Back Pain Training

Movements for a pain-free life

My own experience of the best exercises for herniated disc

Exercises for herniated disc

When I experienced disc herniation, I desperately searched the internet for information in the hope of finding relief for the horrible pain.  I soon found out that exercises would be my salvation.

As I describe in my herniation story , at first doctors prescribed me lots of anti inflamatories, pain killers, muscle relaxants, corticosteroids (oral and injection), even drugs for nerve pain.

Of course, these drugs were not meant to cure the sciatica, only to provide some pain relief.  In my case though, their effect was either non-existant or extremely short-lived.

So after a few weeks I ended up getting off most of them, except for one medication for anxiety (Lorazepam) which was helping me relax and get a bit of sleep at night.

Dozens of websites talk about disc herniation and exercises for it.  However as I was researching, I got frustrated that none of them synthesized which ones to do and why. 

In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned about why exercise is the key to recovering from a herniated disc, and what kind of exercise works.

To better understand the impact of exercise, I’ll first do a quick recap of lower back disc herniation mechanics.

What's a herniated disc again ?

If you’re new to this (like I was a couple of years ago), a herniation, or herniated disc, is when the jelly substance inside an intervertebral disc breaks out of its containing membrane and pushes out onto the spinal nerve.

You probably know your spine is composed of 33 vertebrae which are cylinder-shaped bones stacked on top of each other.  The 5 bottom vertebrae, named L1 to L5, make up your lower spine.

Between each pair of vertebrae sits a cartilage disc serving as cushioning pad between the bones.

Intervertebral disc

Your disc is like a jelly donut.   The gel-like substance inside the intervertebral disc moves freely inside the hard outer shell to provide effective shock absorption.

Over time, some of your discs may get weak as a result of aging and/or specific conditions.  With bad positions, a disc may get squeezed on one end, pushing the gel inside it to bulge on the other end or even break through its outer layer.  

If the outer layer gets torn and the gel leaks out, you have a ruptured, aka herniated, aka slipped disc.  

So in the picture below, the bottom disc is being squeezed on its left side by the vertebrae above and below it (vertical yellow arrows).

Exercises for herniated Disc

The gel (blue stuff) is being pushed out to the right (horizontal arrow) into the spinal canal and onto the nerve (in red).

The bulge pressing on your spinal nerve causes sciatica, that horrible pain in your lower back, buttock, down your leg and possibly all the way to your foot.  That’s the pain I’ve experienced myself.

Why does disc herniation happen ?

Sad to say, but discs naturally degenerate.  Over time, your discs get weaker as your body produces less of a certain molecule that normally allows discs to absorb more water, making them super resistant – check out this short video.

Here’s the thing : as your disc gets weaker, it becomes more vulnerable to pressure from the vertebrae around it.

Besides natural aging, disc damage results from repetitve microtrauma, such as pressure triggered by bad posture and movements.  

If you bend forward the wrong way, your weak discs get pinched harder by the vertebrae surrounding it, potentially causing them to bulge (see above picture).

Forward bending

If you regularly carry heavy loads in an incorrect way, or if you are overweight, which also amounts to putting a heavy load on your spine, you’re adding to that pressure.

Here’s a key point though : if your back muscles are weak, all the pressure from your bad movements go onto your discs. Strong back muscles, on the other hand, help take some of the pressure off your discs. 

Therefore, doing the right exercises to strengthen your mucles is essential.  But let’s dig a bit deeper.

 

Why is exercise training so important in disc herniation ?

A fundamental question I was asking myself when researching disc herniation was, why are strong back muscles, and therefore exercise training, so important in overcoming / preventing herniation pain ?

Exercises for herniated disc


Everyone is talking about “core stability” and “core strengthening” as an essential thing in lower back pain relief and recovery.  Not being a doctor or PT, I rolled up my sleeves and dug in deeper to find some serious answers.  

Let me recap my findings for you.  Pay attention, this is key !

According to an in-depth research paper on lumbar stability, disc degeneration results from “poor control over spinal structures”.

In brief, people with lower back pain typically have lumbar instability, which basically means their body have lost some of its ability to automatically and unconsiously protect the lumbar spine from injury when performing risky movements and postures.

