The WORST Movement for Herniated Disc Recovery (AVOID AT ALL COSTS)

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Working out in the gym or at home is vital for long term recovery from a herniated disc in your lower back but this one movement is at the root of all the relapses and flareups that you have when working out. Just when you think you’re in the clear and things are going well, this movement creeps in and aggravates your herniated disc, setting you back and leaving you wondering if you’re ever going to be able to workout again! Today we’ll talk about this specific movement and give you some concrete steps to monitor this and make improvement so you can continue your training, rebuild your herniated disc and strengthen your core and back for the long term.

Why this movement is so easy to overlook

The simple fact of the matter is this movement is very easy to completely miss, not least because you’ve probably been doing it for years before you herniated the lower back disc. What’s more, when you do have a herniated disc, there is often a disconnect between what we think is happening in the lower back when we’re moving, and what is actually happening. Not to mention this, we often have the classic gluteal or hamstring tightness that goes along with the most common disc herniations, L4-L5 and L5-S1 segments of the lumbar spine, the last two segments in your low back.

When does this movement happen in your lower back

The movement we’re talking about is a pelvic tuck, which occurs during all types of squats or deadlifts. It is in essence a “movement leak” that occurs when our hip mobility reaches its end. The stiffness in the hamstrings prevents the hips from moving into flexion anymore and so they pull on the pelvis meaning that if the torso is to go any lower, the lower back must start to round. This will take place near the bottom of your repetition, for example, at the bottom of a deadlift or squat. The thing is, you’re often not aware of this movement starting to occur, which is why we’ll cover a great tip to help you regain control of this instantly later on!

Why this movement leak is a real problem if you have a herniated disc

If you have damage to specific discs in the lower back, for example the L4-L5 disc or the L5-S1 disc, then there is a degree of instability or compromise in comparison to other “non-injured” segments. Your spine, its discs and ligaments should make up a stiff rod, that movement and the muscles pull in one direction or another, allowing all the segments to slowly unwind. If there is a weak point, as in the case of a herniated disc, the movement will leak through the path of least resistance. The injured segments, if not correctly supported, will be the ones that bear the brunt of this lack of control and “pelvic tuck” or “butt wink” – essentially flexion of the lumbar spine. The loss of the neutral spine therefore focuses the pressure of the load onto the injured disc and failure and re-aggravation occurs. 

The two types of healing that take place in your back: Healing vs Remodelling

The big issue is that there are two stages of healing in the lower back, and people who like to workout in the gym always get caught out with the second type not progressing far enough before they reinjure the herniated disc. This first part is the “patching up” of the torn fibers of the herniated disc and surrounding ligaments and the reduction of local inflammation. This often means that “day-to-day” life will become less painful. The second part is about those fibers that have been injured rebuilding strength to catch back up with the surrounding segments.

If you’ve been training a long time, the other parts of your back will be strong and “stiff” this perhaps took years to develop, although you will have lost some of the integrity there too from time off training, it will have nowhere near the same deconditioning as the injured site. Building back up this integrity takes time, months, even years. 

But it does take place!

The biggest cause of setbacks and how to avoid re-aggravating your herniated disc

So what are we going to do about this? The first and most important thing is knowing when this movement leak is going to occur initially, and when it will occur later. 

Stop the movement leak with control and focus

Firstly it is probably already occurring if you’ve found you’ve struggled to recover from a disc herniation so far. So spend some time getting to understand and develop the ability to hold your spine in its neutral position, and what this feels like, with the natural curve in the low back  (lordosis) supported by a complete engagement of the corset of muscles that run around your trunk region, including the low back muscles. This is a static engagement, “isometric”, contraction without movement.

Secondly, test this control with various movements, we talk about simplistic core exercises within the back in shape program and cover some of these in the video “5 core exercises for lower back pain” Movements like the modified deadbug, squats and hip hinges. You must learn to do these movements without the movement leaking into your lower back. 

For some of you, you’ll “get away” with these movement leaks when doing “light weight” or bodyweight only, but this isn’t an excuse to continue with sloppy form, as all too often you’ll pay for it when you start to try to increase the weight.

An invaluable test to help you control this movement leak

The next thing you can do, once you think you have control, is the “tape test”. We have a full demonstration video on how and where to perform this test, linked below, but in brief it involves sticking some tape over the spine and doing a squat or deadlift/hip hinge. The tape will help you feel when your back is “leaking” movement. With time, you will refine your knowledge and feel for when the movement leak is about to happen and stop just before by really tightening the core muscles (including the lower back muscles).

This test can be done periodically to check that as you add weight the movement leak doesn’t re-occur. 

