What exercises can I do with a back injury?
September 14, 2011 3:01 PM   Subscribe

I need some help with an exercise plan that will work with a bulging disk in my lower back. Ideally, it would be about 3-4 days a week in the gym, plus cardio. I’d like to incorporate lots of compound lifts but there are a few hitches in that plan due to the injury… details inside.

About a year ago, I injured my back doing dead lifts, the result of which is a bulging L5 S1 disk which causes lower back pain, but not leg pain. It’s gotten better over time, but there will definitely be some pain if I do free-weight squats, deads or bent over rows. I can still do leg presses on certain machines, back extensions, etc, but my workout has tended more towards isolation exercises which isn’t really where I’d like to be. I’m not really sure if I should attempt these types of lifts, or just avoid them altogether. If it matters, I’m fairly strong (but I don’t have a particularly big build), have a healthy diet with plenty of fruits/veggies and lots of protein.

So, does anyone have some recommendations? Basically looking to make the most of my workouts and gain some muscle size/strength while not causing any further injury to my back. The doc doesn’t quite seem to understand, as she just suggests not to do much in terms of lifting… Someone on here must have a similar experience or good advice on the exercise types and frequency I should be targeting. Thanks!
posted by Dr. ShadowMask to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is really a question better suited to a professional, preferably one who has access to your x-rays. Have you seen a physical therapist, a sports medicine doc, something like that? (I am not surprised in the slightest that your GP doesn't have a clue.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:28 PM on September 14, 2011

My wife has a herniated disk, and everytime she gets better, she returns to the gym to use the weight machines, and blows out her back for several weeks.

I wish I could get her to just stick to walking and swimming for a year, but she likes to lift weights.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:49 PM on September 14, 2011

What restless_nomad said. A safe answer to your question requires a specialized expert who is familiar with the details of your case first-hand. Don't risk your spinal health based on half-baked advice from random dudes (or dudettes) on the internet, no matter how expert they may claim to be. Ask your doctor for a referral to an orthopedist or sports medicine specialist.
posted by dersins at 3:51 PM on September 14, 2011

Do you have access to a reverse hyper machine? They are well known in the powerlifting community for their ability to strengthen and, especially, rehab lower back issues. This article seems to sum up the conventional wisdom pretty well. Louie Simmons famously invented the device and used it to rehab himself after breaking one of his vertebrae.

You really need to work with someone who is well versed on both back health and the compound lifts. Where are you geographically? If you are serious about getting back into the compound lifts you might be able to find help at a serious powerlifting gym.
posted by telegraph at 4:09 PM on September 14, 2011

Hm... upon closer inspection that article is actually kind of a takedown of the reverse hyper. The introductory/background information is good though.
posted by telegraph at 4:15 PM on September 14, 2011

I'd suggest talking to a qualified professional who is familiar with your medical history. "Qualified professional" means someone with an MD who has a lot of experience with both athletes and back injuries. Performing the wrong kinds of exercises could permanently exacerbate your condition. One of my family members had a similar bulging disc problem, went to an unqualified person (a trainer), and then spent a great many years suffering severe chronic pain and lack of mobility as a result of taking advice from a trainer who was totally unqualified to assess her individual risk. You don't want to mess around with that.
posted by Hylas at 4:52 PM on September 14, 2011

I wouldn't mess around with a bulging disc until it's 100% healed, so yeah, forget strengthening your posterior chain until that happens. However, you may still be able to work on developing upper body strength with benching, dips, pull ups, grip work, etc. (perhaps even overhead pressing with super-strict form? IANYpowerlifterdoctor).

It might also be worth looking into gymnastics for stuff you can safely work toward: handbalancing, planche work, rings, etc.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 4:55 PM on September 14, 2011

Physical therapy will teach you exactly this sort of thing. Even if you don't have insurance, you would hugely benefit from PT for a couple sessions. They don't usually need to see your xrays, at least the ones I saw didn't. They can usually feel the problem when they do their initial evaluation. They'll teach you how to strengthen your core to get the problem back in line, and what exercises (and how to do them correctly) won't injure you further. Don't mess around with your back. Back injuries can (and often do) last a lifetime.
posted by clone boulevard at 5:27 PM on September 14, 2011

If you want to keep your back problem going, do lifts. If you want to get rid of it, don't do lifts. Your doctor's advice is completely correct. If you want an exercise regime to heal your back, let me have your email and I'll send you one. (I've been working professionally with backs as a massage therapist for 15 years).
posted by nickji at 1:05 AM on September 15, 2011

Though dersins advice to "Ask your doctor for a referral to an orthopedist or sports medicine specialist." is the best thing to do. And, lastly, in my experience there is no need for pain from a back injury to last longer than one year, especially from a bulging disc. Just take a year to give yourself the good chance of a pain free life.
posted by nickji at 1:09 AM on September 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the all the good suggestions.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 7:52 PM on September 15, 2011

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