How to Lift and Live with a Herniated Disc

Question: Hi Chad, I recently purchased Huge in a Hurry from Amazon, and think its a very well written book. I love the plans and how they’re laid out in the book. I’ve been strength training for a few years, and have had decent trainers along the way, so I honestly feel like I have form pretty locked down.

With that said, I was experimenting with my back arch while doing back squats in June this year, and ended up herniating my L5/S1 disc in my lumbar spine – so completely stupid and a mistake I’ll never make again. I was out for a few months, and did physical therapy for over 2 months. I’m now back in action, and have been cleared to do split squats, single leg squats..basically any squat that is not with both legs. I’m leaning on the cautious side!

My question for you, is how can I do the program and work around the 2 legged squat / deadlift exercises? I suppose I could wait a few more months to get started, but your book got me excited to focus again.

Thanks,
Andrew

CW Answer: Thanks for your support Andrew and I’m stoked that you like Huge in a Hurry.

First off, most avid lifters have some level of disc herniation (bulge). My friend and colleague, Dr. Stuart McGill, works with many NFL players and he constantly sees disc problems. Or put another way, he constantly sees NFL players who play with herniated discs. I don’t have the hard numbers, but I’d guess that the majority of all NFL players probably have some type of disc herniation, even if they’re not symptomatic. You can include me in that category.

In other words, you can have a herniated disc and not even know it. The good news for the small fraction of you who don’t have a disc problem is that this information will still apply to you. I follow the same technique and core activation protocols whether or not a client comes to me with back pain. Prevention is key for those who aren’t injured because it’s very likely that you will herniate a disc unless you get your training parameters right.

There are three important steps to follow when performing any leg exercises, or any strength exercise in general, when you’re experiencing back pain.

Step #1: Improve tissue health and mobility
When your back is aching you can be sure there’s compensation going on in multiple muscles throughout your body. If you have pain in your left low back I’ll bet your left hamstrings and calves are tight as guitar strings. You must loosen the fascia covering those muscles so they can move freely.

That’s why you should start each workout with the golf ball foot roll as popularized by Anatomy Trains author, Thomas Myers. Stand barefoot and roll the bottom of your right foot over a golf ball with as much pressure as you can withstand for 30-60s with each foot. This relaxes the fascia from your calves all the way up to the back of your neck. Focus on the sorest spots since they need it most. Then, foam roll your spinal erectors, quadriceps, IT band, glutes and calves.

Step #2: Activate your core and lats
Before each set of a leg exercise perform the side plank with rotation. This is one of the most beneficial activation exercises you can do to protect your back and remove stress from your aggravated disc. The benefit of this exercise is that it activates the muscles in your quadratus lumborum (QL) and lats, two muscle groups that are essential for spinal stability.

I recommend you perform 3-5 slow, intense reps of the side plank with rotation on each side before every set of leg exercises (squat, deadlift, lunge, etc).

Step #3: Focus on single leg exercises that don’t cause pain
When you’re experiencing radiating pain from a disc herniation, most physical therapists will recommend that you stay away from two-legged exercises such as squats and deadlifts. I agree with that cautious approach.

So, if you’re following the workouts in Huge in a Hurry and have an injured disc, replace all traditional squats and deadlifts with single leg versions of each. A back squat can be replaced with a single leg squat or lunge; a deadlift is replaced by a single leg deadlift. Do your best to stick to the same other parameters for that workout.

For example, if a workout calls for 40 total reps for the back squat with a load you can lift 10-12 times for the first set, simply replace the back squat with a single leg squat or lunge and follow the same protocol.

However, there are two important points to keep in mind. First, just because it’s a single leg exercise doesn’t mean your nagging disc will approve of your choice. Any exercise that causes immediate pain should be avoided or you should reduce the load. Second, I talk a lot about lifting fast in Huge in a Hurry but that advice goes out the window when you’re dealing with an injury. Perform each rep slow and controlled and focus on keeping your core and glutes tight.

