Why do I get headaches from resistance training?
August 17, 2008 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Why did I start getting sudden, brief, migraine-like headaches when performing a high number of repetitions of a strength training exercise?

I am male, 23, 6', 158 lbs., generally in good health. I started strength training about three months ago. I weighed about 145 when I started.

The routine I've been following consists largely of sets of 5, and I haven't had this problem with those exercises for the most part; although as my squat has surpassed my bodyweight I've started to notice it creep up towards the end of a set.

But when I'm doing an exercise like the pullup, chinup, or dip, and I'm trying to perform as many reps as I can, after 6 or 7 I'll suddenly be struck by an intense headache. I started to feel it today after about 25 pushups. It doesn't feel localized in any particular part of my head. It lasts for a minute or less and then fades gradually. It's similar to (but more intense than) the pain I experience if I cough or sneeze the day after I get a migraine. I've experienced migraines with auras a few times a year for the last several years. The last one I had was a few weeks ago.

This wasn't happening when I started strength training. I worked my way up from being unable to do a chinup to doing a max set of 8. I've also done up to 10 weighted dips with no problems.

I spend about an hour lifting three times a week, although I do pullups and chinups much more frequently as I have a bar at home. I always eat before exercising and drink plenty of water between sets.

What's going on here? Should I make a doctor's appointment or will it go away on its own? Do I need to take a break from training? I've been avoiding increasing my max number of reps on these exercises and have been doing ok, but obviously this isn't ideal.
posted by ludwig_van to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You probably aren't breathing or breathing enough. Your brain isn't getting enough oxygen.
(At least this was the case when this has happened to me. Mostly on doing max squats ass to floor)
posted by zephyr_words at 6:18 PM on August 17, 2008

Best answer: Blood pressure is rising dangerously high under strain because you're not exhaling on the high resistance portion of the exercise. Holding your breath to get that extra power in is a bad idea.
posted by IronLizard at 6:36 PM on August 17, 2008

You're tall and pretty light weight for that height. And in the past few months you've added >10 lbs of weight (which I assume is a lot of muscle). You eat before workouts, but how has your diet changed?

If you're still eating the same as you were as a sedentary 145 lb man, and now you're an active, metal pumping ~160 lb man you're clearly lacking calories and protein.

You may have just reached a breaking point were your body has begun to metabolize itself to supply calories for the workouts you're putting it through. Not good.

If you've adjusted your diet, rest, water intake etc. to account for your added weight and increased exercise then it's likely something else to be considered and investigated. Maybe hire a trainer for a week or two and have that person instruct you in proper form and breathing for each lift.
posted by Science! at 6:44 PM on August 17, 2008

Best answer: Sounds like a valsalva maneuver from holding your breath. Pant if you have to. Under no circumstances hold your breath while lifting.
posted by filmgeek at 7:01 PM on August 17, 2008

Best answer: The "Valsalva Maneuver", essentially holding your breath to pop your ears or get the weight up, is known to cause migraines if you aren't very careful about exhaling and breathing correctly. Work on your breathing technique while lifting.
posted by Loto at 7:02 PM on August 17, 2008

Response by poster: Science, I've been tracking my nutrition carefully and I don't think that's the issue. If I were eating the same way I was when I started I don't think I would've been able to gain the weight that I have.

The breathing thing makes sense though. I hadn't been giving it much thought, which I suppose is dumb. I just did 8 chinups without any pain. Thanks for setting me straight.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:17 PM on August 17, 2008

Though breathing is likely the issue, you may also want to look in to thunderclap headaches if it continues. I began to suffer from these while doing strength training last year. Change in workouts sorted me out (once they ruled out brain bleed!).
posted by szechuan at 9:56 PM on August 17, 2008

There is nothing wrong with using the valsalva maneuver when executing heavy lifts needing a lot of stabilization (squats in particular), in fact, I challenge you to get a really good 1rm without it. But you shouldn't need to do that while doing chin-ups or other high-rep work. So yeah, as you have figured out, breathe, but don't be scared of the valsalva when it is appropriate.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:29 AM on August 18, 2008

Response by poster: Interesting, ch1x0r. What about for deadlifts, bench press, or overhead press?
posted by ludwig_van at 8:41 AM on August 18, 2008

Best answer: If you believe Starting Strength, and believe that the Starting Strength wiki is an accurate representation of that position, you would do the valsalva for all of those. (I don't have the book in front of me right now. I remember a lot of talk about this for the squat, and none of the specifics for the other lifts). I do something like this for all of my lifts when I am near max effort. Usually however there is some exhale (with optional grunting) during the concentric portion of the lift.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:51 PM on August 18, 2008

Best answer: Oh, in light of ch1x0r's comment I should clarify my statement:

By work on your breathing, work specifically on the Valsalva Maneuver. Just remember that once you move the weight, exhale and inhale deeply before repeating. If you are exerting yourself, there is a tendency to take quick shallow breathes. If you are doing that while utilizing the Valsalva Maneuver, your going to do more harm than good for your strength development.

And yeah, I'm almost positive that Rippetoe says the Valsalva should be used for all heavy lifting.

Finally, a lot of gym goers have this thing against grunting. Ignore them, if you are moving a heavy weight, grunting helps. No one is going to give you shit when you grunt on that 405 lbs. deadlift.
posted by Loto at 6:53 PM on August 19, 2008

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