Aaron Gustav Parker Eiben’s
Gallery of Failure
It’s okay—the title makes me laugh.
It seems that I am going to be telling a lot of strength coaches about my history with the overhead press (and to a lesser degree, the deadlift.) Instead of writing the same thing over and over again, I’ll just direct everyone here!
Apparently, I prone to some form of reflex syncope. Consequently, there are occasions when my strain with a heavy weight leads to a sudden drop of cranial blood pressure and temporary loss of motor control or even consciousness. As I understand, this condition is harmless in and of itself, but the fall to the ground has resulted in injury—the most serious being a concussion. Plus it kind of messes up my flow at the gym.
At the request of my first strength coach, I had my doctor order an electrocardiogram which came out normal. So my heart works just fine! It’s mah brain dat’s broke. But I knew that already.
I don’t remember precisely when it first happened, but it was sometime in early 2018, and it was on a 300 or 305 lb. deadlift. As I (vaguely) recall, I picked the weight up, put it down, and then, while still grasping the bar on the ground, loss control, falling forward over the bar. I smashed my face into a (thankfully) thickly-padded bench and left some interesting chalk handprints on the mat on the ground, meaning I had at least enough subconscious reflex to catch myself. In fact, I was aware throughout the whole event—I just couldn’t do anything about it! I remember trying to jump up off the ground but being unable to do so for at least a second or two.
The subsequent episodes occurred after I started recording myself at the gym. Thus, for all of these, I have video!
August 22nd, 2018
First Rep of Only Set
320 lb. Deadlift
Please ignore my atrocious form! I’ve gotten a lot better since then. Beyond that, there’s not much to say here other than it looks like I stood up too fast. I was very thankful that the people on the ellipticals didn’t notice anything, because I didn’t feel like explaining that I was okay.
That was the last time I passed out from a deadlift. Since then, my nemesis has been the overhead press.
October 8th, 2018
First Rep of Third Set
112.5 Overhead Press
I was aiming for three sets of five reps. I completed the first set, but I missed the last rep on the second set. Then, after the first rep of the third set, this happened.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t lose full control because I didn’t wind up on the ground. But that poor safety bar has never been the same…
March 14, 2019
Third Rep of Fourth Set
125 lb. Overhead Press
Here I was going for five sets of three reps. My notes say that I felt the syncope after the first rep of the first two sets, and the fact that I paused after the first rep of this set tells me that I felt it here, too.
After I hit the ground, I made a bunch of noise and faked a laugh in a vain effort to convince the two fellows there that I didn’t need to go to the hospital. It all worked out. And later the guy in the blue shirt spotted me for my fifth set, which I completed without issue. He’s awesome.
March 28th, 2019
First Set of First Rep
132.5 lb. Overhead press
Here’s the big one!
This was my first ever attempt to overhead press 132.5 lbs. I didn’t achieve lockout before I felt the syncope setting in big-time. Instead, I re-racked the bar as quickly as possible. Then this happened.
I’d say this was a full-on loss of consciousness. Or at least the most I have ever experienced. Interestingly, though, I kept my grip on the bar as I went down, but that just set the stage for my torso to whip back and smash my head into the ground. That produced a concussion. I didn’t go the emergency room after this (though I did message my doctor right away), so I guess I don’t have an official diagnosis, but I had the symptoms. I was dazed, which is why it took me so long to get off the ground, I was nauseous, which is why I held my head in my hands and why I dragged the garbage can to my side when I finally got up, and my brain wasn’t the same for a very long time. In fact, my ears are still ringing from this event.
It’s something I don’t need to repeat.
April 7th, 2019
First Rep of Fifth Set
122.5 lb. Overhead Press
But I almost did repeat it!
I was going for five sets of three reps, and I felt the syncope after the first goddamn rep of the first set. But I carried on an managed to crank out four reps. Then, in the fifth set, I almost lost it.
The syncope set in hard, but not so hard that I didn’t manage to re-rack the thing before worse things happened. Not that bad things don’t happen after I rack the bar, as the video before this shows.
So there you have it—a glimpse into what I’m dealing with. There have been many other occasions in recent times when I have felt the syncope to lesser degrees during the overhead press, and sometimes even after a chinup or dip! It doesn’t seem to bother me on the deadlift anymore, probably due to my vastly improved form. Interestingly though, in the deadlift video above, I was severely craning my neck backward, and the overhead press, chinup, and dip make heavy use of the shoulder muscles. I wonder if that strenuous muscle activity in and around my shoulders and neck does something to my vagus nerves, which then triggers the syncope. It’s an interesting thought, as the vagus nerve has been tied to several other things I deal with: depression, tinnitus, and ulcerative colitis.
But, alas, I shouldn’t speculate about such things, because dammit, Jim, I’m a physicist, not a doctor.