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Why Do I Get Stomach Cramps When I Work on My Abs?

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: June 8, 2022

In my many years of training and coaching others, I have noticed a strong correlation between abdominal exercises and cramping.

I didn’t buy the common advice to “stay hydrated” to avoid the ab muscles cramping, as it never actually worked for my clients or me. So, I spoke to a physical therapist and our resident dietician and did my own research on top of that to get to the bottom of this issue.

I found two major sources of cramping during workouts, some ways to relieve the symptoms, and a few precautionary measures to prevent them.

Let’s dive in.

Quick Summary

  • Abdominal cramping is usually the result of being careless with your diet and exercise.
  • You can easily avoid ab cramps by watching your workout load and fixing your meal timing.
  • Gently stretching your abdominal muscles both prevents and cures ab cramps.

What Causes Stomach Cramps When Working Out?

Woman holding her stomach from getting cramps

The two most common causes of stomach cramps when working out are overexertion and eating right before the workout, so make sure to avoid these if you’re having such issues.

Let’s dive into a bit more detail.

Overworking or Overstretching the Abdominal Muscles

Abdominal cramping is usually the result of a muscle strain (injury to a muscle or tendon) or muscle fatigue due to overuse or overstretching.

I've seen this in new clients who usually overdo their first set of ab exercises.

That’s not to say ab cramps don’t affect experienced lifters. They often experience abdominal pain from strenuous and frequent exercise (especially crunches and sit-ups).

Abdominal cramps could also be due to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) — the muscle pain you feel after a workout [1].

Eating or Drinking Before Working Out

Eating salad on plate

Eating and drinking fluids before your workouts can likely cause stomach cramps.

The more you eat and drink before exercise, the more likely you'll experience a painful feeling in your stomach when working out.

When I told this to my clients, they brought up the topic of dehydration.

While it’s true dehydration causes you to cramp, there aren’t any significant findings to prove it.

According to a study in ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal, dehydration is defined as exercise-related weight loss greater than 2% of your body weight [2]. In other words, you’d have to be extremely dehydrated to experience cramping.

“If you have put too much fluid or food in your stomach, you can't get a large breath. If your levels of sodium, potassium, and calcium are off-kilter, that could contribute to stomach cramps, too.” - Jeff Galloway

American Olympian

What Are the Best Ways to Relieve Symptoms?

A person with abs giving a thumbs up

Some of the best ways to relieve symptoms of stomach cramps are rest, massage, heat and cold exposure, and some medication. Let’s explore these further.

Stop Exercising and Massage the Area of Pain

If your abs start to cramp mid-workout, stop exercising. Take some focused, deep breaths. Then, stretch and massage the area where you feel pain.

Press two fingers in and up the painful muscle for at least 10 seconds. Make sure you keep breathing.

Apply Heat

Apply heat to the tightened and painful area to relax the muscles and improve blood flow — especially if you're experiencing a muscle spasm.

Icing the Abs

You can apply an ice pack, gel pack, or frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth to the sore area for 20 minutes. Repeat this every three to four hours to relieve your stomach muscles.

Prescription Medication

If the above solutions don’t work, your cramping could be a result of other symptoms. I recommend you visit your doctor and get a prescription medication to help relieve your abdominal pain.

How To Prevent Stomach Cramps When Working Out?

A man doing a plank

These are five measures I take to prevent stomach cramps when working out.

Lightening Workout Load

If you haven't worked on your abs for a while, I highly recommend you lighten the load on your abdominal exercises. This also applies to exercises that require strong core engagement (like squats and deadlifts).

Once you get back to the groove of working out, turn up the intensity by gradually increasing your weight load.

Light Pre-Workout Stretches

To avoid muscle strain during your ab workouts (especially sit-ups), warm up your body with five to ten minutes of light cardio and gentle stretches.

Stretching and cardio can improve your muscles’ range of motion and prevent muscle spasms.

Limit Consumption of High-Fiber Foods

Consuming food high in fiber before a workout can fill up your stomach and lead to stomach cramps.

You may be tempted to eat something right before your workout to boost your energy levels. Instead, we recommend you take a pre-workout before you lift to boost your workout performance.

Consume Electrolytes

Abdominal cramping can occur when you're low on electrolytes like sodium [3].

Consume electrolyte-rich food and drink an hour before you exercise. Try bananas, sports drinks, nuts, potatoes, and milk [4].

FAQs

What Should I Do If My Muscle Cramps Don’t Stop?

If your muscle cramps don’t stop, then go see a physician immediately. Your stomach pain might be due to other symptoms.

What Can I Eat To Relieve Cramps in My Abdominal Muscles?

To relieve cramps in your abdominal muscles, eat bland foods that are gentle on the stomach, like bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. The easiest way to remember these foods is with the acronym BRAT.

Should I Avoid Caffeine to Prevent Ab Cramps?

No, you need not avoid caffeine to prevent ab cramps. Although caffeine consumption may cause you to urinate, it does not dangerously dehydrate your body.

Avoiding Abdominal Cramps For Good

To prevent abdominal cramps during your workout, keep two things in mind: warm up and don’t eat or drink too heavily.

If you’re someone who takes a meal before a workout to boost your energy, we recommend you consume a high-quality pre-workout supplement instead.

These products can enhance your performance, make the workouts easier and more pleasant, and they will take far less volume in your stomach and be absorbed much quicker than a heavy meal.

They are not a meal replacement, but they should give you the energy to boost your workout performance significantly.


References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12617692/
  2. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2013/07000/Exercise_and_Fluid_Replacement__Brought_to_you_by.3.aspx
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1150229/
  4. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/electrolytes-food

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