View Full Version : My squat headache

Jason David
06-03-2010, 11:48 AM
Happened when I was doing a (2nd) set of 15 BW back squats. I've encountered this once before when I was almost done with my 20 rep squat a little over a year ago. Thing is...it took me about 3 or 4 full weeks to bounce back.

I'm pretty sure it's from not breathing. Few questions...

It's been almost a week and I still have the feeling that I am just about to get a headache or just got over one. And, when I pull my head back (the same motion as when you move your head out of the way of the bar for a press) I get an instant headache. It seems to be on the left and it shoots pain up my head for a full blown headache. Then it goes away when I put my head back to normal.

Anybody get this? Know what it is? Since it went away before I'm not too concerned...but when people talk about pressure headaches they seem to go away much quicker than mine...


Matt Haxmeier
06-03-2010, 12:40 PM
My exertion headaches always lingered for a period of days afterwards. Not a full on headache but a feeling of pressure like I would get a terrible headache if I tried anything.

I think there are a bunch of threads on exertion/coital headaches here if you think that's what it is....sounds like it to me.

Steven Low
06-03-2010, 01:51 PM
If the muscles in the back of yoru neck are tight...... which it sounds like then loosening them may be your ticket to non-headache-dom.

You see if you start to look up during squatting and contracting the back of the neck muscles extremely hard then you have them pull on the skull since that's where a lot of the originate from. Making them taut and contracting really hard can give exercise headaches.

So basically, stretch out your neck muscles and get a deep tissue massage to them. Use heat to help loosen them up if it helps.

Scott Norman
06-04-2010, 08:36 AM
I've actually had exertion headaches from multiple different workouts.

Bench Press and Squating.
It will linger a bit and not to scare you but can come back easy if your not careful (short term). I actually had a slight exertion headache last week and now I haven't had any issues. With my experience with this issue I knew to stop any additional strenuous PT and switch to Cardio.
It mainly comes from you not breathing correctly, i.e holding your breath when you are suppose to exhale and keeping the neck muscles tight.

Rest and then take it easy when you come back, moderate weight and keep your reps low. It can reoccur even with low weight high reps.
Don't worry to much, it's not like a reoccuring injury (constant), but can happen again, work on your breathing (release) and warm-up the shoulders and neck prior to squats.

David McLellan
06-30-2010, 04:40 PM
I'm gonna try and explain as much about these headaches as possible (some of this is just theory but I think it'll suffice as an accurate explanation). I'd get exertion headaches only doing high rep squats for the past 2 years (I'm 20)--they were just how everyone has described them, coming on late in the set, starting in the back of the head and then really taking over my head for like 8-12 seconds pretty harsh after I put the bar down and rapidly fade away to normal after about 30 sec. This probably happened like 5 or 6 times to me and I'd just wait like 1 minute and go get a drink and then it would be totally gone and I'd just keep on lifting how I normally would and never feel it again. A month ago, I was doing a high rep squat set at the end of a routine and I got the headache a little worse than usual and the water break didn't make the subtle feeling of pressure/pain go away like usual. 4 weeks later, I still feel pressure in my head (mainly the back) that sometimes flares up to subtle throbbing pain every now and then. I've taken it pretty easy since the headache-- maybe lifted 60% like 4 times since, but having a non-normal feeling head for a month is driving me insane so I've learned as much about them as possible and I'm going to share what I know/think about what causes the prolonged headache and how it will go away (don't let the length of the post discourage you... it's a very thorough synopsis):

The main thing about these headaches is they basically only occur during high rep sets of squats or leg press (although some people get them doing bench press). The reason is as follows: squating raises your blood pressure to a value that is notably above normal -- most people hold their breath for an instant during the "up" part of the rep (this is known as the valsalva manuever) which dramatically increases the pressure in your chest which increases blood pressure in the venous system (the part of the circulatory system in which blood that has delivered oxygen to the body is coming back to the heart to then go to the lungs for more O2). Blood enters your brain, releases good things like O2, then flows back to the heart through the venous system (to put it in a very simple way). However, the increased pressure in your chest impedes blood flow in the area between your brain and your heart. This causes a "build up" of blood in these vessels which increases the amount of force the blood exerts on the vessel wall, and this pressure eventually backs up the venous system into the brain (it also doesnt help that your body is trying to pump way more blood than normal due to your body's high demand of O2 during an exercise as strenuous as squating--yet this blood can't flow as effeciently as it'd like because the chest pressure essentially "kinks" blood vessels).

There are multiple thin layers of tissue (bunch of cells adhered together that have similar function), containing very thin blood vessels, collectively known as the "meninges" between the skull and the brain that basically serve to line/nourish the brain and protect the nervous system. So, in the skull-to-brain direction, the meningial linings are as follows: dura mater, arachnoid, pia mater. The important one in our case is the pia mater (check out "meninges" under wikipedia for good info). The Pia Mater is a very delicate membrane of cells that is adhered to the brain and spinal chord (around lots of nerves....think about pain). Larger blood vessels in the dura mater split into capillaries (really thin blood vessels with small diameter) in the Pia Mater. I firmly believe that these capillaries in the Pia Mater experience an excess of pressure over an extended period of time during high rep squats and some of them break open and release blood into the space between the Pia Mater and the arachnoid (this area is known as the subarachnoid space)::: the technical term for this is "subarachnoid hemorrhagging" (don't let the term "hemorrhage" scare you... this is a very minor case of hemorrhagging). Since the Pia Mater is such a sensitive membrane we feel a significant amount of pain when blood vessels break and release blood which comes in contact with the incredibly important, sensitive Pia Mater. It makes sense that the Pia Mater is so sensitive because it's responsible for providing nourishment to your brain through function of the precious capillaries that us meat-heads break open doing high rep squats. Whenever your body experiences some type of damage (cuts, bruise, small hemorrhagging, etc.), an inflammatory response occurs which involves swelling (recruitment of fluid containing cells of the immune system and those responsible for clotting the blood). This swelling further irritates the Pia Mater which causes the pressure and pain we feel over an extended period of time. It doesn't help that the skull acts as a wall and presents a confined space for the swelling. This is why even a very small amount of swelling in the area between your brain and your skull can be so uncomfortable.