When you’re healthy, in case of a fall, sudden load, or quick movement, your spine gets instantly protected through the stiffening of the muscles around the segments (pair of vertebrae) at risk.

It’s an unconscious mechanism involving many of the deep muscles that attach directly on your spine, as well as some other larger and more superficial muscles.  

Your deep muscles are responsible for controlling vertebrae to vertebrae (intervertebral) stiffness, whereas your “global” mucles react to external forces by controlling movement and rotation in your spine.

Together, deep and superficial muscles make up your trunk or “core” muscles – which everyone talks about these days.

Your muscles are coordinated by your neural control system, which reacts to external forces by triggering the right amount of muscle stiffness around the right spinal segment in order to protect it while still enabling the movement.

If you have low back pain because of a herniated disc (or even another cause) chances are your deep stabilizing muscles are not functioning properly.  Your control system is probably not doing its job correctly either.

The right exercise training will help restore correct function of your muscles and neural control.

Which muscles do disc herniation exercises target ?

Your two most important deep stabilizer muscles that must be retrained are :

  • your multifidus, which controls the movement of your vertebrae to prevent excessing bending
  • your transversus abdominis (TA) which stiffens your spine by raising adominal pressure

Without lower back pain, these two muscles automatically and unconsciously fire up before all other muscles whenever you initiate a movement, to stiffen your lumbar spine and preventively protect it against injury.

These muscles are also active when you’re standing or in other postures involving tiny movements.

With disc herniation, your multifidus is likely to be atrophied, and your TA may be slow reacting, being activated after the muscles that initiate the movement. These indicate low lumbar spine stability.

Your other deep muscles form a cylinder around your spine to stabilize it by adding tension in your abdomen before movement.  These muscles are : 

  • the “quadratus lumborum“, which forms the side of the cylinder
  • the pelvic floor at the bottom, which normally contracts before the abdominal muscles
  • the diaphragm, the roof of the cylinder.  Activated namely when you breathe.

If you have a herniated disc, these other deep muscles are also likely to show dysfunctions, and they should also be targeted in exercise training.

In addition to your deep muscles, many superficial muscles also play a key role in your lumbar stability, by controlling the orientation of your spine when you move a limb or when you must support a heavy load.

These include your abdominal muscles (obliques, rectus abdominus) and the iliopsoas (anterior hip muscle).

As a disc herniation patient, these superficial muscles are also likely to function improperly, since they often compensate for your failing deep mucles.

In doing so, the superficial muscles do help stiffen and protect your spine, but since they’re not designed for this job, this creates other problems including excessive tension which can generate more spinal pain.

Also, using your superficial muscles as stabilizers in place of your deep muscles restricts spine motion and has other unwanted effects, such as involuntary triggering of other muscles.

Another thing is, as a low back pain sufferer, your ability to maintain balance and posture is also likely to be altered, due to slower neuromuscular feedback and muscle response time.  Adequate posture and positioning  exercises can effectively fix these issues though.

So let me recap : 

  • A herniated disc is a degenerated disc that has ruptured under excessive pressure, with its internal get breaking through the membrane and pressing against a spinal nerve
  • The forces that pushed the disc out often result from bad spinal positions on top of lumbar instability
  • Lumbar stability is normally achieved by a combination of deep stabilizer muscles which control spinal stiffness, and large superficial muscles that control spinal motion under external forces
  • If you have a herniated disc and low back pain, your deep and superficial muscles are probably not doing their job correctly
  • Exercises targeting these various muscles are effective in restoring lumbar stability and muscle support, to reduce the risk of further disc slips. 
 

The best exercises I tried for my herniated disc

After understanding the rationale behind exercising for a herniated disc, I set out to give a bunch of commonly recommended exercises a try to see if they would help reduce my pain.

During the 3 months that followed my herniation, moving was extremely painful so I was hardly able to do anything (see my disc herniation story).  Only after the first 3 months could I start experimenting with exercising.

Disclaimer: since I chose to go it alone as opposed to going into physiotherapy, the exercises listed below are based on my own choosing and empirical testing – i.e. I selected those I felt would work best for me and would generate the least pain.  

A PT program would probably better target specific deep muscles in a scientific way.  When it comes to exercising, I like to take things into my own hands and do my own research and experiments, but of course that’s quite different from a PT approach.

