We've all seen that video of someone going for a max deadlift, getting close to lock-out, then passing out and falling backward. Rest assured, this is not normal, and passing out can be entirely avoided once you know why it happens.
As a trainer for 14 years, I have had a few instances of light-headedness from a high-intensity deadlift. It’s an overwhelming experience, to say the least, and could make you more apprehensive for a big-time deadlift.
So, understanding how to avoid passing out while deadlifting is an important concept for many lifters, even advanced ones.
So why do people pass out from deadlifts? Four reasons explain why people faint after deadlifts:
- Not Breathing Properly
- Low Blood Pressure
- Taking Too Long To Set Up
- Lifting With Low Blood Sugar
Passing out after deadlifts is not healthy. During a deadlift pass out, the consequences could be a potential injury from the impact after passing out and falling over. Passing out could cause psychological issues of anxiousness and stress as well.
Let's cover these points in more detail so you understand how to lift without feeling lightheaded after deadlifts or passing out.
Keep in mind, that if you're passing out or dizzy after deadlifts, you'll want to treat it seriously and seek medical attention to ensure there are no underlying issues.
People Pass Out After Deadlift Because Of Syncope
Syncope is the reason people pass out after a deadlift. The medical term refers to the temporary loss of consciousness that usually relates to a lack of blood flow to the brain.
Through my expertise in exercise science, I can note that we bring up the word “syncope” because during a maximal effort lift (like the deadlift), blood flow is prioritized into the muscle tissue for producing maximum effort contractions.
This, coupled with the Valsalva maneuver (taking a deep breath and holding it to stay rigid and tense during a lift), is used to help recruit top-tier strength. However, a lack of blood flow to the brain and holding your breath to stay tense could cause someone to get lightheaded and potentially pass out while lifting weights.
Disclaimer: Fainting should be treated as a medical emergency until the cause is known. But most often, syncope isn't harmful, nor do you have any serious problems.
Many nerves connect with your heart and blood vessels, and fainting occurs when the heart can't pump enough oxygen to the brain. This happens while deadlifting because blood is rushing to your muscles to produce maximal force.
With that said, there could be several reasons why lifters pass out when deadlifting, and for the healthy individual, there are usually four main causes. The four main causes for a deadlift pass-out could be not breathing properly, low blood pressure, taking too long to set up, and lifting with low blood sugar.
Powerlifters often get nervous during competition. Check out this article about why powerlifters get nauseous during competition for a massive lift!
4 Reasons Why People Pass Out After Deadlifts
1. Not Breathing Properly
When you breathe in the deadlift, you want to implement the Valsalva maneuver.
This breathing method refers to taking a big inhalation into your belly, holding your breath, and then forcefully pushing out. When you ‘push out,' you are still holding your breath but mimicking what it would feel like if you were going to exhale.
We cover how to breathe properly in the deadlift elsewhere, but this kind of breathing can take hundreds of pounds of load off the spine while lifting (Hukins et al., 1990). This is because the Valsalva maneuver creates ‘intra-abdominal pressure,' stabilizing your core like a weightlifting belt.
During the Valsalva maneuver, your blood pressure rises. Once you've finished the lift, your blood pressure decreases, often below baseline, before rising again and returning to normal. The rising and falling of blood pressure can happen quickly, and the sudden pressure drop can make you feel light-headed.
So, while the Valsalva maneuver has extreme benefits in allowing you to lift more weight, you need to ensure that:
You're holding your breath too long
When you perform the Valsalva maneuver, as soon as you feel your core engaged, you should be pulling the weight off the floor. The longer you hold your breath, the more time your brain is going without oxygen. You also don't need to hold your breath throughout the entire movement. A good practice is to breathe out through your sticking point.
Here's an example of an athlete holding their breath too long:
You can learn more about why powerlifters hold their breath in my other article!
Releasing breath too fast
As I mentioned, your blood pressure rises while performing the Valsalva maneuver, but as you breathe out, your blood pressure decreases. This is normal because you want your blood pressure to return to baseline. However, if you breathe out too quickly, there will be a sharp decrease in blood pressure, often overcompensating and temporarily falling below normal levels. This could be a reason for fainting after deadlift.
This is often the case when you see someone pull a big deadlift, and they start screaming with excitement and letting out their air rapidly. Remember to breathe out as controlled as possible once the lift is over.
