Table of Contents

Exertion Headaches

By: Nick Ryan | June 23, 2011 489 Comments

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series The A.P.E.X. Way

UPDATE: This article was originally published by itself.  As of May 5, 2015 we decided to include it as a part of our series “The A.P.E.X. Way”.

Strenuous, intense physical training can result in what are known as EXERTION HEADACHES.  This article describes exertion headaches, what causes an exertion headache, what to do to avoid exertion headaches, and how to properly transition back into training after suffering from an exertion headache.  The majority of the article centers on exertion headaches that result from lifting weights; however, there is a CrossFit specific section towards the end of the article, updated March 2014.  Endurance athletes that experience exertion headaches after high intensity cardio will find the CrossFit section most helpful. This article is not intended to replace a medical visit.  In fact, if you are reading this because you recently experienced an exertion headache, take a moment and schedule a medical visit.


Exertion headaches are exercise-induced headaches that are correlated with training at a very high intensity.  They most commonly occur after a set of a compound leg movement (i.e. leg press, squat, deadlift) performed to failure or close to failure. Right after the set, sometimes on the final rep, an intense headache occurs typically in the back of the head or in the temples. What scientifically occurs is a forced dilation (expansion) of the blood vessels in your brain beyond their normal thresholds.  This puts pressure on the meninges, (small nerves that cover the brain) which causes the painful headache. Once the heart rate and blood pressure drop, the headache becomes less intense; however, the meninges remain extra sensitive, and are susceptible to future headaches if blood pressure or heart rate spike.


Exertion headaches occur when a combination of the following circumstances are true:

  • DEHYDRATION: Dehydration thickens your blood
  • VALSALVA MANEUVER (Holding Breath): This causes a dramatic spike in blood pressure
  • POOR NECK POSITION: Anything other than a neutral spine causes constrictions on the carotid arteries, the main arteries that deliver blood to the brain.
  • INCREASED HEART RATE: As a set progresses, your heart rate will steadily climb so that by the end of your set it can be close to (or above) your maximal heart rate.
  • HEAVY WEIGHT: The more weight on your body, the more blood pressure will rise while lifting it. Because legs are the strongest muscle group in the body, more weight is needed to reach a level of fatigue or failure.  The correlation between heavy weight and an increase in blood pressure makes compound leg movements more risky than other movements.

The combination of elevated blood pressure, heart rate, thickened blood and constricted arteries can result in a devastating surge of blood attempting to enter the brain, forcibly expanding the arteriole walls and putting pressure on the meninges.


Exertion headaches have three phases:

  1. INTENSE HEADACHE:  The first phase is the intense, painful headache that occurs during or immediately after an intense workout.  The pain is typically in the temples or back of head.  The feeling can best be described as a grenade exploding in the head.  The headache hits rapidly, and throbs painfully.  This headache will not go away until there is a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and all activity has ceased.
  2. DULL HEADACHE:  The second phase is a dull, fatiguing headache that can last for up to 2 weeks.  It typically lingers wherever the initial phase of the headache was felt because that is the area that the meninges flared up.
  3. FULL RECOVERY:  Full recovery depends on the severity of the initial headache and the quality of rest given to the body to recover.  If the body is given the opportunity to heal, dull headaches are typically gone in 1 week.  True full recovery, meaning the ability to perform at the same level as before the headache, will take approximately 2 months.


To prevent an exertion headache:

  • HYDRATE: Drink enough water that you’re urine is clear or faintly yellow (never dark golden) the day before your lift and the day of, and continue to drink water during your workout.  This will ensure that your blood can flow freely and smoothly through your blood vessels.
  • BREATHE: The valsalva maneuver is a valuable tool for creating stability in the thoracic cavity (torso area) that can help prevent lower back injuries during maximal lifts.  It should not, however, be used during sets of multiple repetitions. When performing multiple repetitions, exhale during the positive phase and inhale during the negative phase. You can find more detailed information on breathing techniques here.
  • NEUTRAL SPINE: Unless performing a neck exercise, there is no need for the neck to be bent. Maintaining a neutral spinal alignment allows for proper circulation through the arteries and veins responsible for moving blood in and out of the brain.  While “looking up” may mentally help keep the back straight during a squat or a deadlift, it is not essential.  Keep the head and neck in a neutral position.
  • CONDITIONING:  Developing a healthy heart and lungs that can handle high intensity training can be accomplished with regimented cardiovascular training.  General conditioning along with interval training can help reduce the risk of exertion headaches by developing an efficient and healthy cardiovascular system that can handle the stress.

