Matthew Scarfo


Tap water is usually about 55F as it comes out of the spigot. Add three bags of ice to 100 gallons of fresh tap water and after about ten minutes the water settles around 42F. This, I learned in the ten minutes that preceded my first ice bath.

After just a few seconds of sitting in the ice bath up to my chin in 42F water, I fell in and out of love with the cold countless times. The first few seconds felt like minutes. Time dilated, and in the lifetime that seemed to pass in between my heart’s deafening drumbeats, countless and senseless thoughts flooded my mind in a chaotic and cathartic tidal wave of emotions.

Then, suddenly… nothing.

Silence. Except for the sound of my whistling breath funnelling through my pursed lips, and eventually–finally–the bottom of my breathing space. I was back in my body, back in the moment, and back in control–if only for a moment. Like a baby fighting falling asleep; my mind would find rest as easily as it lost it to a resistant convulsion. The peace again. Swinging between chaos and rest, waves of weakness would overcome my best effort to ignore the frigid cold just as waves of warmth would appear from nowhere to wash the cold away. I’ve come to learn that this is to be expected, and I’ve come to love this push and pull the most.

After just a few seconds of sitting in the ice bath up to my chin in 42F water, I fell in and out of love with the cold countless times

Arguably, ice bathing and cold-water immersion can have any number of physiological benefits and I’m happy to be advantaged by every one of them. For me, ice bathing has become about self-control and self-mastery. It’s the head game that brought me here and it’s the head game that keeps me here. A metaphor for life–external stress and conflict ignored and reframed by a mind under duress. It’s taught me to find peace in the chaos, silence in the noise, and a center of gravity from which, after fighting a thousand battles I can quietly return to as the victor of a hundred wars but was fortunate to lose only his mind.

Ice bathing has always been a battle with and within me. And in keeping and fighting this battle within, I claim each victory as my own. Each ice bath is a battle. Each battle, is a victory. And, every victory silenced the tumult and turmoil. If only for a moment.

Say what you want about elevation masks; we can go back and forth about the impacts of high-altitude training on blood counts, endurance, and respiratory efficiency. Whether you think it’s a gimmick and doesn’t have any utility or you find its novelty interesting, one thing is certain: The human-machine adapts to repetitive stresses.

Bones strengthen, muscles economize for repeated tensions and contractions, and just like the result of any repeated practice the body aims to make the hard things easy over time and with a minimal investment of resources. Similarly, when we increase the resistances associated with breathing then our muscule-respiratory system is compelled to adapt in kind.

The last few runs, I’ve done while wearing one has been tough, I’ve got it cranked up and it feels like I’m breathing through a coffee stirrer. There are at least a dozen reasons why I wear it, and at the top of the list is the fact that my training focus has recently shifted to prioritizing my ability to breathe and manage in low oxygen environments.

Adding external resistance for those muscles to work against not only increases the effectiveness of such a practice but will enable you to positively change your physiology as it relates to any physical performance, athletic or otherwise.

Pulling air against the elevation mask takes its toll after a while. When the diaphragm pulls with an increase in force, the tensions stress the joints between the ribs just as a bench press stresses the architecture around the shoulder. By increasing the resistance that my respiratory muscles need to work against, I improve their ability to work and increase the economy of their efforts. I do this by exclusively nose-breathing at all times, and at all costs, regardless of whether I’m wearing the mask or not.

To do this it’s necessary to protect each breath with a certain tension in my core. The harder it is for me to breathe during exercise, the greater the involvement of my entire core.

Simply focusing on breathing at all costs regardless of the stress, the load, and the intensity does infinitely more for core strength and athletic performance, and endurance training than any amount of crunches, situps and leg raises ever could. Traditional core exercises are simply an impractical practice with little, if any, real-world relevance. On the other hand, it’s impossible to understate the value of practicing to guard your core to enable proper breathing at a restful pace. Adding external resistance for those muscles to work against not only increases the effectiveness of such a practice but will enable you to positively change your physiology as it relates to any physical performance, athletic or otherwise.

Focus on true functional fitness and attend to the physiology of the human machine. The complex will become simple, the hard becomes easy, and the impossible becomes probable.

Prioritize a Breath-First philosophy.

I remember when I started my career 22 years ago that it puzzled me why so many fitness enthusiasts felt the need to wear wrist wraps and straps and squat belts just to feed the ego. Back then, I knew that it did more harm than good, and with each passing day, I appreciate that fact even more as my understanding of this Human-machine deepens and continues to evolve.

Bracing any structure of the body is deleterious to functional performance. In the absence of a medical necessity, I don’t think there is a single exception to that rule.

The moment that we needlessly brace a joint in our body is the very moment we bankrupt its ability. It becomes anesthetized and deprived of achieving its maximum potential, limiting the functional abilities of all the systems that depend on it. Once braced, the signals from the environment are disordered and confused, just as are the signals that it, in turn, sends back to the brain. Imagine cueing a squat from over a telephone inside of a packed elevator – not only can’t you hear what the other person is saying, but the reception is so spotty that they can only hear a portion of every third word you speak.

Needlessly bracing structures of our body will inevitably disadvantage them as a result. Mechanically, the rich get richer while the poor become languid, destitute, and defective. Many people that are in the habit of wearing a back brace to deadlift or squat feel as though, without it, their back isn’t strong enough to lift the weight otherwise. That’s 100% correct.

The braced joints and the presumed protected structures suffer from needless charity. They’re weakening, becoming ever more incapable. Developing the muscles that are incapable of performing without a brace in a practical, contextual way is superior to bracing them from the outside.

I find it interesting that we’ll use a half-inch thick cowhide to keep our lower back from blowing out because our core isn’t strong enough to support the movement, then add two sets of thirty crunches and a handful on knee raises at the end of our workout to “train” our core. Shitcan the ego and the belt and let the core develop strength and function in the context of the movement. Sure, grip strength sucks and is often the weakest link in a deadlift but wouldn’t you want to work on that instead of pander to it?

When do we draw the line and say that we can’t perform an exercise because we’re not strong enough to do it without using a belt, straps, and suit of armour? Certainly, some competition rules allow for these things, but whatever we feel needs to be braced is functionally insufficient to perform an exercise if not for bracing. Functional training without support increases our abilities when support is justified, and arbitrarily relying on support is encouraging weakness.

Instead of pandering to the weak links in our Human machine, we need to contextualize them. We allow our abilities to erode rep after rep and force the entire body to adapt in unintended ways. Inhibiting a muscle’s performance will alter the entire lexicon of human movement in unforeseen and sometimes unpredictable ways. This causes local and global imbalances that we cannot mediate by including a few forearm curls and cable crunches in our routine.

Allowing our movement systems to adapt in the manner and context they were designed has no equivalent.