Originally Published in Men’s Health
I’m anchored to the floor of a five-foot deep pool by the 35-pound dumbbells clutched in my white-knuckled fists. My mission is not for the faint of heart: crawl the length of the pool (75 feet) underwater, dragging the dumbbells with me.
I’m halfway there, too, when I see the rest of my ten-person class head to the surface for air. I join them, releasing the weights and flailing to the surface, ears ringing, lungs burning.
Before this drill, I was told that the gut-wrenching feeling of needing to breathe wasn’t death’s doormat. I could fight past any initial discomfort in my chest and stay underwater for at least a few seconds, according to the trainers. So I lingered under the chop in the indoor swimming pool at Chelsea Piers Fitness in Manhattan to test that theory.
Sure, I came up for air before completing my mission, but I felt a sense of accomplishment — and that burning in my lungs.
Two activities into the four-hour workshop from Extreme Performance Training, better known as XPT, that’s exactly how I’m supposed to feel. The brainchild of surf legend Laird Hamilton and his volleyball-star wife, Gabby Reece, XPT bills itself as more than just another calorie-burning, sweat-inducing fitness class. It wants to manipulate your basic human ability to adapt to stress, pushing your physical and mental limits — and amping your performance in the process.
Everything about XPT is supposed to be uncomfortable, from that underwater pool drill (called a reptile crawl) to the freezing-cold ice bath (more on that later) to the structure of the whole class.
Instead of hour-long sessions that tax your body but leave plenty of physical (and mental) recovery time, XPT clinics are four-hour small-group workshops that teach Hamilton and Reece’s “Breathe, Move, Recover” curriculum. As time-consuming as that may be, XPT is gaining steam: By next year, it plans to go from just 60 certified trainers to 300 trainers, a mobile app, and a retreat experience.
XPT saw its informal start about a decade ago. That’s when Hamilton and Reece started inviting friends over for impromptu poolside workouts at their Malibu home, and it explains why so much of this takes place underwater. Hamilton, after all, famously carried large rocks underwater in his workouts and remains an icon of athletic longevity at 54. “The birth of XPT is about as organic as it gets,”says Josh Fly, an XPT-certified coach and one of three directors at this workshop.
Not that I’m in the water for the entire clinic. Before hitting the pool, I sit through an hour-long class on performance breathing, and this sets the tone for all the challenges that follow. You can fight the urge to breathe, XPT instructor Fabian Kuttner says, because that urge is not necessarily due to a lack of oxygen. When carbon dioxide levels rise in the blood, she says, hemoglobin continues to release oxygen, so your body has enough to extend your time under the surface past the point when you feel you need to breathe.
The reptile crawl and another underwater drill, the ammo carry, challenge us to stay underwater longer on a single breath, exploring the boundaries of our lungs’ discomfort during XPT’s swim portion.
After that, we hit a basketball court and a sand pit for 30 minutes of high-intensity training. It’s the kind of boot-camp-style session we’ve all done before (nothing groundbreaking here), but as I go through the medicine-ball slams, high-knees, bear crawls, and pushups, I realize just how mental the pool challenges were: My body is barely tired.
By the time I’m done with that, I’m ready for the final hour of the workshop, the “recovery” portion. Even here, XPT manages to push me to my limits. We wrap up the workshop by alternating 15-minute sessions in a 220°F sauna with three minutes in a 30°F ice bath.
The sauna, a traveling hot box that goes to all workshops, isn’t too bad, but the bitter cold of the ice bath drives a few people to hop out after just a minute. I stay in. Yes, it’s pure, excruciating pain. But after surviving the reptile crawl in the pool, I know my body can take just about anything.
At the bottom of the shallow end of a pool, set up in pushup position but with your legs floating, hands grasping dumbbells.Move the dumbbells forward one at a time, gradually moving yourself as you do.Stay under for as long as possible. Go as far as you can on one breath; do 2 sets.
Get in a pool, a light dumbbell in your left hand. Inhale, hold the dumbbell against your sternum, and do an underwater breaststroke using only your legs and free arm. Swim as far as you canon one breath. Come up for air, switch hands, and swim back. Repeat twice.