Training with a high level of intensity is part of improving the body’s performance potential, increasing size and strength; however, it can also create an opportunity for an exertion headache.  To avoid exertion headaches during high intensity training sessions, build a solid cardiovascular base, be hydrated, breathe correctly, and maintain a neutral spine. Also, consider performing the larger compound leg movements at the beginning of the workout.  Leg movements are inherently heavy, taxing exercises.  Performing them early in the workout is safer because fatigue, exercise-induced dehydration, and a peaking heart rate won’t be part of the equation yet.


There are some simple guidelines that will help with full recovery and full pre-headache performance:

  1. STOP:  Once an exertion headache occurs, STOP. Do not attempt to push through the rest of the training session, it will only worsen the headache and the duration of symptoms.
  2. MEDICAL VISIT:  It is important to rule out any other underlying potential causes.  Aneurysm’s, thunderclap headaches, and slipped discs may be potential causes for similar symptoms and must be ruled out.  If it is an exertion headache, physicians may recommend rest, plenty of fluids and ibuprofen taken every 4 – 6 hours daily to help with the swelling of the meninges.  Or, they may recommend something else which is why it is important to consult the physician.
  3. REST 1 WEEK:  The initial rest phase should be a complete week of total rest from all physical activity, including practices, strength training, cardio, as well as recreational and competitive activities.

If steps 1 – 3 are done without any interruptions, then the headache should subside and the head should feel normal after 1 week.  However, the body is still not ready at this point for pre-headache performance.  At this point, download the A.P.E.X. app and begin the INCEPTION workout progression designed by me specifically for recovery from exertion headaches.   Over the last decade I have fine tuned this program to incorporate the correct volume, introducing compound and lower body movements at the appropriate time, allowing for the highest percentage of full recovery within a 2 month window.  Here are some guidelines for building back up to pre-headache performance:

  1. PHASE 1 (2 WEEKS):  Take two weeks off from any lower body exercises, performing only upper body exercises at 50 – 75% of your pre-headache weight.  By the end of the two weeks, weight should be approaching pre-workout level.  Introduce light cardio, no more than 70% of your Maximum Target Heart Rate (220-Age), for no more than 20 minutes.
  2. PHASE 2 (2 WEEKS):  Introduce single-joint, isolateral leg exercises to the upper body strength program.  This includes leg extensions, leg curls, hip adduction and abduction.  This allows for strength maintenance without loading the frame. Attempting to do compound leg movements such as squats, leg press, or deadlifts prematurely can cause a flair-up of the meninges and another full-blown exertion headache.  Begin increasing intensity of cardiovascular training slowly during this phase.
  3. PHASE 3 (4 WEEKS):  Begin introducing compound leg movements at 50% OF PRE-HEADACHE WEIGHT.  Slowly add back volume and weight each workout.  Begin pushing the cardiovascular system.

If at any point during this recovery plan an exertion headache occurs, then go back to step one which was STOP.  Repeat with physician visit, rest, and slow recovery.  It is important to note that while 2 months of recovery does seem like a long time, these headaches can linger for over 6 months if the body is not allowed to heal.  2 months of strategic recovery is better than 6 months of bull-headed attempts to push through it.


Since the original post of this article in 2011, and my original post back in 2007, CrossFit has exploded in popularity and has become a huge part of the fitness culture.  WOD’s, CrossFit Games, and CrossFit Gyms have saturated the fitness world internationally.  The reason I mention this because we have noticed a gradual climb in emails, hits, and posts related to exertion headaches coming from CrossFitters.  None of our A.P.E.X. Coaches are CrossFit Certified, A.P.E.X. is not affiliated with CrossFit in any formal way at this point; however, we are all here to train at a high level and I have a tremendous respect for any athlete willing to push themselves hard enough to cause an exertion headache.  Here are some things to consider as a CrossFitter as it relates to exertion headaches:

  1. OLYMPIC MOVEMENTS:  CrossFit incorporates big, compound, technical movements such as snatches, power cleans, jerks, deadlifts and squats
  2. VALSALVA MANEUVER:  Holding your breath can help protect your spine during Olympic movements by creating thoracic pressure, helping your abdominal wall create a stable core
  3. SUPER-SETS:  CrossFit workouts, in general, combine big movements with cardio movements, or big movements with other big movements
  4. NO REST:  CrossFit workouts tend to omit rest between exercises, thus heart rate and blood pressure steadily climb, also leaving no time for water consumption during the workout
  5. COMPETITION:  Competition can help by tapping into adrenaline, resiliency, and a never-quit attitude that can mask pain

Big movements that put weight on your frame cause a spike in blood pressure.  Holding your breath to improve posture during big movements also causes additional spike in blood pressure.  Doing multiple exercises back-to-back without rest causes an additional spike in blood pressure, but mainly an increase in heart rate.  An increase in both heart rate and blood pressure, in a competitive setting, while not being able to calm down or drink water, can lead to an exertion headache.  It will not be early in the workout when you are calm, energetic, and focused, but towards the end when blood pressure and heart rate are peaking out, and your trying to overcompensate to finish the workout by holding your breath as your core fatigues.

CrossFit philosophy dictates that variables 1, 3, 4 and 5 are part of what makes CrossFit workouts intense, and that will not change.  Many people have successfully completed WOD’s without causing an exertion headache; therefore, CrossFit workouts do not inherently cause exertion headaches.  The key to preventing an exertion headache during bouts of intense exercise is coming into the workout rested, hydrated, and mentally focused.  During the workout, you must maintain a good breathing cadence, making sure to exhale during the positive phase, and inhale during the negative phase of the movement.  Late in the workouts when your blood pressure and heart rate are climbing, you must remain calm and focused, regulate your breathing, and concentrating on good body mechanics.  If you do these things, you will be able to perform CrossFit style training free from exertion headaches.

If you do experience an exertion headache during a CrossFit workout, here is the recommended recovery timeline to get back to performing WOD’s at 100% pre-headache performance levels.

  1. STOP:  Once an exertion headache occurs, STOP. Do not attempt to push through the rest of the training session, it will only worsen the headache and the duration of symptoms.
  2. MEDICAL VISIT:  It is important to rule out any other underlying potential causes.  Aneurysm’s, thunderclap headaches, and slipped discs may be potential causes for similar symptoms and must be ruled out.  If it is an exertion headache, physicians may recommend rest, plenty of fluids and ibuprofen taken every 4 – 6 hours daily to help with the swelling of the meninges.  Or, they may recommend something else which is why it is important to consult the physician.
  3. REST 1 WEEK:  The initial rest phase should be a complete week of total rest from all physical activity, including practices, strength training, cardio, as well as recreational and competitive activities.

If steps 1 – 3 are done without any interruptions, then the headache should subside and the head should feel normal after 1 week.  However, the body is still not ready at this point for pre-headache performance.  Here are some guidelines for building back up to pre-headache performance:

  1. PHASE 1 (2 WEEKS):  Focus on cardiovascular conditioning, introduce light cardio, no more than 70% of your Maximum Target Heart Rate (220-Age), for no more than 20 minutes.  Jogging, running, swimming, and hiking are the types of cardio to do during phase 1.
  2. PHASE 2 (2 WEEKS): Begin pushing your cardiovascular system to closer to 90% of your Maximum Target Heart Rate, introducing rowing and other body-weight exercises (burpees, air squats, vertical jumps, lunges, jumping jacks, etc.).  There are “No Equipment” CrossFit workouts that you can test yourself on, seeing how well you can handle intensity before adding in weights.
  3. PHASE 3 (4 WEEKS): Week 1, do WOD’s at 50% of pre-headache WEIGHT and TOTAL VOLUME.  Week 2, do WOD’s at 50% of pre-headache weight, but normal VOLUME.  Week 3, up the weight to 75% of pre-headache weight.  Week 4, attempt with caution, pre-headache weights.

