How to Hold Your Breath Like David Blaine, World Record Holder (and Now, Me)

218 Comments

Last night, world-famous magician and endurance artist David Blaine taught me how to hold my breath.

For four months, David held the Guinness world record for oxygen-assisted static apnea (holding your breath after breathing pure oxygen): 17 minutes and 4.4 seconds. His record was then surpassed by Tom Sietas on September 19, 2008. David’s record for doing what I’ll describe is between 7 and 8 minutes.

I was born premature and, unlike David, I couldn’t then remember the last time I held my breath for more than one minute. It has always been my physiological Achilles heel.

What were the results of his training?

My first baseline test: 40 seconds.
15 minutes later: 3 minutes and 33 seconds (!!!).

Out of roughly 12 TEDMED attendees he also taught, all but one beat Harry Houdini’s lifelong record of 3 minutes and 30 seconds. One woman held her breath for more than 5 minutes. Here is a photograph of the session. I’m sitting in the vest, four people to the right of Roni Zeiger, MD, Google Health product manager.

Here’s how we did it…

The David Blaine Method

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. DO NOT ATTEMPT IN WATER OR WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION.

First and foremost, this is not a joke. David himself has almost died on several occasions. See 2:15 forward for a warning:

Moving onward to the method, which we did seated.

These notes were taken on a scrap of paper while performing the exercises. Much of it was written after I lost almost all sensation in my hands following the purging exercises, and after colors began to morph. After 3:20–I really, really wanted to beat Houdini’s record–I was shaking. Needless to say, this means these cliff notes are a bit shaky and may not be 100% accurate.

FYI, the above side-effects are common.

Definitions:

Deep breathing: “Deep breathing” involves taking a big breath in through the mouth, holding for one second, and then exhaling for 10 seconds through your mouth through your almost-closed mouth with tongue pressed against your lower teeth. It should be a hissing exhalation and make a “tsssssss…” sound. All breathing and exercises are performed though the mouth.

Purging: “Purging” involves a strong exhalation as if you were trying to blow a toy sailboat across a pool, followed by a big but faster inhalation. David’s cheeks were puffed out as he demonstrated the exhalation (imagine the big bad wolf blowing the pigs’ homes down). Be careful not to heave or rock back and forth, which wastes oxygen. Keep as still as possible.

Semi-purging: Breathing between the above two. More forceful than deep breathing but less forceful than full purging. Used for recovering after each time trial.

The Steps:

1:30 deep breathing
1:15 purging (if you feel like you’re going to pass out, do it less intensely)

Hold breath for target 1:30, no more
After 1:30:
Take 3 semi-purge breaths

1:30 deep breathing
1:30 purging

Hold breath for target 2:30, no more
After 2:30
Take 3 semi-purge breaths

2:00 deep breathing
1:45 purging

Hold breath for as long as possible
After exhalation:
Take 3-10 hard semi-purge breaths until your recover

Other Observations

David’s record using the above method: 7:47. His heart rate dropped below 20 beats per minute

He had us move our right index finger slightly every 30 seconds or so while holding our breath to indicate we were alright. More motion would waste O2.

He also suggested, and this was incredibly useful, going from A to Z in your head during time trials, visualizing a friend for each letter whose name starts with that letter. Use celebrities or historical figures when needed. This serves to distract you from the fact that you’re holding your breath.

If you continually check your time, it seems you hold your breath for less time. It is the opposite of the above. Too much focus on the time creates tension. All of the test subjects, myself included, had a harder time holding their breath when David announced the time every 5 seconds vs. 30 seconds. If I do this a second time, I will have someone else watch the time for me.

Do not let any air out whatsoever after taking your big inhalations for the time trials. This is important protective training for water-based breath holding. Why? If you pass out in the water (not good), you want the uncontrolled release of bubbles to indicate to those supervising that you’ve passed out.

