Here’s a hypothetical “would you rather” question that should be easy for any sane person to answer.
Would you rather…
A.) Immerse yourself in ice—nearly naked—for almost two hours
B.) Run a marathon in a desert without food or water
C.) Hang by one finger from a ledge at an altitude of 6,500 feet
D.) Summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in your shorts and bare feet
E.) Swim 188.6 feet under a frozen lake until your eyes freeze and you go (temporarily) blind
Correct answer: none of the above. And yet Wim Hof has done all of these things and then some, setting 26 world records in the process. What’s even crazier is that he says you can do them all too, and with relative ease.
Crazier still is that he may be right.
The boisterous, bearded, mystical Dutchman—if you need an image, picture Rasputin coming out of a freezer—descended upon Onnit headquarters in Austin, TX, this February (where the average annual temperature is 60 degrees, Fahrenheit), to introduce staffers to his famous Wim Hof Method.
The result? Not only did participants survive, they left feeling they could conquer anything.
Meet The Iceman: Wim Hof
Hof, age 57, has worked as a tour guide, postman, writer, and English teacher, and performed various other odd jobs throughout Europe in his youth. “I’ve been searching a lot in my life,” he says, “looking for fulfillment. I visited a lot of esoteric disciplines—languages, cultures, traditions, religions, philosophies, etc. But the cold weather did it for me.”
Hof’s wife suffered from depression and, in 1995, committed suicide. Devastated, Hof immersed himself further into his journey. A longtime practitioner of yoga and deep-breathing techniques, he arrived at combining breathwork with cold therapy—the age-old practice of exposing one’s self to frigid water or air to promote circulation.
“I tried it and it felt good,” says Hof. “I started with an icewater bath and then I built on it. I did it for only a minute at first but it was an immense experience. I realized that the breathing oxygenated the body and neutralized the impact of the cold.”
Convinced he’d stumbled onto a regimen that had the potential to not only improve cold tolerance but enhance vitality to near-superhuman levels, Hof has dedicated his life to proving the effectiveness of his method ever since—to the shock and amazement of followers and scientists alike.
The Wim Hof Method — How To Do It
It would be easy to dismiss Hof’s feats, impressive as they are, as the inexplicable talents of one lone genetic freak. As with fitness pioneer Jack Lalanne, who swam while towing 70 boats on his 70th birthday, it’s tempting to file Hof’s exploits under the category of, “it looks cool, but I could never do that.”
Thing is, though, other people are doing these things with him, including climbing mountains—stripped to the waist—in freezing temperatures. They’re not complaining about it, either. In fact, they’re enjoying it. “Cold is an emotion,” says Hof. “Emotion is good, but it can be controlled.”
This is the basic Wim Hof Method:
1 Sit comfortably on the floor, on your couch, or lie in bed. You should be in a position that allows you to breathe deeply without restriction.
2 Inhale deeply through your nose or mouth and then exhale through your mouth in a short, powerful burst. Imagine you’re blowing up a balloon—that’s the rhythm you want. Do this 30 times with your eyes closed. You may begin to feel light-headed or tingly, which is why it’s important that you position yourself in a safe place so that, if you should happen to faint, you won’t land in a dangerous way. Never practice the Method while driving, standing or bathing/showering.
3 After your 30th exhale, take in a long, deep breath to maximum capacity, but don’t force anything. Let the air out gently and hold the exhale as long as you can—until you gasp for more air.
4 Inhale again to full capacity. Feel your chest expanding as you do it, and hold the breath for 10 seconds.
That’s one round. Repeat the entire process for 3 rounds. When you’re done, relax and enjoy the feeling. You’ve oxygenated your body to an extreme degree, and you’ll probably feel a natural high as a result. When you’re ready, take a shower.
Start with a warm shower and then end it with 15–60 seconds of cold water. “The cold is your warm friend,” says Hof, so relax and try to embrace it. You can start by letting the cold water run on your feet, then your legs, and so on up your body, gradually immersing yourself until the water is hitting you everywhere. Try to breathe normally. If you shiver or feel numbness or pain, stop and get warm again, but you may find that the breathing has already made you more adaptable to the cold.
For maximum effectiveness, Hof recommends you do all this on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. If you’re pregnant or suffer from epilepsy, don’t do it at all. If you have any other medical conditions, consult your doctor first.
Just as progressive strength training builds up your muscles over time, the Wim Hof Method will improve your ability to withstand cold—even to the degree that your body can protect itself against frostbite and hypothermia. “Taking cold showers for 10 days already wins you a lot of terrain against those conditions,” says Hof. “From there, you can train more and take it more to the extreme.” (However, for safety’s sake, we don’t recommend you go up a mountain in wintertime without his supervision).
“We weren’t meant to go live at the North Pole in shorts,” Hof says, “but 10 days’ practice with cold showers and you can counteract the cold 200% better—you’ll double your resistance.” According to Hof, managing a cold climate is an inherent ability in all people; we’ve simply let it gather dust due to modern living, with its clothing and mechanical thermostats.
In one of many lab experiments intended to test Hof’s resilience, scientists at the University of Minnesota chilled Hof’s body to 89.9 degrees—the point at which most people stop shivering and require external heat to prevent hypothermia. For Hof, it was like a day at the beach. He turned his inner thermostat up to 97.5 degrees all by himself and sat there comfortably.