During PHASE 1 and PHASE 2, focus on hydration, breathing, and sleep, and listen to your body.  If you feel like a flair-up may happen, STOP.  The key is getting through PHASE 1 and 2 without a headache while performing at a high level.  Before moving into PHASE 3, you should be dominating body weight WOD’s without any fear of a headache.  For PHASE 3, use the following example for clarification.

EXAMPLE:  WOD – 10 rounds, 10 snatches @ 100 kilos / 30 seconds of speed rope

  1. PHASE 3, WEEK 1:  5 rounds, 10 snatches @ 50 kilos / 30 seconds of speed rope (50% WEIGHT & VOLUME)
  2. PHASE 3, WEEK 2: 10 rounds, 10 snatches @ 50 kilos / 30 seconds of speed rope (50% WEIGHT)
  3. PHASE 3, WEEK 3: 10 rounds, 10 snatches @ 75 kilos / 30 seconds of speed rope (75% WEIGHT)
  4. PHASE 3, WEEK 4: 10 rounds, 10 snatches @ 100 kilos / 30 seconds of speed rope (100% WEIGHT)

The key is to slowly re-introduce weight while under stress.  PHASES 1 and 2 should have prepared your blood vessels for the increase of heart rate, but the spike in blood pressure comes with additional weight on your frame.  Remember, if at any point you experience an exertion headache, you are back to STOP, a MEDICAL VISIT, and 1 FULL WEEK OF REST, so don’t try to skip ahead, it will only delay your full recovery.

FINAL thought

Those of us that have experienced exertion headaches are like pit bulls. We have a high pain tolerance, we push ourselves beyond normal limits, and we are stubborn as hell if we are told to take some time off for any injury, especially one that doesn’t involve a torn muscle or a broken bone.  We all believe we are the exception, and that we can heal like Wolverine.  Remember, an EXERTION HEADACHE is an INJURY TO THE BRAIN. If not taken seriously, it won’t go away and can become worse. Just like any other injury, certain steps must be taken to transition the body back to a high performance level again. So from one pit bull to another, please take the next 2 months to slowly recover and get back to pre-headache performance levels.  If you think you are the exception, you’re not.  Hopefully you find this article to be helpful. If you have any questions, email me at You can also find other helpful articles on our website at Thanks!

Nick Ryan, CSCS

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  • Nick Ryan


    For many, c-spine alignment underlying issues can contribute to these headaches, and a visit to a good chiro and/or sport massage can help. For those that do not have spinal alignment issues contributing, the only reprieve is time, rest, water, and ibuprofen. Swollen blood vessels in the head can not be fixed by a chiropractor. If you do sense tension in the neck specifically, it is wise to make a visit to a chiropractor to see if that helps. Thanks for this dialogue Bo, I am confident it will help others looking for answers.

  • Bo Nyberg

    Quick update: Went to the chiro again yesterday and had a sports massage (very tough). I mentioned I was VERY tense in my neck in my previous post. First of all after the first visit the chiro got rid of the foggy headache for a few days. Went there again yesterday and it feels even better than after the first time. Now the sports massage was brutal but man does my shoulders and neck feel alive again. Putting it here if someone is looking for help. Get a chiro and then a sports massage. Hope you don’t mind Nick. Thanks

  • Marc Keen

    Hi Nick, i believe I’ve experienced an exertional headache as you’ve described. Was doing a WOD with heavy front squats and box jump (descending ladder starting at 10). I had a straight back, but i suspect i did valsalva too much for unbroken reps and know the rest. Temples and base of skull. Here is a thought I had based on so many people claiming to have sore neck/tender spots along with the headaches. What I wonder is how we can tell if its the neck strain that might be the source of the headaches (well known that strains can do this) or vice-versa. so many people have stated that a chiro or heavy duty massage got rid of the issue in a shorter time, but i see no mention of massage as part of the protocol. What do you think about that? I have very tender/sore muscles on one side of my neck and wonder if hypertonic/strained muscles might be cutting off blood supply or misaligned cervical joint? Im a ACSM CPT and CrossFit athlete for about 5 years. Just wondered if you played around with massage or your thoughts on why that may help folks recover faster in certain cases. Its been a week with no workouts and getting less intense everyday but still know its mildly there…Thanks

  • Bo Nyberg

    Awesome. Thanks so much for your reply. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  • Bo Nyberg

    Just to be clear -. When I played soccer I got the heart rate up quite significantly. But it never triggered the headache, just the same level of dull/foggy headache that remained unchanged. Just became a bit more stiff in the neck.