It is easier to hold your breath if you haven’t eaten for 4-6 hours. It is also easier to hold your breath if you have less body mass to support. David will purposefully lose 30+ pounds during serious training to improve his lung-to-body volume ratio.

Want More?

I’ve finally met someone who screws with their body as much as I screw with mine. There are some incredible possibilities.

Would you like to see more on this blog with David Blaine? If so, follow him here on Twitter to let us know. He has a hell of lot to teach, and I’d enjoy more body hacking and mischief.

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Odds and Ends:
Tim Ferriss – Most Popular Blog Posts
Tim Ferriss on TED – Swimming Hacks, Dancing, and More

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218 comments on “How to Hold Your Breath Like David Blaine, World Record Holder (and Now, Me)

  1. i really loved this article! im 14 and me and my little sister go swimming alot, i did the steps above and my record before hand was 1:09, now its 2:46!! im very shocked, (and lightheaded lol) but this really helps me, now i can hold my breath long enought to go freediving, and all sorts or neat stuff! plus in my highschool we get to go to the pool for sports and ill be the best one at holding my breath! LOL! thanks for the awesome writeup! you helped me ALOT!

  2. Thx for the inspiration Tim!
    Always wanted to enhance my ability to hold my breath. In 2 weeks I’ve registered for an Apnoe course… [edited]
    My baseline before was 1:10 minutes.
    I’ve followed your instructions with a stopwatch and made it to 4:01 minutes. Totally awesome I’m practically blown away!
    BTW, the trick visualizing friends faces in an alphabetical order totally worked for me too!
    Thx!

  3. i read a book by a man called win wenger and he encourages underwater swimming as a way of triggering extra blood flow to the brain by increasing the level of Co2 in the blood. This opens up the carotid arteries, bathing brain in a higher amount of blood. This is supposed to boost brain power. He has a whole program on boosting your brain power but one of the things he recommends is underwater swimming every day for one hour for three weeks, building up the length of time that you can hold your breath for to about 3 mins if possible. I would love to know if anyone has knows of truth in this. There is a japanese inventor dr nakamats who has patented many inventions who holds his breath and has an underwater note pad where he takes notes claiming the underwater exercise helps him to make connections and solve problems. The book is the einstein factor,

    http://www.winwenger.com/ebooks/guaran3.htm. here is an excerpt and explanation.

    • There is a lot to be learned from freedivers and breath holds of more than three minutes are common in our sport. The current world record being 11 minutes and 35 seconds.

      Sadly, what Mr. Ferris advocates is a very dangerous practice and at the same time counter productive for longer dives/breath holds.

      If you have any questions on how to do this safely, do look me up. :-)

  4. i cannot believe how stupid and irresponsible people have been in attempting these techniques .All through the commentarys people have left there has been no indication of safety mechanisms or support being put into place by those having a go at this. breath holding is a dangerous thing to do by yourself .DONT DO IT UNSUPERVISED ! Let me say that again.DONT DO IT UNSUPERVISED.!!!!!!! Do Yourselves all a favour and go onto youtube and type in Shallow Water Blackout .Also look for the safety presentation by Erez Beatus on shallow water blackout . Before some one dies.NEVER DO BREATH HOLDING ALONE>EVER.

  5. @David: you’re 100% right. As a freediver, the first thing one needs to do is be supervised and hyperventilating (ie: purging) can lead to blackouts because you are tricking your body’s trigger mechanisms by lowering your blood’s CO2 levels.

    You can actually go much much further in breath hold time without purging and learning to simply accept your contractions. The proof is right here in the comments: I posted in an earlier one that my record was 2:14 (check above) and I’m currently sitting at 5:02 WITHOUT using such techniques. This is a beautiful sport and such shortcuts lead to accidents.

    Tim, please take that into consideration or contact me so that I can put you in touch with some worldclass freedivers. Cheers

  6. @David: you’re 100% right. As a freediver, the first thing one needs to do is be supervised and hyperventilating (ie: purging) can lead to blackouts because you are tricking your body’s trigger mechanisms by lowering your blood’s CO2 levels.

