Book Synopsis: What Doesn’t Kill Us

By | May 18, 2017

I’ve been obsessed with the idea that improvement occurs at the edge of ability. With that in mind I read the book, What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength. I wanted to know what this extreme conditioning thing has to do with improvement.

I knew I was reading the right book when I read the following passage in the Preface:

The underlying hypothesis of this expedition is that when humans outsource comfort and endurance they inadvertently make their bodies weaker, and that simply reintroducing some common environmental stresses to their daily routines can bring back evolutionary vigor.

If you accept the premise of the book, that environmental conditioning, and specifically Wim Hof’s method, can restore physical vigor in each of us, then you will find most of this book of little use. If you need convincing, though, read the whole thing. The most important part of this book is Chapter 4 The Wedge.

The concept of The Wedge is that through mental and physical conditioning it is possible to but a wedge between the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. In short, mind over matter. Part of this process is you have to accept that this kind of mental and physical conditioning can work, or at least be open to the possibility it can work before the conditioning can truly begin.

But before starting you need a baseline measure to compare your results. The recommended baseline measurements are how long you can hold your breath, and how many push-ups can you do without stopping. But it seems that any physically challenging activity would suffice for your benchmark measurement.

The foundation of Wim Hof’s conditioning program is in the breath.

  • Take 30 fast breaths, don’t force it, but make sure the out breath is with the same force as the in breath. Each in and out breath should take about one second
  • After the last breath, take in one big gulp of air and hold it.
  • Slowly release the air.
  • Repeat 3 to 4 times.

Do this one more time with the following modifications:

  • Lie on your back
  • Take 30 fast breaths as before, and then ten more a little more quickly
  • After the last breath, take in one big gulp of air and hold it.
  • Turn over and immediately start doing push-ups while holding your breath.

If you want to take it to the next level, and prepare for cold conditioning, there is a power breathing technique described.

  • Same as described above, 30 quick, unforced breaths
  • After the last breath, do not take a big gulp of air, but exhale normally.
  • Do not inhale, but instead extend your held breath as necessary, by slowly releasing any air still in you lungs.
  • Working from your feet, up to the torso, arms, hands and head, clinch and release all the muscles in your body.
  • When you absolutely have to, inhale a half breath
  • Hold it for 10 to 15 seconds.
  • Repeat 3 times aiming to hold your breath longer each time with a goal of 3 minutes.
  • This process works even better, according to the author and Wim Hof if you also employ visualization meditation at the same time.

The breathing conditioning is just the first step. Next you have to expose yourself to extreme environmental conditioning. Cold conditioning provides the most benefits. There is nothing special about conditioning yourself for experiencing cold temperatures. Start out small and build up over time. Feet in a bucket of ice, cold showers, walking outside in cold weather and, eventually, exercising outside in cold weather.

The whole point of the breathing and cold conditioning is to develop stores of brown fat and then to activate that brown fat.

The rest of the book is a series of stories that demonstrate the effectiveness of these techniques and caution against artificial (i.e. pharmaceutical) means for activating brown fat.