Laird Hamilton’s Extreme Active Recovery Therapy: Submerged, Sweltering, and Sub-Zero

By PJ Nestler | Fri Dec 20 2013

XPT Recovery: An Extreme Thermal Cycling Session with Laird and Gabby after an Extreme Pool Training Workout

I recently had the chance to briefly suspend my responsibilities as a San Francisco-based research scientist, and fly down to Malibu for a few days of workouts with the G&L team, including a Saturday pool training workout at the Hamilton’s with Laird, Gabby, and several others of their “Malibu Mob” (including nutritionist Darin Olien, actor John McGinley, environmentalist Kelly Meyer, celebrity trainer Adam Friedman and many others). The experience was so out of the norm that I thought I’d share some of what I learned and experienced. After all, when you’ve been convinced to submerge yourself in sub-zero water for extreme cold therapy, you feel like sharing your war story.

The energy at the Hamilton’s was spectacular, the athleticism impressive, the underwater training intense, and the atmosphere contagious and motivating. With both Gabby and Laird watching my every move, it was a bit like training with a drill sergeant. Absolutely no lazy sets allowed! However, I have to admit from time to time I went for the lighter weights when they were preoccupied supervising someone else. 

Laird and Gabby have spent years fine-tuning this very unique workout, and it represents one of the most innovative and comprehensive workouts I’ve ever done. After reading about Gabby and Laird’s underwater training program, XPT, I started incorporating pool training in my program. For about eight months now, I have been experimenting with various explosive underwater movements in my pool, and can now say I am totally addicted. 

You can challenge yourself underwater in ways that are simply impossible to replicate on land, and the sensation is totally remarkable. Laird, Gabby and the crew perform these underwater workouts—which also include circuits of extreme thermal cycling between a 200°F sauna and -30°F circulating ice-bath—up to three times a week, to recover from their intense functional training, biking and surfing activities.

Intense Pool Workouts: Explosive Movements with No Impact

Essentially, pool training centers around two themes: High intensity explosive underwater movements, alternating with longer duration lower intensity exercises. The goal? To develop increased lung capacity and improved breath control

While grabbing heavy weights and jumping in the deep end of a pool may seem counter-intuitive at first, many of the movements are very similar to explosive land-based training—such as dumbbell jump squats, dumbbell presses to fly and one-legged dumbbell squats. After eight to 10 sets of squat jumps with 30-40lb dumbbells in each hand, Adam Friedman inspired me to advance to one legged jump squats, which requires greater balance and coordination. The added challenge made me feel a bit like an astronaut in training, in that astronauts train in huge neutral buoyancy swimming pools to simulate space walks on earth. 

With Gabby and Laird’s intense pool training program, the emphasis is on explosive high-intensity movements performed to failure, with brief periods of rest in-between. This explosive training approach has numerous benefits: Most importantly, increased natural growth hormone stimulation, which is a key to staying young. Growth hormone production typically begins to decline after age 30. The workout also greatly enhances metabolic activity throughout the day—far greater than the post workout metabolic effect of endurance training.

This type of high intensity pool training that Gabby and Laird advocate puts your body in a constructive building phase, as opposed to a catabolic state (which tears down muscle). To visualize this concept, all you have to do is compare images of an Olympic sprinter to an Olympic marathon runner, and you get the idea. 

Another series of exercises we performed (ammo box carry) involved porting weights around underwater from one side of the pool to the other (at a depth of up to 14ft). There was quite a lot of traffic this busy Saturday, so we had to be careful not to walk under all the people training overhead. The Hamilton’s pool has an underwater staircase in the center, so it’s sort of like doing laps on bleachers: Walking up and down with heavy weights while holding your breath. While that sounds a bit unusual, it’s actually inspired by Island cultures, which have traditionally done exercises to enhance their lung capacity, endurance and awareness of breath needed before entering the ocean. Ancient Islanders would pick up heavy rocks underwater and walk around for long distances holding them to their chest. This exercise required real meditative focus to allow me to work to my maximum breath control capabilities. Needless to say, if you try out pool-training always make sure to have a partner with you!

