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Two Potent Ways to Biohack Your Breathing

by Ben Greenfield
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Imagine a giant lake bed with one tiny capillary of creek water pouring into it. It would take a while to fill that lake bed with precious water, wouldn’t it?

Now imagine that same giant lake bed with hundreds or perhaps thousands of capillaries, creeks, small rivers, streams and giant gushing geysers pouring into it. Now you have a teeming and living body of water!

That lake is your body. And everything that feeds into that lake is the oxygen that feeds into that body. If you’re not breathing correctly, that can create huge problems for your “lake”, since healthy breathing patterns are how your body maintains cellular metabolism and delivers oxygen to vital tissues. In addition, if you breathe too fast or don’t inhale deeply enough (breathing too shallow), you can increase the pH of your blood, and this can decrease the amount of blood getting to your body, brain and muscles and result in less oxygen being released to tissues.

But that’s not all.

Your breathing is also a sign of how well your core muscles are working. If you have shallow upper chest and mouth breathing or if you have too quick a breathing pattern, then your diaphragmatic muscles may not be actively stabilizing your trunk, which can lead to poor posture, as well as impairments in your physical or athletic coordination and your low back stability – all of which negatively affects your metabolism, increases your risk of injury and decreases your performance potential.

So to fix all these issues, I’ve lately been “geeking” out on tools and methods to breathe better. Below, I’m going to give you two of my favorite breathing biohacks, but before I do, please be sure to go read my article on “How To Breathe The Right Way”, so you can learn the 6 ways to enhance your deep diaphragmatic breathing. This will vastly improve the effectiveness of the strategies below.

Breathing Biohack 1: Power Breathing

Wim Hof is a Dutch world record holder, adventurer and daredevil- nicknamed “the Iceman” for his ability to withstand extreme cold. I talk about him in my post on the benefits of cold thermogenesis.

Wim holds twenty world records- including a world record for longest ice bath, and he has stayed immersed in ice for as long as 1 hour and 52 minutes and 42 seconds. In 2007, Wim attempted, but failed (due to a foot injury), to climb Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts.

Then, in 2009, Wim reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in his shorts within two days. In that same year, Wim also completed a full marathon above the polar circle in Finland, in temperatures close to −20 °C (−4 °F) – dressed in nothing but shorts. He finished the marathon in 5 hours and 25 minutes.

And in  2011, Hof also ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water. So how does “The Iceman” do it?

Wim describes his ability to withstand extreme cold temperatures as being able to “turn his own thermostat up” by using his mind- along with a special power breathing technique.

Below is Wim’s technique, which I’ve been using to master preparation for everything from icy cold showers to extremely tough workouts. I recently demonstrated this breathing technique in my talk at Mark Sisson’s PrimalCon.

Step 1: Get comfortable and close your eyes

Sit in a meditation posture or a yoga standing posture. Make sure you can expand your lungs freely without feeling any constriction.

Step 2: Warm Up

Inhale deeply. Draw the breath in until you feel a slight pressure from inside your chest on your solar plexus (the hard bone in the middle of your chest). Hold for a moment and then exhale completely. Push the air out as much as you can. Hold this for another moment. Repeat this warm up 15 times.

Step 3: Do 30 “Power Breaths”

Imagine you’re blowing up a balloon. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth in short but powerful bursts. Use the deep belly breathing you learn here.You may feel light-headedness, tingling sensations in the body, or strange electrical-like surges of energy.

Step 4: Exhale Fully

After the the 30 rapid succession of breaths, draw the breath in once more and fill the lungs to maximum capacity without using too much force. Then push all of the air out and hold for as long as you can. Draw the chin in a bit so as to prevent air from coming in again. Hold the breath until you experience the gasp reflex on the top of your chest.

Step 5: Recovery Breath

Now inhale to full capacity. Really feel your chest expanding. When you are at full capacity, hold the breath. Drop your chin to the chest and hold this for around 15 seconds. Notice that you can direct the energy with your awareness. Use this time to scan the body and see where there is no color, tension or blockages. Imagine a reddish-orange fire filling every black hole in your body. Hold for 15 seconds. After 15 seconds you have completed the first round.

