Why Do Some Lifters Pass Out from Heavy Deadlifts?

When you’re pushing your body to new limits, such as hitting maximal deadlifts, there’s always a chance (often small) of injury. We’ve seen a few viral videos of lifters passing out from lifts lately on Instagram, and of course the comments section is war zone.

There are comments saying it’s unhealthy, then you have comments saying how hardcore it is, but no one tends to comment on why it happens. While uncommon, maximal lifting can result in fainting due to a sharp drop in blood press and oxygen to the brain.

Syncope (Passing Out/Fainting)

Syncope is the medical term used to define a temporary, often short, loss of consciousness. The typical cause is from low blood pressure where the heart isn’t able to pump enough oxygen to the brain. This lack of oxygen and decrease in blood pressure results in fainting, which in a lifter’s case is often caused under strenuous loads.

Obviously there are multiple reasons why a lifter might pass out from an extremely heavy lift, like underlying serious health issues, but for the healthy individual who experiences a bout of fainting from a lift, then there are typically three big factors at play.

1. Valsalva Maneuver (Causing Sudden Drop in Blood Pressure)

Most know the Valsalva Maneuver as, hold your breath in the belly during the eccentric, then hold and exhale through the sticking point of the concentric. It’s a common practice for powerlifters, weightlifters, and strongman athletes lifting heavy weight trying to maintain a rigid and stable torso.

There’s a slue of arguments in both directions over the potential health issues that come with the Valsalva Maneuver, and no one answer can be definitely deemed as correct. For example, if a powerlifter hitting a maximal squat loses their air/stability in the hole, then they risk a collapsing torso and injury, so it’s hard to argue against the maneuver, even though there are health risks that come with it.

In regards to a majority of the cases when lifters pass out, the Valsalva Maneuver is often the key player. But what does it do?

When holding your breath during a lift and exerting energy/force we’re increasing the amount of pressure (and blood flow) in the chest, specifically the left atrium. There’s an initial increase in stroke volume, then it’s quickly impeded by the pressure produced in the chest. The impeded flow causes stroke volume to decrease, while the blood vessels constrict, also at this time pulse rate increases.

This sharp decline in blood pressure is often linked to a lifter passing out during maximal lifts, but soon ends after the pressure is relieved and pressure, breathing, and blood flow stabilizes. Factor in that there’s often a prolonged holding of the breath (lack of oxygen to brain), and you have a recipe for syncope (quick episode of passing out/fainting).

More experienced lifters will often be better versed with this type of breathing and will have a better idea of what their bodies can do. If you find yourself constantly light headed from heavy lifts, then you may want to look at your breathing patterns. A few things you could check on your own are below:

  • Belly vs. Chest Breathing: For Valsalva, the goal is to increase intra-abdominal and intra-thoracic pressure. Are you taking too shallow of breaths or only breathing into your chest? Check out the video below from Brian Alsruhe on Breathing and Bracing.

  • Holding Breath a Little Too Long: Newer lifters often hold their breath a little too long, then begin their next rep right away. A way to mitigate the Valsalva’s impact on a feeling of being light headed is to exhale as you hit your sticking point. A slow controlled exhalation through your sticking point can help regulate breathing while still maintaining your torso’s stability, and promote a little more oxygen flow to the brain.

2. Blood Sugar Levels

This one is less common than the Valsalva Maneuver, but could still play a role in a lifter passing out. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, while usually unlikely, can result in fainting. Lifters who train fasted and exert maximal force are most prone to passing out from low blood sugar. Also, those who train in the morning without food or fluid, or who follow ketogenic/low-carb diets should also pay attention to possible warning signs of hypoglycemia.

Shaking, sweating, feeling anxious, pale, dizziness, blurred vision, irritability, and weakness are a few of the mild/moderate hypoglycemia warning signs. If you experience any of these while working out, then it’s usually recommended to consume some form of snack or food soon after you recognize them to help level out your blood sugar levels.

3. Dehydration

Fainting from dehydration can be a serious health threat and will be most common in athletes conditioning outside, trying to make weight, and lifting in hot climates. When we experience a drop in body fluid, then we’ll simultaneously experience a drop in blood pressure. This drop in fluid and pressure can result in fainting.

Dark urine, dry mouth, shakiness, headache, muscle cramps, and dizziness are a few of the first warning signs of dehydration. For training purposes, everyone tends to have their own practices and guidelines. A general rule of thumb is to consume 16-20 ounces per lb of bodyweight lost during/after training. It’s also beneficial to ensure you’re hydrated at the onset of exercise, and you account for your workout’s climate

In Sum

A lifter who passes out during a maximal lift isn’t always a sign for immediate alarm, but should be cared for as if it was. Typically, this act is from a prolonged Valsalva Maneuver that resulted in too sharp of a drop in blood pressure for the lifter’s body to handle. It usually won’t happen to the recreational lifter, and is more common in an elite athlete in competition, or an athlete performing 1-RM loads.

If you find yourself frequently passing out, or feeling light headed from working out, then seek a medical professional to analyze potential underlying health issues.

Feature image from @apemanstrong Instagram page.