If you want to learn more about common PT exercises for lumbar instability, check out this page.  Another way to retrain deep muscles is through “intention” or “imagery” as described in this article

UPDATE: in addition to the exercises I describe below, I’ve decided to invest in an inversion table. A good friend of mine, a very sporty guy a few years older than me, has been using one for years to help alleviate his back pain (multiple herniations), so I went out and got one too. My inversion table gives me a nice feeling of weightlessness and relieves the pressure on my back whenever I feel it again. 

For those new to disc problems, gravity is your worst ennemy if you have degenerating discs as it compresses your spine and makes your vertebrae squeeze together and eventually push out the disc against the nerve. An inversion table basically lets you get into a reversed position with your head down and your feet up, reducing spinal compression due to gravity.     

I typically don’t invert more than about 60º.  Since I try to exercise almost daily for my back, it’s hard to know the exact contribution of my inversion table to my back health. I just know it feels really going going inverted when I start feeling pressure due to stress, bad posture, of excessive workouts.

The table I picked is the Ironman Gravity with Airsoft ankle holders (Amazon link). Not the cheapest but I wanted something really sturdy and comfortable, and something other persons around me (including an overweight woman) could use as well without fear. I could have gotten the cheaper version but for me, the ankle holders alone are worth the difference, my feet and ankle are comfortably held without the strain you get on other models. 

I typically invert anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes per day. That, and hanging off my pull-up bar, gives me a very soothing spinal decompression and helps keep buttock soreness away even after some high-impact movements.  

Herniation exercise : bird dog

Given the permanent strong pain in my buttock and leg from my herniated disc (which dragged on long after the first few weeks of maximum pain), getting on my hands and knees was a feasible thing, with low or no pain.

From that apparently safe base position, lifting one arm horizontally, then one leg, then both an arm and opposite leg, then switching to the other side, felt OK for me.  Supporting myself on one knee and hand, I can control the amount of tension from the lifting in the back and hip. 

The exercise works the back extensor muscles and supposedly activates the multifidus.  It also involves the ab muscles, glutes and hip flexors.

Doing it temporarily relieved some of the nagging pain in my buttock.  It gave me a nice feeling of having my whole posterior chain active again after weeks of paralysis, in a safe way.

Herniation exercise : supermans

The superman exercise is also supposed to strengthen your back extensor muscles and glutes. 

I did it initally, even though it triggered quite a bit of pain in my butt and leg, as I was convinced it was good for me and would strengthen my back.

I ended up stopping doing it, namely because lying down on my stomach (prone position) at the beginning of the exercise caused be extreme pain – during the first 3 months of my hernia getting into a prone position was outright impossible.

Once I put my back in tension by lifting my arms and legs off the floor, however, the pain would decrease somewhat.  I still felt the load on my back was too strong and  so I decided to stop it.  

Reading this article confirmed my impression that the exercise over-extends the back mucles.

When I later found the Foundation Training program – which ended up being my ticket to recovery – I replaced the superman with anchored back extensions, a much safer and more effective alternative (the video below shows a quick version of it).

If you don’t already have one, you’ll need a good exercise mat for doing anchored back extensions.  I found the one I had too thin and very uncomfortable for prone exercises, so I ordered this one from Amazon:

I like it a lot because it’s 1/2″ thick, comfy and well-padded but not too soft, water/moisture repellent (those exercises make me sweat a LOT) and non-slipped thanks to the ribbed design (for the standing exercises). Very sturdy, I’ve been using for months on a daily basis.

Herniation exercise : McKenzie prone press-ups (not good for me)

This back extension exercise, part of the decades-old McKenzie approach, is prescribed by many PTs. 

The simplified rationale is that, since, in most cases, disc herniation involves a disc being pushed backwards because of spine flexion (forward bending), doing spine extensions (backward bending) can push the disc back into place.

I tried this exercise early while my pain was still quite acute, in the hope of finding some relief.  I tried it for over a week. In my case however,  it caused more pain than relief. 

As I mentioned above, the simple fact of starting in a prone position triggered strong pain in my lower body. 

From there,  lifting my torso up would sometimes drive the the pain down a bit if I focused hard enough on relaxing my hips and legs. I would try to stay in that lifted position for up to 30 seconds.

