Oh Cramp!

Youth Weightlifting Muscle 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.

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Resources:

(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/)

8 Squat Workouts Away from Home

Youth Weightlifting Squat Workouts

On vacation some people relax and take a break from training.  And some people search frantically for a barbell, not wanting to miss any training opportunities.  If you’re reading this, you probably belong to the second group.  Good news . . . I’ve got you covered.

Here are 8 non-barbell squat workouts that can be done just about anywhere.

WORKOUTS WITH WEIGHT

When traveling, it is hard to find a barbell and free weights.  Most hotels/resorts/campgrounds/cruise ships just don’t have these things.  However, many places do have dumbbells or kettle bells.  Don’t turn up your nose and walk away!   Use them.  Here are 4 squat possibilities if you can find some weight.

Q: How much weight should you use?

A: Use something heavy.  The last rep in each set should feel very challenging.

WORKOUTS WITHOUT WEIGHT

If you have absolutely no access to weights, consider these 4 options:

 

In addition to being great vacation workouts, these workouts can be used

  • As “finishers” after any weightlifting workout
  • Between strength building programs to increase speed and explosiveness in the squat
  • As quick workouts if you only have a little time
  • As early morning workouts if you want to add a little “extra” to your training

Youth Weightlifting in Germany

Youth Weightlifting in Germany

Three years ago, my family moved from the United States to Germany. As soon as we arrived, we sought out the local weightlifting club. Weightlifting is what we love to do, and we wanted to jump right into the weightlifting scene in Germany. It took us a couple of attempts, but we finally connected with the coaches at a nearby athletic club, AC Kindsbach. Like most weightlifting clubs, AC Kindsbach is a small club that is only open for a couple of hours each evening.

Upon meeting the coaches, my first question was, “Do you coach weightlifting?” The coach, Ernst Shäfer, responded, “Yes. I was a World Champion in 1988.” Good enough. My next question was, “How much do you charge?” Ernst responded, “Twenty-four euros.” Twenty-four euros is about $26. Per week? Per session? Ernst clarified, “Per Year.” Per YEAR?! I knew we had found our club.

Then, I asked, “Will you coach my son?” At the time, my son was only 10-years old, and I knew that many weightlifting coaches would not be interested in coaching someone so young. Another coach, Marco Walz, who was standing nearby, said, “I will coach him.” Little did I know that Hutch was Marco’s first athlete. I was just pleased that my son had a coach!

And thus began our adventure in German youth weightlifting . . .

Over the years, we learned the ins and outs of the system. Youth weightlifting is quite different in Germany than in the United States. In Germany, a stronger emphasis is placed on overall athletic development and building technical proficiency with the barbell. This is reflected in the competitions.

Up to age 16, weightlifters in Germany participate in a two-part competition, which includes Athletics and Weightlifting.

Athletics:

Each competition includes four athletic events that contribute to an athlete’s overall score. In most competitions, these events are:

Ball Throw: Athletes throw a weighted ball (2kg to 5kg) behind them. Points are awarded according to how far the ball travels. Athletes are given
two attempts to throw the ball as far as they can. This exercise trains explosive hip extension.

Video of Ball Throw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Triple Jump: Athletes begin standing still and jump three consecutive times. Points are awarded according to how far the athlete jumps. This exercise trains hip extension and leg strength.

 

 

Toes to Bar: Athletes begin hanging from a bar. They must bring their toes to the bar as many times as possible without swinging. This exercise trains core strength and flexibility.

 

Sprints: Athletes sprint in a pattern, touching an object 5 meters, 10 meters and then 5 meters away. This exercise trains speed and explosiveness.

Video of Sprint

 

There are always four athletic events in the competition. However, the events are not always the same.

For instance, at the 2016 German Youth Nationals the triple jump was swapped out for a vertical jump. At the 2017 South German Championships, pushups were substituted for toes to bar.

 

Weightlifting:

Technique Points: German weightlifting uses a ten-point system to award points for technique. Referees in youth competitions must know how to score according to this system, deducting points and partial points for deviations from correct technique.

A very good lift receives a score of about 7.0. Here is an example of a lift that received a 7.0.

Video of 7.0 Lift

An outstanding lift may receive a score of 9.0. Here is an example of a lift that received a 9.0. I have never seen a score higher than 9.0 awarded in a competition.

Video of 9.0 Lift

Weight on Barbell: An athlete’s weightlifting score is determined by multiplying the technique points by the weight on the barbell. So, the actual amount of weight lifted DOES matter. However, it is not the only thing that matters.

All of this might be interesting, but why does it matter for youth weightlifters in the United States?

Consider the following . . . What are the benefits of Germany’s Youth Weightlifting System?

  • Well-Rounded Approach: The German system requires youth weightlifters to develop overall athleticism. By testing a variety of skills, the system takes some of the focus off of training with the barbell and places it on exercises that will benefit a mature weightlifter.
  • Technique Development: Awarding technique points gives coaches and youth lifters an incentive to polish technique, rather than just focus on strength building. “It [also] allows kids who cannot lift as heavy to compete against more seasoned lifters,” explains John Attilo, head of Youth Weightlifting in Rhineland-Pfalz, Germany. “It motivates kids and coaches to pursue the best technique possible.”
  • Gentler on Young Athletes: I watched a five year-old compete in his first competition.  He had a noticeable press-out on the snatch.  But . . . he was five.  Rather than giving the child a red light and sending him away in tears, the judge gave him a white light and just deducted points for poor technique.

Could the German system be implemented in the United States?  Maybe Not . . .

  • No Standardized System for Technique: It would be very difficult to implement the German system in the United States. The United States does not have a standardized system of weightlifting technique. Each coach teaches the technical methods he or she prefers. Without a standardized system, it would be impossible to score lifts for technique.
  • Overhaul of Referee Training: Currently, USA Weightlifting trains referees to spot errors that would disqualify a lift, such as a press out in the jerk, or rolling the bar up the arms in the clean. It would require much more training to teach referees to discern smaller points of technique, such as yanking the bar off the ground or lifting the hips too early in the snatch.

Maybe So . . .

  • Cutting Edge: Since Phil Andrews became CEO of USA Weightlifting, the organization has transformed from a small, dated sport to a vibrant presence on the world stage. Over the past few years, USA Weightlifting has implemented athlete stipends, athlete development camps, and other tools geared specifically toward producing more elite weightlifters. Clearly, USA Weightlifting is not afraid to tackle big changes in pursuit of a better program.

If the United States did adopt a youth program similar to that in Germany, benefits could include:

  • Greater Longevity in the Sport: Burnout is a big issue in youth weightlifting. Many talented youth weightlifters never reach their full potential because they quit too early. Perhaps one reason for this is that weightlifting training is repetitive and involves only a handful of movements: clean, jerk, snatch, pulls, presses, and squats. Broadening the spectrum of exercises to include ball throwing, sprinting, jumping, etc., could keep kids interested in the sport for longer. Plus, these exercises are fun for kids.
  • Improved Coaching: U.S.A. Weightlifting could contribute to better coaching through standardized technique. Due to the recent increased popularity of youth weightlifting, many new and relatively inexperienced coaches are training kids. The upside is that new talent is constantly entering the sport, increasing the potential number of elite weightlifters. The downside is that these new coaches could use some guidance. A standardized system of technique could provide this.