Specific exercises that involve repetitive bending, lifting, or jarring movements (such as high knees and overhead presses), are known to worsen the symptoms of a lumbar herniated disc. These symptoms can include lower back pain, leg pain (sciatica), and lumbar radiculopathy – numbness and tingling in the legs, decreased strength, and diminished sensations.
This risk is even higher if the herniation is in the bottom part of the lower back (lumbar spine) because this area is responsible for most of the movement and weight-bearing of the spine. 1 Al Qaraghli MI, De Jesus O. Lumbar Disc Herniation. [Updated 2023 Aug 14]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560878/
1. Avoid “good mornings”
The basic version of a good morning exercise involves placing a weight (barbell) across the upper back and hinging forward at the hips until the chest is parallel with the floor. You then push back to an upright position.
This exercise exerts increased pressure on the lower back discs due to the forward bending motion, straightening action, and added weight.
Try a “waiter’s bow” instead
A waiter’s bow activates muscles in the lower back, hips, and hamstrings and does not involve weights, which minimizes the stress and strain on a herniated disc.
To perform a waiter’s bow exercise, follow these steps:
- Hinge forward from your hips while maintaining a natural curve in your lower back and a slight bend in your knees. Do not let your lower back flatten or arch upward.
- Rest your hands on a chair for support and allow your body to rock back slightly.
- Return to a standing position by squeezing your buttock muscles and driving your hips forward, and avoid arching your back.
Aim to complete 3 sets of 10 repetitions of this exercise.
2. Avoid deadlifts
A deadlift is a compound exercise (uses several muscle groups at one time) that involves bending at the hips and knees to lower the chest, lifting a barbell off of the ground by pushing through the legs, and then returning the barbell to the ground with controlled motion.
The combination of bending and lifting a heavy weight from the ground to an upright position places a sudden and extreme amount of stress on the spinal discs in the lower back. 2 Wilke HJ, Volkheimer D. Biomechanics of the Spine. (Galbusera F, ed.). Academic Press; 2018:51-67. Accessed December 12, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-812851-0.00004-5.
Try bridges instead
The bridge exercise activates many of the same lower body muscle groups as a deadlift, including the lower back, hamstrings, abdominals, and buttocks.
To perform the bridge pose, begin by lying on the back with both legs straightened out and flat on the ground.
- Slowly bend both knees while keeping feet flat on the ground, and toes pointed straight forward.
- Lay the arms flat on the side of the body with palms facing down.
- Inhale, slowly raise the hips while engaging the abdominal and buttock muscles.
- Lift the hips as high as possible, without pain, to make a straight line from the shoulder to the knee.
- Hold for 5-10 breaths, then release.
Begin holding the bridge pose for 1-2 breaths initially and slowly work up to 5-10 breaths. Aim to complete one set of three poses daily.
3. Avoid deep squats
A deep squat is exactly what it sounds like — bending at the hips and knees while keeping the back straight so that the thighs are parallel to the floor.
Even if you maintain a straight back, this exercise requires significant forward bending of the lumbar spine and a forward tilt of the pelvis. 2 Wilke HJ, Volkheimer D. Biomechanics of the Spine. (Galbusera F, ed.). Academic Press; 2018:51-67. Accessed December 12, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-812851-0.00004-5.
Modify this exercise
While performing a deep squat, limit your range of motion to avoid going too deep – a safe level is where you feel comfortable without pain.
Consider placing a sturdy box or bench behind you to guide you. Remember to keep your back straight, and chest up, and ensure that your knees track over your toes.
4. Avoid sit-ups
A sit-up involves lying on the back with the knees bent and lifting the upper body to an upright position in a controlled motion.
This exercise requires repeated forward bending movements, which increases pressure on the lower back. 2 Wilke HJ, Volkheimer D. Biomechanics of the Spine. (Galbusera F, ed.). Academic Press; 2018:51-67. Accessed December 12, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-812851-0.00004-5. Additionally, the activation of hip flexor muscles when performing this exercise strains the lower back. 3 Sullivan W, Gardin FA, Bellon CR, Leigh S. Effect of Traditional vs. Modified Bent-Knee Sit-Up on Abdominal and Hip Flexor Muscle Electromyographic Activity. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(12):3472-3479. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001006
Try pelvic tilts instead
A similar but less strenuous exercise that targets your abdominal, hip, back, and pelvic floor muscles is the pelvic tilt. To perform a pelvic tilt, follow these steps:
- Lie on your back. Bend your knees so both feet are flat on the surface with toes pointed forward.
- Pull your belly button in so your pelvis pushes toward the ceiling and your back flattens against the ground.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds and then relax. Slowly work your way to holding the pose for 20 seconds.
Aim to complete 10 repetitions of this exercise.
Maintain a slow and controlled pace when performing this exercise, and focus on your form and the quality of the movement rather than the number of repetitions.
Read more about Abdominal Exercises
5. Avoid standing hamstring stretches
While a standing hamstring stretch might seem like a good way to relieve the stress on your lower back, the opposite is true when you have a herniated disc.
Try the wall hamstring stretch instead
To protect your herniated disc, modify the standing hamstring stretch by using support from a wall or couch.
A wall hamstring stretch is performed at the corner of a wall or near a couch:
- Keep one leg on the floor, and place the other leg against a wall or arm of a couch.
- Gently push the knee so that the raised leg is as straight as tolerable.
- Hold the position initially for 10 seconds, and gradually work up to 30 seconds.
Perform this stretch with each leg, one at a time, 4 to 5 times for one complete set. Aim to perform 2 sets on each side.
When it’s safe to get back to weight-training and bending exercises
Improvements in pain signal that a herniated disc is healing, and once your symptoms resolve, it is safe to bring the “avoid” exercises listed above back into your workout routine.
In fact, it is recommended to re-introduce movements that load or bend the lumbar spine in order to strengthen the muscles in the lower back and pelvis, and prevent new injuries or recurrence of herniation in the future.
Remember to listen to your body and avoid pushing through pain. Contact a doctor if your herniated disc symptoms do not improve or worsen.
Read more about Non-Surgical Treatment for a Lumbar Herniated Disc
- 1 Al Qaraghli MI, De Jesus O. Lumbar Disc Herniation. [Updated 2023 Aug 14]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560878/
- 2 Wilke HJ, Volkheimer D. Biomechanics of the Spine. (Galbusera F, ed.). Academic Press; 2018:51-67. Accessed December 12, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-812851-0.00004-5.
- 3 Sullivan W, Gardin FA, Bellon CR, Leigh S. Effect of Traditional vs. Modified Bent-Knee Sit-Up on Abdominal and Hip Flexor Muscle Electromyographic Activity. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(12):3472-3479. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001006