Exploding Gradient Explained: How To Detect & Overcome It [6 Best Practices]

by | Dec 6, 2023 | Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning

What is the Exploding Gradient Problem?

Neural networks optimize their parameters using gradient-based optimization algorithms like gradient descent. Gradients represent the slope of the loss function with respect to the model’s parameters. When these gradients grow significantly during training, they lead to “exploding gradients.”

The Exploding Gradient Defined

Exploding gradients refer to a scenario in neural networks where the gradients become exceedingly large during training. These abnormally large gradients cause updates to the model’s weights to be excessively high, destabilizing the learning process.

exploding gradients occur in deep neural networks

Large gradients cause updates to the model’s weights to destabilise the learning process.

The Maths

The mathematical explanation involves the chain rule in calculus, where gradients are multiplied as they flow backwards through the layers during backpropagation. If these gradients are too high, they can amplify as they move back through the network.

Exploding gradients often occur due to numerical instability, leading to extremely large values. This can adversely impact the weight updates during optimization, causing the network to fail to converge or diverge entirely.

When Does it Occur?

Exploding gradients typically emerge in deep networks with large or improperly initialized weights, especially when combined with certain activation functions or in complex, deep connection architectures.

What Causes an Exploding Gradient?

Exploding gradients stem from several underlying factors within the network’s architecture, initialization methods, and training process.

One primary cause is weight initialization, where improperly set initial weights, particularly in deeper networks, can significantly impact gradient flow during backpropagation.

Additionally, activation functions such as ReLU (Rectified Linear Unit) contribute to this issue by allowing unbounded positive outputs, leading to gradient calculations prone to exponential growth.

The architecture itself plays a crucial role, especially in deep networks with numerous layers, as the amplification of gradients becomes more pronounced with increased depth. Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) are susceptible to vanishing or exploding gradients due to their sequential nature, affecting long-range dependencies.

Furthermore, the learning rate acts as a multiplier to the gradient, potentially magnifying its effect, particularly with high values that cause huge parameter updates, further destabilizing the training process.

The absence or improper application of normalization techniques like batch normalization and the impact of regularization methods also influence gradient scaling, contributing to the likelihood of gradient explosions during training.

Understanding these multifaceted causes is pivotal in mitigating and addressing exploding gradient issues within neural networks.

What are Some Standard Activation Functions That Can Lead to Exploding Gradients? 

Several activation functions can potentially contribute to the problem of exploding gradients, mainly when used in deep neural networks:

  1. ReLU (Rectified Linear Unit): While ReLU is widely used for its simplicity and effectiveness in combating the vanishing gradient problem, it’s susceptible to causing exploding gradients. This occurs when inputs to ReLU units result in significant positive values, leading to unbounded output for positive inputs and subsequently uncontrolled gradient magnitudes during backpropagation.
  2. Leaky ReLU: Leaky ReLU was introduced to address the dying ReLU problem (where neurons get stuck in a state of producing zero output). While it mitigates the vanishing gradient issue to some extent, if the leakage factor (slope for negative inputs) is set too high, it might contribute to gradient explosion, especially in deeper networks.
  3. ELU (Exponential Linear Unit): ELU is designed to capture negative values more smoothly than ReLU, reducing the likelihood of dead units. However, ELU can also result in more significant gradients for specific inputs, potentially contributing to exploding gradients.
  4. Swish: Swish is a self-gated activation function with promising results in various scenarios. However, its exponential nature can occasionally lead to higher gradients, which might contribute to the exploding gradient problem in specific contexts, especially when combined with deep architectures.

It’s important to note that while these activation functions might contribute to exploding gradients under certain circumstances, their use isn’t inherently problematic.

Instead, issues often arise when networks are deeply stacked, accumulating gradients that become difficult to manage. Employing techniques like gradient clipping, appropriate weight initialization, or architectural adjustments can help mitigate these problems while utilizing these activation functions effectively.

the difference between gradient clipping and no gradient clipping in the optimization

Effects of Exploding Gradients

Exploding gradients wield significant detrimental effects on the training process and the overall performance of neural networks. Primarily, they hinder the convergence of the network during training, impeding the model from reaching an optimal solution.

