remember that we currently live in a society where cardiorespiratory diseases make up 5 of the top 10 causes of death, 16% of which are directly the result of poor CR fitness.
This is a serious warning sign about how we’re living, but it is also a great opportunity: these are lifestyle diseases and – by changing your lifestyle – you can actively improve your health and reduce your risk.
How to Breathe: Basics of Respiratory Fitness
The way you breathe isn’t just about the lungs – there’s a whole range of muscular processes that you probably haven’t ever thought about. These range from the well-known and controversial functions of the diaphragm to the intercostals and even the serratus posterior – a muscle in the back that you’ve probably never talked about before!
The main players in the breathing process are the diaphragm and the intercostals. The diaphragm is all about the up and down movement around the lungs, while the intercostals are all about supporting the ribcage and expanding when you breathe in.
The smaller muscles in this process are known as accessories – these include everything from the muscles of the abdominals to the muscles of the upper and lower back. There are quite a few of these:
- Muscles of the core (rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, obliques)
- Quadratus lumborum
- Serratus (anterior and posterior)
- Neck muscles like the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid
- Pec minor
With this many muscles involved, problems here will show up as limiting factors in breathing and can cause serious problems.
On the other hand, training these hard-to-reach muscles is a great way to improve your breathing efficiency and capacity!
These muscles are used to create a cycle of pressure where they pull air in and push it out. All you need to know for now is that this lung capacity is strongly influenced by two key factors:
- How much expansion you can create in the ribcage area
- How much pressure you can create and maintain in the lungs
These are key for exercise and posture, and you can improve both of these factors by increasing the overall range and strength of the muscles.
Why We Struggle with Proper Respiration
The problem is that the modern lifestyle has decreased activity levels to an unhealthy level and involves countless other risk factors. For example, the amount of sitting we do is a risk to lung health as it ruins your posture.
Posture is important to breathing as a slouched position, the kind you see in most desk workers, can inhibit the way that your lungs move. Being slouched reduces expansion of the chest upwards – a key factor in the depth of breath.
If you spend all your time driving and sitting, you’re going to experience increased respiratory risk during aging. That’s a silly way to die!
Combining these poor postural habits with reduced activity levels and poor nutrition, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing increased illness and death related to poor lung function. This only further reinforces the fact that we need to work on training the lungs and the muscles around them.
Wim Hof: A New Frontier or the Next Fad?
Wim Hof is a multiple Guinness world record holder in a number of extreme feats of resilience and endurance. Coming from a circus background in the Netherlands, he is known internationally for standing in a box of ice for a record time and an amazing ability to control his breath. He attributes these fantastic records to his personal method of training breathing which he claims can be learned easily and quickly, but seems to have routes in multiple traditional breathing techniques from around the world that can take years to master.
Wim makes many large claims about the benefits of these techniques – many of which are controversial. The science isn’t definitive on many of these points, so we’re going to look through them and what we can take away from this high-profile approach to respiratory training.
Wim’s main suggestion is that the right approach to breathing can make a serious difference to the way the body works. By breathing more deeply, the body can (supposedly) oxygenate cells far more effectively, improving energy and countless other aspects of health/wellbeing.
This also, supposedly, increases the output of carbon dioxide and increases the PH levels of the body. This is paired with increased free oxygen in the body that is able to travel around. This can be seen as a way of increasing the availability of oxygen without breathing more often.
More controversially, Wim believes that this approach to breathing can also increase conscious control over the cerebellum and the spinal cord. This is linked to better control over the body, actively being able to control adrenaline and other aspects of the endocrine system. This extends all the way to immune support with such general benefits as “fending off bacteria”.
To keep it simple, Hof promises increased immune function, recovery, next-level energy, and countless others. These are related to proven benefits of improved breathing – but they also seem extreme enough to be hucksterish claims…
There is clearly something to Wim’s personal training, but it is hard to take these massive claims at face value.
What the Science Says about the Hof Method
The really hard part of discussing the Wim Hof Method and his “power breathing” comes when we try to figure out if there’s actually any science behind it. While the Wim Hof Method website claims that it is science-backed, this is not entirely true… yet. While there are scientific benefits associated with many forms of breathing and improved respiration, they don’t bear out his claims specifically.
