5 Thoughts on Training with a Disc Injury

Low back pain is extremely common. Statistics show a high prevalence of lumbar disc herniation, especially in people of ages between 30 and 50 years old. Many of these instances are asymptomatic, meaning they are causing no pain and probably go unnoticed. However, there are also a lot of people out there dealing with chronic back pain due to disc herniation.

Common symptoms include:

  • Back pain, often on just one side of the spine

  • Pain down the leg/foot (sciatica)

  • Numbness or tingling down the leg/foot

  • Back spasms and tightness

In my experience, people don’t realize they have a disc issue until they try to start a fitness regimen. They try to go from sedentary to athletic and it becomes very clear that things aren’t working quite right. There is almost always a number of joint dysfunctions elsewhere, especially in the hips, which have contributed to eventually damaging the disc(s).

However, quitting or avoiding physical activity is NOT the answer. Here are my thoughts on exercising/training with a lumbar disc injury:

Start with Mobility

As I briefly mentioned, I’ve found that most lumbar disc injuries have some obvious joint dysfunction behind them. For example, the hip(s) may not internally rotate sufficiently. When this person tries to complete a deep squat, the lumbar spine tries to make up for the hips’ lack of rotation and eventually gives out (spines make for poor hip substitutes). Maybe your actual spine doesn’t move at each separate vertebrae!  

I’d recommend seeking out the help of a practitioner or trainer who is capable of performing an in-depth mobility screening to help identify these problems. Otherwise, you are more likely of irritating the existing issue. Address the underlying mobility problems with the same focus you would apply to your fitness routine!

I also must state that defaulting to yoga or stretching is not necessarily the answer. We want function, not just useless flexibility.

Learn How to Breathe

We have worked with hundreds of people over the years and I can tell you most have no concept of breathing with the diaphragm.

Think about a weight belt. If you’ve ever correctly used a weight belt, it is simply a sturdy structure to breathe against. This is the same way you should brace for any athletic movement or lift.

Don’t hold your breath in your chest! You’ll gain stability throughout your core just by breathing into your lower abs, obliques and low back all at once. Create pressure. Maintain pressure. Keep your spine stable and protected.

Identify and Accept Your Triggers

By trigger, I’m talking about something that results in pain. You’ll have to accept that some exercises will do more harm than good with your disc issue. This can be different for everybody, depending on what part of your body isn’t working how it should.

If heavy back squats to full depth leave you bed-ridden for a week...switch to a box squat. Maybe it’s deadlifting from the ground, maybe it’s long distance runs. Whatever your trigger, lay off it for now and work on building up to it slowly ---  or maybe never! (Refer back to #1)

Take the Gradual Approach

When a disc is irritated, your body usually tightens up the muscles around it and the area becomes inflamed. Obviously, we don’t want to exercise while this is happening. But once these symptoms and the pain subsides, there are plenty of ways to get back to moving around. The key is taking gradual steps and keeping your ego in check.

The first step may just be going for an easy walk. Working on holding some planks. Focus on restoring a healthy and stable environment. Then, we’ll go into body-weight movements like pushups, maybe lunges, etc. Going straight to weighted movements that directly compress the spine will likely just be counterproductive.

Gradually building your way up will allow you to test the waters slowly and avoid having to start the process all over.

Build Up That Backside

I mentioned earlier that hips are often a major contributing factor to disc herniations. This also ties into a relationship with the glutes and hamstrings. If you have no hips, you probably have no ass either!

Work on getting the hips moving better and addressing your weak glutes, too. The hips, glutes, and hamstrings make up a group of big, strong muscles. Without these, you are just letting your back take all the abuse! Not to mention, our seated lifestyles are shutting off those glutes from working. Exercises focused on the posterior will be time well-spent.