One noticeable impact is the instability in parameter updates: excessively large gradients lead to erratic weight adjustments, causing oscillations or divergence in the learning process. This instability often translates into longer training times as the network struggles to converge due to the exaggerated updates induced by exploding gradients. The model’s predictive performance also deteriorates, affecting its ability to generalize to unseen data.

Exploding gradients commonly result in unreliable predictions, reducing the network’s accuracy and reliability. Moreover, exploding gradients may trigger NaN (Not-a-Number) or overflow errors in computations, leading to the breakdown of the training process. Understanding these effects underscores the need to mitigate exploding gradients to ensure stable and practical neural network training.

How Can You Detect Exploding Gradients?

Detecting exploding gradients during neural network training is crucial for promptly addressing and mitigating the issue. Several techniques and indicators can help identify the presence of exploding gradients:

  1. Gradient Monitoring
    • Gradient Norms: Calculating the L2 norm of gradients across layers.
    • Histogram Analysis: Visualizing the distribution of angles to spot enormous values.
  2. Visual Inspection
    • Loss and Accuracy Trends: Sudden fluctuations or erratic behaviour in loss or accuracy curves.
    • Weight Updates: Monitoring extreme fluctuations in weight updates during training iterations.
  3. Threshold-Based Checks
    • Gradient Clipping: Setting a threshold to cap gradient values above a specific limit.
    • NaN or Infinity Checks: Monitoring for NaN or infinity values in gradient calculations.
  4. Experimentation and Validation
    • Validation Metrics: Assessing model performance on a validation dataset to detect degraded performance.
    • Comparative Studies: Comparing training behaviours with and without gradient explosion mitigation techniques.

Utilizing a combination of these methods allows you to actively monitor and detect the presence of exploding gradients during neural network training, enabling timely intervention to prevent adverse effects on model convergence and performance.

Solutions and Mitigation Strategies

Addressing exploding gradients involves implementing specific techniques and strategies to stabilize the training process. Here are practical solutions to mitigate and prevent the occurrence of exploding gradients:

  1. Gradient Clipping
    • Norm-based Clipping: Limiting the gradient norm to a predefined threshold during optimization to prevent huge updates.
    • Layer-wise Clipping: Applying clipping on individual layer gradients to regulate their magnitudes.
  2. Weight Initialization
    • Xavier/Glorot Initialization: Using specific weight initialization methods to control the scale of weights, reducing the likelihood of extreme values.
    • He Initialization: Adapting initialization to the activation functions’ characteristics, maintaining stable gradients.
  3. Batch Normalization
    • Normalization Layers: Incorporating batch normalization layers to standardize inputs to subsequent layers, aiding gradient flow and stability.
    • Layer-wise Normalization: Applying normalization techniques at each layer to prevent internal covariate shifts.
  4. Learning Rate Adjustment
    • Dynamic Learning Rates: Implementing adaptive learning rate algorithms like Adam, RMSprop, or AdaGrad to adjust learning rates per parameter or iteration, minimizing the impact of substantial gradients.
  5. Activation Function Modifications
    • Leaky ReLU or ELU: Using activation functions that mitigate dead units and reduce the chances of extreme gradient values.
  6. Gradient Regularization
    • Gradient Penalty: Applying penalties to large gradient values to prevent their amplification.
    • Weight Decay: Including weight decay terms in the loss function discourages extensive weight updates.
  7. Architectural Modifications
    • Reducing Network Depth: Limiting the network architecture’s depth to alleviate the gradients’ amplification.
    • Alternate Architectures: Exploring alternative network structures less prone to gradient explosion, like skip connections in Residual Networks.

Implementing these strategies individually or in combination helps stabilize gradient flow and mitigate exploding gradients, promoting smoother and more stable neural network training processes.

How Can Normalization Techniques Like Batch Normalization Help Mitigate Exploding Gradients? 

Batch normalization is crucial in stabilizing and mitigating exploding gradients in neural networks. Here’s how normalization techniques, specifically batch normalization, help address the issue:

1. Normalizing Input Values:

Batch normalization normalizes the input values of each layer by subtracting the batch mean and dividing by the batch standard deviation. This normalization step ensures that inputs to subsequent layers are within a reasonable range, reducing the likelihood of extreme values that might lead to exploding gradients.