We’re going to take a look at what we can say – based on the science – and where this approach to breathing seems to fall short.
Oxygen in Cells
Oxygen transport is crucially important to how we live and perform. This isn’t restricted to Hof’s method – we all breathe for this purpose – so the question is whether this approach has extreme benefits.
After all, we are all aware that we’d be in much better shape if we had a full-distance triathlete’s amazing endurance capacity.
We already know for sure that you can improve aerobic exercise output if you can increase your Oxygen intake – but this is mostly just the case in lab tests where athletes breathe pure Oxygen gas. If you can radically improve your oxygen intake then there might be some benefits, but they can’t be any more effective than breathing pure oxygen.
This means that there are likely to be some benefits to the breathing exercises Hof is using, but they’re not as effective as he suggests. You can expect a better resting heart rate, improved stroke length and even a drop in lactic acid. However, they’re nowhere near the huge claims Wim makes – yet.
Can Cold Improve your Life?
One of the big claims that we’ve seen is about the impact of cold on the way that you breathe. When you’re exposed to serious cold in a controlled, safe environment, you can use hyperventilating to improve your breathing and wakefulness.
For example, having a shower as cold as possible tends to cause you to gasp deeply. This is beneficial for its role in deep inhalation – you totally expand the chest and increase your oxygen intake. This is the type of training that actually has a lot of scientific support: cooling the skin has reliable benefits for short periods at once.
There’s a feeling of difficulty breathing to start with, but this forceful breathing is effective for expanding the lungs and building good breathing habits. As you acclimatize to the cold, you can breathe fully in long breaths and capitalize on the benefits of that initial cold-shock breathing.
This is one of Wim’s claims that really does hold up. The acute and sub-acute effects of a routine of cold showers is effective for breathing control and respiratory strength. This is actually a really easy habit to get into if you can handle the cold – though (of course) Hof’s claims are still a little more exaggerated than the science can prove.
Breathing and the Brain
Breathing and the brain have a complicated relationship. We know for sure that they’re related in many ways: the brain has the largest requirement for energy (for its size) of anything in the human body. This comes with serious oxygen requirements – and the control it exerts over breathing processes – conscious or otherwise – is crucial.
Studies already show that our breathing patterns change significantly when we engage in more mentally-demanding tasks. There also a few studies that show that there are some interesting effects on the nervous system of different patterns of breathing. These show that there’s definitely an interesting connection to be made between the two.
However – and unsurprisingly – there’s not much direct evidence on Hof’s power breathing. The way that this works simply hasn’t been studied in the depth we’d need to conclusively discuss the methods. Initial studies show that cold does play an important part of increasing stress levels and releasing analgesic (pain-reducing) compounds but this is not necessarily good.
Studies on the benefits of power breathing for rheumatoid conditions showed that Hof’s methods were a potent form of “placebo effect” with promising potential. There are studies discussing the benefits of power breathing and cold exposure in relation to the flu and immune system, but the problem with these studies is how their focus is so short-term.
These methods rely on increasing the stress-response of the body in a way that spikes short-term immune function, but they don’t look into the extended problems associated with elevated levels of stress-mediated response. Increased levels of stress (marked by both pro- and anti-inflammatory responses) and increased autonomic activity are associated with long-term concerns.
While there’s clearly controversy around Hof’s methods, research shows that exercise focused on slow breathing can improve neural function, in exactly the opposite way to the expansive power breathing he suggests. This is more similar to the Buteyko method of breathing – a process that focuses on lengthening and holding the out-breath. (We’ll talk about this a bit later on!)
This is another example of research that has yet to be substantiated with any serious consensus, and it proves that at the very most the connection between the brain and breathing exercises is a resounding “maybe”.
Breathing and Hormones
Breathing and the endocrine system don’t overlap tremendously – an extension of the problems we looked at regarding breathing and the brain.
While common yogic breathing practices focus on slow breathing with deep breaths and relaxing the mind, Hof’s breathing is the opposite. Hof’s breathing patterns are closer to hyperventilation through their forceful (almost gasping) in-breath. This is why he uses cold for training the lungs.
There’s a lot of literature already out there that proves this point: yoga and other forms of active relaxation are a great way to improve your mental health and de-stress. This is the only reliable mechanism that breathing exercises have on your endocrine system: reducing stress can improve overall recovery mechanisms after exercise or other types of stress.
