Would light weight training make my blood pressure spike?

Before you say “get thee to a doctor,” I’ve already been to two doctors, but I don’t quite believe what they’re saying.

I’ve got hypertension and seem to have gotten it under control with meds. Need to lose weight. I used to like to work out with a rowing machine, some weights and (importantly for some other health issues) a back exercise machine.

Doctors here, while thoroughly competent, are a product of their culture and aren’t really familiar with this kind of workout – they’re more inclined to prescribe me to do tai-chi in the park or something, which is fine for some (old grandmas) but not my cup of tea. And doesn’t address some of the other health issues I need to work on.

I’ve asked two doctors whether it would be safe for me to do this kind of workout, and have to describe it to them a bit. And after some deep thought, they solemnly shake their heads: “No, no, no. You will hold your breath when doing that kind of exercise, and that will cause your blood pressure to go up drastically.”

But I don’t remember ever holding my breath while doing the rowing machine, though admittedly I could see major problems if I tried to do so, hypertension or not. And for the back machine I’m not trying to make my trapezius muscle look like a bag of walnuts for the Mr. Universe contest, just trying to get more needed support for my spine.

So what’s the dope? Should I go ahead and try it?

Actually, you’ll get more spine support by working the core muscles.

I have high blood pressure and when I told my doctor I was lifting she said “awesome!”

I don’t see how holding one’s breath for short periods would affect one’s blood pressure in the long term anyway.

In Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe argues that the Valsalva maneuver (holding your breath and increasing abdominal cavity pressure by contracting your core muscles) is an important part of weight room safety. The worry is that the short term increase in blood pressure caused by Valsalva will rupture a blood vessel and blow an aneurysm or cause a stroke. Rippetoe points out that (1) such things are so rare that there are no statistics available on their frequency, and (2) the Valsavla maneuver increases the pressure throughout the body, including in the CSF. Consequently, there is no pressure difference across the walls of a blood vessels, and no increased chance for a bleed.

Of course, this only matters if you’re using the Valsalva maneuver and lifting heavy. Otherwise, it shouldn’t matter.

I agree with the others. If you want to strengthen your spine (a wise and worthy goal) then consider planks. Dr. Stu McGill is one of the world’s top experts on spine biomechanics and highly recommends side planks. They’re quite difficult the first time you do them but they get easy fast. Dr. McGill also recommends no strength training on machines.

Why would you hold your breath when doing any exercise? Isn’t that the first thing they tell you not to do? It was in my fitness classes at college.

It makes you stronger for brief periods. Baroreceptors in the abdomen detect the build-up in pressure and allow you to lift more for a brief period. Almost a necessity if you want to compete in powerlifting or arm wrestling. Not that Koxinga would necessarily be doing that in his workout of course but that’s why some people do it.

Of course none of us know the specifics of your health and nothing stated here should in anyway be construed as medical advice … but this 2007 AHA guideline is the standard current position (pdf):

In that guideline uncontrolled hypertension above 160 systolic and 100 diastolic is a relative contraindication and above 180/110 an absolute contraindication for weight training, as are several other health conditions (see table 2 on page 6). Take it for what it’s worth, but in this context maybe you should avoid the grain of salt! :slight_smile: