The Wim Hof Method combines breathing, cold therapy, and commitment to help you connect more deeply to your body. It involves powerful inhalation, relaxed exhalation, and prolonged breath holds.
Proponents say the technique can lead to:
- increased immunity
- better sleep
- reduced stress
- heightened focus
However, there are certain precautions and contraindications you should be aware of. Learn more about the Wim Hof Method, how to do it yourself, and what the research says.
The Wim Hof Method was created by Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete who is also known as “The Iceman.” Hof believes you can accomplish incredible feats by developing command over your body, breath, and mind through the use of specific breathing techniques and tolerance to extreme temperatures.
There are three pillars to the Wim Hof Method:
- cold therapy
First, students are taught specific methods of controlled deep breathing. This can be practiced alone or in combination with cold therapy, a technique where the body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes.
Christina Casey, RN, is a certified Wim Hof Method instructor and a registered nurse with over 20 years of experience.
“The point of [the] breath is to increase oxygen levels and blow out carbon dioxide,” she says. “It has been shown to help with depression, anxiety, mood, mental focus, and pain management.”
The goal of the Wim Hof Method breathing technique is to teach you to develop mastery over your nervous, immune, and cardiovascular systems to help you be happier, stronger, and healthier.
“The beauty of the Wim Hof Method breathwork is that there is a basic format, with room for making it work for you as an individual,” Casey says.
As such, you may learn slightly different versions of the Wim Hof Method breathwork practice from different teachers.
You may also change how you practice based on how you are feeling on any given day. That’s completely OK, and it’s even encouraged.
The Wim Hof technique
One round of the Wim Hof Method breathing technique includes these steps:
- Take in a strong inhalation through the nose.
- Let out a relaxed exhalation through the mouth.
- Repeat for 30 breaths.
- On the 30th breath, exhale to 90 percent and hold for as long as you can.
- When you feel your body really needs to take a breath, inhale fully and hold for 15 seconds before releasing.
The basic technique involves three consecutive rounds of the above.
Eventually, the breathing may feel like a wave flowing through your lungs, but this will take practice.
Many people primarily use the top of their lungs when they inhale, leading to mostly shallow breaths. In Wim Hof breathing, the diaphragm is engaged, and the lower lungs are filled. The belly should protrude on the inhalation and flatten on the exhalation.
Casey also notes that the Wim Hof Method can be difficult for people who are “reverse breathers.” One way to check if you are reverse breathing is if your belly flattens when you inhale and sticks out when you exhale. This is reverse breathing
To correct reverse breathing, Casey recommends placing your hand on your belly, or lying on your back and placing a small weight on your belly. This provides some sensory feedback as you practice pushing out on the inhalation and feel your belly going down on the exhalation.
“Getting guidance from a trained instructor can also really help dial in the breathing technique,” she says.
Tips for beginners
Here are some general pointers for people who are new to Wim Hof Method breathwork:
- If you are unable to breathe through your nose due to congestion or other reasons, mouth breathing is OK.
- Use the cue “belly, chest, head” when inhaling to remind you to use all of your lungs.
- Consciously relax your jaw and the muscles in your neck and upper shoulders. Otherwise, you may experience tension headaches.
- Let go of any competitive mindset. It doesn’t matter how long you hold the 30th breath.
- While holding your breath, use a nose clip or pinch your nose to avoid taking in microsips of air, if necessary.
- Use the breath retention phase to witness your own thoughts and your body’s response.
According to the Wim Hof Method website, the technique offers benefits, including:
- increased energy
- better sleep
- reduced stress levels
- heightened focus and determination
- increased willpower
- stronger immune system
Not all of these benefits are supported by scientific evidence.
Those that are include:
- voluntary influence of the nervous system and immune system
- anti-inflammatory effects
- decreases in flu-like symptoms
- increased levels of nervous system neurotransmitters
- reductions in altitude sickness
- improved oxygen delivery during exercise
Scientists are still learning about how Hof’s breathing techniques affect the brain and metabolic activity, physical endurance, mental health, the immune system, inflammation, and pain.
Inflammation and immune response
The Wim Hof Method could have implications for treating inflammatory conditions, especially autoimmune conditions, and there’s a body of research to support this.
A more recent 2019 study examined the effect of a 8-week Wim Hof Method course on adults with axial spondyloarthritis, a type of inflammatory disease of the joints. Those in the Wim Hof Method group showed reduction in certain inflammatory markers compared with the control group.
Participants in a landmark 2014 study performed Wim Hof Method breathing, meditated, and were immersed in ice cold water.
Results showed that the sympathetic nervous system and the immune system can be voluntarily influenced. This could be due to the anti-inflammatory effect produced by the techniques.
People who learned the Wim Hof Method also had fewer flu-like symptoms.
The Wim Hof Method may be beneficial for those adjusting to high altitude environments.
In a letter to the editor of the Wilderness and Environmental Medicine journal, two researchers submitted their findings on the effectiveness of the Wim Hof Method to reduce acute mountain sickness (AMS).