How The Wim Hof Method Works
So what goes on in the body—or, specifically, Wim Hof’s body—that allows a man to tolerate extreme temperatures?
The short answer is that scientists aren’t sure. But there are many theories.
Hof seems to be able to consciously control his autonomic nervous system—functions of the body that are supposed to be completely involuntary, such as heart rate and body heat regulation—and, as a result, can influence his core temperature regardless of his surroundings. He says the combination of deep breathing, mental concentration, and cold helps him increase his metabolic rate, which a 2010 study found did indeed jump… by a whopping 300%.
If you think raising your metabolism to an extreme degree will help you drop body fat, Hof says you’re right, and one of the many benefits of his method is increased fat loss.
Fat, specifically the brown variety, is another explanation for Hof’s overactive, internal heat pump. Unlike the so-called white fat that everyone wants to lose, brown fat is easily burned for heat. Babies have it in large amounts to help them stay warm, but adults typically have very low levels. Cold temperatures, however, activate brown fat, and while Hof was found to carry no more brown fat than the average adult, his is more metabolically active.
Exposure to cold also activates the immune system, and this is where the Wim Hof Method transcends magic trick into the realm of a potentially life-saving health regimen.
A study conducted by the Thrombosis Research Institute showed that people who took daily cold showers had significantly more white blood cells than people who showered normally. On the other hand, while Hof’s system boosts one aspect of the immune system, it reduces another. Cold increases the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which fight inflammation. This could be life-changing for those battling Type-1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and other auto-immune disorder in which an overactive immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissues by mistake.
To show just how far he was willing to go to prove the validity of his method for disease control, Hof and some volunteers submitted to an extreme experiment for Radboud University Medical Center in Holland in 2013. He took 18 healthy young men into the mountains of Poland and had them stand and lie in snow and swim in icewater for four days (preceded by his breathing exercises, which help prepare the mind to relax). Not one of the men dropped out, which is unusual in any study.
Twelve of the men were then randomly selected to be injected with an endotoxin that by all logic should have made them feel very sick. Twelve others who had not undergone Hof’s training were also injected and used as a control group. With some additional coaching on breathing from Hof himself, the experimental group were measured to have higher levels of adrenaline simply lying in bed than have been found in people who are preparing to make their first-ever bungee jump.
Not only did Hof’s team control their hormonal systems, they had fewer flu-like symptoms and lower fevers than the control group, and their markers of inflammation were at half.
The Wim Hof Method for Athletes
You don’t need to be suffering from illness or want to run outside with your clothes off to enjoy the benefits of the Wim Hof Method. Athletes hoping to get an edge in competition should consider it as well, and many already have, including surf legend Laird Hamilton, former UFC champ Alistair Overeem, and the Dutch national soccer team.
Exposure to the cold strengthens the vascular system, allowing the heart to pump less frequently to move blood throughout your body. So, in effect, it acts as a form of cardio. In addition to lessening body fat by boosting metabolism, Hof says his method will quiet your mind in the way that meditation does, improving your self-control. “It will suppress appetite, and the increased oxygen in your system will let your cells make better use of the nutrition they have.”
Being able to turn adrenaline on and off like a switch will help you on the field, court, or mat. “If you can do that, you have a weapon. You can be tranquil. And when you’re tranquil, you’re like water.” In other words, while opponents let their nerves get the better of them, a Wim Hof-trained athlete can release adrenaline at will, using his “fight or flight” response to improve performance, and then unwind just as quickly to save energy or speed recovery. “I teach my soccer players to go from total rest to total exertion and then relax when they’re not in action. They can simulate the exertion of the field just by sitting still and breathing fast.”
In a broader sense, Hof has faith that his method’s power over stress hormones can treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fear in general. Those suffering from emotional problems, as his late wife did, might be saved by it.
Wim Hof Invades Onnit
When Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus invited Hof to visit Austin and take employees through his method, cold-wary staffers didn’t know what to think. But 30-plus of them braved their way to Marcus’ home to face his outdoor swimming pool—which was loaded with 10,000 pounds of ice cubes.
“Hof said, ‘Today, we’re going to all get high on our own supply,’” says Liv Langdon, Onnit’s Nutrition and Food Manager, who attended. The group then began the breathing drills. “Then we did pushups while holding our breaths.” With all the extra oxygen in her system, Langdon was able to perform more reps than normal, “which proves his point that our minds fail before our bodies do.”
Participants then entered the 45-degree swimming pool.
“It was cold at first,” says Web Developer Ben Bissonnette. “But by the time he said we could get out I felt like I could have stayed in. It wasn’t as bad as jumping into the ocean feels.”
Afterward, Langdon says she was invigorated. “I got that feeling you get when you’ve accomplished something. Like I told my body yes when it wanted to say no. I feel like you can apply that to anything.”
For more on Hof and the Wim Hof Method, go to wimhofmethod.com.
Listen to Wim on the Aubrey Marcus Podcast below or at Itunes.
Twenty Six time world record holder “Iceman” Wim Hof drops by to share his latest clinical research that is turning the medical model on its head. In this powerful episode we dive deep into the cold dark depths of fear and learn how to use resistance to push past all self-imposed limitations.