It's Saturday morning in my living room, and by San Diego standards, it's absolutely freezing (a chilly 50 degrees). Yet here I am, watching the Goop staff in what appears to be a snow-blanketed Lake Tahoe, dancing in bikinis. The f**k?
Wim Hof, the Dutch athlete who holds 26 world records, has attracted Gwyneth Paltrow's crew out to the icy lakeshore, to try what has become known as the Wim Hof Method: an extreme physical approach to mind over matter. (Just how extreme? By reputation, he's The Iceman.) I've heard about ice baths for athletic recovery, but that's merely the tip of the frosty iceberg in this episode of Netflix's The Goop Lab. His approach to help "millions and millions of people [with] inflammation or psychosis or depression or anxiety or fear or anything" — whew, boy — is three-pronged:
- Breathing techniques
- Gradual cold exposure
Wim cites scientific studies in which he was injected with E. coli and used his mind to stop the virus, and another in which he was submerged in frigid water but kept his skin temperature warm using his method. The documentary itself also cites other studies backing Hof's method — and though I am admittedly very open to alternative health treatments and things that would be considered "woo woo" by many in the Western world (my house is full of crystals), I still have a sense of skepticism when it comes to major health claims. So, of course, I took to the internet.
A very small, 24-person study showed that 12 Wim Hof-trained participants reported fewer symptoms than the control group after they were injected with a bacterial toxin that would make them feel sick. So the data is positive, though weak and subjective, in suggesting that you might actually be able to exercise some control over your immune system. If I'm being honest, there are plenty of things that have worked for me that don't have exhaustive or definitive science backing; I don't think that means they're ineffective. Then I saw that some people have drowned while practicing Wim's breathing methods (which are not recommended while swimming), and that freaked me out a bit. Regardless, I continued with the episode.
That takes us to the push-up challenge. Wim challenges GP and her chief content creator to follow his lead, claiming that his breathing methods can "optimize athletic performance." I personally am enticed by this idea, because 1) I don't have to jump into Lake Tahoe mid-Winter or even take an ice bath, and 2) I fully believe in the power of breath. My own psychiatrist has taught me specific breathing techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and stop a panic attack. So, I'm super open to this idea. Can breathing help me do more push-ups?
For you, dear reader, I will try.
"We are going to do push-ups, then we are going to do the breathing exercises, which makes the muscle tissue alkaline, and therefore, is suddenly able to do more push-ups, even without air in your lungs," he says. Gwyneth looks worried, and so am I. Here's the gist of the experiment:
- Do as many push-ups as you can. Gwyneth tops out at 20.
- Practice deep breathing for roughly 30 seconds. It appears to be six cycles of deep breaths, during which Gwyneth at one point feels like she's going to pass out. (Be careful if trying this at home.)
- Do as many push-ups as you can. Wim encourages the women to hold their breath at first, then take an inhale whenever they feel the urge to breath. Gwyneth finishes with 30 push-ups.
Time for me to try. I wanted to make sure I was using the exact breathing technique, so I found Wim's video tutorial.
Alright, so now that I had this guided breathing thing dialed in, I attempted some push-ups. (The Goop team did knee push-ups, I tried push-ups on my toes!) My first round of push-ups ended at 15; I felt pretty tired and shaky, and my already imperfect push-up form was starting to sag. So, I stopped there and did six rounds of super deep breaths à la Wim Hof. Back on the ground for more push-ups . . . and I got to 20! Not a huge increase, but I definitely felt like I could do the push-ups more quickly the second time around.
I wanted to get a second opinion on the "muscle alkalizing" to see if this is a legit approach, so I talked to Pilates Master Teacher and educator Adriana Vargas of Live + Love Pilates in La Jolla, CA. In short, yes. "Muscles are made out of myocytes," Adriana explained. "Breathing alkalizes the myocytes; that's why it's so important to breathe properly while you perform any kind of exercise."
Based on her Pilates background — a form of exercise that strongly emphasizes proper breathing — Adriana said this idea that deep breathing enhances performance holds some weight. "This is why breath itself is one of the three guiding principles of the Pilates method," she said. "Proper breath indeed controls and contributes to the way you perform any kind of exercise. You can use it to control or help with exertion of motion."
So, there you have it. Even if you don't completely commit to Wim's method or submerge yourself in icy waters (and don't, OK?), you can try this push-up challenge or simply work more on taking deep, restorative breaths to enhance your athletic performance.