Here's an example of a lifter releasing their breath too fast after they finish the pull:
Want to improve your deadlift technique?
2. Low Blood Pressure
While I mentioned that the Valsalva maneuver can cause a sharp decrease in blood pressure after letting your air out too quickly, there may be other reasons for low blood pressure. For example:
If you've been sitting too long
If you sit too long and then stand up, your blood usually pools in your lower extremities, which can cause a decrease in blood pressure. Before attempting a max deadlift, you want to ensure that you've been standing or walking around for a minute or so to avoid this issue.
This was also one of the factors discussed in my other article on why powerlifters get nosebleeds when deadlifting.
If you're dehydrated
Powerlifters who compete may have to reduce their water intake to make a weight class. If athletes don't have a proper hydration plan following their weigh-ins, then being dehydrated while trying to compete can lead to dizziness.
A general rule of thumb is to consume 16-20 ounces per lb of body weight lost during/after training.
If you experience low blood pressure, you could carry salt tablets to put in your water. Salt will temporarily increase your blood pressure.
If you've consumed alcohol or taken medication
Alcohol has been shown to reduce blood pressure, so if you were out drinking the night before then decided to go to the gym and deadlift heavy, you might feel lightheaded. Additionally, note any medications you're on and see if they have side effects causing low blood pressure. While you might not feel the impact of low blood pressure during your everyday life, lifting heavy might cause a negative response.
Sometimes when powerlifters sniff ammonia it can help prevent them from passing out while lifting.
3. Taking Too Long To Set Up
You'll notice that some lifters hold the bar for a long time before actually initiating movement.
Blood will rush to your head when you're bent over, holding onto the bar. When you start pulling to stand erect, the blood drains from your head to facilitate oxygen to your leg and back muscles.
This is normal, but you want to avoid being bent over for too long, where all your blood goes to your head and then quickly needs to rush to your muscles to facilitate the movement. This effect would be compounded by the Valsalva maneuver and some of the other mistakes already discussed, like holding your breath too long or breathing out too quickly.
Here's an example of a deadlift set-up taking too long:
If your setup is taking too long, you just need to practice it more often. Try to do multiple sets of submaximal weight between 55-75% of your one repetition max, and do 6-10 single rep sets to practice your deadlift setup and execute it better each time. This should occur after the heaviest top set of your workout that day.
Similar to passing out while deadlifting, the front squat can choke you causing you to feel lightheaded. Check out my other article that discusses this in more detail.
4. Lifting With Low Blood Sugar
If you train or compete with low blood sugar, you might be at a greater risk of passing out during deadlifts. We will, though, discuss how to use carbohydrates and sugars below to learn how not to get light-headed when deadlifting so you are set up for success.
You may have low blood sugar if you train fasted or use a low-carb diet. Powerlifters who compete often have to reduce their food consumption and carb intake, leading to competition if they have to make a specific bodyweight category. For every 1 gram of carb consumed, approximately 2-3 grams of water are retained. Therefore, athletes often reduce carbs as a weight-cutting strategy leading to competition.
Possible warning signs of low blood sugar are if you start shaking or sweating (more than usual) or you feel weak. I always like to carry something sugary in my gym bag in case this happens. Some athletes use sugar pills to return their glucose levels to baseline quickly.
Ever seen a powerlifter’s nose bleed during a massive PR lift? Check out this article about why powerlifters get a nosebleed during training!
Why do people pass out during deadlift? The most common cause of fainting while deadlifting is not implementing the Valsalva maneuver correctly. While it has the benefits of lifting more weight, you'll want to make sure you practice it correctly.
With that said, if you're passing out while deadlifting, you'll definitely want to seek a medical professional to see if there are any underlying issues. We discussed four main reasons why you pass out when lifting weights, but ultimately, it’s best to seek a medical professional to get the best answers for these problems.
Struggling with your breath during deadlift? Check out this article about how to breathe correctly during a deadlift rep.
Feature image from @apemanstrong Instagram page.
What To Read Next
Hukins DWL, Kirby, MC, Sikoryn, TA, Aspden, RM, and Cox, AJ. Comparison of structure, mechanical properties, and functions of lumbar spinal ligaments. Spine 15: 787–795, 1990.