Is Powerlifting Giving You a Headache?

If you’re new to powerlifting, then you’re probably getting a kick out of moving large amounts of weight around and seeing your raw strength improve. When all is going well, you feel absolutely unstoppable!

Or you might if it wasn’t for those pounding headaches… what’s going on?

Exertion Headaches

Getting a headache from lifting large amounts of weight is nothing new and if you take a look on any lifting forum you will see it described as an ‘exertion headache’. It’s actually a little more complex than that though, so in this article we’ll look at what is causing the discomfort and how you can go about treating it and preventing it.

What Is an Exertion Headache?

Actually, the term ‘exertion headache’ might not be entirely accurate. Normally a ‘primary exertion headache’ is used to describe headaches that last a few seconds to a few minutes and these can be brought on by any form of straining that affects the abs and chest – including using the toilet or having sex. The exact cause of these headaches isn’t entirely known but is usually treatable with anti-inflammatory medication.

On the other hand, most people describe the headache they get from lifting weights as being longer lasting – sometimes for up to a couple of hours or even days after lifting. What’s more, the headache requires significantly more pressure than would be caused on the toilet (I hope).

So What’s Going On?

In all likelihood, the headache experienced from weightlifting probably has a little more in common with a tension headache than an exertion headache. Tension headaches are caused when the muscles in the head itself are too tense, resulting in the effect of the skull being somewhat ‘squeezed’ thereby causing a dull pain behind the eyes. These can be caused by squinting in the sun all day, by smiling or just by being stressed (which causes us to tense our facial muscles).

When you’re lifting weights, you’re probably well aware that the faces you pull aren’t all that attractive. You tend to scrunch your face right up which causes tension headaches in itself.

More to the point though, you’re also now using the muscles around your neck and your traps. This in turn causes them to contract hard and to place pressure on the nerve running through them, in turn causing pain and increased cranial pressure. In extreme cases, this can lead to dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Worst of all though? It prevents you from training any more…

How to Fix It

So what can you do if you find yourself with one of these weightlifting headaches?

One solution that is offered by several personal trainers and physical therapists is to massage the responsible muscles in the neck and traps, thereby relaxing them and helping to release the pressure on the nerve. You can also try stretching your own neck, both before and after the movement which will keep the muscles limber and loose.

While it certainly helps to get a massage from a trained expert, I’ve actually found that I can massage my neck myself well enough to relieve the headache almost instantly. We’re all different but it’s certainly worth a try.

Another consideration is your posture. These headaches are worsened by sitting with your head forward and down as well during the day. While weightlifting, tucking your chin into your chest can further exacerbate the issue by creating much less space for that nerve. Likewise, you should try to avoid staring at the ceiling when you’re lifting. Watch any Olympic lifter and you’ll see they look straight forward – try to do the same.

Fixing your posture during the day and when lifting can also help then. During the day, if you work in an office, one of the very best things you can do is to lift your monitor up a little higher to eye-level.

Try not to tense all your muscles at once when lifting either. Good muscular control is about being able to tense only the muscles you need for the task at hand. This presents less resistance through the movement and prevents you from turning into a giant red beetroot.

Lastly, make sure that you are breathing properly when you lift. The last thing you need on top of all the other problems, is to starve your brain of oxygen by holding your breath.

Oh and use your brain. Doing 12 sets of 4 deadlifts with 90% of your 1 rep max will give anyone a headache…

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