What Is the Wim Hof Method? Benefits & Practice Guide

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Wim Hof Method" by Wim Hof. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the Wim Hof Method? Why is it effective? How do you practice it?

In The Wim Hof Method, renowned motivational speaker Wim Hof (a.k.a. The Iceman) argues that his method has the power to transform your health, reduce your pain and stress, and maximize your mental energy. The method is a system based on cold exposure, conscious breathing, and mental dedication.

Read on for an overview of the Wim Hof Method, its benefits, and how to begin practicing it.

What Is the Wim Hof Method?

Would you climb Mount Everest in shorts? You might assume that attempting such a feat would kill anybody—but it didn’t kill Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman. A renowned motivational speaker, Hof has baffled scientists with his record-breaking ability to survive extremely low temperatures that would kill the average human. So, what is the Wim Hof Method?

(Shortform note: Hof didn’t summit Mount Everest because he got frostbite on his foot; however, he did make it to 24,500 feet (7,467 meters). Mount Everest is 29,000 feet (8,849 meters).)  

Hof developed this cold tolerance by following the Wim Hof Method—a system based on cold exposure, conscious breathing, and mental dedication. This method doesn’t just increase your cold tolerance—it’s also designed to improve your health and comes with a host of other benefits, such as reduced pain and stress and greater mental energy. 

In The Wim Hof Method, Hof shares how he developed the method, why it works, and how to do it. In this article, you’ll learn about the cold exposure and breathwork components of his method and why they can help you become the healthiest version of yourself. Along the way, you’ll also discover how Hof’s techniques compare to scientists’ recommendations and learn alternative practices to try.

Understanding the Wim Hof Method

You’ve now learned how Hof developed the Wim Hof Method—but what exactly is the Wim Hof Method, and why should you do it? We’ll review cold exposure and breathwork (which Hof calls “conscious breathing”) so you can learn how to practice each daily and what the method can do for your mind and body.  

While this method has several benefits, Hof warns that it’s not for everyone, such as pregnant people, small children, or those with pre-existing medical conditions (especially neurological or vascular conditions).

(Shortform note: For a full list of conditions that preclude you from trying the Wim Hof Method, please check the book, and speak with your doctor before trying it.)

Understanding Cold Exposure

Many people hate the cold—so why should you bother exposing yourself to it? Hof contends that there are two main health benefits to cold exposure: reduced susceptibility to disease and a greater ability to handle stress.

First, Hof argues that repeated cold exposure reduces your susceptibility to disease by improving the function of your circulatory, or vascular, system—the muscles and veins that deliver blood and nutrients throughout your body. 

In explaining what the Wim Hof Method is, Hof claims that when you’re cold, the smaller muscles of your circulatory system must work harder than usual in order to maintain your core body temperature. But due to the advent of climate-control technology and clothing to keep you warm, you’re rarely cold anymore—so these muscles don’t work as efficiently as they should. This causes several issues: The muscles don’t protect your core body temperature as well when it’s cold outside, they don’t deliver the nutrients your cells need as effectively, and they force your heart to pump harder to compensate for their failings—all of which can make you sick.

By repeatedly exposing yourself to cold, you reactivate the smaller muscles in your circulatory system—and thus sidestep all these issues. As these smaller muscles get stronger, they get better at protecting your core body temperature and more effectively deliver nutrition to your cells. And since they’re taking on more work, your heart relaxes and pumps at a lower rate, and you become less susceptible to heart disease. 

Second, Hof argues that repeated cold exposure improves your ability to handle stress in two main ways. First, as Hof notes, the cold causes a physiological response that’s identical to your response to emotional stressors, such as losing your job. Both types of stress raise your heart rate and trigger the production of stress hormones like cortisol. So by training yourself to handle the cold through repeated exposure, you train yourself to handle other kinds of stress, too. 

(Shortform note: Researchers agree that experiencing small amounts of stress improves your ability to handle stressors in the future—but what if practicing being stressed doesn’t sound appealing? Consider thinking of them as two types of stress: eustress and distress. One doctor explains that cold exposure is eustress, which is stress that positively affects you. Experiencing eustress teaches your body how to handle distress, which is stress that negatively affects you (like losing your job).)

