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Headache when pushing to failure

I've been doing Occam for about a week now and had my first B workout yesterday. After finding my starting weight for the leg press, I did my my 5/5 set to failure and as I almost reached failure a massive headache popped in my head, literally like an explosion.

I had to stop my workout as it was unbearable.

Any explanation or suggestions apart from drinking a lot of water, which I already do?

I'm not doing any supplements and I'm just sipping water while working out, no protein.

I drink more or less 2 litres a day, sometimes more. I have experienced these headaches performing slow reps chest butterflies in the past.


The Best Answer

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I had the same thing happen to me a few years ago when I started lifting weights for the first time in my life (33 years old). It was scary the first time it happened. In about 15 seconds it went from a "blood rushing" sound in my ears to a full-blown migraine with nausea and sensitivity to light. After visiting my family doc, I was sent to see a neurologist and ended up getting a CAT scan.

Turns out they're called "exertion headaches." They're not uncommon and they're caused by a sudden increase in blood pressure though doctors don't really understand the mechanisms behind them. The neurologist gave me prescription-strength ibuprofen which I was to take 30 minutes before lifting and that helped tremendously in the short term, but I didn't want to pop a pill for the rest of my life if I didn't have too, so here's what helped me in the long run...

1. Stop doing the exercise that causes it (at least for a little while). For me it was the shoulder press. Once I switched to bench press the frequency of headaches went way down.

2. Breathing. I think someone already mentioned this but it's a good one. I have a bad tendency to hold my breath on heavy lifts and simply learning to breathe properly helped a ton.

3. Cardiovascular health. When I started lifting I was in terrible shape. So after the headaches started, I dropped the weights and got back into martial arts (Krav Maga) and then went back to weights about six months later. I found I could do all of my previous heavy lifts to failure without triggering a headache. I was ecstatic. I haven't needed the ibuprofen in three years.

Having said all that, I would advise you to get checked out by a neurologist. As my doctor told me, 99.9% of the time these headaches are nothing but there's a small chance they could be an indicator of something more serious. My doctor visits and CAT scans cost me a total of $200 after insurance so it was totally worth it... Plus, I have these awesome pictures of the blood vessels in my brain now which is super cool.

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Hi Joffers.

I don't know exactly why your headache arose, but I will say you did the right thing by stopping. It could have been a rapid change in blood pressure, which often has little room to adapt in the small vessels surrounding the skull. But that's far from a diagnosis. Were you holding your breath too much or for too long? Lack of oxygen to the brain may be a possible explanation.

With regards to pain, there is a big, big difference between pain from fatigue or muscle exhaustion and pain from your nervous system telling you to stop whatever it is you're doing. You may be familiar with this difference, yet many are not. It could be surmised to good pain and bad pain. Good pain being that feeling where you say to yourself, "it hurts so gooood, but I need the courage to keep pushing" Or "wow, this is tough, but it feels right" and bad pain being when your nervous system is doing everything it can to get you to stop what you're doing". Injury usually results from the latter.

The legendary bodybuilder and 6 time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, which Tim's Yates Row is named after, said he made excellent gains in his routine (along with many, many other factors to be sure) by never, ever pushing through bad pain in a workout, which he felt often lead to muscle injury.

I would even go so far as to say many of us loose the ability to know the difference between the two as children when we are told to "hold our pee until later", "sit still in that chair until you're done your homework" or generally told to ignore the signs our bodies are giving us. I think this deadens our ability to listen to our own biological feedback.

I would suggest to all 4HB'ers to pay attention to these subtleties when exercising and eating. If you listen to the small signals, your body doesn't have to scream at you more and more until you do.

Not sure if that help Joffers, but if it happens again, I'd play the same strategy you did last time. Keep an eye on all of our body's feedback signs and watch your breathing closely.


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are you doing any supplements? sipping any protein during the workout? what's a lot of water for you? Perhaps have someone check your form and proper breathing.

  • joffers commented May 8th 2011:
    Thanks Justin, I edited my post with more details


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Good for you, your doing it right! That happens to me every time feels grrrrreat!


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I got that too. After some research I came up with a plan (and it worked for me):

1) rest for two weeks

2) go at it again, but breathe with higher frequency

Don't do the "exhale while pushing, inhale while lowering" on 5-5 cadence, it's too slow.


United-States flag

I had the same problem once, and it was because I was holding my breath without realizing it. Pace your breathing, make sure that the blood that is getting to your brain has plenty of oxygen in it. The more air you move through your lungs, the better off you'll be.


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What about after the workout? Did the headache stop right away or did it continue for a long time afterwards?

Have you tried watching your breathing? i.e. making sure you breathe properly?


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Same thing lately for me. I have just stopped cissus Quadrangularis, since it has an effect on blood vessels, and headaches are a known sideeffects. CQ is the only supplement I have been taking, so if the headache dissapears, I will let you know.

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