Written By Natasha Zolotareva
Strength training is just as important as cardiovascular exercise for losing fat and getting healthy. Contrary to popular trends like P90x and Insanity programs, strength training doesn’t have to be crazy intensive. If we were to study some of the world’s strongest warriors, we would find that strength training is simple and accessible to do anywhere without needing special gym equipment. In fact, there is a lot you can achieve by incorporating hypoxic training into your routine. In this article, we’re going to look at how some of the world’s strongest warriors build their strength and stamina, and more importantly, how you can replicate it at home with your breath.
The Strength Training Secrets of the Gurkhas
The Gurkhas are soldiers native to the Indian subcontinent. They are incredibly fit and strong with a respected reputation for being the fiercest fighters on the planet. Even the selection process to be a Gurkha soldier is considered to be one of the toughest in the world. One of the tests includes the gruelling Doko race, a 5km uphill sprint while carrying a basket on their back filled with 25kg (55lb) of sand and rocks. Other tests include being able to execute 75 bench jumps in one minute and 70 sit-ups in two minutes. How do the Gurkhas train to gain the level of strength, stamina, and speed needed to achieve such feats? There are many facets to their training, but one of the most influential factors lies in their geography. A large majority of Gurkhas were born in villages in the mountains of Nepal. Many come from poor families who can’t afford training or fitness equipment. What they do have are the mountainous terrains and the advantage of high altitude, and this is their secret weapon.
How High-Altitude Training Increases Strength & Endurance
Studies have confirmed that high altitude training is very effective for the improvement of aerobic exercise capacity and overall strength. This is due to the hypoxic environment, where the oxygen is less because of thinner air at high altitudes. When the body trains in hypoxic conditions, it is forced to adapt to becoming more efficient in using oxygen and energy sources during exercise. One of the ways the body adapts is by developing a higher concentration of red blood cells to improve the transfer of oxygen. Consequently, the body will extend its capacity both in strength and duration to perform for longer with less fatigue. It’s not surprising then that many high-endurance athletes opt for high-altitude training to increase their strength and stamina. Many will train for several weeks at high altitude so their body can become acclimated to the relative lack of oxygen. When they return to sea level to compete, they have a higher level of red blood cells which give them a competitive advantage. One example of high-altitude training is the United States Olympic Training Center Aquatic Complex located in Colorado Springs, which is located 1,860 metres (6,200 feet) above sea level. Athletes that have trained there and benefitted from the high-altitude training include Olympic gold medalists Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Allison Schmitt.
Recreating High-Altitude Training at Home
Running away into the mountains for weeks at a time may not exactly be an ideal situation for the average city-dweller who wants to improve their strength. Is it possible to recreate high-altitude training at home? The answer is yes. Extensive research has shown that intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) can produce similar results as training at high altitude. An IHT session typically consists of breathing hypoxic air for several intervals and then alternating with breathing ambient or normal air. This routine is usually repeated a few times a day, depending on the intensity of training. A special mask that limits airflow can be worn to create hypoxic breathing during training. Sometimes, a special medical device called a hypoxicator is used to create the hypoxic air, which one will then breathe by using a hand-held mask. These methods still require special equipment. There is, however, a much simpler way to achieve IHT without any equipment, and that is through regulating your breath with breathwork techniques. Niraj Naik, founder of international school of breathwork SOMA Breath recommends a traditional technique from India called Nisshesha Rechaka Kumbhaka.
To practice this technique, you need to hold your breath beyond the comfort zone for a short period of time, that creates a state known as intermittent hypoxia that induces brief periods of lower-than-normal blood oxygen levels. This practice has been proven to lead to the production of more red blood cells, new blood vessels, and has an overall strengthening and empowering effect on our body.
The Encompassing Impact of Breathwork
Breathwork techniques don’t just strengthen our body. It has also been proven to have numerous psychological, health, and wellness benefits. Studies have shown that some of the benefits of breathwork also include activating the left and right hemispheres of the brain, stimulating creativity, releasing dopamine and serotonin, increasing heart rate, exercising the nervous system, and increasing cognitive function. Breathwork also has the power to peel back the many layers of your psyche, revealing your subconscious meta-programming. Some practitioners of breathwork will combine breathing exercises with a hypnotic suggestion to reimprint the subconscious operating system with a new more empowered set of habits and beliefs. This can be an added benefit for those who want to strengthen their mental game in order to further support their physical training. Strengthening the Body with Breathwork.
To get started with intermittent hypoxia training using your breath, Naik suggests practicing the Nisshesha Rechaka Kumbhaka Pranayama breath sequence in the morning on an empty stomach. Here are the steps:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight or lie down on a flat stable surface.
- Place the pulse oximeter on your finger tip if you are using one.
- Inhale fully through your nose, filling up your lungs completely with air. Your abdomen should rise first, and then your chest.
- Release tension and allow natural pressure to empty your lungs.
- Repeat 20-30 times until you feel tingly or light headed. Your body will be fully saturated with oxygen.
- On the final exhalation, breathe out with a hissing sound remove as much air from your lungs as possible.
- Hold your breath with almost no air in your lungs for as long as you possibly can.
- Take a deep breath in and hold the breath on inhale for 20-30 seconds.
Breathwork techniques like these don’t just create hypoxic training conditions temporarily. When practised regularly, these regimes will correct your breathing so that your normal rate of breathing at rest is three to four breaths per minute. In comparison, average people breathe 10 or more breaths per minute, while very sick or highly stressed people breathe over 20 breaths per minute. Students of Naik’s breathing courses notice how regular practice of breathwork techniques trains their bodies to become highly efficient at using oxygen around the clock, whether at rest or during a workout. This recreates high-altitude training without ever needing to leave home, so you can become highly efficient at utilising oxygen and creating energy to enjoy a healthier and stronger body.
Natasha Zolotareva is a former journalist from
Siberia turned international media relations
specialist. She runs a remote PR agency for
personal growth leaders and wellness coaches.
She is on a mission to bring messages of wellness
and mental health into mainstream media. Her
team has launched a number of Amazon bestsellers,
booked national TV and over 400 podcast interviews.
Leading up to this she lived on three different
continents, volunteered in Central America,
managed a high performing marketing team in Asia and worked with
refugees, dragging her slightly overweight suitcase around the world.
She is an aspiring freelance writer, motivated by telling the stories
of inspiring people she meets on her journey. natashazo.com