It wasn’t pain-free though, and I could feel this position was not beneficial in my case.  After some research, it may have been due to my stenosis (narrow spinal canal) which made hyperextension a nerve compressing event.

In general, the McKenzie approach includes both hyperextension and forward flexion of the spine.  I personally tried them and they felt unsafe for me.   This PT’s analysis of the McKenzie approach seems to confirm that feeling.

Herniation exercise : ab crunches

Before my disc herniation, I was doing crunches every single day.   

Not only did I NOT have cut 6-pack abs, but I suspect over time this may have created imbalances between my front and back muscle chains (I never used to work my back muscles) and a forward pull on my spine that’s likely to have been an additional factor in my disc slip.

When my body went into a complete halt with a herniated disc, I eagerly waited, though in acute pain, to be able to go back to crunches and “strengthen my core” again.

I then learned about stabilizer and other core muscles, and realized doing nothing but crunches wasn’t a good thing.  

After my injury and several weeks of being stuck, however, I did need to get my abs (rectus abdominis and obliques) working again.  So I started by doing what I knew, crunches.

Doing crunches triggered some pain in my buttock and leg – although not as much if I focused on keeping my spine straight, with no upper body bending nor pulling my hands on my neck.

I made sure to look at the ceiling above me during the whole movement.  

Still, it was hard to completely avoid spine flexion.  

So I switched to doing crunches on a physio ball.  This was a better approach for me since the movement started with my spine in neutral position and then, as I lowered my torso backwards, my spine went into extension, and then back up to neutral.

This exercise involves no spine flexion, only a reasonable extension (not hyperextension) in the lowered upper body position.

If you don’t have a Swiss ball, you can easily get one from Amazon.  I ordered this popular one from Amazon because it’s not too cheap nor expensive ($18-·$28 depending on size), there are over 2000 reviews for that thing (almost 80% 5-star!), I could choose the size and color (being 6″1 I picked the 65cm), and it seemed to be very robust based on user reviews – which turned out true.  For simple products like this, I tend to rely on user opinions and avoid spending hours comparing.

 

Herniated disc exercise : planks

Planks are probably the most often recommended exercise for building core strength in a safe way.

In my case, since getting on my hands and knees was a relatively low pain proposition, I was able start with a kneeling plank (half plank, with knees on the floor) and later work my way up to a full plank (on my toes and elbows or hands).

The most important part is to keep a neutral spine, i.e. a straight back (no hunching nor belly sagging).  The exercise requires bracing your abs, activating your glutes (butt) and your lat muscles.

It’s a great exercise because it promotes recruitment of all the key spinal stabilizers.

In my case initially, after holding the plank position for more than a few seconds, the pain did sometimes kick in in my buttock and leg.  When that happened I just paused and relaxed for a moment.

As time went by, the pain from doing the plank lowered, and I even ended up using a stability ball under my feet and/or elbows to create more demand on the deep stabilizer mucles.

Planks can be potentially harmful if you don’t maintain your spine, abs and glutes fully braced at all times, namely when you start fatiguing and letting your stomach sag.

Foundation Training’s version of the plank, the 8-point plank (the 8 points are you feet, knees, elbows and hands) is safer and highly effective.  That’s the one I’ve been doing ever since I switched to FT.

This version is better suited for working around pain.  With time, after my pain started to recede, I was able to make the exercise stronger by pulling my elbows and knees towards each other.  That creates a very strong tension in my core muscles.

If you need a good exercise mat for doing planks, I use this one from Amazon – see my earlier section on Supermans.

Herniated disc exercise : bridging

Bridges make you work your posterior muscle chain, glutes, abs (rectus abdominus), back extensors, hamstring and adductors. They also engage hip flexors and quadriceps.

The way to do bridging is to elevate your pelvis by pushing onto your heels until your spine is in neutral position, bracing your abs and glutes.  

In my case, raising my pelvis triggered pain in my buttock and leg. In fact, moving my pelvis or hips in any direction (back, forward or sideways) almost always caused some pain, probably a sign of dysfunctional SI (sacroiliac) joint.  

Once the pelvis was in the elevated position the pain was lower though.

Hamstring curls on an exercise ball felt better for me, allowing me able to strengthen my hamstrings, glutes, lower back and hips without stirring up pain.