  • Nick Ryan


    The fogginess will last for the entire 2 months of INCEPTION for most people, gradually subsiding each week. So after 2 weeks completely off, starting the INCEPTION progression with a foggy sensation is very typical. If you feel like a headache is on the brink of flairing up, don’t push it. If at any point during the recovery you take it too far and cause another exertion headache to flair-up, you basically have to reset the app to zero, take 2 weeks off and try again. So the key is easing back into training, headache-free, but foggy for sure, until you are back to normal with no fog and little loss in strength.

  • Bo Nyberg

    Thank you SO much for taking the time to write this. I really needed that. I will be off for all activity that increases my pulse. Even the long walks, will keep it at 20 mins maximum (have to walk to the subway every now and then :). I’ll make sure to come back with an update.

  • Bo Nyberg

    Thanks for the reply. Yes you’re right that is what my gut is saying. But as I said, haven’t been in the gym for a real workout for 3 weeks. After two weeks off, I did actually try your inception workout but as I still had that fogginess I just thought fck it and went home after half the warm up. According to your experience, should one stay off completely until the dull foggy headache is gone as well?

    Sorry for the double I wasn’t sure it went through this morning.

  • Nick Ryan


    I just replied to your original question from this morning. You’re gut is telling you that the smart thing to do is to take off a week. My experience tells me that you need to extend that to 2 weeks. Then, download my app and do the INCEPTION progression as a tactical, intentional, easy progression to get you back to normal.

  • Nick Ryan


    Bo, your strategy is the same one I used my first exertion headache, and even my second headache. It wasn’t until my third personal headache that I began to change my ways, and have gone almost 10 years of training now headache free. Thanks for joining this conversation, and I think you’re story will help many that think they can push through. So, here’s my thoughts.

    Sounds like you took the pitbull approach… Ignore the pain and keep going…

    As you know, it’s been 6 weeks of sub-maximal, tip-toeing exercise. If you’re honest with yourself, you have accomplished very little in terms of maintaining or advancing in fitness. You have also not made any progress in recovering from the exertion headache, since the headaches are always on the brink of returning. So for you and anyone else that thinks that they can/should “skip the 2 weeks COMPLETELY off, focusing on water, sleep, and ibuprofen” part of this whole recovery plan, it simply doesn’t pay off. Now you are 6 weeks in, and are still at square one.

    It’s a learning experience, and hopefully others will learn from your mistake Bo, which is the same mistake I made, twice. The truth is, anyone that trains hard enough to give themselves and exertion headache in the first place is the kind of person that by default will push through the pain of the headache and try to train around it. This is a long term strategy. So yes, taking 2 weeks off means that you took 2 weeks off. Time off will cause you to lose gains. Undebatable. But in the big picture, taking 2 weeks off and slowly easing back into training with the INCEPTION progression in my app, is by far the fastest way to getting back to training at pre-headache levels, headache free. Trying to speed things up will 10/10 cause a flair-up, reset the recovery back to day 1, and can cause headaches to linger for YEARS.

    Bo, take 2 weeks COMPLETELY off from ALL exercise, even sex. Focus on taking ibuprofen to help with the swelling, drink lots of water, and get lots of sleep. After the 2 weeks of complete rest are done, start the INCEPTION progression in my app. It will be too easy. It will be too easy the entire program. But it will get you back to pre-headache training intensity in 2 months of intentional progression.

    So for those like me and Bo that figured we could push through the pain, just don’t. It lengthens recovery and can make things much worse. So from one pitbull to another, take 2 weeks off. It’s worth it. Thanks Bo, let me know what else I can do to help.

  • Bo Nyberg

    Hi, sorry if double post didn’t see my other coming through.