Now, what you do outside of the weight room is just as important. In fact, it’s probably more important. There are 168 hours in a week. So if you lift for four hours each week that leaves you 164 hours where you can really aggravate your discs.

That brings me to step 4…

Step #4: Maintain lordosis throughout the week while sitting
I herniated a disc at L5 back in 2001 when I was doing heavy back squats. Since that time I’ve managed to keep it under control, even in the face of nonstop strength training. However, it wasn’t until this last year when I finally fixed the problem.

How did I do it?

I made a point to maintain the inward curvature of my low back (ie, lordosis) whenever I was sitting. I realized the time I sat at my desk or on an airplane or driving to clients was constantly aggravating my decade-old disc injury. The solution is as simple as rolling up a large towel and placing it between your low back and whatever chair you’re sitting in.

Follow these four steps and you’ll allow the disc to heal without losing any significant strength or muscle.

Stay Focused,
CW

26 thoughts on “How to Lift and Live with a Herniated Disc

  1. Thanks Chad, I also have lower back issues. For variety could I use different types of single-leg exercises, e.g. Bulgarian split squats on one training day and lunges on the next?

    CW: Yes.

  2. GREAT article and advice here Chad!

    I also just recently bought your book and I’m stoked to own it! Great content,
    fantastic exercise choices, detailed explanations and some fine neural tips.

    Thanks for offering such a great work!!!

    Mighty Joe

  3. Chad,Would a split squat be a good alternative?btw-Mike Boyle is a big fan of single leg stuff too.

    CW: Yes.

  4. Amazing article again Chad.
    I have the same problem and I’m recovering from it too long.
    Using your guidance on it will overcome it for very soon for sure
    Thanks again Chad!

  5. Nice article Chad,
    It seems pretty obvious…..improve tissue quality, activate your muscles and avoid pain!
    But put this way it is a nice little system that is easy to implement.
    Thanks

    Rach

  6. Hi, Chad.
    As a physical therapist I read your above post with interest. I totally agree with your opening comment that many athletes have disc herniations and are still capable of performing their sport. This goes for non-athletes performing their usual activities, too. I would like to comment on your recommended steps. 1) Thomas Myers of Anatomy Trains has a clever idea that is useful for thinking about the muscle-tendon system of the body. But I would have to call it a leap of faith to believe that using a ball on the sole of the foot would have any real effect beyond perhaps the knee. Remember fascia is mostly dense connective tissue with out contractile properties. Unlike muscle it doesn’t relax. 2) As a fan of Stuart McGill myself I agree that trunk strengthening and stability exercises should mostly avoid trunk flexion. The side plank is a great exercise. When rotations are added two things occur: flexion is introduced on one side of the spine, and, due to the radial nature of the disc, half of the disc fibers are put on slack reducing its full strength. Most people should not load the spine and twist. 3&4) I agree with you here. For the one legged exercises the weight is cut in half reducing the load on the spine. Proper maintenance of a lordosis keeps forces on the disc balanced at or near neutral. Good advice. I would add one other recommendation. Avoid lifting in the mornings. Discs can absorb water during sleep increasing pressure in the mornings. The added pressure increases the risk of further pain and progression of the herniation.

    Thanks a lot and keep up the good posts.

    Art

    CW: Thanks Art.

  7. great article Chad! and thank you for this one.

    Are there any double leg exercises you would recommend? I was specifically wondering about “goblet squats” and the version were the weight hangs from a belt around your waist?

    Thanks Chad.

    CW: Stick to single leg until the pain goes away. From there, goblet and belt squats can be added in.

  8. Good information. What about replacing conventional deadlifts with sumo deadlifts in order to prevent a herniated disc and also train if you have one? also front squats either barbell or kettlebell for back squats.

    CW: Stick to single leg until pain goes away. From there, incorporate two leg exercises that don’t cause pain. Sumo is good.

