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Exercises to Avoid With a Herniated Disc

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 16, 2019 0 Comments

Woman doing a stretching pose on a wobble cushion

Recovery from a herniated disc can be pretty straight forward with the right understanding and knowledge of your injury. Knowing which activities and exercises to avoid with a herniated disc is a great place to start. A big part of the healing process begins when you avoid movements that can impair progress or even aggravate an injured disc.

Can Exercise Make a Herniated Disc Worse?

Yes, of course! A spinal disc is filled with a viscous center called the nucleus pulposus. This fluid center is made to properly absorb impact that we put our body and spines through on a daily basis. The disc is made to withstand this pressure. That is, until it is injured.

Injury to a lumbar or cervical disc limits its ability to absorb impact and movements as it should. Giving the disc time to rest from this wear will allow it to heal and eventually be able to accept normal amounts of stress again. Without adequate rest or bad exercise choices, the disc is most certainly at risk for further injury and surrounding tissue damage.

    There are a lot of “gray areas” with what movements are good and bad for you. Always discuss treatment options with your trusted medical professional first before starting any type of exercise program for pain relief.

    Exercises to Avoid for a Lumbar Herniated Disc

    There are specific moves to look out for depending on whether you have a lumbar herniated disc or cervical herniated disc. While there are some general similarities between lumbar and cervical discs, their specific functions and location in the body mean that different exercises are beneficial and harmful for them.

    NOTE: Some movements are never good for the disc, injured or not, especially in combination. This includes bending, lifting, and/or twisting at once with improper form. Another is holding your breath while bearing down or completing a strenuous task.

    High-Impact Aerobics

    High impact movements are defined as an activity that involves both feet leaving the ground, requiring an inevitable return. This impact can put a lot of repetitive strain on your back muscles and an already injured disc.

    High impact activities include running, jumping, stair-climbing, and step aerobics. While these exercises are great exercises when you are injury free, they should be avoided until you can do them comfortably without pain and good core control.

    Alternative: Walking, swimming, or light jogging.

    Flexion Based Movements

    The motion of bending forward in the low back (creating a “C” curve) is particularly hard on the disc and can lead to further back injury. This typically causes the disc herniation to put extra pressure on surrounding tissues, causing increased muscle spasms and potential nerve symptoms.

    Flexion based activities include bending down to pick something up, traditional biking, sit ups, toe touches, and deep squats.

    Alternatives: Isometric core strength (see high level core strength below), recumbent biking, hamstring stretch in sitting or lying down, and practice proper bending and squatting techniques.

    Twisting Movements

    When a herniated disc is healing, twisting can cause unnecessary shearing force and exacerbate low back pain. Whether you are trying to stretch or you are completing a daily activity (reaching for the phone, driving, turning to talk to someone). There are better ways to move that will allow healing until you can tolerate twisting motions safely again.

    Alternatives: Figure four leg stretch, Log roll technique for getting out of bed.

    High Level Core Strength

    When core exercises are too hard and the abdominal muscles can’t adequately control an exercise, it leads to strain on the entire spine and disc, exacerbating lower back pain.  Additionally, as discussed above, any bending motion at the spine (common with core strengthening) is hard on the lumbar spine. What level you can start at depends on your strength, so pay attention to how a movement feels and whether you can keep your pelvis tucked and in place (no arching of the back or side tilting). When core exercises are done correctly, they can promote back pain relief.

    Core strengtheners to potentially avoid include sit-ups, crunches, bicycle crunches, and leg lifts.

    Alternative: Isometric core strengthening.

        Exercises to Avoid with a Cervical Herniated Disc

        Heavy Lifting

        When you start to lift something too heavy with your arms, you may have noticed it immediately causes your large neck muscles to strain. Overworking these large muscles groups will cause pain and put excessive strain on the neck. With a lifting routine, always make sure to start light and see how your neck fares first. Don’t choose any exercise options or heavy weights that leave your neck feeling sore and strained.

        Alternatives: Lightweight lifting with attention to form and keeping the neck relaxed.

          Prolonged Sitting

          While not necessarily an exercise we felt this one was important to include. Sitting too long is hard on the body, especially when you’re slouched! Gravity tends to bring the head forward as you fatigue. Unfortunately, each extra degree of forward motion exponentially increases strain on the neck! Additionally, prolonged time with your arms reached outward or overhead can have similar effects and strain on the neck (think driving or sitting at a keyboard). Make sure to take frequent breaks and pay attention to your posture throughout your day.

          Alternatives: Hold good posture, take frequent breaks, use posture training tools

          Contact Sports

          When a cervical disc is herniated, contact sports are not a good idea. It puts you at a significant risk for progressing your injury, which could lead to a need for surgery or even paralysis and death. Talk to your doctor about your sports options when you have a cervical herniated disc.

          Alternatives: Swimming, walking, running, dancing or any other individualized sport.

          Extreme Ranges of Movement

          Whether it’s stretching or just everyday use (like checking your blind spot in the car) avoid extreme ranges of motion in the neck. These ranges basically squish and shear the cervical disc while straining surrounding tissues. They will slow down the healing process and put you at risk for further injury.

          Alternative:  Gentle neck stretches , move with awareness.  

          How to Stay Safe When Exercising With a Herniated Disc

          General principles for safe exercises with an injured disc

          1. Don’t hold your breath.
          2. No extreme ranges of motion.
          3. No combination movements (bending, twisting, arching, lifting, etc.).
          4. Don’t stay in any one position too long.
          5. Avoid any moves that make symptoms in your arms or legs worse.
          6. Move with awareness and diligence. Simply listen to your body.
          7. Talk to a physical therapist about safe moves and what to avoid specific to your injury and body.


          What you can do with your spine when you have a bulging disc really comes down to your intuition. Anytime a movement feels uncontrolled or in an extreme range, stop and consider how you would complete the movement in a manner that would be safer for your spine. By keeping these simple tips in mind, you will be well on your way to recovery in no time.




            Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
            Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

            JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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