    First of all, thanks a lot for the material here. Very informative. I don’t know when I first got my exertional headache but they always disappeared after staying off. However I got another one about a month ago and this time it left me with this foggy, dull headache that still lingers. I haven’t been doing a proper gym session in three weeks. Tried playing soccer last monday and it doesn’t really make it worse, just that I think I probably should rest. Been to the chiro last week and it made a big difference, but it slowly came back a few days after. GOing again tomorrow as well as a massage on wednesday as my neck is REALLY stiff and has been since the headache. After a long walk I can feel it coming back as well. Should I continue resting from ALL sorts of activities until this checks out, or can I do the stuff that don’t make it worse?

  • Nick Ryan

    Totally Biased,

    I don’t recommend any major changes to coffee habits. Making a major change will often do more harm than good. If you can dial it back a cup, go for it. That being said, there are much better pre-workout options than a medium latte. Personally, I like mixing in 3 scoops of AMIN.O. from Optimum Nutrition with a Gatorade. If I’m looking to go heavy, I’ll throw 5 grams of Creatine Monohydrate in with it. AMIN.O. comes in coffee flavors too, mix those with water not Gatorade. Looks like its buy 2 get 1 right now.

  • Totally Biased

    I have downloaded the app but have yet to set it up. I will keep you updated. Out of all the websites this one was the only one that described the causes and symptoms perfectly and had a reasonable treament plan. Also does coffee affect these headaches? I usually have a medium sized latte as I am heading to the gym.

  • Nick Ryan

    Totally Biased,

    Thanks for checking in, glad you found the article, the comment thread, and the recovery plan helpful. I’ve been helping people recover from these headaches for 10 years now, with a consolidated push the last 2-3 years on this platform. If you follow the plan, you will be able to get back to normal. With no setbacks or flair-ups, this can be as short as 2 months. Realistically, prepare for 3-6 months of intentional recovery and behavior change. If you need anything along the way, let me know. Were you able to download the app or do you plan on implementing the guidelines into a personal workout design?

  • Totally Biased

    Truly awesome discussion with very well articulated answers.
    I googled ” Why lifting weights gives you headaches” and found this page after my third day in a row of leg presses almost made my head explode. I wished I had read it earlier as I thought it was air deficiency. I could feel the pressure in my head rising but wanted to get to my 6th set of 20. It was the third or fourth time I had experienced the headaches and the pain had subsided quite quickly before. Maybe 15 seconds. It is now 3 days since the headache and I can still feel the after affects. Therefore I am committed to the treatment above. Can anyone report similar symptoms and a full recovery? Like the comments below I was really happy with my progress, I am 48, and find this an annoying setback to the positive habits I was getting myself into.

  • Nick Ryan


    It’s hard to tell based on your description if this is truly and exertion headache or not. Exertion headaches that I have outlined are not the sort of headache that can go away in 15 minutes and “feel great” once they’re gone. Exertion headaches are debilitating, linger with a foggy sensation, and will not go away unless all activity stops. So, do I think that you need to follow my recovery plan based on your experience? Probably not. But any workout program that is causing intense headaches needs re-evaluation, so I would encourage you to make some changes for your overall health.

  • Aims

    I train 5 days a week and I’m currently in the middle of a hypertrophy program, doing some Olympic lifting as well as 3x WODs per week. My Friday WOD is 10xlegpress, 10x weighted walking lunges and 10x legpress again – for 4 sets, 180 sec break between sets. Last set of legpress I get that explosion headache in the base of my skull, super intense and comes on without warning. I find if I lay down and stretch, let my heartrate come down and apply some pressure to the pressure points in the base of my skull, the headache goes within 15mins or so. I usually don’t train weekends so have a two day rest, and I always feel great once the headache is gone… do I really need the long recovery period you have suggested? Thanks.

  • Nick Ryan


    Google Play Store:

    Try that from your phone, should pull it right up. INCEPTION is the workout progression that I designed specifically for these headaches. Your trainer can download it too and just hit skip/preview all the way through to the end so that he can have a big picture understanding of the intensity and program design and make any adjustments needed based on your facility.

  • Paul Sebald

    Do you have the Apex app for Android? My trainer is helping me rehab from exertion headaches based on the info in the above article, but I would like the app. I just can’t find it. Am I missing something?