Step 6: Repeat

Start with one or two rounds. Try this daily and add two more rounds in a few days. After you feel more comfortable with holding your breath you can start to add exercises and stretches into the mix (e.g. doing this entire sequence while holding an isometric squat or lunge).

Work up to a minimum of 15 minutes or 6 rounds, and you will be a complete power breathing expert. Who knows? Within just a few weeks, maybe you’ll be scaling Mt. Everest in a pair of shorts.

Breathing Biohack 2: Resisted Breathing

Pick up a straw. Breathe in and out through the straw. That’s resisted breathing. Consider it to be weight training for your lungs.

Resisted breathing enhances your endurance by strengthening your inspiratory and expiratory muscles, which increases your ventilatory capacity (your lung size). This can result in:

  • Improvements in oxygen uptake, transport and utilization.
  • Production of neuroendocrine hormones that can have an anabolic training effect.
  • Improvements in immune system strength.
  • Increased activities of antioxidant enzymes in the brain, liver, heart and other organs (assuming you don’t overdo it, in which case you actually get suppression of normal antioxidant processes).
  • As you’d probably guess, increased production of red blood cells, resulting in an increased oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.

Before I give you some practical recommendations to implement resisted breathing, let’s get something straight: many resisted breathing devices are marketed as hypoxic training devices, but are not simulating altitude at all and do not result in any hypoxic adaptations.

Take, for example, elevation training masks, which seem to have become rather popular of late. Most of these masks, which look like a Swat team gas mask or the Batman villain Bane, cannot (despite some manufacturer claims) actually change the atmospheric pressure you’re training in or decrease the partial pressure of the oxygen in the air that you’re breathing in. They would actually need to be designed as Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) devices to accomplish this, and most are not (although you can get such devices for a pretty penny from a company such as Hypoxico).

The fact is, when I’m charging down the treadmill, riding my bike, or lifting weights while sporting my scary-looking elevation training mask, I’m still breathing air that is approximately 21% oxygen, with the same partial pressure of oxygen as whatever altitude I happen to be at. Most masks are simply restricting your breathing by covering up your mouth and nose. These masks can certainly be effective for improving ventilatory capacity, but don’t let yourself be deceived that you’re getting the same physiological adaptations as true hypoxic training.

But nonetheless, you can get a ton of benefit out of resisted breathing, and here are some of my favorite ways to do it:

  • Try swim resisted breathing sets. Get a front-mounted Swim Snorkel, and then add aCardioCap to restrict the amount of air you get through the snorkel opening. You can wear this during both long interval sets and short sprints.
  • Wearing an “elevation training mask” while doing 3 sets of 25 kettlebell swings, 8 sets of 20 second sprints on a bicycle, or a 1 mile uphill run outdoors. Or, if you prefer a slower pace with an added hypoxic-like effects, try going on a hike wearing both a weighted vest and an elevation training mask.
  • Keep a PowerLung resisted breathing device in your car, take it on an airplane or use it at home while working or watching TV for exercises such as 10 sets of 3 seconds in, 3 seconds out resisted breathing. I introduce the PowerLung in my podcast episode “How To Increase Your VO2 Max Anytime, Anywhere – Without Actually Exercising”, and you can go there to learn much more about this nifty portable device and how to use it properly.

When combined with proper breathing patterns throughout your workday and a habitual deep diaphragmatic breathing pattern, these type of methods can be extremely efficient at improving your ventilatory capacity and efficiency of oxygen utilization.

So now you know what you need to know to fill up your lake! Be sure to attend my Paleo f(x)™ 2015 session for even more biohacks, lifehacks and performance improvement tactics!

Herbert Lake Icefields Parkway Alberta Canada picture licensed under the Creative Commons.


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Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, 11-time Ironman triathlete, top Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life”.