These are actually a more advanced exercise and it would seem they would be harder on your back and more likely to hurt if you have a herniated disc.  In my case, however, they were less painful than simple bridges.  

It all depends on the specifics of your injury, so make sure to use caution and test the waters before you do it.

When I adopted Foundation Training, I replaced both of these exercises with the anchored bridge, which I once again found to be a safer and more effective exercise for strengthening my deep muscles.  

It’s like a normal bridge but the anchoring addition stiffens the pelvis and lower spine.  In my case that simply prevented the pain from triggering.

 

Herniated disc exercise : squats

Squats strengthen your glutes, hamstrings / quadriceps and hips. In addition to the trunk muscles, muscles that attach to the pelvis, such as the large ones around the hip, also play a key role in lumbar stability.

When doing squats correctly, you use your glutes (butt muscles) to lower yourself down and push yourself back up.  

The most important thing in squatting with an injured back is to keep a neutral spine by hinging at the hips instead of flexing at the lower spine.  

That’s why squats are great : they educate you on to use your hips and lower back mucles correctly.  See this great paper about athlete rehabilitation after disc herniation (“suspension assisted squats” section).

The squat exercise helped me a lot in recovering from my herniated disc.  Even before the pain allowed me to stand upright, I tried doing small squats, supporting myself on a table or a door handle to control the pain.

 Hip imbalances were probably a big factor in my herniation, so regaining hip motion was crucial for me.  The squat movement re-taught me to use my glutes and hips in the right way to offload my spine.

Hip hinging is a central practice of Foundation Training.  Even before squats, the Founder exercise is the base movement for learning hip hinges :  

FT’s version of the squat extends the Founder movement : you also start by shifting your hips back, engaging your hip mucles, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.  But in the squat, you then bend your knees and begin to “sit back” and lower yourself down.

While you squat, you lift your arms forward at chest level – as opposed to hands behind neck – to counterbalance the backward movement of your hips.  This greatly helps in hinging at the hips and “sitting back” correctly.

 

Herniated disc exercise : pull-ups / rows

You’re probably thinking : “pull-ups ? With a herniated disc ? Yeah sure  …”

In the post on my herniation story , I explain how hanging on a pull-up bar was the first step I took toward exercising as a way to cure myself.

Just letting my body hang off a bar (in my case a low bar allowing me to partly support myself with my feet on the floor) provided me some pain relief by decompressing my spine.

Note that I would NOT have been able to hang off a bar during the first 8-12 weeks following my herniation.

As time went by I naturally and gradually started pulling myself up gently, giving my posterior muscle a stronger stretch and workout.

Still, full-blown pull-ups felt unsafe because it was easy to forget to brace my abs, hips and glutes when  pulling myself up, and end up in a pain-triggering lower body position.

I then found a safer way to do “pull-up equivalents” by purchasing a suspension kit (“TRX”) and doing inverted rows.  Like pull-ups, they involve a pulling movement, albeit more of a horizontal one.

According to the article on rehabilitation of athletes with disc herniation (“inverted row progressions” section), these inverted rows, a sort of controlled inclined pull-up, have a low spinal load while providing a significant workout for the back muscles.

Doing these, I had much better control of my lower body position while pulling myselft up and down.  I was able to keep my spine neutral and my abs, glutes and pelvis tight at all times as my feet stayed on the ground.

I could vary the angle between my body and the floor and hence progressively increase the difficulty, all in a safe manner.

I could feel not only my upper body working, but my trunk muscles constantly stabilizing my position, without triggering pain.

Today I’m back to my (almost) full exercising capabilities so I alternate between pullups and rows.  For pull-ups, I have been using this doorway workout bar that works fine for me – feels much safer than a classic screw-on bar which I always feel might end up slipping off.  However, I wish I would have had something like this pull-up stand to help me hang comfortably while I was still in pain. I’m now seriously considering buying it for my home office to give me extra motivation for taking short pull-up breaks.  There’s a dips station as well that will come in handy for me, and even a crunch station though I won’t be using that part.

For my inverted rows I use these suspension straps which work really well – I didn’t want to spend $150 on original brand TRX straps.

Depending on your specific condition, you may or may not be able to do this exercise without pain.  