2. Reducing Internal Covariate Shift:

By normalizing inputs within each mini-batch during training, batch normalization mitigates internal covariate shifts. This stabilizes the distribution of activations throughout the network, making it less prone to drastic changes or variations, thereby aiding gradient flow and reducing the chances of gradients becoming excessively large.

3. Smoothing the Optimization Landscape:

Batch normalization effectively smooths the optimization landscape. It introduces a form of regularization by normalizing activations, reducing the network’s sensitivity to parameter initialization. This regularization effect helps prevent the network from becoming overly sensitive to particular weights, which could contribute to exploding gradients.

4. Allowing Higher Learning Rates:

Since batch normalization makes the optimization landscape smoother and reduces the likelihood of gradients becoming too large, it allows for higher learning rates without the risk of destabilizing the training process. This facilitates faster convergence and more stable training.

5. Increased Robustness to Architectural Changes:

Batch normalization makes neural networks more robust to changes in network architecture or hyperparameters. It reduces the dependency of each layer’s output on the distribution of values from the preceding layers, making the network less susceptible to gradient explosion when changes are made to its structure.

Batch normalization serves as a stabilizing factor by normalizing input distributions, reducing internal covariate shifts, and smoothing the optimization landscape. These effects collectively contribute to mitigating exploding gradients, fostering more stable and efficient training of neural networks.

6 Best Practices and Recommendations For Dealing With an Exploding Gradient

  1. Gradient Monitoring
    • Regular Checks: Continuously monitor gradient magnitudes during training to detect anomalies promptly.
    • Visualization: Visualize gradients through histograms or plots to track their behaviour.
  2. Experimentation and Validation
    • Validation Sets: Employ separate validation sets to monitor model performance and detect overfitting caused by exploding gradients.
    • Comparative Studies: Experiment with different mitigation strategies and compare their effectiveness in handling exploding gradients.
  3. Hyperparameter Tuning
    • Learning Rate Optimization: Fine-tune learning rates to prevent excessive updates without hindering convergence.
    • Initialization Methods: Experiment with various weight initialization techniques suited for the network architecture and activation functions.
  4. Regularization Techniques
    • Regularization Strength: Adjust regularization parameters to balance preventing overfitting and mitigating gradient explosions.
    • Gradient Penalties: Consider applying penalties directly on gradients to control their magnitudes.
  5. Architectural Considerations
    • Network Complexity: Evaluate and adjust network depth and width based on the problem complexity to minimize gradient amplification.
    • Residual Connections: Employ residual connections in deeper architectures to alleviate gradient issues.
  6. Training Strategies
    • Mini-batch Sizes: Experiment with different batch sizes to observe their impact on gradient stability.
    • Early Stopping: Implement early stopping strategies to prevent further divergence caused by exploding gradients.

By adhering to these best practices and recommendations, you can effectively manage and mitigate the challenges of exploding gradients, fostering stable and efficient neural network training processes.


Exploding gradients present a significant challenge in training neural networks, disrupting convergence and impairing model performance. Understanding the root causes, effects, and detection methods is crucial for implementing effective solutions.

Throughout this exploration, we’ve delved into the causes, effects, and detection mechanisms of exploding gradients. From weight initialization issues and activation function properties to the impact on network convergence and model stability, these gradients pose a formidable obstacle in the quest for well-trained neural networks.

However, various mitigation strategies offer pathways to address this issue. Techniques such as gradient clipping, weight initialization methods, batch normalization, and architectural adjustments provide a means to stabilize gradient flow and promote smoother training.

Embracing best practices involving continuous monitoring, experimentation, and strategic adjustments of hyperparameters and network architectures is critical. This adaptive approach ensures that practitioners are equipped to handle exploding gradients effectively.

In the ever-evolving landscape of neural network training, the battle against exploding gradients remains an ongoing pursuit. Practitioners can navigate this challenge by combining knowledge, experimentation, and a proactive mindset, fostering stable and efficient neural network training for improved model performance and reliability.

About the Author

Neri Van Otten

Neri Van Otten

Neri Van Otten is the founder of Spot Intelligence, a machine learning engineer with over 12 years of experience specialising in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and deep learning innovation. Dedicated to making your projects succeed.

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