I am lying on my back on the deck of the Laird Hamilton pool, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Malibu. I am surrounded by about 20 strangers, who are doing the same. Thick clouds are rolling in the water, obscuring the nearby hills, and Hamilton is walking among us, asking for orders to regulate our breathing. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth; Faster, slower, wait. It’s definitely not my typical Saturday morning, but that’s not even the weirdest thing: I’m elated. My arms and hands throb and tingle, and I feel like I’m high. And all I did was breathe a little differently. I’m at Laird’s house to get an introduction to the XPT fitness form, the comprehensive health regimen he developed with his wife, professional volleyball player Gabby Reece.
For more than a decade, XPT has been transformed in a way so that Hamilton and Reece stay fit in a complete program for elite athletes, military special forces and anyone looking to push themselves to a new level of physical and mental fitness. Breathing next to me on the pool deck are the former Navy SEAL, an MMA fighter, a former NFL player, Olympic water polo players and several very fit men and women from across the country.
The work of breathing forms the basis, Nestler tells me, and there are two reasons for that (feeling high is not one of them). First, if you are not breathing correctly and are using your full lung capacity, you will tire more easily when you exercise. Second, by controlling your breathing, you can effectively control your mental state by reducing anxiety and stress, achieving a better approach. Somehow, the mental game is even more important than the physical one.
“If your psychology is off, your technical skills, your knowledge of the game, strategies, physical skills, all that is out of the window,” he says. Breathing work comes from a variety of sources, Nestler explains. The breathing session includes slow and meditative breaths; gasping and quick snorting; and even the techniques of the Wim Hof Method. “The breath we have developed through the learning of other people,” says Nestler. “Many of these things have existed for thousands of years.”
The movement aspect of XPT occurs in the group. By training with weights in the water, you get a solid workout with less impact on your joints than in the gym. Water supports you while you move and also offers another advantage: it forces you to work on your mental game.
Cross hauling was also a great challenge. The goal is to crawl, using 30-pound weights to remain planted at the bottom of the pool, from side to side with just one breath. About halfway through each repetition, that burning sensation and despair through the air sneaks into my lungs. But by focusing on the task, I manage to be able to. And by decreasing my breathing once I finish, I can recover and move on to the next representative quite quickly.
In XPT, recovery means switching between a 220-degree sauna and an ice bath, or “hypothermic training,” as the website calls it. I usually enjoy a trip to the sauna, but it was definitely hotter than I was used to. After fighting for 15 minutes of intense heat, my group and I took turns jumping into the ice bath for three minutes. The heat was hard; The ice bath was unbearable. Again, it all came down to breathing: by concentrating on inhaling and exhaling, I overcame the pain.
While studies have reached some conflicting conclusions regarding the effectiveness of ice baths over the years, athletes still use contrast therapy extensively in an effort to accelerate muscle recovery. The idea here is to help your body recover through exposure to extreme heat and cold. It is believed that ice baths reduce swelling and tissue breakdown, while saunas are believed to stimulate the release of a growth hormone and testosterone while reducing stress hormones in the body. Like breathing work and pool workouts, there is also a great mental aspect in these. By sweating in the sauna and immersing yourself in the ice bath, you slowly condition yourself to deal with extreme situations calmly.
Until recently, XPT was primarily available through several-day retreats in remote locations or local workshops run by certified instructors (there are currently around 250 XPT trainers). As the crowd illustrated on Saturday, it has greatly attracted elite athletes and people who are already in excellent physical shape.