Black Out

Blacking out is kind of a problem when lifting weights. The blacking out itself isn’t harmful, but falling and smashing your face on some dumbbells is.

In most cases passing out can be prevented. Passing out is a little different than just feeling light headed. When an unadapted person does an intense conditioning workout, they may feel light headed since their body isn’t accustomed to using and being depleted of substrates and oxygen. This is analogous to when a person is deadlifting or lifting heavy without being adapted to it. When you contract near maximally, vessels will be constricted and this increases blood pressure. If this isn’t gradually introduced in a training program, there can be some residual dizziness or a “light headed” feeling. I’ve never had anyone pass out from this feeling and if you have as a coach or a lifter, then you probably aren’t going about it the right way. “The right way” would be to increase the weight gradually, even if a person is capable of lifting heavier weight. There are plenty of people who because of prior training or admirable genetics can deadlift significant weight their first workout, but that doesn’t mean they should (observe the video above as a case in point). There are other peripheral adaptations (in this case the blood vessels) that need to occur aside from the muscles themselves being or getting strong.

I notice that when I come back from a break in lifting that my limiting factor isn’t how the weight feels on my muscles, but on how my cardiovascular system must re-adapt to heavy weights. Not in the sense that my heart beats fast, but when the vessels are constricted because of the strain of squatting with heavy weight on my back, my head feels like it’s going to explode. My face will turn the color of this ’67 Chevelle, and I’ll even rupture tiny blood vessels and this produces little red dots on my shoulders, neck, and face (areas where the skin is thin). I’m experienced with lifting, so I know what my limit, but I wouldn’t advise any of my trainees or most of you to do the same. If you have taken a break from lifting and you are still new to it, relatively speaking, then take a few workouts to ease back into whatever your program is. It’s the smart thing to do.

You can prevent blacking out as a result of strain and not being adapted in lifts like the squat, press, deadlift, press, and bench, but what about the clean? The clean and it’s derivatives have the propensity to cause blackouts because of the rack position. Assuming you have a good rack position (bar is sitting on top of the deltoids, upper arm is parallel with the floor, no pain in the wrists/elbows, etc.), you can still have problems with the bar either sitting on or rolling back into your carotid arteries (this happens to me frequently when I pull the bar higher than I need to).

The carotid is that big red one

This occludes blood flow to the brain and can quickly cause loss of vision and consciousness. In either case, it isn’t harmful since when either of these happen the bar is usually dropped, therefore the lack of blood flow doesn’t persist to cause damage. Again, the main harm is hitting your head, so having an open lifting area is important. Even if someone is adapted to lifting heavy weights, the carotids are still susceptible to being occluded, even if it is only partially. Compound that limited blood flow with intense strain that can occur in heavy cleans, and you have a recipe for a blackout.

Grinding through heavy cleans and deadlifts are not only tough, they are sometimes necessary to do in order to win an Olympic or powerlifting meet. At the end of a meet or training session, your body is tired, and having to grind through reps is common. You’ll remember Chris’ third attempt deadlift at 650 that ended in a mid-thigh stalemate. He may have been able to lock that lift out if he had known what to do.

The way that you can stave off the strain-induced blackout is by exhaling a bit of air as you grind through the rep. This is completely different than exhaling as you go up on a rep, fitness style. Instead, you will hiss air out from between your teeth or produce a guttural sound from your throat (grunting/yelling, but not singing). This is like putting your thumb over the end of the house; a little bit comes out, but the pressure stays high inside. Letting some air out relieves some of the pressure overall while the teeth/glottis help keep the pressure up enough so that your trunk is still stabilized as you finish the lift. Completely exhaling would let out too much air and not keep the trunk stabilized. There was a sweet guy at USAPL Raw Nationals who yelled stuff like, “Yeah c’mon babyyyyy” as he deadlifted over 600 pounds at 50 years old to A) avoid passing out by releasing some pressure and B) look and sound awesome doing it.

If you feel yourself starting to black out, then expel some air as I described. I like to push it out of my teeth (makes a loud hissing noise, “ssssssssss”), and this saves me from toppling over like a Gordon. You’ll notice good weightlifters doing it routinely, usually in the form of yelling. It took me falling over twice while cleaning 160+kg to completely learn this lesson. Luckily I didn’t get hurt, but hopefully you can be prepared for when it happens to you.

22 thoughts on “Black Out

  1. I like (well not “like”, but you catch my drift) how the entire crowd goes deathly ill the moment he drops the weight.

    On another note, I blacked out in a set of OH presses the other day. Damndest thing, never felt like that was going to happen in my life (though I frequently get light-headed). I started the first rep of my top-ramped set of 5, remember getting mid-way, then I have no clue what happened, but after what I’m presuming was about 5 seconds, I found myself with a half-racked weight (unevenly racked, I might add) and a trainer rushing across the Globo Gym to see if I was all right. Even now, I don’t remember exactly what happened, though I think I have convinced myself that I remember feeling exponentially weak as the bar came down past my face (sort of like the scene in “Hercules” where Hades zaps his strength via handshake–yes, I love Disney). I proceeded to Deadlift afterwards, though not very well I should add.

    If you can sense the blackout coming, you can do the expelling air thing. Did you take your breath before you unracked it? I find it strange that if you took the breath before starting the lift that you would have had this happen on the first rep.

