Pull-Up Power Without the Lightheadedness: Understanding & Preventing Dizziness

Spread the love

Holding your breath during intense exercise like pull ups, or simply breathing too fast in an uncontrolled manner, can cause light-headedness. If you feel dizzy while extending your neck and looking up during pull ups this could be a sign of “Top Shelf Vertigo”. Plus, if you aren’t properly retracting your shoulders you may be applying pressure to the carotid artery in the neck.

You’re Not Breathing Correctly

I’ll openly admit there are a fair few possibilities for feeling light-headed or dizzy during or after pull ups.

However, without doubt the most common reason is that you’re simply not breathing correctly.

I know that I have been guilty of this, not only with pull ups, but various exercises.

And weirdly enough, this typically seems to happen during some of the most intense or hardest exercises.

Basically, when I need my breathing to be on-point the most.

I’m sure it’s more of a psychological thing than a physical reason.

My guess would be that as an exercise is getting harder and you’re nearing fatigue, there is a tendency to try to rush through the final few reps.

So, you’re so concentrated on just getting to the end of your set that something as normal as breathing goes out the window.

There are actually a fair few ways that you can breathe during pull ups.

Who knew?

However, my favourite, and probably the most popular, is to exhale during effort.

In fact, this is typically the best way to breathe when performing any exercise.

Stepping away from traditional exercise for a moment, you’ll generally see (and hear) boxers exhibit the “exhale during effort” best.

As they throw a punch you can usually hear a loud exhale.

So, you can use the same methodology when exerting effort during exercise.

In the gym environment this is most often seen and heard as you rise out of a squat.

You typically exhale (with noise) as you stand back up.

So, use the same technique with pull ups.

As you exert effort and pull your chest towards the bar you should exhale.

And as you lower yourself back down you inhale.

Pay special attention to breathing rhythmically in this way with each rep and you should find that you no longer feel light-headed.

Are You Extending Your Neck & Looking Up?

This is actually something that I see quite a lot.

And yes, once again, I have been guilty of doing this too.

For me, a “proper” pull up will involve touching your chest to the bar.

Therefore, there will be an arch in your back to make room for yourself.

However, this can often lead to extending the neck, or basically tilting your head backwards.

And in turn your eyes typically follow suit and you find yourself looking upwards.

During pull ups you want your neck to remain in a neutral position, and therefore your eyes remain fixed straight ahead.

I guess many people want to look at the bar when performing pull ups, but this should be avoided.

That being said, this may not be a huge issue for most people, but should still be avoided anyway.

However, if extending your neck and looking up during pull ups is making you light-headed then this could be a sign of an inner ear issue.

More specifically, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV).

This is often referred to as “Top Shelf Vertigo”.

Basically, you may experience brief episodes of dizziness or vertigo whenever you move your head.

This is especially true when you lift your head to look up.

There are various other triggers for BPPV including, rolling over in bed, getting out of bed, etc.

If you do experience these bouts of dizziness then you should seek professional medical advice for a thorough diagnosis.

Your Shoulders Aren’t Retracted

Now, not having your shoulders retracted is probably a very uncommon reason for feeling light-headed.

However, it is an extremely important part of performing pull ups, especially when it comes to properly engaging your lats.

“Scapular retraction and depression are essential for proper pull-up form. Retraction pulls your shoulder blades back and together, while depression pushes them down your back. This stabilizes your shoulders and allows your lats (back muscles) to work effectively.”

Partha Banerjee, PT, CSCS

With that being said, having your shoulders rolled forward during pull ups may have an adverse effect on certain body functions.

Plus, it’s pretty awful technique to use when you are doing pull ups.

Basically, when your shoulders are extended or rolled forward during pull ups it’s actually quite easy to administer a “choke” on yourself.

The carotid arteries, located on the side of the neck, are two large major blood vessels.

Their job is to provide oxygenated blood to the brain, neck, and face.

Now, I want you to try the following.

Place both arms out straight in front of you.

Then shrug your shoulders up and rotate them inwards.

Your hands should be no more than a couple of inches apart.

You should feel your shoulders placing a little pressure on the side of your neck.

That is the carotid arteries that you can feel in your neck.

This is obviously slightly exaggerated, but you typically apply the same type of pressure to these blood vessels when you perform pull ups with your shoulders rolled forward.

Whether or not this will make you feel light-headed will depend on your general health.

However, this added pressure on the carotid arteries will somewhat restrict blood flow.

For most of us this may not be a problem for a set of pull ups lasting 30-60 seconds.

But, if it does make you feel dizzy then this may point to the fact that you have low blood pressure.

Once again, I would suggest that you get this properly diagnosed by a medical professional.

But, as I’ve mentioned, this is not good technique anyway, and you should always retract the shoulder blades prior to performing pull ups.

Turn the Pull Up into a Full-Body Exercise

Once again, I wouldn’t say that is specifically a reason for feeling light-headed, but it does provide a level of control over the movement.

And the more control you have over your pull ups, the more likely you’ll perform them properly, and the less likely that you’ll feel dizzy.

We typically view pull ups as an upper back exercise, more specifically the lats.

Plus, they also target the biceps, forearms, and grip to a lesser degree.

“Pull-ups are a fantastic bang-for-buck exercise. They target your back, biceps, and core, all in one movement.”

Menno Henselmans (Strength Coach & YouTuber)

However, I tend to view pull ups as more of a full-body exercise.

Say What?

Okay, for me, there are a number of muscles that I tense whenever I perform pull ups.

These include the lats (obviously), the abs, glutes, and adductors.

Firstly, there’s a lot more ab and core activation than you would think during pull ups.

In fact, a weak core can actually affect the number of reps you can perform.

RELATED====>The “Weak Points” That Hinder Pull Up Progression

Furthermore, I like to tense the glutes and adductors as a way to prepare myself for pull ups.

Plus, this is actually the ideal way to prepare the body prior to handling an additional load, such as weighted pull ups.

I will also say that this “body preparation” helps you to focus on all your muscles working as one unit.

Plus, you are more likely to concentrate on breathing correctly as well.

Admittedly, you may not get as many reps with this “full-body” type of pull up.

But, you will definitely be working the muscles smarter and harder, which is what will stimulate new growth.

And of course, by really concentrating on all these various elements, which includes breathing properly, you are far less likely to feel light-headed.

Basically, you will be performing pull ups in a slow and controlled manner, while adhering to perfect form.

The dizzy spells you potentially get from pull ups can often be caused by not following strict technique.

Key Learning Points

  • Not controlling your breathing is the main reason you’ll feel light-headed from pull ups.
  • This typically involves holding your breath, breathing too fast, or not breathing in a regular and controlled manner.
  • Exhale on the way up and inhale on the way back down.
  • Top shelf vertigo is often a sign of an inner-ear issue and can cause dizziness during pull ups, especially If you extend your neck and look up.
  • Always retract your shoulder blades when performing pull ups. Having your shoulders rolled forward can apply pressure to the carotid arteries at the side of the neck, which will literally feel like someone is choking you.
  • Perform pull ups as a full body exercise by contracting your main muscle groups in the upper and lower body. This will help you to perform pull ups with stricter form, which should help you to avoid feeling light-headed.

I’ve mentioned the neck, more specifically the carotid arteries, but if you’re feeling pull ups in your neck here’s the solution.

Leave a Comment