Oh Cramp!

If you have been weightlifting long, there is a good chance you’ve experienced muscle cramps, also referred to as muscle spasms.  What are they?  What causes them?  And most importantly . . . How can you prevent them?

What is a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary muscle contraction.  It is usually harmless, but it can cause severe pain, limit range of motion, and make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle.  A muscle cramp feels like a hard lump of tissue under the skin.

What causes muscle cramps?

According to Michael F. Bergeron, executive director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., muscle cramps are caused by two things:

    1. Muscle Overload & Fatigue: When an inadequately conditioned athlete trains intensely with heavy loads, local cramping of the overworked muscles can occur.


  1. Electrolyte Deficits: Extensive sweating can lead to a whole-body electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to widespread cramping, even when there is no muscle overload or fatigue.

Creatine consumption does not cause muscle cramps. Dr. Michael Greenwood, of Arkansas State University, conducted studies of Division IA football players between 1998 and 2000, examining the effects of creatine on cramps, dehydration, muscle tightness, muscle strains, non-contact joint injuries, contact injuries, and illness.

At the end of the study, Dr. Greenwood concluded that, “Creatine supplementation does not appear to increase the incidence of injury or cramping in Division IA college football players.” In fact, creatine users had significantly less cramping, heat illness or dehydration, muscle tightness, muscle strains, and total injuries than non-creatine users.

Dr. Greenwood subsequently performed a similar study with baseball players, who were training and competing in hot, humid environments. The results were similar, leading Dr. Greenwood to conclude that creatine consumption did not appear to increase the incidence of dehydration, cramping, and/or muscle injury in comparison to athletes who do not take creatine.


Muscle cramps are especially common in weightlifters because they . . .

    1. Train Heavy & Work Hard: Weightlifters consistently load their muscles with heavy weights and work the muscles to fatigue.


  1. Dehydrate Regularly: The most common way to drop weight prior to a weightlifting competition is to shed water weight through mild dehydration. Dehydration can contribute to an electrolyte imbalance.
Dehydration may not cause muscle cramps.  
Some people in the medical community believe that dehydration—even significant dehydration—does not increase a person’s tendency to experience muscle cramps.
A 2010 study performed by the Department of Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences at North Dakota State University, examined the effects of sweat loss on 10 male cyclists.  The men cycled until they had lost 3% of their body mass in sweat.  The resulting dehydration did not increase their tendency for muscle cramps. 
Another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2013 examined the effects of serious dehydration on athletes at work.  Specifically, researchers tested ten 24-year old men, having them exercise until they had lost 5% of their body mass (about 4 liters) of water.  The researchers found that dehydration and mild electrolyte loss did not make the men more susceptible to muscle cramps.
Even so, many individuals in the medical community, still believe that dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can cause muscle cramps.  These individuals refute the methods used in the studies mentioned and cite the science behind the theory:
“When the nerves that connect to the muscles aren’t surrounded by as much water and sodium as they need,” they become hypersensitive, causing the muscles to involuntarily contract or spasm, says Bergeron, executive director of the National Institute for Athletic Health & Performance at Sanford USD Medical Center.  

How can I treat muscle cramps?

The two types of muscle cramps have different causes and, therefore, require different treatments:

Muscle Overload & Fatigue

  1. Massage: Massaging the cramped muscle increases blood circulation to the affected area and helps relax the muscle.

When massaging a cramp, you can use your hands or a number of massage tools, such as a foam roller, a ball, or a stick.

Massaging a local muscle cramp can be painful and take several sessions.  Once, after beginning an intense squat program, my son developed a baseball-sized muscle cramp in his thigh.  It took two weeks of nightly massage before it was resolved.

Caution: You can cause bruising if you massage a single area for too long or press too hard.  Be patient, and take breaks if needed.

    1. Stretching: Stretching can also help ease the muscle cramp and prevent further cramping.  Stretching and massage can be alternated to relax the muscle.


  1. Heat: Heat also increases blood flow to the affected area. An Epsom salt bath is especially beneficial since Epsom salts contain magnesium, which is known for relaxing muscles.

Electrolyte Deficits

Some medical professionals are not convinced that dehydration or electrolyte deficits cause muscle cramps.  They argue that there are no studies linking dehydration or electrolyte losses and an increased tendency for muscle cramping.

Other medical professionals, however, point out that—with or without studies—muscle cramps happen!  And they tend to occur more often when athletes are overworked, fatigued, dehydrated and have electrolyte losses.

So, what should you do with these conflicting opinions?

Stay hydrated with a beverage that includes electrolytes!

There is no question that your body needs water and electrolytes.  Electrolytes are minerals that break down into electrically charged particles called ions when they are dissolved in water.  Water serves as a conductor, allowing the ions to move.  Electrolytes regulate your body’s fluids, help maintain the pH balance of your blood, and create the electrical impulses needed for your body to perform all of its functions, including lifting weights.

Worst case scenario, drinking a beverage with electrolytes will have no effect on your tendency to develop muscle cramps.  Best case scenario, it may ward off these cramps.  Either way, your body will perform better with a healthy electrolyte balance.

How can I prevent muscle cramps?

Both types of muscle cramps may be minimized through —

  1. Regular Stretching: Keeping muscles loose and flexible will help prevent them from tightening up and cramping.
  2. Easing Into a Training Program: Give your muscles a chance to adjust to any increases in weight, volume and intensity by adjusting just one element at a time. For instance, if you decide to add an extra thirty minutes to your daily training sessions, don’t simultaneously increase the weight and volume on all of your lifts.
  3. Eating a Healthy Diet: There are seven major electrolytes—sodium, chloride, potassium magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate.  These electrolytes are found in a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.  An electrolyte replacement beverage can also be used to replenish electrolytes lost during sweaty training sessions.

Final Points of Consideration—

  1. Muscle cramps can occur spontaneously, even with the best prevention. Don’t get frustrated when they happen.
  2. If muscle cramps happen frequently, are severe or don’t improve over time, consult a doctor.



(1) Muscle Cramps (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-cramp/symptoms-causes/dxc-20186052)

(2) Does Creatine Cause Muscle Cramps? (http://www.acvcrampcure.com/blog/does-creatine-cause-muscle-cramps)

(3) What Causes Muscle Cramps And Shortcuts For Muscle Cramp Relief!(http://www.complete-strength-training.com/what-causes-muscle-cramps.html)

(4) Muscle Cramps during Exercise: Is It Fatigue or Electrolyte Deficit? (http://www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com/Files/57.SPNT.pdf)

(5) Significant and serious dehydration does not affect skeletal muscle cramp threshold frequency (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23222192)

(6) Three percent hypohydration does not affect threshold frequency of electrically induced cramps (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20351595)

(7) Massage Solutions for Muscle Cramps (http://www.integrativehealthcare.org/mt/archives/2006/09/massage_solutio.html)

(8) Electrolytes 101 (http://www.active.com/nutrition/articles/electrolytes-101-881422)

(9) What Are Electrolytes… And Why Are They So Important? (https://www.builtlean.com/2012/11/28/electrolytes/)

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