Exercises and Stretches to Help Prevent and Treat Muscle Cramps

Couple with Instructor Stretching To help Prevent and Treat Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps are the sudden, involuntary and painful contractions of a muscle. Usually occurring in the lower legs, these cramps can affect nearly 50% of older adults  [1].

The nature of these cramps often discourages or limit a person’s ability to exercise. Exercise, especially in older adults, is crucial to maintain bone density, muscle mass, strengthen the immune system and even increase the chance of survival during periods of illness [2].

Luckily, as long as a cramp is not actively occurring, people who experience muscle cramps can still safely exercise. As there are different preventative stretches exercises that may help reduce muscle cramping, exercise can be seen as a proactive strategy to combat muscle cramps while improving overall health status.

What causes muscle cramps in exercise?

There are two main theories as to what causes muscle cramps during exercise.

Although you may experience muscle cramps outside of exercise, knowing these potential triggers can help you avoid any additional cramping and help you maintain a regular exercise routine.

To learn more about the different reasons muscle cramps can occur, read our article here [Insert link to causes, signs and symptoms of muscle cramps].

Neuromuscular changes

During a muscle cramp, muscle fibres are overstimulated in their shortened position. For example, your muscle will shorten during a normal contraction exercise such as a bicep curl.

If another contraction occurs while the muscle is shortened, such as during fatigue, this can cause a muscle cramp [3].

Water-electrolyte imbalance

During exercise, sweat is lost from the body to regulate body temperature. Sweat is made out of electrolytes and water, where losing these nutrients from the body could cause muscle cramps, especially during hot weather and intense exercise [3].

Exercise habits to prevent & treat muscle cramps

Avoid over-exercising

Over-exercising can induce muscle cramps due to fatigue. If a muscle is overworked, it can contract in a shortened position which can cause a cramp. Similarly, performing exercises while fatigued can decrease proper form which could predispose muscles to injury or cramping.

Pay special attention when performing concentric exercises, or exercises that shorten the muscle fiber during contraction. These include:

  • Bicep curls
  • Push-ups
  • Hamstring curls
  • Sit-ups

Always make sure that during exercise you replenish with plenty of water or an electrolyte energy drink to avoid dehydration.

Avoid inactivity

While too much exercise could cause muscle cramps, it’s equally important to avoid inactivity as it can weaken muscles and even increase muscle cramps.

The National Health Service (NHS) recommends that adults perform 150 minutes of physical activity per week [4]. When doing activity, focus on isometric or eccentric exercises that will lengthen or stretch the muscles. These include:

  • Walking or jogging
  • Wall sits
  • Planks
  • Walking with a heavy object
  • Seated or chair exercises


Stretches to prevent & treat muscle cramps

Muscle cramps - whether caused by exercise or not - can sometimes be relieved through stretching. This lengthens the muscle fibres and can limit the intensity or the duration of the cramp.

It is also important to stretch before and after exercise for at least 15 minutes to avoid muscle soreness or pulling a muscle during exercise, which could worsen a cramp later on.

All these stretches are from Dr. Jo, a licensed Physical Therapist & Doctor of Physical Therapy.

To see a video of these stretches in action, visit Dr. Jo’s video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMJLQ_Es1p8

Runner Stretch

Grab a chair, a wall or another sturdy surface. With your feet slightly staggered, hold onto and lean into this solid surface. With your toes pointed towards the solid surface, keep your feet flat and slightly lean into your toes until you feel a stretch in your calves.

Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Hamstring Stretch

Using a chair, place your foot on the seat of the chair with your toes pointing up. Your other foot should be planted comfortably on the ground so there is a 45-degree angle between both legs. Keeping your hips and feet pointed forward, slightly hinge at the hips until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings.

Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Quad Stretch

Holding onto a chair, wall or other solid surface for balance, lift one foot off the ground and bend your knee so your heel is pointed towards the back of your thigh. Using your hand, gradually pull your foot towards the back of your thigh until you feel a quad stretch.

Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.



All the above stretches can be modified by sitting down or lying down. For example, the runner and hamstring stretch can be performed sitting down with your feet on the floor, and then leaning forward to perform the stretch. The quad stretch could be performed lying down on your side, bringing your foot to the back of your thigh.

If you require certain modifications to exercises, it is best to speak with a physiotherapist who can help adapt any exercise to your needs.


The Bottom Line

Ultimately, muscle cramps should not stop you from enjoying exercise. In fact, exercise can be a vehicle to prevent and relieve muscle cramps. By focusing on proper form, avoiding excessive exercise, staying hydrated and stretching regularly, you can reap the rewards of exercise while warding off muscle cramps.




  1. Maisonneuve, H. (2016). Prevalence of cramps in patients over the age of 60 in primary care : a cross sectional study. BMC Family Practice, 111(17), 1-7. https://bmcfampract.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12875-016-0509-9#:~:text=Results,compared%20to%2060%E2%80%9364%20years.
  2. Guest, A., & Apgar, M. D. (2002). Promoting and prescribing exercise for the elderly. Americ. family physician, 65(3).
  3. Physiopedia. (2021, January 01). Exercise Associated Muscle Cramps. Physiopedia Blog. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Exercise-Associated_Muscle_Cramps
  4. National Health Services. (2019, October 08). Exercise. Live Well. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/