Recently, I’ve come to know the pain and discomfort of having a slipped disc. To be completely honest I’ve never felt pain like this before. It hurts to lean down and tie my shoes. It hurts just to get in and out of my car. Basically, it sucks. However, this issue has done 2 things: test my personal philosophy on a healthy back and test my knowledge of biomechanics for training programs. Up until 4 months ago I used to think you can fight on with a busted arm, busted leg, busted shoulder, but you can NOT fight on with a busted back. Well, when faced with a busted back I had to truly test this belief. Would I just do PT exercises, get injections, and so forth until my back was better? Would I forgo hard training until I was healed up? That could take months! Being a Marine not training for months was not an option. Besides, I had just started a new program and was not about to let that training go to waste or start over. It was time to improvise, adapt, and overcome….OORAH!
HOW DOES ONE GET A SLIPPED DISC?
For years I’ve heard about people having a slipped disc. Here’s one common theme I’ve noticed across all cases of slipped discs: they can happen to anyone at any time for any reason. No, there is not a specific situation that will result in a slipped disc (but there are some instances where it is more likely to happen than others). So, what’s the point of this article? It’s not to tell you the “cure all” for a slipped disc. It’s meant to 1) show you how to spot a slipped disc and 2) work around having a slipped disc.
WHAT DOES A SLIPPED DISC FEEL LIKE?
For those of you fortunate enough to not know this pain I’ll give you a quick summary: sharp, shooting nerve pain down either side of your butt/leg. At first, it feels like an extremely tight or hyperactive muscle. You can’t foam roll, stretch, massage, or dry needle your way out of this one. The best advice I can recommend is, assuming you recognize the pain as slipped disc, is:
- See a doctor/physical therapist/chiropractor to determine if it is truly a slipped disc
- Perform mini-cobra stretches (goal being to push the disc back into position with spinal extension)
- Take over-the-counter pain management medicine (i.e. Advil or Aleve)
- Get an epidural shot to help deal with the pain, as a last resort
- Expect recovery to take months.
HOW DO I TRAIN WITH A SLIPPED DISC?
Short answer: Keep lumbar in neutral position, no flexion.
Long answer: If you watch this VIDEO you can see can clear diagram of why the disc is causing so much pain. One position that causes the disc to push against a nerve along your spine (the cause of the pain) is any kind of spinal flexion. (picture a dog tucking it’s tail between it’s legs). This happens when we stretch (i.e. leaning down to touch our toes), squatting (if we perform a “butt wink”), deadlifting (even if spine is neutral, disc is still pushing against nerves), and many more.
So, what can you do? As of today, here are the majority of the movements/exercises that I am able to perform pain-free:
- Any upper body VERTICAL pushing or pulling movements
- Pull Ups, Chin Ups, Rope Climbing
- Barbell Presses, Kettlebell Presses, Dumbbell Presses, Handstand Pushups, Dips
- Any upper body HORIZONTAL pushing or pulling movements
- Barbell Rows, Kettlebell Rows, Dumbbell Rows, TRX Rows
- Pushups, Bench Press, TRX Pushups
- Any SQUAT pattern (as long as low back stays in neutral)
- Front Squats feel best.
- Back Squats with feet elevated to maintain an upright torso work as well
- Most ISOLATION patterns
- Bicep Curls, Tricep Extensions, Machine Leg Curls, Machine Leg Extensions, Calf Raises, etc.
With the list above I have been able to perform the majority of my program and increase muscle mass, something I thought would be impossible with a bad back. If you still want a clear list of what NOT to do:
- Any HINGING pattern
- Deadlifts, RDLs, Good Mornings, Kettlebell Swings, Snatches, and Cleans
- Most AB exercises
- Plank variations are fine, everything else is going to hurt
Have other exercises that work? Don’t work? Sound off!