On the other hand, there’s no real literature on how power breathing effects the endocrine system – especially when we look at the claim that you can gain some sort of active control over it.
Hof’s technique has shown the ability to increase adrenaline in resting individuals, but this is general to hyperventilation and doesn’t seem to have practical applications without serious side-effects. The real question is why do we need to increase adrenaline production at rest? This is only likely to have negative effects on the hormones and psychology.
This is pro-stress: the opposite of what most people need!
Square One: Fixing Serious Issues
If you’re experiencing a serious shortness of breath or tightness in the chest, our main advice is talk to your physician. This is simple: chest tightness is a real concern and needs to be handled by a professional.
From here, it’s a good idea to talk to a physiotherapist. Respiratory physio is key to dealing with any severe lung problem. Working with a private physio on breathing function is a great option if you have the money and time.
Basic ACBT: Physio Exercises at Home
If you don’t have access to a private physio, however, there are some great, simple exercises you can do at home to keep yourself healthy and improve your lung function. Whether you’re trying to feel healthier or step up your exercise performance, this is a great habit to get into.
This is a great way of dealing with some common breathing problems such as build-up of fluids, failure to clear when coughing, and weakness/limitation in the respiratory muscles. It breaks down into 3 steps:
- Breathing control
- Deep breathing that focuses on expansion
- Forced Expiration Techniques (FET – breathing out hard)
Combining these 3 steps and using ACBT workouts every day for 5-10 minutes is an easy way to start improving our fitness and health.
This is a great workout for those who are interested whether you’re just trying to stay healthy or improve your exercise performance. Addressing the common issues of respiratory weakness/limitation is a key part of developing a well-rounded body and performance.
- Relax the shoulders, rolling them back and down to open up the front of the body
- Breathe deeply through the nose, trying to expand more throughout the breath
- When you reach the maximum capacity of your breath, hold the air for 3 seconds before breathing out
- Think about deflating as you breathe out, rather than forcing air out
- Breathe out gently and relaxed, like a sigh. Don’t force the air out.
This is a simple set of exercises. You should perform this 5 times and alternate with Out-Breath training below. You can repeat this cycle for 5-10 minutes.
- Perform a regular deep breath
- Hold your in-breath for 2-3 seconds
- Breathe out, focusing on huffing as hard as possible
- Perform 1-2 times, take a few regular breaths, then repeat again
- Perform this whole cycle for 5 rounds
- If you have any fluids, spit them out into a tissue or toilet
As above, you should alternate this with the in-breath training and keep alternating for 5-10 minutes.
If you become dizzy or uncomfortable during any of these exercises, you should stop and gather your breath before continuing. These feelings are signals something isn’t right!
This usually just means you need to take more rest between cycles. Keep your focus on staying relaxed and working through the exercises at your own pace – there’s no competition for breathing.
If you have any concerns that may complicate this process, we recommend avoiding them and working through your physician/physiotherapist’s program for recovery and rehab.
Buteyko Breathing: Can Exercises help Asthma and Breathing Control?
The Buteyko breathing method we mentioned at the start of this article is all about the possibility of addressing common breathing problems with proper respiratory training. The idea is simple: a lot of existing medical problems are either the result of breathing problems or made considerably worse by them.
With complications like asthma being common, the opportunity to address symptoms at home is something we’d all like to see. The focus of Buteyko’s method is treating some of these problems – like asthma – by reducing hyperventilation and improving the mechanics of the out-breath.
This starts with focusing on nasal breathing. Far from just being a great insult, mouth-breathing is meant to be a problem as it causes poor breathing patterns and contributes to chronic hyperventilation. Buteyko’s method instead focuses on calm breathing during rest and the ability to hold your breath between exhales.
This makes it a type of intermittent hypoxic training: you get more comfortable with less, shallow breaths and a focus on holding the out-breath. This is a controversial way of increasing breathing control (like in ACBT) and it can reduce pulse rate and help you address extreme breathing problems.
Making it Work for You
Buteyko’s theories are controversial – there’s a lot of evidence and argument on the topic. We’re still not sure what the specifics are, but there’s no doubt that it provides another interesting tool to build into our own breathing exercises and meditation/mindfulness routine.
