For most freedivers, beginners and elite athletes alike, what stops them from diving deeper or feeling better and more comfortable on their dives is their ability to equalise their ears.
For most freedivers, beginners and elite athletes alike, what stops them from diving deeper or feeling better and more comfortable on their dives is their ability to equalise their ears. Often when we see talented divers what we’re really seeing is talented equalisers. It seems like some of us get lucky with this and some of us don’t but as long as you have a healthy middle ear and airways then anyone can learn how to equalise. The real issue comes from the fact that equalising your ears is not really a natural or common bodily function, because except when we’re diving we so rarely need to equalise in life. So the coordination involved equalising can be slightly tricky for some to pick up but we’re going to go through it step by step here and in particular how to Frenzel equalise.
First of all- what on earth is happening when we equalise and what the hell is Frenzel equalisation?
Basically there are small air spaces inside our ear called the middle ear. There is a small tube called the eustachian tube that connects the nasal cavity (literally the inside of your nose) to your middle ear. Now as we dive deeper the air inside our body compresses and so does the air inside your ears so we need to put more and more air into our ears in order to keep diving deeper. To equalise all we need to do is create enough pressure inside the nasal cavity to blow apart the eustachian tubes and put more air into our middle ear. Simple.
There are two main methods that freedivers use to create this pressure. The first is Valsalva Equalisation and this is actually what we want to avoid. This is when we contract our abdominal muscles to force the air that’s in our lungs up through our oral cavity (our mouth and throat) into our nasal cavity and then into our middle ear. There are several issues with equalising like this. First of all it’s inefficient in terms of oxygen consumption- your abdominals are a large muscle group and it can also bring on early contractions. The biggest issue is that all the air in your body is shrinking as you dive deeper. After 10 metres your lungs and the gas inside them are half their size and it becomes really hard to contract your abdominals enough to force the shrinking air all the way up to your ears.
Frenzel Equalisation is when we use our tongue to force the air in our mouths (oral cavity) into our nasal cavity and then into our middle ear. Keep in mind that at any given time you have around 250 ml of air in your oral cavity so this is a much stronger and efficient way to equalise. With frenzel equalisation you will be able to dive comfortably to the point where your lungs can’t shrink any more (your residual volume) We usually hit our residual volume anywhere in between 30 – 40 metres deep.
Quickly before I go on into how to do this whole crazy frenzel thing I just want to mention that swallowing, wriggling your jar and little things like this are very ineffective in freediving and often the reason why diver struggles to dive deeper is because these techniques work in the first 5 to 10 metres but then the deeper you go the more difficult it becomes. So best to learn how to frenzel from the beginning.
Some new anatomy
There are two parts of the anatomy that I want to introduce to you. The first is the glottis. This is a grouping of muscles around your vocal cords. Just to be clear, this is not the epiglottis which is the muscle that folds over your trachea (wind pipe) when you swallow. Involving the epiglottis in equalisation will bring on bad habits for the future. So let’s find our glottis muscles.
To get an idea of your glottis sit up straight, take in a large breath, open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Your mouth was open right? Did any air escape? Did you exhale? Most likely you didn’t. The reason is because our body knows to close the glottis to stop the air from escaping. Now let’s get some more control over these muscles. Sit up straight, take in a large breath, open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Now keeping your tongue stuck out, release a small amount of air and then stop by closing the glottis. Do this several times, open, close, open, close, release some air, stop the flow, release some air, stop the flow. Do this while keeping your mouth wide open and your tongue stuck out. Now you’re controlling your glottis! The reason we stick the tongue out is because we can also cheat by using the tongue to press against the roof of the mouth to stop the flow of air but with the tongue stuck out the only thing available to us is our glottis.
So the next part of our body that we need to be aware of is our soft palate. Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth and then run it backwards. You’ll feel a hard area where there’s bone turn soft towards the back of your mouth. That soft area is your soft palate. Your soft palate is basically the gate keeper from your oral cavity to your nasal cavity. Just like the glottis is the gate keeper from your thoracic cavity (your lungs) to your oral cavity.
When you inhale and exhale through your nose the soft palate closes against the back of your tongue so all the air is directed out of your nasal cavity. When you inhale and exhale through your mouth your soft palate sits in a neutral position and because your oral cavity is larger than your nasal cavity the air all gets directed through there.
Once again open your mouth but this time don’t open it wide, just open it in a relaxed position. Now inhale gently through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Do this several times and pay close attention to your soft palate in the very back of your mouth. You should feel it clicking off your tongue as you change from inhaling through your nose to exhaling out your mouth. Now reverse this. Inhale through the mouth and exhale out the nose. Once again you should feel your soft palate subtly moving in the back of your oral cavity.
But why are we interested in our glottis and soft palate?