How to Practice Cold Exposure Safely

You’ve now learned why you should practice cold exposure, but don’t hop into an ice bath just yet! Although Hof gained fame by dunking himself in deathly cold water for prolonged periods, you shouldn’t start there. Rather, to avoid shocking your body and making yourself miserable, Hof recommends an incremental four-week program of taking cold showers.  

According to the Wim Hof Method, in the first week, Hof suggests 30 seconds of cold exposure each day (at least five days per week): After taking your regular warm shower, turn down the temperature so that the water feels cold (around 60 degrees Fahrenheit), and stand there. This temperature will cause some discomfort but should be tolerable.

Thereafter, increase the time you spend in the cold water by 30 seconds each week. By the fourth week, you should be able to tolerate two minutes of cold water at the end of each shower.

That said, Hof emphasizes that you should listen to your body when undergoing this program. Don’t push yourself past what you can handle: If you can’t handle 30 seconds of cold water, you can start with 15 seconds—just as long as you eventually get to two minutes.

Examining Other Ways to Practice Cold Exposure

Do you have to hop into icy water to practice cold exposure effectively? Some researchers agree that gradually increasing the time you spend in cold showers is the fastest way to improve your cold tolerance, but the specifics of their recommendations differ: They suggest spending 15 seconds in the cold and increasing that time by 10 seconds each day, and they don’t specify that you should be in cold water at the end of your shower. Moreover, these researchers aren’t certain whether cold exposure improves your health and stress levels in the ways Hof espouses. 

However, there are other ways to improve your cold tolerance—and they may improve your health in ways that Hof doesn’t elaborate on. Some researchers suggest that spending two hours a day shivering in a 65-degree room will both improve your cold tolerance and reduce your body weight—partly because shivering uses up calories.

How to Practice Breathwork Safely

We breathe all the time—so why bother learning how to practice Hof’s specific brand of breathing? Hof argues that his breathwork has three main benefits: It increases your energy, it reduces disease, and it reduces inflammation.

As Hof notes, his breathwork exercises are relatively difficult and may cause fainting. Prior to performing the exercise, sit or lie down, and don’t do the exercise anywhere near water (just in case you faint). 

(Shortform note: Why might Hof’s breathing exercises make you faint? Experts suggest two possibilities: First, you may get lightheaded from too much oxygen as you repeatedly take in breaths. Second, you may not have enough oxygen when holding your breath—but since you also lack the carbon dioxide that triggers you to inhale, you won’t feel the need to inhale more oxygen and may instead faint.)

When you’re comfortable, take about 30 deep breaths. Once you start to feel tingly and lightheaded, take up to 10 more breaths—40 breaths total. 

After breathing out the final time, hold your breath for as long as feels comfortable. The moment you feel you want more air, inhale deeply and hold for 10 to 15 seconds before exhaling again.

Repeat the process above (starting with the 30 deep breaths) up to three more times. With each repetition, you’ll likely be able to comfortably hold your breath for a few seconds longer.

Relax until you feel ready to face the rest of your day. 

(Shortform note: The breathwork used in the Wim Hof Method is similar to tummo breathing, a technique practiced by some Tibetan Buddhists that also involves repeatedly taking several deep breaths before holding your breath for a prolonged period. However, the tummo technique differs from Hof’s in a few key ways. Notably, tummo breathing involves a religious component, a fire visualization, and more specific instructions regarding the shape of your mouth as you breathe—none of which are present in Hof’s techniques. Tummo breathing also involves fewer deep breaths; practitioners recommend inhaling only five times—not 30—before holding your breath.)

What Is the Wim Hof Method? Benefits & Practice Guide

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Wim Hof Method summary:

  • The story of renowned motivational speaker Wim Hof (a.k.a. The Iceman)
  • How Hof learned to survive dangerously low temperatures
  • Why and how you should practice Hof's breathing exercises

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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