It seems like everything has a fancy name these days. Call me old school, but I still order a “medium coffee” rather than a “tall, non-fat soy macchiato.” Maybe I just like things simple, or maybe I’m just too impatient to wait for the barista to pull that fancy coffee beverage. Don’t even get me started on those commercials for “low T” or other “new diseases” that conveniently come with new pharmaceutical solutions. Sometimes though, there’s some solid research and science behind those fancy names. Like: Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps, or EAMC for those who love acronyms.
We’ve all heard the mantras for addressing odd cramps during Pilates classes: drink lots of fluids, eat a banana, stretch beforehand, make sure you warm up…. And, frustratingly, sometimes the cramps still happen. Maybe, there’s something else happening here as well – something that happens often in Pilates exercises specifically. (Don’t drop off here if you’re not a Pilates geek – this may be the information nugget you’ve been searching for!)
Just like the Myth Busters show, several groups of scientists have recently taken a look at the whole “you need to balance your electrolytes” hypothesis. Take a guess what they found out…. Yup, loading up the electrolytes didn’t do a dang thing to stop muscle cramps while exercising. (Personally, I find electrolyte drinks, like coconut water, more helpful post-workout, but that’s just me.) And, drinking more water didn’t make a big difference either. For those who like to read all the science-y stuff, here’s a peek at one of the studies that appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Martin Schwellnus is the bomb when it comes to research in this area.
So, what is going on with those crazy cramps? When I asked a group of Pilates professionals about when cramping occurs in a Pilates session, all of the responses had a common tread: eccentric contraction in an unfamiliar position: footwork in turnout, frog, parakeet on the Cadillac, and bridging paired with opening and closing the reformer carriage were all common culprits. Surprise, surprise – Pilates teachers asking people to move in strange positions!
For those unfamiliar with terms like ‘eccentric’ and ‘concentric,’ don’t get freaked out. When you perform a biceps curl, or the classic “make a muscle” pose, you’re using concentric contraction. Your biceps muscles shorten as they do the work of lifting a weight. This concentric contraction actually involves two brain signals: the biceps on the front of your arm receive a brain signal to contract and shorten while the triceps on the back of your arm receive a brain signal to lengthen.
Many, many Pilates exercises rely on eccentric contraction – lengthening a muscle as it does the work of managing a weight. Think of the Pilates mat exercise Teaser – you’re lengthening your legs forward as you manage the weight of them. Since lengthening while managing a workload is no easy feat, your teacher might have you prop the weight of your legs on a wall when you’re learning Teaser. insert a photo of me doing teaser
Here’s the thing about eccentric exercises: the brain signal for this contraction pattern is more complicated. Both sides of your body are working in balance, rather than one side contracting and one actively relaxing. Your body and brain must struggle to learn a new way of managing a workload and it can take some time and focus to create the new neuro-muscular signals. I often say that Pilates is high school physics class happening in your body – it’s a system of pulleys and levers and you’re becoming the master of them. It isn’t going to happen overnight!
If you’ve been working out lifting weights or not exercising at all, a Pilates session may ask your brain and muscles to encounter a struggle to perform and adapt to a new system of movement many, many times. Do that often enough, and you might encounter faulty muscle signaling. That’s when a muscle is stimulated to contract when it’s expecting to be stimulated to relax. This imbalance in the neuromuscular signals causes…..Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping. The cramps happen because the muscles are confused.
THE GOOD NEWS
Ironically, the KISS method works like a charm for Pilates exercises that cause EAMC: Keep It Simple, Silly. Even for advanced practitioners, just because your brain says it knows an exercise, doesn’t mean that it’s ready to send the appropriate signals to your muscles. So, prep like crazy:
- Warm up, but not to the point of fatigue. In the research scenarios, athletes encountered EAMC most often when they were fatigued or when they increased speed or muscle work too quickly.
- Perform a preparatory or basic exercise version while focusing on the muscles involved. Don’t zone out – listen to what your body is telling you about which muscles are recruiting. Can you tell the muscles on both sides of the action to work and lengthen at the same time?
- Try using as little muscle strength as possible – don’t make things harder than they need to be, as that’s a classic scenario for faulty muscle signaling.
- Avoid recruiting extra muscles. Classic newbie error: hands and feet that tense when they’re not needed.
- Move at a slow-to-moderate pace when working on cramp-inducing exercises – faster movements are more likely to trigger faulty muscle signaling. As you master the movement without cramping, you can add speed.
- Avoid performing your cramp-inducing exercises late in your routine. Scientists refer to this phase as the altered neuromuscular control period, the phase when muscles tire, and neuromuscular coordination and control become impaired.
THE BAD NEWS
Some folks, it seems, are more likely to suffer from muscle cramps. Scientists have found gene markers that indicate EAMC can be hereditary. Those with a history of tendon or ligament injury are also more likely to suffer from muscle cramps, even when taking care to avoid muscle fatigue scenarios.
About the Author
Christine Binnendyk is the creator of the Ageless Pilates and Barre Fitness workout programs, taught exclusively at Nike’s World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.. Nike employees take her Pain Free Body, Pain Free Athlete and Pain Free at the Office workshops at the Nike Sports Centers. Public workshops are available through Portland Community College, Club Sport Oregon and the Warrior Room. Find her best-selling book “Ageless Pilates” on Amazon.