The Remarkable Benefits of Training Underwater

One thing I really enjoyed about this pool training experience was that even though we were all doing high intensity explosive movements with heavy weights, I felt rejuvenated and free of typical post workout aches and pains afterward. There was no impact and stress on my joints and connective tissue due to the buoyancy and support of water. The slow descent after each explosive movement minimizes the impact on landing. If you think about it, doing jump squats with 30-40lb dumbbells in each hand on land could ravage your knees and joints over time. Any positive training benefits would eventually be offset by the increased soreness and potential trauma and injury.

Another unique element of this training is simply that you are supported by the surrounding water, which is 800 times denser than air, so there is both resistance and support throughout the full range of motion of every movement you make. Moreover, the underwater resistance (drag) of an exercise increases as the speed (velocity) of the movement increases. This is completely the opposite of land-based training—whether you lift a 20lb dumbbell faster or slower in a gym, it doesn’t change the resistance (always 20lbs). Additionally, the added pressure of being 8 to 14 feet underwater creates compressive force on your body’s vascular and circulatory systems (as scuba divers know). After 90 minutes or so your body feels absolutely terrific!

Circulatory Benefits of Temperature Extremes: From the Sauna to the Ice Bath

As I mentioned above, another fascinating aspect of Gabby and Laird’s pool workouts is that it also incorporates circuits of extreme thermal cycling between a 200°F sauna and -30°F circulating ice-bath. And while I have previously been to Finnish spas and Russian banyas—which promote these thermal contrasts (hot saunas and cold plunges) for their therapeutic benefits—my day with the Hamilton’s was something otherworldly. 

Their -30°F circulating ice-bath was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Most cold plunges I’ve done have been around 38-50°F, but submerging myself in circulating water that was -30°F is an adventure I’ll never forget. Laird refers to his ultra-cold ice-bath as “truth serum,” in that after a minute or so most people would divulge any of their most personal secrets! 

First cooking ourselves in a poolside sauna in preparation for the cold plunge, we did a few cycles from super-hot to ultra-cold. But while Laird could sit in his ice-bath for minutes and have a conversation, I don’t think I even lasted more than 20 or 30 seconds. Indeed, Laird had a three-minute conversation with me, then remarked that it was time for him to get out when, “his eyeballs started shaking”. You might have read stories about Laird pushing himself to the extreme, but you don’t really know what that means until you see it up close, in-person.

So, why do Laird and Gabby incorporate cold therapy after workout into their training sessions? Thermal contrast bath therapy—exposing your body to both extremely hot and cold temperatures in one session—has been shown in a variety of studies to aid recovery and mitigate inflammation. While the exact molecular-level mechanisms are not yet fully known, it can be thought of as a vascular and lymphatic “massage”. 

When your body is exposed to the extreme heat of a sauna, blood circulation increases and blood rushes to the surface of your body and your blood vessels and capillaries expand in an attempt to cool off. When you immediately follow this up with exposure to the extreme cold of a circulating ice bath, your blood vessels constrict and the blood rushes away from your skin back to your internal organs. This process of circulating between extremely hot and cold temperatures supercharges your circulation, which can help accelerate recovery by moving the metabolic byproducts of cellular breakdown (due to intense training) out of your muscles and into your body’s lymph system for recovery. It’s the foundation for all cold therapy benefits post workout.

Functional Strength Training to the Extreme

Every element of the Gabby and Laird training method is functional strength training to the extreme. When you’re done, every aspect of your mind and body has been challenged and utilized. It is a full-body workout inside and out—between intense pool workout training and contrasting temperature cycles, your muscles, cardiovascular systems, proprioceptors (muscle sensory receptors) and circulatory systems have all been fully engaged. It was an amazing, complete workout and I felt completely invigorated afterwards. 

How many times do you complete almost two hours of a vigorous workout and finish with more energy than you began? I’m already looking forward to my next chance to return to Malibu for another amazing training session with the Hamilton’s and the rest of their “Malibu Mob.” But next time maybe I’ll be lucky and Laird’s ice machine will be broken.

Written by Jeff Urban, PhD


Contrast therapy – a systematic review. Hing WA, White SG, Bouaaphone A, Lee P. Physical Therapy in Sport (2008);9(3):148-161. doi: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2008.06.001

Recommended Reading