Nausea from weightlifting

Dear Alice,

It's been about three months since I worked out regularly. I find that lifting for strength (i.e. 80% of max for 5-8 reps) causes me to feel nauseated about 3/4 through the workout sometimes, so that I can't bring myself to finish. I took a weight training course last semester and was affected the same way every once in a while. I warm up, stretch before and after, breath when I lift, drink plenty of water, take care not to eat 1 hour before working out, skip a day between workouts, don't lift more than I can handle (I reduced the weight from what I ended on in the class to a seemingly suitable weight. I got a 98 in the class incidentally). What's going on?

Pre Van Damm

Dear Pre Van Damm,

It sounds like you already have a good understanding of the basics about weight training. All lifters could probably use a few refreshers as it's easy to get into a routine without thinking about those basics. Are you giving yourself sufficient time to rest between sets? Are you lifting a challenging, but manageable amount of weight? These may be important factors in helping keep your lifting sessions balanced.

You mention that you take care not to eat an hour before training. That might be working against you and it's possible that you could be experiencing hypoglycemia. Working muscles need fuel and exercising leads to increased levels of insulin that transport blood glucose to the muscles, possibly creating a hypoglycemic condition that could make you feel nauseous. It may actually be useful to have a small snack 20 to 30 minutes before you lift. Consider an apple with some peanut butter, a granola or protein bar, or another balanced snack to help sustain you through your workout. Beyond a snack, make sure that your normal diet is high in complex carbohydrates and minimal in any refined simple sugars. Complex carbohydrates, as they are stored in the body and then used as fuel, enter the blood stream at a more constant rate and will help alleviate the quick insulin response followed by the low that often comes with eating simple sugars.

It may make sense to experiment with the time between your sets, number of repetitions, and the amount of weight you are lifting. Remember, the science of exercise has moved away from the "no pain, no gain" philosophy. Less repetition with lower weights can still have tremendous benefits. 

A well trained personal trainer, exercise physiologist, or sports medicine specialist may be able to provide some insight and helpful tips. If you don't experience relief from changes to your workout and diet, it may make sense to visit with a health care provider.

Some small changes in your before workout snacks and some minor adjustments to your regimen may let you get on with getting pumped.

Last updated May 07, 2015
Originally published Mar 15, 1996

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