Hands free equalization (BTV, VTO) is referring to the ability and the skill to maintain the eustachian tubes open and constantly pressurized, in order to keep the ear drum in a neutral position. That way you don't have to pinch your nose when freediving as you are going deeper. The advantage of this technique in freediving is that you can keep your hands above you when descending and wear a mask, abolishing the need to wear a nose clip. Alchemy partner, Luca Malaguti, an experienced freediver & instructor, looks into the technique, its uses and shares his tips on how can one can manage to do it.
How Can It Be Achieved?
So, first things first, experience, how did we get or personally how did i get to the point where i was able to hands-free all the time, no problem? Well, the answer is my environment.
My environment, where i started spearfishing and freediving, really dictates the ability of my techniques and skills. By no means am i the deepest of freedivers and in fact i have a lot to learn for equalization. I am at my stage in a position where i still need to figure out a lot of things about mouth fill and equalization and using the tongue at depth. But because i spent the majority a couple of years in freediving in the Canadian pacific northwest, where the water is cold, murky, there's not a lot of light underwater and it's difficult conditions, i was able to develop and practice these techniques for hands free equalization, almost because they were necessary, more than because i really wanted to.
Where i started freediving, it was essentially a fjord, a really wide fjord with deep drop-offs that were starting at angles and then making their way into vertical walls underwater. So one of the things that really helped me to learn how to hands-free equalize would be these shore dives, that would essentially start at about 30 degrees, make their way on to 45 degrees, 60, and then ultimately 90. So that's one of the best advice i can tell people is, get out there and practice with the underwater bathymetry that you have at your disposal. That's really one of the best ways to start practicing and putting into action your hands free equalization, is to find underwater, sloppy environments, maybe a sandy slope and then gradually increase the angle.
Start with 30 degrees and you slowly make your way deeper and deeper. And then once you get comfortable, over a period of weeks or months, depends on everybody, you make your way into a steeper, maybe 45 or 60 degrees, until ultimately you can go down vertically, hands-free, no problem, safely, without damaging or hurting yourself at all. Now i'm not saying everybody can, should and has access to cold water, but there's no doubt that equalizing in cold water or learning to equalize in cold water benefits, because it's just that much harder, everything seizes up, you get cold, you start to shiver, equalization gets ultimately the hardest thing and every freediver, even in Egypt or the Philippines, when they get cold has experienced this. When you start getting cold equalization becomes difficult, so starting to learn freediving in a cold water environment has really benefited me personally on hands-free equalization.
But as i said if you don't have cold water in your backyard, lucky for you - you have warm water, there's a series of exercises and different things you can do to train hands-free equalization. But don't forget, starting at an angle is always useful. Now, in this video, i won't talk specifically about the exercises you can do because you can do all of these with a course, with a coach, and doing even some online training. You can reach out to some other Alchemy athletes and they offer amazing online coaching. But basically it's important to understand the fundamentals and my best advice to you is take a course, reach out to a coach, especially someone who's very well known for deep equalization and get a one-on-one, even if it's online, so they can understand what are your problems and how to resolve them and really learn how to do the foundations, the basics.
In other words the Fattah frenzel exercises. The Fattah frenzel exercises were coined by Eric Fattah, a very famous freediver and i'm actually going to link the exercises below or feel free to reach out to me and i'll send you these exercises, they're publicly shared and Eric is more than happy to share them with everybody and they're great tools in learning how to independently engage the glottis and the soft palate and how to train all of these parts in the oral and nasal cavity.
Physiology & Anatomy
Let's talk a bit about physiology and anatomy, because it's such an important part. We know that we have the oral cavity, the nasal cavity, they're separated by the soft palate and the glottis, also known as the vocal folds. Now, understanding your anatomy, learning your physiology is very important, which is why this is not something you're going to learn overnight. You need a good coach and you need to take some good training before you can become a very deep equalizer. We have to remember and appreciate and most importantly be humbled by the fact that it's about learning muscle memory. We have to train ourselves and the different muscles and different elements involved in the mouth and the nose, to work in a certain way, independently from each other as well. So it takes time and unless you are lucky enough to grow up as a singer or a brass instrument player, this might take some work. And remember, some people can hands-free equalize from birth, other people need to really train it, but ultimately everybody can learn how to hands-free equalize.
Does Gear Help?
Let's talk about gear. What kind of gear makes a difference for hands re-equalization? Well it turns out that the kind of mask you wear makes a phenomenal difference and i've personally tested so many masks, for writing blogs or just out of interest for gear, i've really tried them, almost all of them and they make a difference. Which mask you have, has a huge impact on your ability to hands-free equalize. Recently i've been diving with masks such as these ones, this is an Aquasphere, this is an XS Apnos Scuba, but i realized that the silicone wasn't creating a good seal and it wasn't hard enough, it was too soft against my nose and so i kind of scrapped these for now. Until i started using recently the classic Technisub Aqualung Micromask and you'll see this among a lot of professional freedivers, because it's a really great mask.
Remember, each mask depends on the person's facial structure and nose, so one mask might work for you, the other might not work for your body. So there's no golden rule but personally this one, the silicone is hard enough and just in the right position against my nose, that it creates such a small space, that when i equalize it's almost as if i am pressing very gently with my fingers, but i don't need to do anything, because the space is right next to my nose and that's more than enough for me to send air into the eustachian tubes.
I've also been fortunate enough to talk to some professionals, some of the deepest freedivers in the world, hint hint they train out of Sharm El Sheikh, and they go really really deep in no limits, with a mask, so they really know their stuff. And they told me there's so many elements that are involved, when you want to hands-free equalize. Even to the point where the angle of the strap on your head makes a phenomenal difference. Have you shaved that morning or have you not. I'm growing my beard but i might have to shave at a certain point because it's not compatible with the mask. Are you wearing a snorkel, at what angle is the snorkel? All of these tiny little details can actually make a phenomenal difference underwater.
For underwater photography, often we'll have a camera that we need to hold with two hands and how these cameras work best is when they are kept extremely stable, which means that extending your arms out when filming is one of the best things you can do. I've been fortunate enough to shadow and follow Daan Verhoeven, one of the best free diving photographers and filmmakers in the world and also an Alchemy partner and when i saw him underwater, he would keep the camera as stable as possible. So, being able to keep your arms extended, specifically during a shot as you are arriving to your subject and you're at the same level as they are and keeping the shot as stable as you can, will ultimately create the best footage and that requires you sometimes to go underwater, without pinching your nose, because the movement from the camera to your nose can shake the camera and get some poor footage. So being able to keep yourself in this position, as you're descending underwater or going at an angle towards your subject, means that ultimately you'll get awesome content. But that means that you really need to be good at hands-free equalization.
If you want to skip through the work and you want a little bit of a hack, well, i've seen one of my favorite freediving photographers do this, i personally never tried it, but it works for a few people. You can put your mask on and then put a nose clip over. You'll place your mask and then you put your nose clip over. I personally don't do this because i can hands-free equalize, but i know it works for a few people. Just be careful that the pressure you place against the nose with the nose clip is very very important. The last thing you want to do is get a mask squeeze, because there's too much pressure on the nose.
Personally, some of my favorite freedivers are people like Martin Stepanek, Antonio Mogavero, that have done 100 plus dives with a mask and they've been able to hands-free for the first 30-40 meters. I think that's super cool and i've personally trained myself to go down really quickly and come back up as fast as i can, just to kind of test myself and push myself, while of course being safe with the ears and making sure no damage is being done. I hope you enjoyed this new episode of The Complete Guide on hands-free equalization and i hope to see you next time. Thank you, bye!