If not, you can start with Foundation Trainning’s prone decompression exercise, as shown in the video below. 

 

Wrapping up

So yes, many of these exercises, bird dogs, crunches, planks, bridges, squats, pull-ups, in one form or another, helped me get my stabilizer and global muscles working again, as many of them had been “deactivated” following my herniated disc.

If you’re like me, you can use your pain as your main measuring stick for evaluating each exercise and the best suited variant for your own condition.

After weeks of experimenting, I ended up replacing most of these classic exercises with related but more specific exercises from the Foundation Training program.

These exercises are designed to re-train and strengthen your deep muscles with a specific focus on the posterior chain, whose weakness is often the main cause of back pain.

It’s quite astonishing that such simple, seemingly unimpressive isometric exercises – as opposed to spectacular dynamic moves such pull-ups, push-ups or deadlifts – prove to be so effective in regaining spinal and overall body health.

Two years later, while completely pain free and back to sports, I have permanently integrated these exercises into every move and activity I do. 

It’s such an exhilirating feeling to know you can do pretty much anything you want with your body as long as you move in the right way and keep your deep core muscles trained.

 
References :

 

  1. Barr, Karen P. MD; Griggs, Miriam MD, FAAPMR, PT; Cadby, Todd MS, PT, ATC – American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation: June 2005 – Volume 84 – Issue 6 – p 473-480

42 Comments

  1. Hello, greetings from Argentina

    Same problem here, a bit milder though, I can walk / be standed for long times, but sitting is absolutely no no. Being an engineer, its hard to cope with job. So after reading your blog, signed up in foundation program. 15 bucks a month is worth the shot.

    Thank you

    • Team BackPainTraining

      October 19, 2018 at 7:07 pm

      Hola Matias, yes it’s worth it, believe me if you do it seriously it will change your life. Still doing my daily founder every day, e.g. when I’m shaving. I do a couple of the exercises religiously before I get out surfing / paddling / kitesurfing, they’ve kept me safe for 3 years now. You’re not as bad as I was so this will fix you up for sure, it really works. Best of luck!

  2. Dear Team BackPainTraining (don’t even know your name!)—

    First off, thank you so much for this site. I’m currently recovering from a herniated disc and as part of the process I’m trying to consume as much information about non-surgical treatment as possible. I’ve had lower back pain flare-ups off an on again over the past ten years, and I’ve been in PT a few times, but this is the first incident that has been bad enough for me to go through a course of prednisone and muscle relaxers (which I started a few days ago). After six weeks of bad—though not completely debilitating—pain they seem to be helping some, but I know they’re not a long-term solution. I’m resolved to do proper exercises every single day. Which brought me to you.

    Now to the point of this post: a question. I love the idea of Foundation training and the Founder. In fact, one of my PTs directed me to one of their popular 12-minute videos. The problem is, every time I try to do the Founder I feel like I may be making things worse. Instead of reducing my sciatic pain down my leg, it seems to intensify it. Is that expected at the beginning? I’m attracted to the program, but I don’t want to “power through” if I’m just making things worse.

    For some backgroundL my pain expresses itself through intense tenderness/sensitivity/lack of mobility in my lower left back and buttocks and shooting pain through the back of my calf and sometimes into my foot. I’m super flexion-averse; if I spend even a few seconds leaning over with bad form, I’ll feel it in the back of my calf, if not my foot. Though I can mostly walk without too much pain, and sit for short stretches, I feel like a ball of immobility.

    When you do a Founder, should your butt stick out (that is, should your back be arched)? Maybe due to my low mobility, this seems to be the only way I can bring my butt back at all. Even if I brace my core in neutral, I still find that my butt is sticking out. When I do the founder I find that my legs shake, but my lower back doesn’t really. Am I doing it wrong? Or is this just how it is in the beginning until I build up more strength in my lower back?

    Would deeply appreciate any thoughts. Thank you again for this wonderful resource!

    • Team BackPainTraining

      December 3, 2018 at 5:09 pm

      Hey Adam,

      What you’re going through sounds very familiar, so here’s my take on it. Do take everything with a grain of salt though, remember I have ZERO medical qualification nor expertise, I only have my own painful experience to share!