    I’ve hit a jerk in competition to get the total I needed to go to nationals without really being able to see because of the bar pressing a bit into my carotids (over pulled the clean, which I know sounds weird). Nevertheless, I wouldn’t recommend it to most of the people here.


  2. @Justin

    Actually, going into the rep, I was thinking about the valsalva maneuver and how I need to improve on it, and I remember taking a huge breath before the set. I think the breath must have been too big (possible?). Like, it was the kind of breath you’d take if you had to dive really deep underwater and you knew you needed all the oxygen you could hold. Like I said, I can’t remember much after getting about half-way in the rep (I’m assuming this is where I blacked out and dropped the bar), but next time, if I sense it coming, I’ll definitely do the expel-air thing. Thanks.

  3. J- I still want the video of you falling over in competition…

    I have some video, but somebody gave it to me as a finished dvd, therefore it requires some converting (which I lost patience to do after dicking around with it earlier this year).


  4. Justin,
    You neglected one of the most common causes for fainting and dizziness in the gym: lack of calorie intake.

    Eating little or nothing in the hours before intensive lifting can easily lead to fainting. I’ve felt extremely faint a number of times from this. Even today I felt a little dizzy and faint, despite a 1000+ calorie shake before and energy drink during lifting. Got a donut after workout, which helped. Had a gym teacher who carried around glucose for that reason.

    This is a good point. It’s completely baffling to me that anyone on this site or anybody even casually lifting would actually put themselves in a position to get dizzy due to a lack of blood sugar. This post will stick with mechanical causes.


  5. Very timely article. This morning while trying to getter a better rack on my PC’s my first rep landed against my carotid artery. Down I went! Luckily everything fell forward and I did not fully black out.

  6. Why hasnt anyone commented on the jerk who let his buddy teeth plant into the dumbbell rack and then just stood there laughing at him as he flopped around slobbing all over the weights.

    If anything he’s a jerk for letting the guy attempt 300 when he had no business doing so.


    Good point. That guy is awesome. Most people have to watch the train wreck personally. This guy had the presence of mind to keep rolling tape so the world could have this treat.


  7. StonewallWells, I doubt his buddy could reach in time to stop the face plant. Laughing afterwards is a jerk move, though. I’m really surprised the guy in the video didn’t feel it coming. I’ve often felt light headed after heavy deads or squats, and I always get enough warning to drop down to a squat where I can safely wait it out. I’ll be trying this breathing technique for sure. I stopped a squat set recently as I thought I might black out.

  8. Justin-ha ha yeah too true

    Noel-I’d agree, I dont think he would have been able to get there in time to catch him, but holy hell, this guy just nose dived into that weight rack and Mr. Awesome there just laughed at him, it pisses me off a little.

    Give him a break. We don’t know if that’s a buddy or just some dude asked to film the attempt.

    This doesn’t rate that high on the scale of sorriness. This weekend I heard from an old friend. Years ago that dude went to New Orleans, got drunk, and started making out with a tranny (who looked like a woman). I wasn’t there, but our buddies thought it was funny, so they let him leave with her/him. A group from another college found our guy slumped down by a telephone pole with his pants around his knees and his wallet missing. THAT is sorry. This here ain’t so bad.


    Now that’s a story.


  9. ’67 Chevelle equals awesome. Definitely best year of Chevelle. Although I prefer the factory Marina Blue over red.

    My step-dad used to have a red one, so it was the first thing I thought of for the color red.


  10. I love this video. It’s been around for a while. I saw it last year, or maybe a little longer ago, and I think it was pretty soon after the video had been posted. You’ve got to give the guy who slammed his face into the dumbell rack credit. He keeps good humor about it all. As I recall, he posted the video himself and responded to a lot of the comments calling him a dumbass with things like “yeah, you’re right. Don’t be a dumbass like me. And yes, that was the worst form ever and I’m a failure. I’m trying to get better but this was not a good day.” That kind of thing.

    I get the light headed feeling a little bit from deadlifting when I’m doing PRs. Squats too. Nothing beyond just feeling a little disoriented and really wanting to sit down. Not nearly to the point of blacking out. IMO you’ve got to be extremely cautious always when moving heavy shit around. That means the moment you start getting blurred vision, etc. it’s time to reevaluate whether or not today is the day that you’ll execute that lift. Sometiems it just takes setting it down, taking a breath, and picking it up again. There’s no reason to risk injury/blacking out during training. Competition is a different story.

  11. At least he didn’t projectile vomit:

    [Link removed because I’m sick of people linking it. If ESPN Page 2 links it, then we’ve already seen it. I don’t have anything against the video itself, just everyone intensely posting it. –Justin]

  12. I’ve gotten the busted blood vessels on the shoulders/traps, to me it looks super cool. is Brent yoked enough to show up on his traps?

    and that chick puking is awesome… anyone else notice since lifting heavy their pukes are super powerful and hurt really bad?

  13. @Anyone who can help me on this one:

    I feel like this is a dumb question, but going back to Justin’s other post about good vs bad barbells, why are wrist injuries common on the olympic lifts when using shit BBs?

    This question will give me relevant material to post about.


  14. thumbs up if you think JLascek looks like Kstar from

    and i’m still waiting on your high bar vs. low bar post

    While Kelly and I are both handsome, we’d probably agree we don’t look alike.


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