  9. Hi Mr. Waterbury,

    I’m 15 and in the week before the unloading week of phase 2, I’m just curious. For my protein shake I use spirulina, is that ok since its not whey and won’t digest like whey? What other supplements should I take at my age?

    CW: Use whey, not spirulina. Take fish oil each day.

  10. Chad:
    I also own Huge in a Hurry but abandoned some of the best compound exercises (Squats, Good Mornings, Dead Lifts) after damaging a disk. Do you have any specific recommendations regarding Good Mornings and Dead Lifts? I’m 49 and in good shape other than the back injury.

    Thanks.

    CW: Replace either exercise with a single leg dead holding dumbbells.

  11. Chad, thank you for this article. I herniated a disc last October(’10) that required surgery and pretty much my whole outlook on exercise has changed as a result. I’ve already been using some of these prescriptions but I’ve always rolled my feet last while foam rolling so I’ll immediately switch that up.

    A quick sort of off topic question: do you feel there is any benefit to standing at desks or maybe even kneeling as opposed to sitting for long periods? I realize I should move around every 20-30min, but since I tend to spend alot of time as a desk even at home I’m just curious if there is any benefit to setting it up to where I stand instead of sit. Thanks again for the great info.

    CW: Sitting is the worst thing for a damaged disc. Kneel when you can and stand up every 20 min.

  12. Hey Chad,

    I’ve a question that’s not related to this topic, but to nutrition. I know that you recommend vegetables as the primary source of carbs. If I’m trying to gain around 10 quality pounds of weight, what do you think about eating pasta 45 minutes after my post workout shake?

    I’ll be following the Waterbury Method program for the following 4 weeks.

    CW: It can help you gain muscle if you’re not worried about a little fat gain.

  13. Great info as always… I have a question, but about a different kind of hernia. An inguinal hernia. I have no problem training with it, the problem for me is when I sneeze, cough or blow my nose… I know I have to fix it sooner or later. What is Your opinion on training with it, training after fixing it. I don’t even know which way to fix it. Go with the web or with the good old shouldice repair. I know You’re not a doctor, but You work with a lot of lifters and I think many of them had the same problem as me so You must’ve heard something good/bad about each repair. The internet can be a curse with too much information… I read horror stories about each of the repairs. Any info would be much appreciated… Sorry for the long comment and thanks in advance.

    CW: Get the surgery and then slowly get back to training. It won’t fix itself.

  14. Thanks for such a great reply! I will start with this plan tomorrow. I know two-legged squats are great full body exercise, that trigger testosterone response. Will I get that same response with the one-legged variation? RE form, I can do the one-legged deadlift with weight, but can’t yet get down all the way and back up with the one-legged squat. Is it better to use a stick to brace/support myself with, so I get full ROM, or go as low as I can on my own? thanks again, Andrew

    CW: Single leg is just as good.

  15. Hey Chad thanks for the article. The information you share is golden. I have a question regarding what you said about lifting fast with disc problems. After some healing and rehab Is it ok to do explosive body weight exercises, specifically trying to learn a muscle up. I understand its not a loaded but is there any concern with trying to kip myself up? I dont want to waste the time trying to build up to these if its a bad idea. Thanks very much and i hope to get rings in the future to start training different.

    CW: If it doesn’t cause pain or aggravate your disc, it’s fine.

  16. Hey Chad, thanks for all the info, I’ve had lower back pain for a long time and have not been able to squat or deadlift because of it, so I’m going to try the golf ball on the bottom of the foot. My question is actually about a woman I’m training who has posterior knee pain when she does the Glute Ham Raise, she says that it feels like there is a rubber band on the back of her leg (just behind her knee) that feelsl ike it’s going to pop when she does the exercise. I’m going to take the exercise out, but do you think she’d benefit from the golf ball technique too? Thanks!