    You can actually go much much further in breath hold time without purging and learning to simply accept your contractions. The proof is right here in the comments: I posted in an earlier one that my record was 2:14 (check above) and I’m currently sitting at 5:02 WITHOUT using such techniques. This is a beautiful sport and such shortcuts lead to accidents.

    Tim, please take that into consideration or contact me so that I can put you in touch with some worldclass freedivers. Cheers

  7. What you’re publishing is counter-productive. (and dangerous)

    The breathing described is hyperventilation which does not enable you to hold your breath longer, but instead increases Oxygen consumption, and thus _reduces_ the possible breath hold times.

    What it does instead is removing warning signs, so you may very possibly hold your breath until you black out. – and without a buddy around that might well be the last thing you do.

    When publishing stuff, please do some research before hitting the [send] button.

    Sincerely,

    Richard Wonka,

    Apnea Academy Instructor
    AIDA Master Instructor
    Freediver

  8. There’s a rule in swimming breastroke that you have to break the water surface with your head once each stroke — I think that’s the current rule. In my time you *could not* completely submerge yourself.
    Reason for this was that breastroke as it was swum then (it’s less true with teh “making it almost like butterfly again” adaptations) is faster, completely underwater, so people would hyperventilate before events… pass out underwater, usually when *almost* done the race so they’d coast at high speed into the wall and cause injury and death.
    But hey, if people are goin’ for Darwin awards… and I’m sure oxygen deprivation is really helpful for the ol’ brain tissue… just consider what happens when infants have that happen with the ol’ umbilical cord!

  9. It’s funny. I am one of those pickup guys. I teach men how to be more successful with women.

    When I send them in to speak with women, they’ll ask me, “What do I say? I can’t think of what to say!”

    I say, “Don’t think.”

    When David is in that deep place, where he drifts away…that’s the pure spirit.

    Or he’s full of shit.

  10. Just wanna say awesome article!! Ive never been a strong swimmer and have horrible stamina, as of last week the longest i could hold my breath was 1:18. I stumbled across this article in an attempt to beat my friends best time of 2:08, which by the way he is an excellent athlete and works out every day, I on the other hand dont and currently have two blood clots! It seemed an impossible feat but after just two sessions of the above mentioned technique I went from my previous best to smashing his time with 4:03, f’n outstanding!! Also i smoke a pack of cigs a day so if I can do it anyone can. Thanks Tim, you have a fan for life! Cant wait till the next time i go spearfishing:)

  11. e didn’t actually hold his breath, when he came out of 17 minutes his hair was dry, it must have been some sort of optical illusion.

  12. I don’t understand.. :(
    If you are holding your breath, how can you do these ‘purging breaths’ if you can’t inhale..?
    sorry if this sounds heaps stupid..

  13. My great great uncle James ‘Professor’ Finney held the underwater swimming record in 1882 – he did 340 feet at Prince of Wales Baths, Blackpool, in full costume.

    He had a music hall act, swimming in a tank on stage , and broke his own underwater record on stage in London in 1886 – 4 minutes 30 seconds.

    In September 1898 he swam from Blackpool to St Annes Pier in 5 hours 17 mins and also holds the 1 mile Open Water Championship, being the then fastest swimmer on record in water of 50 degrees. He swam his mile in 29 minutes and 59.5 seconds.

    I’d love to know if he still holds these records!

  14. Great article! I always thought I was weak at holding breath, I hated how I always gave in to the feeling to breathe when I was swimming (by coming up for air). I just did 1.5 minutes of deep breathing and 1.5 minutes of purging, and then I was able to hold my breath for 2.5 minutes. The beautiful part of it, is that I hardly pushed myself at all, I still felt very comfortable, so I think I could go for 3.5 minutes for sure.

    It was really odd, 2 minutes in and still feeling that comfortable with holding my breath.. Didn’t feel a need to breathe at all.

