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

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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

Posted on: October 30, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. Fascinating article, Tim! Just found your blog and your twitter and can’t wait to read more from you! Interestingly, my priest just gave me a copy of Letters From a Stoic a couple of days ago.

    Like

  2. 17 minutes? That’s crazy! I can’t even imagine how painfully agonizing that would be.

    Maybe I’ll give this a try when I need a fun party trick (or want to pass out).

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    • You will find that freedivers have quite a good explanation for what Mr. F is doing there. It is called hyperventilation and considered the most dangerous practice in freediving right after diving alone.
      If you are looking for structured information and training for longer breath holds, then consider taking a freediving course with one of the established agencies worldwide (AIDA, Apnea Academy, SSI, FIT, …) . That way you will be less likely to risk you life unnecessarily.

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      • Yup, hyperventilation is very dangerous for freediving. You exchange risk for performance. From what I understand, Hyperventilating not only oxygenates your blood but also drops your CO2 levels really low. The strong urge to breath is caused by High CO2 concentration in the blood before low oxygen causes the same reflex. This allows you to get into more dangerous territory with more likelihood of passing out.

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      • JP,

        This is mostly true, however it is a common misconception that hyperventilation saturates your body with O2. Regular breathing provides 98-99% O2 saturation. You’re correct in that what hyperventilation does is depletes CO2 so that the urge to breathe comes much later than it should, sometimes too late (when freediving). Although there are certain rare occasions for very few people, it’s quite accepted that low O2 does not offer any type of reliable feedback with regards to the “urge to breathe” or any reliable physiological messages with respect to how long is too long without O2. Elevated CO2 is what gives us the “need to breathe” message” and hyperventilation skews this to an unsafe level when underwater. For this reason hyperventilation should never be practiced for any apnea practice where water is involved.

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  3. Makes me think of Kundalini yoga. I’ve never tracked time while practicing breath retention (kumbhaka in yogic terms), but have experienced all kinds of physical sensations similar to what is described above. It usually makes me euphoric, with a pins and needles sensation throughout my hands, head and face. Other than during Kundalini pranayama, I’ve experienced these sensations only once when having a deep tissue massage done on my abdomen targeting my liver, and on numerous occasions during particularly passionate love encounters. Fun stuff.

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  4. There’s always a scientific way to make something better. I used to try to hold my breath longer just by doing it over and over. I got up to 2+ minutes. Amazing you got so far in such a small amount of time.

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  5. Hi from Italy? Did you do it under water? My actual personal record is between 3 and 4 minutes, so I guess that with your method I could improve quite a lot :)
    Thanks for sharing great informations, as usual.

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    • I can get 4 minutes without this exercise, or any exercise other than some slow, deep breaths for about 40 seconds before my huge gulp of air. so this method should help me out too, i’m a little worried that because i can already do it for an average of 3:30, that i might go past the safe limit for the brain.

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  6. I once tried to do this in college. Every so often on the swim team we would do an exercise where we would swim 10×50 (fifty yards, ten times with roughly 30 seconds of rest in between) and attempt to do each one without taking a breath.

    I decided to take this one step further and see how far I could go while holding my breath. About 65 yards into it things started to go a little dark, but I was determined to make it to the wall and make the full 75 yards. I swam the last couple of strokes in darkness and then hit the wall. I stood up suddenly gasping for air. The sudden standing and lack of breathing caused me to momentarily pass out while I was standing at the end of the pool. I busted my chin on the gutter and had to leave practice.

    One of our female assistant coaches was really freaked out by the whole thing. (the obvious issues of trying to hold your breath in the pool) After this little incident our head coach decided to forbid future breath holding competitions.

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    • Sounds like shallow-water blackout. Oxygen debt is part of the mechanism, but not the whole story. Hyperventilation reduces CO2 in the blood. Blood CO2 levels are the trigger for the feeling of panic which makes us want to breath. We experience O2 deprivation in the muscles, not the brain. Hyperventilation allows oxygen debt without panic. Oxygen debt is a necessary condition for shallow-water blackout, but it is apparently a drop in pressure that triggers the sudden loss of consciousness. Going black is a pretty good sign of oxygen debt, and you can lose consciousness through oxygen debt alone, but a drop in pressure leads to a sudden onset, even if you have a lungful of fresh air.

      If you are going to hyperventilate, you need to monitor you muscles. Sluggishness and heaviness in the muscles means you are on your way to trouble.

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    • I could only ever get like 1.50 like and I was dieing and once in a hot tob got 2.22. But After doing this method. I got 3.01 and I trying it again yesterday and got 3.19 and I tried today and I got 3.38.I can get 2.30 without even hurting now. I am so happy. I can’t wait till I reach 4 mins even though my goal is 5.30 minutes

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  7. Something else occurred to me.

    If you do this just sitting in a chair somewhere, is there any risk of something negative happening to your health? At some point wouldn’t you just lose consciousness and then start breathing again?

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    • It’s good for freedivers who are trying to better their breath hold, mermaids (not as rare as they used to be) and on that term, other underwater performers like the dancers of weeki watchi, and camera people who focus on ocean and other water environments. Oh, I also understand surfers need to be able to hold their breath pretty well, so training with this could come in handy I’m sure.

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  8. That is crazy. Thanks for the notes. I think training like this would be particularly useful for some extreme situations in the water where you need to conserve energy (riptides, stranded, etc.) Probably dovetails nicely with yoga.

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  9. Just broke 3:30 after only doing the 1:30 cycle. Amazing!

    And I didn’t even breath heavy afterwards, like I used to after about 60 seconds without those breathing exercises.

    Once again Tim, great stuff!

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  10. I totally enjoy holding my breath underwater, what i found helped the most was spending a couple of weeks at altitude and then returning to sea level the results are amazing.

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  11. “David holds the Guinness world record for holding his breath”

    Actually, no… He held one of the records (there are multiple types) for a brief period though…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Blaine#Guinness_World_Records

    “Ultimately, Blaine held his breath for seventeen minutes four and a half seconds, surpassing Colat’s previous mark of sixteen minutes thirty-two seconds. This was Blaine’s first Guinness record and it stood for almost four and a half months, until surpassed by Tom Sietas on September 19, 2008.”

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  12. I’d definitely love more body hacking. I can’t wait for the book as well.

    We used to play a fun game in the pool. In circular pool (usually above ground) you can get the entire pool spinning by simply running around it in circles for several minutes. Then by hyperventilating before hand you can hold your breath for long periods of time (we weren’t quite as sophisticated in technique). Then you can basically surf under the water as the water spins.

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