    CW: She needs a lot more than the golf ball roll, but it can help. She needs strength/mobility work for her outer hips, adductors and VMO.

  17. Is the single-leg exercises recommended because of the load being lighter only or are the movements much safer also? What do you recommend for periodization for people with disc problems? Do i need more time deloading than a normal person. Im confused on this part.

    CW: Single leg is lighter, safer, and it forces your abdominal wall and QL to get stronger because of the unbalanced movement. To progress, slowly add weight or reps.

  18. Chad,
    Love how you take complex concepts and simplify them.
    BTW Im sure you noticed, alot of your recent blog posts jive with Herschel Walker’s high volume/frequency traning and only eating once/ day.

    Cheers

  19. Hi Chad,

    Always strange when you see articles pop up with direct relevance to your life. I am in the beginning stages of identifying the damage of my herniated disc (L5 as well). Although I am in no pain, my left leg feels slightly numb along the L5 chain and I walk like a goofball. As much as it pains me, I do NOT want to start training again before I have significantly healed up and have undergone physical therapy. That being said, my previous program included either reverse pyramids (a la Leangains method) or pure singles. What approach did you take when you were testing the waters back into weight training?

    CW: Start slow and light and slowly build up the weights over time. It’s as simple as that.

  20. Chad,

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been dealing with recovering from disc herniation & sciatica and this is very helpful to let me adapt HIAH. Thanks.

  21. After reading your article again i noticed you basically said single leg exercises is a smarter choice if you are experiencing radiating pain. My question is should i be doing single leg exercises for the rest of my training career or just while having pains or problems(when u know something is wrong)? I ask this because i just progressed to 165lb on the deadlift (semi-sumo stance) starting at 95lb since my back went out 4months ago going up 5lb everytime. My problem is L4/L5 herniated disc problem from a couple years ago. I think i flared it up doing heavy backsquats after a long workweek/month. I was about to deload for a couple weeks with bodyweight only exercises then create a new program. I thinking of going single leg and removing the deadlift but i feel i just really have perfected the deadlift finally. Any suggestions? My back feels ok doing them.

    CW: If the deadlift doesn’t cause a flare-up, keep doing it.

  22. Chad,

    I love your workouts and website. I’ve been using Waterbury Method on and off for two years. I have an l5/s1 disc herniation. I’m pretty much 100% pain free. My question is in reference to your video “total body solution.” Are the exercises in there for the back appropriate form injury?

    Drew

    CW: Yes, the low back and core exercises are excellent to keep your discs pain free.

  23. Hi Chad, I have read that you recommend switching to single leg lifts once in a while to let the spine decompress, even in healthy lifters, right? So, How often do you recommend switching to single leg lifts and for how long? I mean for someone with strongman and powerlifting interests, for whom technique on the main barbell lifts its also important.

    As always, thanks for your advice.

    CW: Yes, I recommend decompressing the spine for one week each month by incorporating single leg exercises. Another good method is to replace one of your traditional squat workouts each week with single leg exercises.

  24. Great incite and recommendations. I suffered a grade 1 spondylolisthesis L5 on S1 last winter and found the most relief from incorporating an exercise called the “Founder” which is an accentuation of proper basic movement with a hip hinge, lumbar lordosis, and lengthened rectus abdominus. Dr. Eric Goodman has a 15 min TEDx talk on youtube that explains the basics and I found it informative and worth the time if someone is still struggling with pain from a herniation. Basic stuff, but absolutely imperative in order to prevent our daily habit of sitting from destroying our ability to move correctly.

  25. What do you think about boxing with a disc problem? Not planning on competing but i want to take some classes. L5 problem that ive been rehabbing myself for the last 4months. It responds well to exercise but i cant sit on a couch anymore. No pain just gets a little irritated after sitting for a while. Thanks for your information.

    CW: If boxing doesn’t worsen your pain, it’s fine. Get McGill’s Lumbair support for whenever you’re sitting. It’ll change your life.

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