Why Do I Get Cramps During a Workout?

Optimizing your workouts helps you stay balanced, prevent harmful injuries, and reach your fitness goals much more quickly. When cramps and muscle spasms occur during exercise, they can cause intense pain that literally “cramps” your style, and leads to avoidance of the healthy movements that can elevate your wellness scorecard.

The good news is that there are some simple solutions to this common exercise complaint.  Take a look at the top reasons why you may experience muscle cramping during exercise, and how a few expert physical therapy techniques can rapidly propel your fitness progress forward.

Four Causes of Cramps While Exercising

There are several reasons why people experience cramping during exercise, including:

  • Dehydration 
  • An improper balance of electrolytes, which causes a breakdown in signals that tell your muscles when to contract and relax
  • A lack of stretching, which causes your muscles to contract inefficiently
  • A lack of oxygen from improper breath work, which inhibits your muscles’ ability to function properly

In fact, breathing has been found to be such an important factor in high-performance workouts that it’s now considered just as vital as the movements themselves.

The Anatomy of a Breath

It may seem intuitive that you’d breathe during exercise, yet many people actually forget to do so. This is especially true when you’re using your abdominal muscles to perform moves that require strength and stabilization. Failure to breathe properly can occur when you’re bending over at the hips, which squeezes your diaphragm, or when you’re trying to support your torso with your abs.

You can think of your diaphragm as oxygen’s front-line facilitator. It’s the main muscle that’s used to inhale during respiration.  The diaphragm is shaped like a dome that forms a thin sheath over the bottom left and right sides of your ribcage and divides your chest from your abdominal cavity. When you inhale, this skeletal muscle actually contracts and flattens so your lungs can expand to take in the oxygen, before returning to the relaxed dome shape upon exhale of carbon dioxide and other gases.

The main parts of your diaphragm include:

  • The peripheral muscle fibers that originate in one of three sections: the sternal, costal, and lumbar regions
  • The central tendon to which the peripheral muscles attach, and which is pulled into the abdominal cavity during inhalation
  • Three main openings for key structures to pass through: esophageal (for the esophagus and vagus nerve), aortic (for the aorta, the body’s main artery), and the canal (for the inferior vena cava, a large vein transporting blood to your heart)

The Problems with Holding Your Breath During Exercise

Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion, leading to the improper intake and disbursement of oxygen to your muscles.  Both improper breathing techniques and holding your breath can not only lead to painful cramps during workouts, but also a whole host of other issues such as:

  • Increased blood pressure (because your body is trying to compensate for your decreased heart rate by forcing blood through your arteries)
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of coordination 
  • Increased fatigue
  • Hernias and other injuries

Benefits of Deep Breathing During Exercise

The advantages of deep, or diaphragmatic, breathing are immense. The latest groundbreaking research on this technique reveals that it elevates your workout by:

  • Improving your oxygen levels
  • Stabilizing your blood pressure
  • Increasing your stamina
  • Stabilizing your core muscles
  • Preventing injuries
  • Decreasing intra-abdominal pressure to reduce your risk of pelvic floor damage
  • Improving your post-workout recovery

How to Breathe During Exercise

You can use this simple three-step breathing process to help reduce spasms and cramps, and improve your muscle performance: 

  • Inhale through your nose upon release of the exercise movement. This allows for the optimal release of the powerhouse molecule nitric oxide, which increases the carbon dioxide that’s responsible for releasing oxygen to your muscles.  
  • Exhale through your mouth upon exertion of the exercise. This ensures that air can be released efficiently, without causing a backlog due to the small opening of your nostrils. 
  • Maintain a rhythm. Discoveries of the multi-faceted abilities of nitric oxide led to the award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1998, and rhythmic breathing helps increase this molecule’s levels for optimal oxygenation and blood flow to your heart during exercise.

Can Physical Therapy in NEPA Help?

Yes! During your physical therapy in Luzerne County or Lackawanna County, we’ll not only teach you correct stretching techniques so that your muscles can properly contract during your exercise routines, but we’ll also help you unlock the secrets of ‘breathing dynamics’ to ensure you optimally oxygenate your muscles and improve your overall performance during workouts. Our team is here to provide expert guidance on:

  • Rib (muscle) expansion exercises 
  • Diaphragm release techniques
  • Coordinated exercise and breathing processes for optimal performance 

Our staff of physical therapists in NEPA can also provide you with some key strategies to ensure you’re keeping your electrolytes and hydration well-balanced during exercise to further reduce your risk of muscle cramps.  If you or anyone you know is dealing with exercise-induced cramping or difficulty maintaining breathing during activity, reach out to Cawley Physical Therapy & Rehab at (570)-208-2787.