      I did take a bunch of muscle relaxers at first to try to alleviate the pain but it really had little effect. I guess it’s different for everyone, but in my case I feel like passing time helped more than these medications. As far as drugs are concerned, the only thing that helped me sleep a bit was something called Temestat, a well-known anxiety relief medication which I guess had a relaxing effect on the relevant muscles, releasing some of the compensating tension triggered by my bulging disc – again this is all my own interpretation, the doctors didn’t seem to know squat.

      Now on to FT. The most crucial thing I’ve learned is that, if it feels like it’s making things worse, it probably is. The “no pain no gain” approach does not apply for this situation! The way I see it, the problem is that the inflammation from the disc makes your muscular system go into alert and contract all around the area, sometimes with far-reaching contractions – in my case there were consequences all the way up to my cervical vertebra in my upper neck. So the trick is to find a way to get back into the right posture by working around these contractions.

      For me, the right posture involved spinal extension vs flexion. As you said, super flexion-averse, that’s a typical configuration when you have a disc bulging towards the back (which is not always the case as I understood it, some people have a different bulging angle). And yes, the slightest flexion led to shooting pain my left buttock, back of thigh, calf, and more numbness in my left foot.

      When I do the founder, yet my butt sticks out and my lower gets arched somewhat. It all depends on your body configuration, in my case I sometimes feel like I’m folding backward while in reality if I see myself in a mirror, it’s not arched that much. In the videos, Eric says you shouldn’t be aiming to “fold backward”, that is, the goal is not to arch your back as much as possible, but you are aiming to engage those lumbar muscles, and to me, the only way to do that is by arching at little a bit. When you lift your arms up, you can feel those lower back muscles lighting up even more, but that may be very hard for you to do at first.

      In the videos, the FT guys make it clear you shouldn’t feel strong pain. If you do, you need to scale down the movement. One of the videos addresses that issue by showing you how to rest your hands lightly on the back of a chair to support yourself when doing the founder. Then as you strengthen your posterior chain, you begin to let go of the support prop.

      As far as shaking goes, I personally have decent lower back muscles (even before starting FT) so I don’t usually feel a strong workout there. Like you, though, my mobility is low, in my case particularly at the hip level, so when I go into founder-style postures, I feel a very strong stretch in my glutes, hips and hamstrings, which I believe is where my problem originates. I have friends who feel it more in the lower back, being more flexible in their lower body it takes them much more “butt-sticking-out” to feel the stretch in their lower posterior chain.

      Here’s how I did it when I first tried FT while still in serious pain:
      – First stand upright and do the decompression breathing, lifting your rib cage up and keeping it up even when exhaling by tightening your stomach muscles
      – Then push your hips and butt backward slightly, focusing on PUTTING YOUR WEIGHT INTO YOUR HEELS – probably the single most important thing
      – Put your arms back opening your chest and shoulders, with your hands behind your butt and your palms facing outward
      – In that position, take a few deep decompression breaths, again raising your rib cage and keeping it up there by sucking your belly in -> that will tighten your deep core muscles around your spine

      If you’re in pain, that’s probably the max you can do without worsening the pain. Do this until it gets easier, you’re building up the deep core muscles you need to then go further – multifidus, TA, psoas etc
      The next step will be to try to bring your arms up, but that may trigger pain so at first you can use a prop for your hands and progressively reduce support pressure.

      To summarize, don’t do things that make the pain worse, start by learning to simply engage your posterior chain by pushing your hips back and putting your weight in your heels, then use a prop to support yourself through the next stage of bringing your arms up. At first, keeping your arms in the back and externally rotating your shoulders should help you do the move without pain.

      Hope this is helpful!

      • I appreciate your quick and extremely thorough response! I will give this a try and hope for the best. Thanks again for this site and for sharing your experience.

        I’ve been doing a lot of research about back pain, and I just finished the book Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery. It thought it was fascinating, informative, and deeply disturbing. Given your own journey, you may find it eye-opening as well.

        • Team BackPainTraining

          December 11, 2018 at 10:58 am

          Thanks for the book reference, I’m going to check it out!

