5 Reasons Push-Ups Might Give You a Headache — and What to Do About It

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These five tweaks may help eliminate your push-up-induced headaches.
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A headache is sure to ruin your afternoon, whether you're at work or lounging on the couch. An unexpected headache during your first set of push-ups is also likely to ruin your workout. If you've ever experienced one, consider the five reasons this exercise may be causing you grief.

1. You're Holding Your Breath

Not breathing properly is one of the main reasons you may be feeling a headache during or after your push-ups, says Jereme Schumacher, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in San Diego.

"Many people tend to hold their breath throughout the whole push-up, leading not only to an increase in cranial pressure, but an increase of CO2 in the body, which can cause headaches and dizziness," he says.

Performing multiple reps of push-ups demands more oxygen in your muscles. As a result, you can lose your breath more quickly, especially if you're not conditioned. And rushing your recovery intervals or forgetting to rest between sets can also cause shortness of breath, potentially leading to a headache.

The Solution

Pay attention to your breathing technique during your push-ups. Schumacher recommends you inhale as you lower your body and exhale as you push yourself back up. Time your push-ups to this breathing pattern.

2. Your Shoulder Blades Are Unstable

Another common cause of push-up-induced headaches is an over-activation of your trapezius muscle (around your neck), Schumacher says.

Push-ups require stability through your both shoulder blades. But when you don't have enough strength to keep your shoulders stable, your upper trapezius muscles tend to pick up some of the slack, he says.

Since your neck muscles are connected to the base of your skull, excessive tension in these muscles can increase your risk of experiencing a headache.

The Solution

Focus on improving your shoulder blade stability while you're in a push-up position, Schumacher says. Performing exercises like the scapula push-up (see below) can help improve your strength.

3. You're Rotating Your Shoulders

Along with unstable shoulder blades, you may also be rotating your shoulders, Schumacher says.

"This means, as you are lowering yourself down, your shoulders are rolling forward instead of maintaining a stable position," Schumacher says. "This, once again, will contribute to increased recruitment of your upper trapezius." And as mentioned above, this can lead to tension in your head.

The Solution

This issue can be fixed by properly setting up your push-up. "I tell all of my patients to start in a push-up position and try to rotate the 'elbow pits' forward," Schumacher says. "This will create strong external rotation tension in your shoulders, which you should maintain throughout the entire push-up."

4. You're Dehydrated

When you exercise, you sweat, which means your body loses fluids. And if you don't replace those fluids, you could end up dehydrated. One symptom of dehydration? You guessed it: a headache. If your head is feeling light or painful during exercise, you may not be drinking enough fluids.

But don't wait until you're thirsty, though, as you may already be dehydrated, according to the Mayo Clinic. They recommend keeping water on hand before, after and during your workout. But if you're experiencing severe symptoms or struggling to keep fluids down, consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

The Solution

Follow these hydration tips from the American Academy of Family Physicians.

  • Drink at least 2 cups of water 2 to 3 hours before exercise.
  • Drink 1 cup of water during your warm-up.
  • Drink at least 1 cup of water every 10 to 20 minutes during your workout.
  • Drink 1 cup of water after your workout.

5. You're Experiencing Exercise Headaches

Although they're not common, you may be experiencing primary exercise headaches, which aren't actually caused by an outside factor, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Also known as a primary exertional headache, these pains are usually brought on by exercise.

Typically, these headaches feel like a pulsing sensation on both sides of the head. Pain can last from anywhere between 5 minutes to 48 hours with features similar to migraines. Although causes and symptoms can vary by person and situation, they're generally exacerbated by hot weather or high altitudes.

The Solution

If you think you're experiencing primary exercise headaches, consult a healthcare professional for proper guidance, as they may prescribe a medication to alleviate pain.

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