Our favorite way of using Buteyko breathing is actually as a compliment to the Hof-style deep breathing methods. While Hof’s focus is all about increasing depth and oxygenating/increasing adrenaline, the Buteyko method is all about decreasing breath depth and improving efficiency.
We recommend combining the two to improve breathing control. This has a few key factors, first of all they’re totally different and provide a range of breathing control above and beyond just picking one and going with it. Use the Wim Hof Method of deep hyperventilation techniques for waking up, focusing and boosting the immune system, mixed with a cold shower in the morning, then Buteyko’s for relaxing and winding down and I find it works great to clear a blocked nose.
In simpler terms, use Hof to get ready for performance, and Buteyko to get yourself into the recovery mindset. This might actually improve your control over the nervous system and which “setting” you’re on – the hyped-up adrenaline system, or the recovery-focused parasympathetic system.
Second, you can use breathing methods to adjust your heart rate. Increasing the range of your heart rate – from very high to very low – is called heart rate variability and has huge impacts on your health and wellbeing. In fact, science is starting to show that it’s more important than your resting rate for heart health risks.
Combining The Wim Hof Method and Buteyko Breathing may improve variance and, with it, your cardiorespiratory health. While we can’t say what the effects on Asthma or other illnesses might be, it seems to be a great way of controlling your mood and energy levels in healthy people.
Getting stronger and fitter: RMT Techniques and Effects
The principles of increasing strength and range in the respiratory muscles are the same as those in other areas.
The principle of resistance training is that you have to challenge your muscles to induce change and growth. This is why we perform ACBT to restore function and healthy range, but what about if you want performance – not just health? Simple: train your respiratory muscles more.
Respiratory muscle training is a field with lots of emerging scientific support and exciting applications. It just means strengthening the key muscles involved in breathing. You have to provide resistance and you’ll see strength gains.
Resisted breathing techniques involve making breathing in/out more difficult. This requires more pressure in the lungs – and greater force from the muscles. This allows you to overload these neglected muscles and the science already shows that it has positive effects on sport performance.
Benefits of Improved Lung Function: Why Should you Care?
This approach to respiratory muscle training is effective for all sports – from endurance to power. The increased efficiency of the lungs – from capacity and pressure to oxygen balance – applies to sport in a variety of ways.
We have to start with endurance. Improving your breathing directly improves performance for endurance exercise like running, cycling and rowing. Taking in oxygen and transporting it to the muscles is essential for refuelling the muscles and maintaining performance.
However, greater force and pressure-control in the lungs can benefit strength and power. Increased internal pressure is a crucial way of core strength, a key part of proper sprint performance, and contributes to recovery during/between training sessions.
The ability to recover and grow between workouts is based on the ability to repair existing tissues – this requires a nutrients and other substances in the muscle. Increased resting oxygen intake improves this process, making sure you can recover and grow.
The overall effects of improved lung function are seen in performance at every level. The short- and long-term benefits to recovery, fuelling, and muscular energy are huge. These are helpful for every type of sport and exercise.
Final Thoughts: Does the Science Matter?
What we see with Hof’s approach is a promising direction – we’ll definitely keep an eye on the emerging scientific research. It’s worth working on your respiratory training anyway until further studies are undergone – we know that’s true. What we know for sure is that working the respiratory muscles is associated with better health and wellbeing, regardless of how we manage it.
The Wim Hof Method is an interesting way of practicing forceful inhalation and the science is never truly irrelevant, but evidence-based practice has serious limits when it comes to dealing with elite athletes, like Wim Hof does. In this situation, as USA gymnastics coach Chris Sommer says:
“If you’re following the science you’re already behind”
The science is retrospective whereas top-level athletes have to find what works and worry about the why afterwards.
If you’re intrigued, we definitely recommend working on your breathing and maybe even try out the Wim Hof Method. I’ve always been fascinated with it and you should definitely give it a try and see if it works for you. Since there’s no real risks associated with it, the worst case is that it’s not the best use of your time while the positive effects may be worthwhile!
Professional b-boy (breakdancer) and all-round health, fitness, weightlifting, calisthenics, climbing and movement addict since childhood! Raised by health and nutrition obsessed parents, he’s keen to research and question everything. Oliver absolutely loves learning, optimizing and improving himself and his performance and has a passion for helping others to achieve the same!