  • Nick Ryan

    Dragon Woman,

    A “classic” exertion headache would not have subsided. These headaches will leave you curled up on the floor they are so intense, no matter how tough you are. So the fact that you had an intense headache during an intense part of the workout that then went away as you continued to train with lighter weights and slightly reduced intensity makes me think that you were on the brink of a full-blown exertion headache but got away just in time. I would be very careful over the next few weeks, taking some time off would be good. Keep me posted.

  • Nick Ryan


    Great to hear! Keep me posted. Were you able to download the app and login for the INCEPTION progression?

  • Nick Ryan


    As far as light cardio goes, some people can get away with it, folks that are sensitive to blood pressure but not heart rate spikes. I’d say walking is safe, but things that can cause spikes in blood pressure and heart rate should be avoided for a few weeks. A light jog may be ok, but just be careful.

  • Dragon Woman

    I first got an exertion headache a few months ago (during chest presses, slow burn workout, lots of exertion). I haven’t had one in awhile and then this last week I was trying out Crossfit for the first time (day 4) and I had just started the set, swinging a 35lb kettlebell for 60 seconds (I’m a petite woman, so this is not as insignificant an amount of weight as it sounds), at about 45 seconds I developed an explosive headache, both temples. I completed the 60 seconds (about 34 reps) and the headache is likely the worst I have ever experienced. We had 60 second rests, and the headache subsided, and I was able to do the rest of the exercises in the circuit and by the time I had to swing a kettlebell again the headache was gone and I dropped down to an 18lb kettlebell (the gym having nothing inbetween the 35 and 18). The headache did not recur during the remainder of the workout (which included pushups, box jump overs, burpees, plank, in addition to the kettlebell swings). So if it subsides fairly quickly, what does that indicate? Is it a blood pressure elevation thing? I’ve always had low blood pressure, but is that what causes the headache? I suspect if I had used the 35lb bell again, I would have experienced the headache again.

  • Waqas Malik

    Thank you so much for your concern and care i am really thankful. Now i am feeling much better i am doing rest and i am following your instructions. and my plan is i will start workout on 15th of feb..

  • Weston Lindblom

    Nick, is it OK to continue some light cardio during the recovery? e.g. slow jogging

  • Nick Ryan


    Any word on amitriptyline?

  • Nick Ryan


    How is your recovery coming? Let me know if you need anything.

  • Nick Ryan


    Concussions and exertion headaches do not always go together, so it is hard for me to say that you have an exertion headache based on your description of how you got it moving furniture. The temporal region, however, is a common location for these headaches. Take 2 weeks off for a start, check in with a doctor to rule out anything major, and let me know what you find. It wouldn’t hurt to treat this like an exertion headache and follow my plan for recovery. If it is not an exertion headache, you will simply progress more quickly.

  • Nick Ryan


    It does sound like you are describing an exertion headache, not from a maximum lift, but through intensity. I understand your concern that you will never be able to workout again; however, with intentional recovery you will be able to get back at it. Make an appoint with a doctor to rule out anything major, take 2 weeks completely off to recover, focusing on sleep, water, and ibuprofen to help the process along. After 2 full weeks, download my app and begin the INCEPTION progression. Keep me posted, I’m here to help.

  • chino810

    HEY NICK, I’ve recently had a concussion, along with several others in the last five years. I’m lucky to still be alive. After this last one,almost a month ago now, I had to move a dresser for my gf. Ended up bear hugging it and moving it for her. I forgot to exhale while picking it up and I ended up having a terrible migraine,like the first phase, very very intense. That was 20 min ago and I’m starting to feel a bit better but still have the constant pain on left side of my temple,which is where all my hits to the head occurred with my concussions. Should I be worried. about my brain being further damaged by this “exertion headache”?
    Thanks buddy,God bless.