Resource: Lower back pain squat hack: the tape test

When you’re likely to get a relapse again & how to avoid it

For those that workout regularly, or did so before herniating the lower back disc, this next part is vital. As you increase your weight and your confidence again, your muscles will start to respond really well to training. Your back will be feeling great, and you’re finally free from the herniated disc… Not so fast.

As you increase the weights your muscles will adapt at lightening speed, compared to your discs, partly from muscle memory, partly from the fact that muscles are comparably hyper-responsive to training, compared with ligamentous tissues. 

Therefore a little academic restraint, even when you feel like you could push through is required. When testing out a new weight, consider trying the tape test again, really focus on not allowing that “butt wink” or “pelvic tuck” to take place as you get to the bottom of the rep.

We will all fail to do this at some point, no matter how strong we are, you must work to really limit the likelihood of this happening when you step the weight up.

Some tips to help you rehabilitate your herniated disc for the long term

With this in mind there are some considerations that we want to offer you to help you recover well. Being someone who does jiu jitsu (bad for the back) and enjoys working out, I’m extremely sympathetic to the prospects of being told you cannot workout again. There are ways around these things and hopefully the understanding so far has been a help already, so here are a few more considerations to help you have maximum success in bouncing back from a herniated lumbar disc.

Avoid low rep work for a long time as it’s just not necessary

Of course reps of 3 to 5 are the gold standard for strength training, but unless you’re an elite athlete, it is just not necessary in the early days, the later you can leave this the better. Think about the last time you worked 3 to 5 reps of deadlifts, the “failure” point often involves more force and more compromise of your form, as much as you might like to argue to the contrary. Comparatively, working at reps of 10 tends to allow for a little better form on the last reps, plus the forces at play are likely to be slightly lesser for obvious reasons.

Anyone serious about training should be taking a long view of working out, so sacrificing a year or so of slightly slower absolute strength gains by working at 10 reps instead of 3’s and 5’s is a reasonable ask, in the future you could experiment with adding these back in, but the more time you go, especially if you were well conditioned before, the better you will be!

Remember that “heavy feeling” when you lift weights

The feeling of a heavy bar as soon as you pick it up off the squat rack is one that you can no doubt recall, maybe it was a while ago, but you felt the “weight of the bar”. Your recovering discs will have this experience again a little sooner than you would like, so watch out for it, as it will often come way sooner than your leg muscles experience their equivalent. When you feel “my back was aware of that weight” as you increase the load you’re using for your workouts it is worth factoring in a period of forced plateau. Spend a little longer at that weight, maybe an extra 3- 4 weeks. Give your discs and ligaments a chance to catch up in adapting to the new load. During this time you can work on two important areas. 

Stalling area number one: range of motion

In this short period of stalling with the weight progression, spend some time working on deeper squats, or hip hinges, to help improve hip mobility. You’ll find it challenges the muscles more and in slightly new ways as you sink deeper into the movement, it will also challenge your core and back muscles to maintain the neutral as you go lower, possibly with the aid of the tape test again.

Stalling area number two: Single leg work

If you’re finding you need a little extra time, combining range of motion on the traditional lifts with some single leg work such as split squats can allow you to continue to work the muscles hard and the core, whilst giving that spine the extra time it needs to continue to adapt.

Both of these strategies help offer that valuable commodity, time. Time for your body to make the change it needs to. On top of this, the improved hip mobility is only going to serve as an additional protective attribute in the prevention of future injury to the lower back! 

Exposure to the new weight in the safest position

As Mark Bell says, “strength is never a weakness and weakness is never a strength”. Building strength is important, and as you start to build more and more, there will reach a point at which the sheer load, even in a neutral position, is a challenge for the discs. Something we’ve been considering for members of the program who really enjoy “working out” is the concept of farmers carries. And how they could be used to expose your spine to a new weight in a relatively safe position – upright, with the core engaged and great posture. So whether its dumbbells, a hex bar or dedicated equipment for this exercise. The consideration of experimenting with your next weight as a farmers carry for reps, possibly just after a “stalling period” could be an additional “low risk” tool that could help you build more strength in the discs and give you more confidence in moving to the next level, particularly as you start moving into the “heavier weights” whatever that might mean for you.

Recovering from a herniated disc if you love working out

At the end of the day, there is a lot of information about not ever working out again “properly” if you have herniated a low back disc, for some of us this can be disastrous, and a real blow as there are so many physical and mental benefits working out offers us. Especially if it has always been a part of your life. The good news is, with a bit of strategy, you can get back into doing these things. There will be bumps along the road as there always have to be, however, with some strategy, like that above, you can minimise the risk and severity of such events occurring. I hope that if you’ve made it this far, this message has given you a little hope that you can get back at it again! 

Don’t forget, as you’re building back up again, your “care of self” exercises are just as important, that is to say, tools such as the self decompression, link below, and the general care of self strategies we talk about in the Back In Shape Program and Masterclass, linked below:

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