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How to Not Get Stomach Cramps When Doing Sit-Ups

author image Martin Booe
Martin Booe writes about health, wellness and the blues. His byline has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Bon Appetit. He lives in Los Angeles.
How to Not Get Stomach Cramps When Doing Sit-Ups
How to Not Get Stomach Cramps When Doing Sit-Ups Photo Credit: Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images

“Cramp” is a word often used to describe any kind of pain in a muscle. If you’re experiencing a cramping sensation in your stomach when doing sit-ups, it first might be helpful to determine if you’re actually getting cramps.

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An ordinary muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction or over-shortening of the muscle. It can last for several seconds or minutes and can cause mild to extreme pain as the muscle impinges on the nerves. You may feel a few brief spasms or twitches before the onset of the full cramp. With severe cramps, the muscle may stay sore or tender for a few days.

One form of stomach cramps is common enough to have been awarded a medical phrase: Exercise-related transient abdominal pain, or ETAP. It’s commonly referred to as a "stitch." It’s most likely to occur in activities with repetitive torso movement, with the torso in an extended position.

ETAP is a localized pain that’s usually felt to the sides of the mid abdomen, though it can occur anywhere in the abdomen. It can also be referred from nerves in the shoulder. When acute, ETAP can be sharp or stabbing. When less severe, it may take the form of cramping, aching or pulling. ETAP can have a number of different causes and should be easy to avoid when you isolate the reason for them.

Don’t Eat or Drink

Eating and drinking fluids before exercise is a likely cause of stomach cramps. In addition, the more you eat or drink, the more like you are to experience abdominal pain during exercise. Clear fluids have been shown to be less irritating than thicker solutions like juices. If dehydration during workouts is a problem, try gradually increasing the amount of fluid you drink. The gut seems to increase its tolerance to larger quantities of fluid over time.

Read More: Difference Between a Pulled Muscle and a Cramp

Be Sure to Warm Up

Warming up with stretches may your best bet for avoiding the cramps. Gentle stretching — in this case of the abdominal muscles — is both prevention and cure for the cramps. A general warm-up with some cardio is always recommended, and sun salutations are a gentle way to warm up the whole body.

You might perform three rounds of vacuum, which is drawing your stomach inward toward your spine and holding it for 30 seconds. Stretching, or other gentle exercise prior to going into high gear with sit-ups or other abdominal exercises, reduces the chance of muscle fatigue, which leads to cramping.

Avoid Dehydration

Avoid Dehydration
Avoid Dehydration Photo Credit: g-stockstudio/iStock/Getty Images

Although dehydration and its accompanying depletion of electrolytes are commonly cited as a reason for muscle cramping, there’s not actually a lot of research to support this. And unless you’ve done 800 sit-ups in a steam-room, or have been working out strenuously for hours, you’re unlikely to get dehydrated just by doing sit-ups. Still, it’s worth taking into account.

According to the journal Sports Health, the body will have absorbed most of the fluid, electrolytes and nutrients in a liter of water or a sports drink within one hour of drinking it. Needless to say, it’s also important to eat a balanced diet because most fluids and electrolytes are replaced at meals.

The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking 17 to 20 ounces of water two to three hours before starting exercise, and another 8 ounces 20 to 30 minutes before you start your workout. You should also consume 7 to 10 ounces every half hour during exercise, and 16 to 24 ounces after exercise for every pound of body weight lost to sweat.

Read More: How to Loosen Contracted Muscles

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