Wim Hof has a cult following with his very popular method. It is about breathing exercises, getting used to coldness and regular practice of personal development. The promises floating around the web are huge. From health to fitness to zest for life and resilience to stress, the Wim Hof Method (WHM) is said to increase just about everything. As a mountain lover and outdoor sports enthusiast, it’s hard to avoid this bearded Dutchman and his cold and breathing training.
However, a warning is needed: there are numerous pictures and videos of Wim Hof and his method, which should be treated more as stunts and performances – and not as a model for beginners! This refers in particular to bathing, swimming and diving in ice-cold or even frozen waters. Several people have lost their lives in such attempts. Taking ice baths requires a lot of practice and experience gained through a slow approach! In the Wim Hof Method courses, the initial ice baths are exclusively in bathtubs. Anything else is irresponsible and negligent!
When conducted correctly, the Wim Hof training (which also includes occasional small meditation and yoga exercises) should be accessible to everyone. However, you may read terms such as “superhuman”, “superpowers” and similar big claims from time to time. Which, in turn, is why there is occasionally talk of “hype” and “exaggerated marketing”. But where is the real potential? Can the WHM really take average people like you and me to new heights?
What is it about?
For most people, it is about doing something physically and mentally for their own health and vitality. And that is entirely possible and realistic, as we will see in a moment.
Hof discovered this cold and special breathing method at the beginning of the nineties. He noticed not only physical adaptations, but also an increasing psychological well-being. Regular contact with the cold was his way out of his grief over his wife’s suicide. Gradually, his journey led him further to almost complete insensitivity to cold and to an immune system that has not been affected by any illness since. The individual steps of this journey became the pillars of the evolving method.
It starts with relaxed, deep breathing into the belly and chest – so that the front of the upper body rises and falls like a wave. Exhaling is done by just “letting go”, so the air flows out without pressure. A Wim Hof breathing cycle consists of 30 to 40 such breaths followed by the “hold” – retaining the breath after the last exhalation. At the beginning, the whole thing is done slowly, and as time goes on, the speed and duration of the holds are increased. The longest hold in the 10-day crash course I took in January was 2.5 minutes. However, there is no pressure or obligation, and it does not matter whether you manage five minutes or only one and a half minutes.
It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the whole procedure, but I have provided a link to a very good instructional video at the bottom of the article. This also addresses chemical-physical processes such as gas exchange in the lungs and blood as well as changes in the acid-base balance in the body.
The only thing I’ll say here is that the complex processes are experienced by some, among other things, as mild states of euphoria and intoxication. You are “high on your own supply” for a few moments, as Hof likes to say. You also reach a meditative state, as attention is focused almost exclusively on the inner body processes, and cognitive brain activity “shuts down”. This “switching off” both calms and activates, so it is very beneficial!
This controlled breathing helps you to “get in touch” with your own nervous system and is the key to getting comfortable with cold sensations.
After the breathing sessions, it’s time for a shower. The shower is initially warm before turning to cold for 30 seconds, but on the third day of the crash course, the shower was first turned to cold for one minute. This can be a challenge on winter days when cold tap water is really cold. But that’s what it’s all about – challenging yourself and adapting and engaging with the experience. The reward afterwards is the feeling of being reborn.
The magic formula of the process is “vascular fitness”, a kind of strength training for blood vessels. Breathing exercises as well as exposure to cold are controlled stress stimuli that cause powerful contraction and deep relaxation of innumerable tiny blood vessel muscles. This means they can react faster and more efficiently to future stress stimuli. Changes in body condition that previously would have been fatiguing happen increasingly easily and quickly.
Mindset, commitment, mental strength
It’s like any training: breathing sessions and cold showers require a certain amount of effort to overcome at the beginning. But each time the “willpower muscle” is strengthened so that overcoming resistance feels less and less difficult. The more consciously you go into the breathing and the cold, so to speak, and the more you focus on the positive effects, the more the initial resistance is reduced and the more effective the mental training is.
Over time, this willpower can reach into areas of the nervous system that until now have been considered inaccessible. Wim Hof, for example, was able to demonstrate using an infrared camera that he can change the blood flow and temperature of his hands through sheer willpower. The crucial point here, repeatedly emphasised by Hof himself, is that these skills are not rare individual talents or genetic dispositions, but can be learned by most people.