A group of 26 trekkers used the technique while hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was found to be useful in preventing AMS and reversing symptoms that developed.
There are mixed results on how the Wim Hof Method affects endurance and athletic performance, despite this being one of its stated benefits.
A 2021 study of 15 amateur athletes found that a single session of the Wim Hof Method breathing had no effect on repeated sprinting performance. However, participants preferred sprinting after Wim Hof breathing compared with the control group, despite no measurable performance effect.
In contrast, a 2020 study found that a single session of Wim Hof breathing improved cycling performance by accelerating the time it takes for oxygen delivery to respond to the demands of exercise (known as VO2 max) and reducing the perception of strain.
In this study, all members of the Wim Hof breathing group completed the exercises, but five participants in the control group were unable due to fatigue.
Control of the nervous system
Hof himself has also participated in studies to bring credibility to his breathing practice.
The 2018 “Brain over Body” case study of Wim Hof found that he’s able to tolerate extreme cold by creating an artificial stress response in his body. Scientists believe the brain, rather than the body, helped Hof to respond to cold exposure. The study suggested that people can learn to control their autonomic nervous system to bring about similar changes.
The same 2014 study mentioned above also showed increased levels of plasma epinephrine, an important central nervous system neurotransmitter, in those who learned the Wim Hof Method.
People who have practiced Wim Hof Method breathing can certainly attest that the method has physiological effects.
“Many sensations can come up with the breathwork, such as ringing in the ears, muscle cramping, swallowing, seeing colors, and strong emotions,” Casey says.
Is this just a side effect of controlled hyperventilation, or is it a sign of something deeper at work?
Casey notes how Wim Hof Method breathing has helped her manage her own stress while working as a registered nurse with COVID-19 patients.
“Being able to step outside during my shifts and tap into breathwork was a lifesaver. It not only helped my body reset, but [it] gave some quiet time to process all the emotions I was experiencing.”
More research is needed to understand exactly how the method works to bring about the benefits its practitioners note. Scientists need to learn if the results are due to breathing exercises, meditation, or cold exposure. They also need to determine if the physiological effects of the Wim Hof Method are short-term or long-term.
Currently, there are ongoing studies in the United States and the Netherlands on the Wim Hof Method’s effects on mental health, brain activity, inflammation, and pain.
You can learn the Wim Hof Method on your own at home using the official online video course or by joining a workshop with a certified instructor.
You can find certified instructors using a directory on the Wim Hof website. Instructors can be found in:
- North America
- South America
If you choose to learn with a certified instructor, you can participate in a workshop or multi-day retreat. These workshops are sometimes done in conjunction with fitness activities or yoga.
Working with an instructor in person allows you to receive personal guidance, immediate feedback, and even a sense of community with the other students. You’ll learn breathing, yoga, and meditation practices. Ice baths may be part of some programs.
Make sure you find someone who has completed the training program and has an official license. Additional experience in medical training and physical therapy may also be beneficial.
If your instructor isn’t found in this directory, they aren’t certified to teach the Wim Hof Method.
Online Wim Hof Method training
If you’re not ready for an in-person training, you can check out the official Wim Hof Method e-learning library.
It includes multiple course styles and options. Choose between the 3-lesson mini class, the 40-lesson fundamentals course, and other options to suit your preferences.
All courses are integrated into the Wim Hof Method mobile app.
Each course is designed with video lessons to guide you through the breathing exercises, meditation, and cold training, with homework assigned throughout.
Typically, the breathing is practiced daily for at least 20 minutes, but you’re encouraged to never force the practice. The online course is self-paced, so you can take days off as needed.
Research to support the use of the Wim Hof Method is increasing, but there are potential dangers and contraindications for the practice.
“Always practice in a safe environment where, if you lose consciousness, you will not hit your head on a hard object,” Casey says.
Fainting is not uncommon and there could be accompanying injuries with a fall. Never practice breathwork in or around water, or while driving a motor vehicle.
The Wim Hof Method is not recommended if you have a history of:
- respiratory problems, like asthma
- high or low blood pressure
It’s also not recommended for pregnant people.
If you’re taking any medications, it’s worth discussing the Wim Hof Method with a healthcare professional.
It’s important that you use the technique responsibly. Consult your doctor and a trained professional before attempting anything that could be considered dangerous or extreme.
The Wim Hof Method consists of breathing techniques, cold exposure, and commitment to the practice.
The breathing technique, in its most basic form, is a system of controlled hyperventilation involving three sets of 30 breaths.
The method can be learned online from the official Wim Hof Method website or from certified instructors. It should be performed in a safe environment in case of fainting or falls.
Research into the Wim Hof Method is ongoing. Some results are mixed, although it is clear the breathing technique has an impact on stress and inflammation. More research is needed to truly understand how the breathing method works.
Sarah Bence is an occupational therapist (OTR/L) and freelance writer, primarily focusing on health, wellness, and travel topics. Her writing can be seen in Business Insider, Insider, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s Travel, and others. She also writes about gluten-free, celiac-safe travel at EndlessDistances.com.