Oxygen Advantage vs. Wim Hof: Is There a Better Way To Breathe?
10/08/2022 | Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey is a long time collaborator with Bulldog Gear. A coach, writer and current fitness editor of Men’s Health Magazine, he has been in and around the fitness industry for the past 17 years. Having enjoyed and endured a number of disciplines from endurance racing, to strongman, to Crossfit AT enjoys getting neck deep in the practice just as much as the theory.
The importance of breathing is quite obviously, not lost on anyone. But is how you breathe just as important?
In recent years an emphasis on breathing techniques, geared towards both passive, everyday breathing and active, conscious breath control have come into the spotlight, with advocates claiming everything from clearer, calmer thinking, through to huge performance increases and immune system improvements.
The two biggest names in the breath work arena right now are undoubtedly- ‘The Oxygen Advantage’, the organisation spearheaded by Dr. Patrick McKeown, author of the seminal book of the same name. And, ‘The Ice Man’- Wim Hof.
Whilst both share many similarities, and the noble common goal of bringing the power of breath practices to the masses, there are definitely divergences in their theories and methods- making it difficult for beginners to know which path to follow.
In this article Oxygen Advantage Master Coach David Jackson breaks down the similarities, the fundamental differences and the principles and practices of the two organisations, helping you to decide which best suits your lifestyle and goals.
Get a lung full of this.
What’s The Difference?
Jackson says despite both being concerned with the breath, the angle the organisations come at the subject from is pretty different from the get go.
“The main difference with the Oxygen Advantage is it’s purely, 100% about breathing, whereas the Wim Hof method has three elements- breathing is just one of them; the other two thirds of the method are cold exposure and mindset.”
But even once we dig in to solely the breath work, the differences are remain.
“The Wim Hof method is not necessarily about teaching you how to breathe better- it’s using breathing as a tool whereas the oxygen advantage uses breathing techniques and breathing exercises to improve the way that you breathe in all aspects of your life; your day-to-day breathing, your sports performance breathing, your exercise breathing, your breathing for stress management; it's looking at teaching us how to actually breathe better in all of those different scenarios.”
This may sound like semantics, but Jackson stresses that the two different approaches can set you on quite different trajectories.
“Wim Hof is all about using the breath as a tool to make changes, so you’ll hear things like ‘it doesn’t matter if you use your nose or your mouth, just get the air in!’ Whereas the Oxygen Advantage methods put a lot more emphasis on how we breathe; the mechanics; mastering nasal breathing and understanding the relationship between the diaphragm and rib cage.”
It seems clear that the Wim Hof method is concerned with using the breath, whereas OA is much more interested in improving how we breathe, from the top down (or from the bottom up, if we’re talking about our lungs.)
So are there any areas we can draw a direct comparison to see which school of thought would suit us best, depending on what it is we’re trying to get out of the process? Jackson narrows in on two of the fundamental techniques that split the two apart, he explains one of the biggest differences is in how breath hold techniques are executed- the Oxygen Advantage favours utilising holds after a final exhale, whereas Wim Hof practitioners practice holds on an inhale. “With the oxygen advantage we do the breath holds after an exhalation and that creates the strongest hypoxic, hypercapnic result. Hypoxic is a fancy word for low oxygen and
hypercapnic is a fancy scientific word for high co2. We’re looking to elicit some changes in our adaptation to co2 tolerance and spleen contractions. EPO production happens from the low oxygen and the high co2.”
EPO? That’s the stuff cyclists use to (illegally) improve their aerobic performance, by the way.
“With the Wim Hof method after you've done the hyperventilation rounds and the retentions we get a low oxygen environment, but it's not high co2; it’s hypokapnic.”
In layman’s terms, this essentially means the Oxygen Advantage breath hold techniques are geared towards improvements in training and performance, whereas the Wim Hof Method is designed to aid in reducing inflammation, controlling the immune system and getting a hold on you sympathetic nervous system- vital in controlling stress and anxiety.
So What Does The Wim Hot Method Do?
Whilst it may not be structured around improving your performance in the gym or on the field, practicing the Wim Hot method can still have some incredible effects in some other, pretty important, areas.
In a 2014 study, two groups were injected with an endotoxin— whilst the control group succumbed to the symptoms of the toxin, the second group who had been trained in The Wim Hof Method (including the additional cold exposure and meditation) were able to stave off illness.
“People were amazed, everyone is still amazed, trying to figure out what was going on with that- looking at the sympathetic nervous system response, looking at the immune response, looking at reducing inflammation. Things that previously no one believed were actually within conscious control. So Wim has been doing some amazing stuff to not just push the boundaries— but smash the boundaries of what we thought was possible."
So if your goals are built around your everyday health and wellness, a more than worthy pursuit, and you have the time to also integrate the cold exposure and meditation, then Wim Hof may well be for you.
Tell Me More About These Performance Enhancing Benefits?
One of the major differences in the actual breathing techniques is the importance of the presence of carbon dioxide, with the Oxygen Advantage aiming for an increase in CO2 blood levels. But how does this result in increased athletic performance?
“CO2 presence is our primary stimulus to breathe. Exposing the body to higher levels of carbon dioxide forces the body to adapt and become less sensitive to CO2. This can then help you with your carbon dioxide tolerance that will help with your control of your breath during exercise.”
Being able to control our breath better during exercise makes us vastly more efficient. The difference between panic breathing and gulping down huge lungfuls of air, and being able to maintain a slow, steady breathing rhythm can mean the difference between winning a race… and not even completing it.
But we’re learning controlled breathing with The Wim Hof Method too, right?
“The Wim Hof method results in that same low oxygen, but promotes lower levels of carbon dioxide. If we don't do anything to address that we're potentially exposing the body to low levels of carbon dioxide, which could mean it actually becomes more sensitive to carbon dioxide.”
Can We Combine The Two?
In short, yes!
Whilst The Oxygen Advantage offers an entire educational platform and an insight into the biomechanics around breathing, once you understand the tools at your disposal The Wim Hof method can very easily become another tool in your arsenal, even bringing other elements such as cold exposure and meditation into the mix to enhance your experience.
Like many things in life- experimentation, iteration and evaluation in your own practices is ultimately going to lead you to discover the exact techniques that suit you the best.
For a more in depth review of the two methods, check out David Jackson’s full video linked here, or get started straight away by downloading his app- full of useful breathing tools and an entire syllabus built around the breath!
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