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.

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,