  • Mark

    Does an exertion headache have to only occur when working out but not at your max level? I ask because on New Year’s Eve, I was working out and I decided to start a program called the 100 rep challenge and I was doing the first exercise, 100 barbell curls, I was using a 40Ib barbell and switched to a 30Ib barbell when I realized I wasn’t going to finish but at about 45 reps I got a sharp shooting pain in my head like something had exploded and I had to stop. It subsided but I was a bit off for the rest of the day. I was fine the next two days, I then did a regular leg workout and the headache came back towards the end of my workout (not as severe as on NYE), the following day I tried the 100 rep doing bulgarian split squats (50 each leg) and sure enough, the massive headache came back. I haven’t worked out since and while the severe headaches have not come back, I have been periodically having minor headaches or my head doesn’t feel right at times. It has been almost 2 weeks since the initial incident and my head feels off enough that I think it would definitely happen again if I tried lifting weights again. I’m thinking I need to go back to the doctor and request a cat scan (my first visit last week, my doctor never even took my blood pressure & said I was probably experiencing cluster headaches because I get migraines – one per year at the most and some years none at all). I feel like I’ll never be able to workout again or that I have something worse wrong with me.

  • Nick Ryan


    Getting an exertion headache is very deflating, but with some intentional recovery you can minimize the setback. Give yourself 2 weeks, then begin INCEPTION. Nice and easy through ARIADNE’S MYSTERY, start climbing with upper body movements during MAL’S FALLACY, then take a few upper body lifts to 10RM MMF while introducing light squats in COBB’S TOTEM. Roughly 2 months of progression to get you back to business as usual.

  • Nick Ryan


    At a frequency of twice a week, ARIADNE’S MYSTERY is set at 6 sessions (3 weeks) before hitting the checkpoint. Answer the checkpoint questions honestly. Based on your responses, you will either continue with ARIADNE’S MYSTERY for another 2 sessions and hit the same checkpoint, or you will progress onto MAL’S FALLACY where legs are introduced with light weight. To answer your question on how fast to progress on MAL’S FALLACY with upper body lifts, you will start this progression with the same 50% that you used during ARIADNE’S MYSTERY, and then look to add 10% roughly over the course of the next 6 sessions of MAL’S FALLACY. MAL’S FALLACY is also set to be 6 sessions at a frequency of twice per week for a total of 3 weeks prior to the checkpoint.

    Session 1 is 50%, Session 2 is 60%, Session 3 is 70%, Session 4 is 80%, Session 5 is 90%, and Session 6 is 100%. If at any point in this gradual progression you feel an flair-up pending, DO NOT continue this upward trend. Spending a a few extra sessions in MAL’S FALLACY is perfectly fine in the big picture, so don’t rush it. Lastly you will start working to 10RM MMF on Incline Bench and Lat Pulldown, and TRX movements to fatigue in COBB’S TOTEM while slowly climbing with squats. Great question, hope this clears that up.

  • Corey Rohloff

    And then I see during Mal’s Fallacy, we begin pushing upper body to pre-headache performance. How quickly should we introduce these weights? Or in other words, within how many workouts should it take me to get to those weights?

  • Scott James

    My story sounds like so many others. I was just getting into the grove after New Years pushing hard with dumbbell circuit sets. Two days ago half way through I got a ridiculously rapid sharp pain to the back of the left side of my head. The guy I was working out with talked me into finishing the work out. Yesterday I did all of the same circuit with half to no weights and was fine. Tonight, I tried with weights again and only made it to the 3rd exercise before I thought a gremlin was going to explode out of the back of my head. This really sucks as I felt my momentum was really swinging in the right direction. I’m going to download the app and check out the inception workout as I want to keep going. I’ve been done working out for about a half hour now and the pain has only half subsided. I’m thinking a trip to the doctor is a good idea. Sigh…

  • Nick Ryan

    During ARIADNE’S MYSTERY, the priority is just headache-free workouts, so don’t be too concerned with your weights. Keep them at half of what you would normally do, do not try and up them. Great question though, let me know if you need any other help as you heal up.

  • Corey Rohloff

    Hey nick! My name is Corey, I came across your apexllc article after searching post workout splitting headaches. What you wrote for me perfectly. It felt like a sledge hammer to the back of the head after my heavy set of leg press, I am now doing the inception program from your app, I was just wondering, with adriannes mystery, should I be progressively increasing weight or should I keep it at about 50% the whole time?

  • Waqas Malik

    Thank you so much

  • Nick Ryan


    First thing is take 2 weeks off and drink water and take ibuprofen to help with the headaches. After that, download my app and do the INCEPTION workout progression to get you back to health.

    Google Play Store:

    Apple App Store