What Causes Muscle Cramping?


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No one is 100% positive on exactly what causes muscle cramps, and more specifically, what causes abdominal cramping. The reason for this is primarily because there are multiple issues that affect the muscles in a way that could lead to cramping. Cramping is the method the muscles use to let you know something is going wrong.

IFPA Certified Personal Trainers must be Problem Solvers. When you or one of your Personal Training Clients are having a problem, your ability to solve that problem will have a large impact on your success. Use the following information to pinpoint the exact cause of the muscle cramps and make the necessary adjustments accordingly!

Hydration: Lack of sufficient water can cause muscle cramping.

If you dehydrate during intense exercise activities, muscle cramping, as well as other, even more serious side effects can result. Note that by the time you feel thirsty, you are already reaching a level of dehydration.

Over-Hydration: Clinically referred to as hyponatremia.

Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when there is too much water in your body and the excess water dilutes the level of sodium in your body. Sodium is one of the electrolytes that helps regulate water levels in all the fluids inside and surrounding your body’s cells. When the sodium levels in your body are abnormally low, your body’s water levels rise, which causes your body’s cells to swell. The swelling of your cells will cause many health and even medical problems from relatively mild, to dangerously severe and can even result in death!

The New England Journal of Medicine has already listed overhydration as a serious medical issue in some runners at the Boston Marathon. Other reports have people dying from overhydration in attempts to beat drug tests and of course the devastating loss of a young, healthy woman in Florida, trying to win a contest by drinking 2 ½ gallons of water in 45 minutes that resulted in her death.

While most Personal Trainers worry about keeping their clients hydrated when training in warm to hot, humid, outside-summer activities, you need to also be aware that consuming too much water, too fast, can also cause overhydration. Yes, both dehydration and overhydration can cause muscle cramping and in severe circumstances they can both cause death.

Proper Hydration: What is proper hydration?

You have probably seen multiple ideas on how to achieve “Proper Hydration” such as:  0.1 ounce of water per pound of body; 0.5 ounces of water/pound of body; 8 eight ounce glasses of water/day which is equal to 64 ounces/day of water.

However, since temperature, humidity, duration of workout and individual and lifestyle factors effect hydration levels, your personal indicator is to keep your urine flow sufficient and clear-to nearly-clear in color. Keep in mind if it stays crystal clear all day long, you may be entering an overhydration state.

Note: your supplements will affect your urine color. For approximately 2-4 hours past supplement/vitamin ingestion, you can expect your urine to be dark and colorful.

If it glows in the dark…consider a different supplement.

Sodium Intake:

Most nutrition, medical, and health experts will ordinarily tell you to increase your water intake and add bananas to your diet to increase your potassium intake.

I will admit to a bias here, my own problems with muscle cramps have always been solved by increasing sodium intake.

My first experience was as a freshman on my high school football team. Football practice started in the summer and in New Jersey that meant 3 practice sessions/day in 100-degree heat and 100% humidity! Most of the team got muscle cramps and our trainer started providing us salt tablets to keep us upright and lower the volume of groaning coming from the pain of cramping. My second experience with debilitating muscle cramps was as a Freshman on my college Gymnastics Team. Gymnastics at the college level brought my training to a whole new level and I once again experienced debilitating muscle cramps. Once again, the trainer provided salt tablets and I increased the salt in my diet and never had cramps again.

Like hydration, there is a very delicate balance for a hard, intense, training athletes’ Electrolyte balance. Too much or too little sodium or potassium can lead to many side effects, including severe muscle cramps.

Potassium Intake:

If you suspect your potassium intake is low, adding a banana or two in your diet will help.

It is difficult to find potassium supplements since it is easily available in many foods and unhealthy in high concentrations.

Avoid caffeine:

I drink up to 6 cups of coffee before an intense workout, especially on my Cardio Days. Keep in mind it’s all about balance!

Limit or Eliminate Sugary Beverages:

I have written previously about avoiding High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), but any sugar, even real sugar (I do not consider HFCS real sugar) can slow down absorption of fluids through the digestive system while you are training and can cause Gastrointestinal (GI) distress and cramping.

Most sports drinks, like Gatorade are specifically formulated to keep the sugar content below 7% of solution to avoid this problem, but even still, some individuals GI systems are too sensitive for even that level.

I have trained athletes I’ve had to dilute the sport drink to half the level to avoid GI distress and cramping.

Limit intake of dairy foods

Limit/Avoid aspirin, ibuprofen type medicines, any product with sorbitol or fructose, large dose of any vitamins/minerals and particularly Vitamin C prior to your workout.

Any of these have been known to cause diarrhea (which can lead to dehydration), GI distress and cramping.

Limit/Avoid eating high fiber foods before a workout.

Avoid Low or High Temperature drinks prior to your workout.

A good guide is temperatures between 50-60 degrees.

Avoid any food that you know can give you GI distress or create gas.

Stay Hydrated While Working Out:

You cannot over estimate how much fluid you can lose in an intense workout. Even while I was sipping water during a workout when I was training for a martial arts tournament, I could lose seven pounds of water in a 1 ½ hour workout. I would routinely start my workout at 172 pounds (5% body fat) and finish and hour and a half later at 165!

Plan your workouts accordingly. Most experts recommend drinking 7-10 ounces of water/fluid every 20 minutes of training, though some athletes complain that level of intake bothers their stomach. Excess fluid in your gut can lead to cramps.

Avoid working out within 2-3 hours of eating a meal.

Avoid Overtraining.

Avoid abdominal work when your abs are already sore or fatigued.

The same thing could occur in any muscle group.

If you are sweating profusely, which can occur when training and in high heat and humidity, you can easily deplete your electrolytes including: calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium. Supplementation may be needed.

Always Warm-Up!

May need some gentle stretching.

Always Cool-Down!

Use your Cool-Down to increase the Functional Range of Motion (FROM) for your abdominals or any muscle that routinely causes muscle cramps.

For the abs: the Classic Cobra Stretching Exercise is a safe, effective and relaxing way to stretch your abs. To perform the Cobra, lay on your stomach in Push-Up position: hands flat on the floor, under your shoulders or slightly wider, legs extended on the balls of your feet; push-up so you raise your head, shoulders, chest as high as your FROM will allow.

No Pain; you are looking to experience a gentle stretch. As your FROM improves, you can put your weight on the balls of your feet for a slightly deeper stretch. You can also begin to tilt your head back and look back at the ceiling, then wall behind you to increase FROM. Hold the Cobra for 30 secs, then go into a slightly deeper “Developmental Stretch” for an additional 30 secs.

Proper Exercise Selection:

Crunches and all their variations are a far safer and more effective exercise for Personal Trainers and their clients than Sit-Ups.

After trying all of the above solutions, if things do not improve, you must see a doctor!

This is essential since abdominal muscle cramps can be a result of some undiagnosed medical disease or disorder such as: Gastritus, Ulcers, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), allergic reactions, scar tissue from previous surgeries, hernia, tumors, degenerative nerve disease or even a medication you are taking. Statins, in particular, have been shown to cause muscle cramping of nearly every kind.

Remember Rule #1 as an IFPA Certified Personal Trainer: DO NO HARM! If you did your problem solving correctly, and you cannot determine the cause or develop a solution to your personal training clients’ problem, you are required as a professional Personal Trainer to refer them to the medical and/or health expert that can solve their problem.

Hopefully this will help you advance your Personal Training career and enable you to help many more people live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

Train Safe! Train Smart!

Best Regards,

Dr. Jim Bell


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