The Pains of Exercising with a Herniated Disk

Nearly 6 months ago I began to feel a pain in my lower back, just above my left buttock that was nearly unbearable when doing certain movements or exercises. I recalled having a similar pain just over a year ago on the opposite side of my back that was due to an inflammation of the muscles and nerves around my sacrum (the fused joint where you spine connects to your pelvis). Like a good patient, I de-loaded my weights in the gym and took ample amounts of ibuprofen, iced the area and was fairly liberal in the length of my hot showers. I expected the pain to go away like it had before, but if anything it got worse.

Several visits later I convinced my family doctor to schedule me for an MRI when all other consumable treatments had failed to relieve my symptoms. After the technician handed me a CD of all the images I quickly raced home and loaded them up, comparing them to the images of typical lower-back related injuries. While I am by no means a doctor, I came across an image that was nearly identical to one on my MRI CD — that of a herniated disk. The following Monday my doctor’s appointment confirmed this was the issue and I was scheduled to see a neurosurgeon to talk about treatment options.

Despite being in what I consider very good shape, I was pointed to a reputable physical therapist for 3 weeks of treatment before discussing more drastic treatment options. The PT combined ultrasound heat, traction (movements to reduce spinal pain), and a set of very basic core exercises. I found the traction and ultrasound to be the most effective, as the “core strengthening” work was orders of magnitude easier than what I already did on a weekly basis. At this point, I had been living with 5 months of excruciating back pain with no relief.

EXERCISING WITH A HERNIATED DISK

As I have noted in several previous posts, I have been continually increasing my strength via several compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts, overhead press, and a variety of others. My knee-jerk reaction was to assume that my herniated disk was caused from doing one of my exercises incorrectly, but after several discussions with my doctors and physical therapists, it is more than likely genetic as my father and grandfather both have very bad backs. Regardless of my injury, being the stubborn guy that I am, I wasn’t about to let all of my progress in the gym go to waste; however, I wasn’t going to be a complete idiot and put unneeded stress on my back when I was trying to heal it. Needless to say my gym routine has changed.

I no longer follow the Stronglifts 5 x 5 program simply because it is stupid and impossible for me to do that routine with an injured back.

LEGS

I still squat, but instead of 225-315lbs, I do sets of 8-10 at 135lbs. I have supplemented heavy squats with the leg press (usually 5 x 5 at 600 lbs) and heavy calve raises. The leg press does not put much pressure on my lower back as long as I do not go too deep with the press. If I feel my lower back curl off the pad at all, I know I’ve gone too deep and I feel the pain train coming shortly after.

CHEST / BACK

My bench press routine is the only thing that has not changed as far as the 5 x 5 program is concerned. I recently had a 1RM of 225lbs, which is exactly 50 lbs more than I weigh currently. Additionally, I am fortunate enough that my barbell rows increased my strength to the point that I now do sets of 8-10 wide grip pull ups, as well as 10-12 chin ups and 8-10 close grip pull ups. With the pull-ups I have to be careful that I do not arch my back too much or else I pinch my sciatic nerve and I come tumbling to the ground.

CORE

If anything, the addition of a core-oriented workout is the biggest change to my program. When doing the SL 5 x 5 program you never really had to specifically do a core exercise because the compound movements of the program created that core strength for you. Since moving away from SL, I’ve added hanging leg extensions, weighted hyperextensions, sit ups while sitting on a bosu ball and having someone throwing a 12lb exercise ball at me (not sure what the technical name for this is).

SHOULDERS / ARMS

Shoulders are actually the most difficult body part for me to work out because nearly everything requires a strain of some sort on my back. I developed fairly large traps and shoulders from doing clean and press, overhead press, and deadlifts, but I can no longer do any of those exercises without pain. For shoulders I still do light turkish get ups (which helps the core as well), side raises, front raises, and light deep swimmer’s presses. Arm-specific exercises I do in moderation because they are still worked out from bench press, pull ups and chin ups, but the workout usually consists of barbell curls, weighted dips, and military push ups.

RESULTS

If anything, my chest and back have continued to increase in strength, but I have noticed that my legs, shoulders, and a bit of my core are not as “solid” as they used to be. I have by no means lost my shape, but since the SL 5 x 5 program creates very dense muscle, I’ve felt my body switch to more endurance-oriented muscle growth as a result in my change of routine. With everything I have said above, I have very minimal amounts of additional pain when working out and am able to stay in shape despite my injury. As of last week I was given my first epidural cortisone injection, which honestly has not helped much, so hopefully it will not be too much longer until my doctors and I either discover a final solution or just let it be and I live with the pain. Here’s hoping for a solution.