Now, there are really two different feeling associated with the experience: the "rush" type pain that is pretty intense that you get late in the set that I said went away for me in like 8-12 seconds, and then there is the subtle feeling of pain/pressure that exists constantly long afterwards. With my experience, for about a week and a half after the incident, I could reproduce the same "rush" headache that you feel at the end of the set if I did a valsalva-type manuever. Again, it would only last like 3-4 seconds. But after a certain period of time (about a week and a half) maneuvers that once made the "rush" headache flare up no longer do so---This is because the blood vessels that had ruptured have now healed a significant amount, almost, if not completely, back to normal by this point. Now, to explain the long duration of "slight headahce" that everyone constantly feels: your body eventually resorbs the small amount of blood in the subarachnoid space but swelling still exists in that area which causes the pressure/slight pain.

One thing that is so frustrating about the headache is that it lasts far longer than you'd think because all previous experience of headaches tells us humans that they usually go away in a matter of hours, often minutes; so when it's there a month later you feel like you'll have it forever. But you have to remember that this headache had a much different cause than the normal headaches/migranes most people get. Think about it as a sprained ankle: something like that doesn't heal completely in a week- depending on the severity of the initial accident. I've found that anything that constricts your blood vessels (makes them smaller) lessens the pain/pressure in my head. TAKE A BAG OF ICE AND HOLD IT ON THE BACK OF YOUR HEAD! This has helped better than anything for me. As well as taking anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen.

Basically ice, anti-inflammatory medicine, and avoiding activities that cause you to "strain" in any way will expedite the rate at which swelling in the meningial area heals and that damn feeling of pressure/pain goes away completely. As incredibly hard as it is to take time off after lifting so diligently for so long, seriously doing no activity at all besides walking and daily chores for a few weeks is ideal for letting this thing heal as fast as possible.

Additional info:

A possible explanation for the counter-intuitive fact that these headaches usually occur during high rep/lighter weight sets as opposed to low rep/high weight sets can be explained by the gradual step-wise fashion in which the blood pressure backs up the venous system from the chest area to the brain. In low rep exercises, there isn't enough time for the valsalva-created blood pressure to build up enough in the venous system to have an effect in blood vessels as far up in the venous system as the brain.

Mike Mallory
06-30-2010, 05:10 PM
my god man, nice first post.......However, I think Steven's reply sufficed; stretch suboccipitals

James Mazzarisi
07-07-2010, 03:40 PM
I got this about a week ago. I did the 75 rep work out of overhead squats. Never had one of these headaches before, but I concentrated on the pain and could tell it emanated from my neck. Felt like my traps/neck muscles were so tight a nerve was pinched. Pain has subsided after rest and stretching. Seems to be a common problem in overhead squats.

On a different note - Steven I read your article on shoes and sitting on your website... I liked it. After years of wearing inserts I switched to Vibrams this spring. Now have 2 pairs and I can run again,

Steven Low
07-10-2010, 08:21 PM
Awesome. glad it helped. Spread the word :)

David McLellan
07-14-2010, 08:36 AM
So I think my last post could be completely wrong. About 4 days ago I found sensitive tight muscle knots in my back on the right side (just inside the shoulder blade) and really upper neck, also on the right side. I put a golf ball on the ground and laid down and rolled over it right where the knot was on my back until I almost had tears coming out of my eyes. It hurt like a *****. I got up and the headache was cured.. no joke. Since then, I've been stretching my neck and back muscles a lot and I can really tell that the headache has gotten 90% better. I rode an exercise bike yesterday which flared up the headache again, but it went away much faster than it used to. I can also feel pinched nerves in my back on the right side (just inside the shoulder blade) which definitely has something to do with the headache. Today, it's been 6 weeks since the squat set that gave me the headache.

Somehow the neck and back muscles get really tight and might even spasm sometimes as a result of an exertion headache (for a prolonged time afterward) and something about these muscles recovering from the intense strain and weird pinched nerves causes the subtle "aftermath" headache --- i think, at least. So I'd say stretch your back (traps) and neck (suboccipitals) a lot after this happens and holding ice on the back of my head helped a lot for me as well.

The headache never felt at all like it would be related to my neck/back muscles until 6 weeks went by and I found that knot in my back when I was stretching one day. So even if you don't feel like your back/neck has much do to with it, give it a try because it helped me.

Hope any of this helps anybody


Steven Low
07-14-2010, 08:27 PM
Well, at least you used my advice eventually which was to massage it out. Heat would've helped too.

I don't know why you wrote up that huge paragraph when I answered this question in the thread before you. Shrug.