What Causes Muscle Cramping?

Muscle cramps can really do a number on your fitness regimen. Learn how to prevent and combat that pesky charley horse. 

Ben Greenfield
2-minute read

In the episode How to Prevent Cramps When Exercising,  you learned about 5 ways to minimize those pesky muscle cramps that can derail your workout, including:

  1. Get into shape
  2. Stay hydrated
  3. If you exercise a lot, use electrolytes
  4. Keep cramping muscles flexible
  5. Eat something very salty

In that episode, I highlighted the fact that it’s actually relatively rare for cramping to be related to dehydration and lack of salt intake (although if you are very low on water or very deficient in electrolytes, this can indeed be the case – it’s just more rare than we tend to think!).

See also: Is Lactic Acid Bad?


A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research actually looked into the best predictions of calf cramping in athletes. And guess what they found? It was not hydration and not electrolytes that were the best predictors.

Instead, the best predictors for propensity to cramp during exercise were:

  1. Low back pain

  2. Age

Why low back pain and age? In the case of the former, it’s likely due to the fact that low back pain in general is a sign of poor mobility, poor muscle tone, and muscular imbalances, all of which can be a “canary in the coal mine” for cramping, so to speak! In the second case, we know that aging can result in muscle adhesions, more scar tissue, and less quality of muscle fiber – all of which can also aggravate cramping…no matter how much Gatorade you’ve had to drink!

Do you have questions about what causes cramping? Leave your thoughts over at Facebook.com/GetFitGuy.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.