What is so new and special about the WHM?
On its own, no WHM component is anything new. Kneipp baths and cold therapies have been around for centuries, and consciously controlled and modified breathing has existed for thousands of years and in many cultures. Tibetan monks and Indian yogis have been known through the ages for their seemingly impossible physical and mental feats.
Wim Hof has just rediscovered and restructured this old knowledge and methods in his own way. His achievement is that he has gone further than other Westerners and presented the content in such a way that it is accessible to everyone.
This means that a clear structure which is relatively easy to follow is now available to a wide audience. As a result, a great many people are now achieving things that were previously the domain of only a few determined and intrepid people. Numerous practitioners (“Hoffers”) describe their own progress as “almost superhuman”.
Who is Wim Hof?
Who is the man behind the method? To me, this connoisseur in the art of living and holder of more than 20 extreme sports world records seems to be a colourful mix: on the one hand, he is a gruff forest ranger and a hands-on entrepreneur, on the other, he is a wacky hippie, a fun-loving buddy and even a father figure. A bird of paradise with a strong charisma who is not only outstanding for his achievements.
So it’s no surprise that over the years a certain cult of personality has developed. Marketing for the company, which has been established by Hof’s children, is also strongly focused on his personality. My opinion: so what? It doesn’t bother me at all. On the contrary, when I consider what else society adores and puts on pedestals, this man seems to me to be very worthy of distinction. Particularly because, instead of just flaunting himself, he evidentially helps other people. The fact that he also earns money from it after decades of self-exploration and development of his concept is perfectly fine.
In a nutshell, you can see that I really like this cool guy 😉
What’s the point? Does it really work?
Cold resistance, stress resistance, willpower, increased performance, faster regeneration, better blood circulation and a stronger immune system. These are all things that regular practice of the WHM is supposed to bring. Sounds kind of like a miracle pill that Alpine Trekkers would love, doesn’t it?
I’ll give you my personal opinion right away: yes, it’s true, the method can be a miracle pill for fitness, health and wellbeing if used properly and on a long-term basis. It can unlock physical and mental resources in mountaineers and climbers for more effective training. Personally, I’ve just noticed a surge of motivation that normally only starts much later in the year, or sometimes not at all to such frequency and intensity. According to initial tests, my fitness level also seems better than it normally does in February. And all this despite the wintry darkness and the pressures of this very strange time.
Further personal results after a 10-day course and about 3 weeks of one breathing session per day and 5 cold showers per week since then:
- Cold resistance: Winter cold really does feel less uncomfortable and intense for me than it did before I started training. However, I have also had one unpleasant case of hypothermia due to overestimating myself.
- Condition: Is getting on well, but for three weeks I felt more like the breathing and cold water sessions were stressing my body. It feels more like fluctuations that are slowly settling down.
- Strength: “Double your push ups” is a rather lofty claim that Wim Hof makes in the video course. After a round of breathing sessions, you are supposed to be able to do twice the number of push-ups while holding your breath as you did before normally. I only managed about 20% more. Which would still have been remarkable if my expectations weren’t so high…
All in all, I have a generally positive impression after a good month – something I share with the vast majority of “Hoffers”. Lifestyle blogs, sports portals and all kinds of magazines are full of gushing testimonials. Here’s an example from the magazine Carpe Diem, where the author went from being a cold-sceptic to a cold-worshipper:
“And today? I now begin my morning in our swimming pool, even in winter, and spend three minutes in the water. Not only has my immune system become stronger, but my self-esteem as a woman has also grown. My allergies are almost gone, as is my asthma. And I’ve only been sick once – for just one day”.
(There are more WHM testimonials on Carpe Diem).
Wim Hof Method and mountain sports
The Canadian climbing magazine Gripped published an interview with Angela Knox, a certified Wim Hof Method trainer with a background in mountain sports. She mentions some benefits that alpinists and climbers can gain from the method. As well as the obviously helpful resistance to cold and temperature fluctuations, Knox says that it also improves oxygen uptake, mental performance, recovery times and has a very interesting effect that has not yet received much attention: greatly accelerated adaptation to altitude and reduced susceptibility to altitude sickness.