  15. I am normally sceptical of anything that promises immediate results, however I was happily suprised when i managed 2.30, and 3.45 on my fist and second breath, then 3.50 on the final breath.

    This really suprised me, as I had just the day before timed myself at 1.30 no technique. So to more than double this in a single session was incredible.

    I used to hold my breath unconsiously as a child and would only realise as I deeply exhaled, I remember as a 9 year old I could hold my breath for 2.30 without the technique. This was the peak though as I gave up on swimming and with it the need/desire to hold my breath for extended periods.

    I speculate that my smoking has something to do with the fact that as a 9 year old I could hold my breath longer sans technique than i can now. Luckily with this though I manageed to smash my record and with it regain some of my manlihood.

  16. I think there are a few things to improve this. I’m not sure all the structure is necessary. On my first shot I got 4 minutes. I got 4:30 on my second try with a damn cat crawling all over me. A few key notes to my success: I had a hard workout today and my heart rate is pretty low right now. I’m also in my bed, ready to fall asleep. Basically my body needs very little oxygen.

  17. Can someone please explain to me how to purge, semi purge, … Its the first time for me to read such exercises on training a breath hold.

    So lets say: the steps are:
    1:30 deep breathing, and that is taking a deep breath after exhaling all of the old non-fresh air out of the lungs, and re taking a fresh one in.

    It says: to hold for one second and exhale it during a 10 seconds time. Means slowly deflate ur lungs.

    Well, what about 1:30 m/s, does that mean i would keep repeating that deep breathing step for a time of 1:30 seconds on my timer? then i move to semi purge?

    …etc!

  18. So if this is the preparation, if you were going to do this before swimming how far in advance would you have to do it?

  19. normally i’m like dying at a minute, and can push maybe 1:30. after doing only the first part of this exercise i held my breath for 3 minutes and could have held it for longer, wasnt even feeling out of breath, i stopped because i just wanted to hit 3 minutes lol. will try again after full exercise and see what i can get, this is amazing

  20. Hi! Last week i saw a video about David Blaine holding his breath for 17 min. I was so amazed and inspired by him, that i had to try it. Last week i could only hold my breath for one minute, but now that I’ve learned what to do by David Blaine, Today i beat my record and got 4 minutes flat! I will continue to try to beat my record and be inspired by David Blaine :)

  21. This is amazing. My previous best last night before I tried this was 1:30. After one time through the mentioned exercise, I reached 3:45 on my last breath hold. I’m a believer! Thanks for teaching me this!

  22. Hey man,

    I’ve been trying to hold my breath for quite a while now without techniques, my max was at 2:30. The second after I read this article, I tried this (even though I’m in a public library), just did 1 session (1:30 deep breathing and 1:15 purging). Managed to get to 3 minutes without even shaking or whatsoever, I’m sure when I try this the way it should I can make 3:30 as well. This is fucking awesome, thanks!

  23. I was just wondering if it is a good idea to hyperventilate before doing a breath hold or if I should just breathe slowly and just relax.

  24. Okay so I did tried this and it really worked well but will this help me to hold my breathe for longer periods of time when I don’t do this? I tried holding my breathe without using these breathing techniques after I had been using them and I felt like I could not hold my breathe as long as I normally could.

  25. Hello Tim. Great article. I have tried this exercise and destroyed my previous breath holding record by over a minute. However, I have one question. I am an avid and accomplished competitive swimmer in High School. My deficit is not in that I am inadequate, however, my deficit is in my breath holding. I find myself unable to hold my breath while swimming extensively, which leads to times way below my potential. I was just wondering if I could do this before every swim practice, (1 and 1/2 hours long) leading to better training, or before I swim in a big race? Please respond and thanks in advance. -Evan

  26. This information is quite astounding,
    I normally was holding my breath for 6 minutes at a time,
    But after doing these exercises I’ve been able to get up to 10 minutes!