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Weightlifting and Headaches

Joe Fleming provides an overview of how to prevent and relieve tension headaches from weightlifting.

Almost everybody suffers from a headache at some point in their lives, and tension headaches, which are usually characterized by pain and tightness in the neck and both sides of the head, are particularly common. In fact, current research shows that they affect approximately 20 percent of the global population or 1.4 billion people.

Tension headaches can be caused by a number of factors, but people who exercise and lift weights on a regular basis may be more prone to tension headaches than others.

If you experience tension headaches on a regular basis, read on to find out which of your lifting habits could be contributing to your pain and learn more about how you can prevent and treat these kinds of headaches.

Commons Causes of Tension Headaches

Listed below are some of the most common causes of tension headaches, along with some tips on how you can avoid these potentially triggering behaviours:

Extending Your Neck While Lifting

If you are looking up at the ceiling while lifting weights, especially while doing compound lifts like squats or deadlifts, you are setting yourself up for a tension headache, along with other, more serious, injuries.

When your neck is extended like this, you are tightening and putting unnecessary stress on the trapezius muscles (large muscles in the upper back and neck) and scapulae (shoulder blades).

Focus on keeping your head in a neutral position, fix your gaze on a spot a few inches in front of you and keep the chin tucked slightly while lifting. You may need to decrease the amount of weight you lift at first to work on adjusting your form, but it will be worth it if it helps you avoid tension headaches.

Poor Nutrition and Dehydration

The food you eat and the amount of water you drink both have a major impact on just about every area of your health and fitness, it is only natural that they would also influence your susceptibility to tension headaches.

Poor nutrition choices, lots of refined carbohydrates, inflammatory oils, etc., paired with dehydration limit your mobility and increase your chances of developing muscle cramps and tension. This, in turn, can lead to tension headaches after lifting.

Make sure you are incorporating lots of fruits and vegetables into your diet, along with high-quality meat and healthy fat in the form of nuts, avocados, and extra-virgin olive oil. Steer clear of refined sugar, empty carbohydrates (pastries, chips, cookies, etc.), and artificial sweeteners, which can cause muscle spasms.

Drink plenty of water, too, especially prior to and immediately after your workout. Aim for at least half your body weight in ounces each day.

Lifting More than You Can Safely Handle

If you are lifting more weight than you can safely handle, and your form is suffering, you are more likely to strain your muscles and cause tension headaches.

Do not let your ego get in the way. Stick to weight that you can manage (or at least have someone spot you when you are trying for a new one-rep max) so that you are not hurting your neck and shoulders in the process.

Weak Neck and Shoulder Muscles

Under-conditioned neck and shoulder muscles can cause pain and muscle spasms, especially when you are doing activities like running, aerobics, plyometrics, or power walking that can jostle your head if you are not careful.

Some good exercises to do to minimize pressure and strengthen your neck and shoulder muscles include:

  • Chin tucks - pull your head back and tuck your chin (without rounding your neck)
  • Cobra stretches - lie face down on the floor and use the muscles in your shoulders/upper back to lift the head, chest, and hands
  • Side-to-side and diagonal neck stretches

Poor Posture

If you spend hours a day hunched over at a computer or staring at your phone, you are probably bringing that poor posture with you to the gym. Having a rounded neck and forward head while lifting weights or doing exercises like crunches is just as bad as extending your neck.

This puts a lot of stress on the neck and shoulder muscles and could easily be contributing to your tension headaches.

Focus on strengthening your "pulling" muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, biceps, etc.) to change the way you recruit muscles when lifting weights. It takes time to change the way you move when lifting weights, but your body (especially your neck and shoulders) will thank you later.

Treating Tension Headaches

Once you figure out what is causing your tension headaches, you can work to avoid those behaviours and, hopefully, minimize the number of headaches you deal with. However, it can take some time to change bad habits and improve the way you lift to get rid of headaches.

In the meantime, these tips can help relieve tension headaches caused by weightlifting so that you are not totally side-lined by your pain:

  • Swap out heavy lifts, especially pressing movements, for functional corrective exercises that strengthen the shoulders and neck
  • Consume anti-inflammatory foods and beverages like tart cherry juice, ginger tea, and turmeric
  • Wear an ice pack to reduce pain and tension. There are many ice packs that are designed for use when mobile, so you can still go about your day while wearing it
  • Gently stretch the neck and shoulders or massage them with a lacrosse ball to loosen the muscles
  • Use essential oils like peppermint to minimize pain and inflammation

If your headaches do not go away even after applying these home remedies and changing up your workout routine, your problem could be caused by something more than just muscle tension. You may need to visit a doctor or chiropractor to get to the root of the issue.

Final Thoughts

Weightlifting-induced tension headaches are frustrating, especially when they are so severe that you cannot exercise the way you like. Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to retrain your muscles and avoid pain.

Keep these tips in mind if you struggle with tension headaches, and you just might find that your pain starts to go away.


Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • FLEMING, J. (2018) Weightlifting and Headaches [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/article338.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Joe Fleming is the President at ViveHealth.com. Passionate about healthy lifestyles and living a full life, he enjoys sharing and expressing these interests through his writing. With a goal to inspire others and fight ageism, Joe writes to help people of all backgrounds and ages overcome life's challenges. His work ranges from articles on wellness, holistic health and ageing to social narratives, motivational pieces and news stories. For Joe, helping others is vital.

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