The latter has already been demonstrated several times by Hof and numerous participants in his trainings. However, these mountaineering tours have received little attention from the mountaineering community. Did you know that almost all participants of the Wim Hof workshops in Poland regularly climb up the snowy Sněžka dressed only in shorts?
In shorts on Kilimanjaro
Another mountain that Hof and his seminar participants have climbed several times in just shorts is Kilimanjaro. Hof’s team usually manages this normally week-long tour n two days without prior acclimatisation at altitude. Most of the participants are not competitive athletes, but people like you and me, some of whom have long medical histories behind them, but all return safely. If you don’t believe it, you can watch YouTube videos like Wim Hof group reaches top Kilimanjaro in 48 hours. A world record.
What’s the catch? What do critics say?
It all sounds too good to be true, right? At least that is what the sceptics think, and of course they are not far off. Medical professionals in particular struggle with Wim Hof and his method. For example, the portal Medizin-transparent.at believes Hof’s special genes are responsible for everything, as his twin brother also has similar abilities without training. In fact, researchers have now identified gene variants which they suspect provide better protection against the effects of cold. There is also criticism about a lack of studies.
This lack is probably due to the fact that it is difficult to examine two control groups when studying the Wim Hof method. Cold is cold – you can’t make a placebo out of it.
The Wim Hof Method website provides information about studies conducted at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Wayne State University Michigan (2018), as well as the current status of the scientific monitoring process.
In any case, it is impressive that the WHM has been able to convert sceptics: One enthusiastic and very accomplished user of the Wim Hof method is Scott Carney, a science journalist. Carney originally set out to “take Hof apart” and expose him as a charlatan. However, he did not limit himself to judging from afar, instead gathering his own experience, and came to the exact opposite conclusion. He achieved incredible improvements in health and performance, which he documented in his book “What Doesn’t Kill Us”.
Last but not least, it is important to note that the Wim Hof method does not make any groundless promises in its marketing. It is clearly communicated that real successes and breakthroughs, as in all other areas of life, can only be achieved through regular activity and “keeping at it”.
The best info online
Of the many testimonials and websites for self-optimisation and personal coaching that I came across related to the WHM, I particularly liked Dr Matthias Wittfoth’s site. He is not only a neuroscientist and psychologist, but also an authorised Level 3 Wim Hof instructor. I actually think his instructional video for breathing is better than the free videos from the “master” himself. Wittfoth addresses various questions that may arise during the practice. You can basically create your own Wim Hof training plan on the basis of Wittfoth’s site alone. However, you’d need to take a lot of time to really get to grips with the subject matter. I would therefore first recommend taking the classic beginners’ course on Wimhofmethod.com if you want to quickly and easily follow clear guidelines and make sure you don’t get anything wrong. This brings us to the final question: Do it yourself or take a course?
Learn it yourself or book some training?
On the surface, the WHM is simple enough to be self-taught, but there are many minor things that can lead to ambiguities and complications. And it depends, as with any other training, on choosing the right duration and combination of exercises, the right progression and the right intervals. You can make a lot of mistakes if, perhaps giddy from your initial successes, you want too much too quickly. If you get into a winter lake ill-prepared and without proper aftercare, you might just end up with hypothermia and a cold instead of superpowers.
You can’t really learn the WHM from books like “Way of the Iceman”. They generally provide good information about biological and neurochemical aspects, but the practical instructions are brief and superficial. However, there is another book coming out in April 2021 that may have detailed instructions.
Initial experiences better on a course
The countless quick guides available online often contradict each other. Sometimes they say “breathe deeply and quickly”, then they say “breathe slowly”. Sometimes it should be 30 breaths, then 40. Sometimes it’s “hold your breath and wait”, sometimes it’s “squeeze the air into your head while holding it”. Without any precise description of how you’re supposed to “squeeze air into your head”…
I, for one, do not want to have to guess such things. I’d like to have crystal-clear and precise explanations right from the start. Only when I myself understand the individual actions and their effects can I develop flexibility. It’s like climbing: in the beginning, you should stick to the best practice taught on a course without judgement or interpretation.
Of course, there are always self-taught climbers who are successful, but if you want to learn climbing or the WHM without possibly dangerous deviations, you are better off sticking with the “official” approach. But no matter how you go about it, it’s definitely worth taking a closer look!