Hyper ventilation. How Does it work?

Don't fill your cup with rocks

Many claims have been made about hyperventilation style breathing in recent years since it was popularised by the enigmatic Wim Hof. 

I really admire Wim Hof’s physical feats. They are something I could not even attempt to repeat, let alone even train for. He comes across as a warm and caring person with a story that is truly triumphant over the challenges we all face on the human journey.

But I do question his explanations of respiratory physiology!

Why does hyperventilation result in an increased ability to breath hold? Is it due to oxygen saturation? Charging the cells? Or is it related to carbon dioxide?

What about the muscle spasms and altered states of consciousness after hyperventilation? Are these cosmic experiences or do they have a physiological basis?

To understand this we need to understand what happens during a sustained period of hyperventilation. Hyperventilation involves rapid breathing, especially focussed on expiring larger volumes of air then normal. With that kind of breathing we tend to breathe off more carbon dioxide than normal too.

The easiest way to picture this is to imagine the old “cup half full” analogy, except in this case it’s not about positive thinking. 

Imagine my cup is full, then I have no space left for filling up any water, I have to drink or pour some out to add anything to the cup. However, if I start with an almost empty cup I have plenty of room to fit more liquid in. This is what hyperventilation does to the carbon dioxide cup, it empties it, not completely, but enough to allow your body (cup) to tolerate more carbon dioxide than it normally would. 

By hyperventilating you’ve emptied the cup, you can hold your breath for longer or do more push ups than normal because you have greater tolerance to the extra Co2 that’s produced by these activities.

Here’s the rub though…many people these days are already mild to moderate hyper-ventilators. So the body is already adapting and compensating to the cup being half empty on a permanent basis. 

Let’s say that’s like filling the cup with rocks…

Now it’s empty of water, but has reduced capacity to receive water, and the faster the water is poured in, the more chance there is of a major spill. 

Now I get that I’m over-simplifying things here (simple pictorial analogies really work for me rather than text book explanations) but this is the simple reason why Wim Hof style breathing isn’t for everyone.

For some, the techniques will be great, for others not so great and for others, really not good at all. 

In a nutshell what it comes down to is how good your breathing is to start with. If you have strong, capable and healthy breathing, pushing it to “half empty” and “half full” can be great training but if your breathing is dysfunctional to start with it may not be your best option. 

Breathe Big!


Cole Clayton