When we do valsalva equalisation our glottis must be open because we are pushing the air from our lungs all the way up to our middle ear but when we are frenzel equalising we are moving the air that’s in our mouths into our middle ear and so our glottis must be closed otherwise the air in our mouth will simple escape back into our lungs.
As for the soft palate….well it’s the only thing that can lock off our nasal cavity from our oral cavity and so when we’re using our tongue like a piston to equalise we need to keep our soft palate in a relaxed and neutral position otherwise the air wont be able to get into our nasal cavity and middle ear.
How to use the tongue
How do we actually use our tongue then to equalise our ears? There are two separate movements we do with our tongue. The front or the middle of our tongue makes contact with the roof of our mouth while the back of our tongue rises and pushes the air into our nasal cavity. The reason we need to make contact or make a lock with our tongue to the roof of our mouth is because if we didn’t the air would just get pushed out of our mouth.
Pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth to create a lock is the easy part but lifting the back of your tongue is usually tougher to coordinate. Have a look at the picture of the cross section of the airways and look just how big your tongue muscle actually is. It’s quite large and it goes quite far into the back of your throat. A nice little exercise to develop the coordination is this:
Open your mouth wide and stick your tongue out as far as it will go, then pull it back into your mouth. Repeat several times. Now press one finger under your jaw at the highest part of your throat and then stick your tongue out again. Notice how you can feel the back of your tongue rising up towards the back of your throat. You should be able to feel this slightly with your finger under your jaw against your upper throat.
Next pinch your nose with one hand, then open your mouth and stick your tongue out as far as it will go then pull it back into your mouth, stick it out, pull it in, stick it out, pull it in. Then go to stick your tongue out as far as it will go but this time keep your mouth closed and your teeth together. What will happen is your tongue will bunch up against your teeth, the back of your tongue will rise up and you should feel a strong equalisation.
The frenzel locks
Okay so now that we have the basic mechanics of frenzel (closed glottis, relaxed soft palate, front of the tongue against the roof of the mouth while the back of the tongue rises) lets get a little more precise with our tongue movements. There are three main locks that we can make with the front of our tongue. The T position. The K position and the H position. The first and best lock is the T lock. It’s called the T lock because it’s the position we place our tongue in when we make the sound T. It’s the front of the tongue to the front of the roof of our mouth.
With your tongue in the T position see if you can raise the back of your tongue and equalise. You should be able to release your tongue position at the end of your equalisation and make the sound T.
Now lets try the same thing with the K lock. It’s the position the tongue goes into to make the sound K. This will be the centre of your tongue to the centre of the roof of your mouth. See if you can equalise in this position so that when you release the equalisation at the end you make the sound K.
The final position is the H position. It’s the position the tongue goes to in languages such as German, Dutch and Arabic to make that harsh guttural sound. It is the back of the tongue making a lock against the soft palate. The way that we know we’re doing the H position is by opening our mouth, sticking our tongue out and then frenzel equalising. With your tongue stuck out the H position is the only one you’ll be able to do.
Experiment with these different locks and see which one you feel most comfortable with.
How do we know we’re doing it right? Press your hand against your upper abdomen and frenzel equalise. Does your stomach contract at all? If it does there is a chance you’re still doing valsalva or even a combination of valsalva and frenzel. It’s even possible that you are actually doing frenzel but out of habit you are still contracting your abdominal muscles. Try to keep the stomach completely disengaged and frenzel. It may take a bit of time to get out of the habit but life is long and we can dive for almost all of it!
Now keep in mind that the deeper you dive the more difficult it becomes to equalise. Basically all the air in your body is shrinking and it becomes more challenging to manage your equalisation with lesser amounts of air. We all have to be patient and increase our depths slowly and with control. This way you’ll never have equalisation problems. You may be able to coordinate a frenzel equalisation at one, two or three atmospheres of pressure but it is harder to coordinate the movment at four atmospheres of pressure and beyond.
The other major thing that stops people from being able to equalise deeper is tension and stress. The first place that a person usually tenses up when they’re feeling stressed is around their neck and throat. Once you become tense in this part of your body it will become very hard to equalise. Mainly because your tongue will also become tense.
The soft palate is the gateway to your nasal cavity and there are only really two things that can close your soft palate so that air cannot pass into the nasal cavity. The first is that you can actually close your soft palate by becoming tense in your throat and oral cavity but the real culprit is actually the tongue. In most cases when there is tension in a persons body the tongue tenses up and presses against the roof of the mouth in a way that closes the soft palate and then you cant equalise.
Be aware also that you need to equalise your mask regularly. If negative pressure builds up in your mask then it will be very very difficult to equalise your ears.
Happy equalising everyone! If you have any questions just post in the comments.