          • At this point doing any sorts of stretches aggravates my sciatic pain, so unfortunately I’m holding of on founders/Foundation training for the time being. I’ve found that Stuart McGill’s “Big Three” exercises are moving the needle, ever so slightly, in the right direction (https://squatuniversity.com/2018/06/21/the-mcgill-big-3-for-core-stability/). I’m also about to dive in to Feldenkrais, which I’ve heard can be beneficial to people with sciatica. Basically, I think I need to get back—or closer—to baseline, with no pain in my leg, before I can start to strengthen my posterior chain with Foundation stuff. My nerve is too aggravated at the moment for much else.

            Anyway, thanks again for your public service. You are a true gentleman!

  3. Just a quick thank you for this article. I’ve been dealing with a herniated disc over a year now. It’s absolutely maddening that none of the “professionals” (doctor, PT) bothered to educate me regarding slowed neuromuscular feedback, posterior chain firing, etc ! Thanks for this informative, intelligible and personable article.

    • Team BackPainTraining

      March 24, 2019 at 11:56 am

      Hello, yeah I fully agree, I never heart about any of this stuff from any of the professionals I went to see. It’s amazing how few of them really know about these mechanics and how to restore them. Hope this post will help you find your own way to recovery!

  4. Hi Adam, thank you for your honest view on your rehabilitation journey.
    It’s a fantastic help to guide to relevant information to support me with my herniated disc.
    I just wanted to ask you a question though out of interest, how did you manage with sitting or driving with work?
    I’m struggling and know that every time I sit it exacerbates the pain and my recovery.
    Thanks
    Craig

    • Team BackPainTraining

      April 14, 2019 at 6:39 pm

      Hey Craig, the hardest part about driving for me was getting into and out of the car and also stepping on the clutch which caused me pain. Howver, I didn’t have to drive during the first month following my injury since I’m lucky enough to work online, I just had to wait until I could drag myself to my car before going to see the doctor.
      With regards to work (on my PC) I found that sitting without resting my back on the chair worked OK after the first couple of days following my herniation. I was able to work for like an hour before I had to lay down for a while, then this became a couple hours. couldn’t stand upright or walk normally but I could get some work done by sitting on the couch with my laptop on the table, sometimes resting my elbows on my knees or on the table to relieve my lumbar area. Hope this helps, let me know if you have more questions!

      • Thank you for the quick reply Adam, I really appreciate it. It’s always helpful to hear some one else’s viewpoint on a situation that’s challenging , especially when you become a little frustrated and blinkered with your efforts and not get anywhere.

        • Team BackPainTraining

          April 15, 2019 at 8:48 am

          It’s a painful and frightening situation that persists for weeks or months sometimes, but it eventually goes away with time (except in cases of “drop foot” or other hard symptoms, for which surgery may be required). You just need a lot of patience and the right moves and postures to help things get back in place. Sitting up without resting my back, initially with a rounded back due to the pain then progressively more upright, has helped me a lot as well as it forced me to use my deep low back muscles to hold up the posture. I now sit this way all the time, e.g. as I’m typing these words, no slouching or ribcage tucked into my hips, no resting my back on the chair, as if I’m always sitting on a stool. It takes practice at first, especially when you still feel pain, but in my case it has helped feel better from the start. Slouching at work probably played a big part in my disc slip. Hang in there, you’ll get better soon and you’ll learn to tame this thing for the future with the right moves.

  5. Hey Man

    Appreciate this info. I have exactly the same symptoms as you had, left side, butt, calf and foot. I just cancelled by FT subscription as i felt it was too much to do in my condition, I could do it Aug 2019, but my condition has worsened since then.

    What I can do now is the cat/cow, and the alternate super man (on all fours rather than in a plank position), and i add in the 90-90 stretches. I may try doing the founder again, but any forward flex movements feel a no-no at this stage..maybe the hang from a chin-up bar i could do.

    Anyway, awesome to have read this, encouraging as I miss being active and feel in and out of desperation/depression.

    Thanks mate
    Fiaz

    • Team BackPainTraining

      October 27, 2019 at 12:12 pm

      Hey Fiaz, yeah I think it’s very wise to stop the exercises if they make things worse. Personally, I didn’t start doing until a couple of months in, not only because I didn’t know about them, but because I could barely move and couldn’t even stand! I just talked to someone at my local surf break who had the exact same symptoms as me (and you) a few years back and was stuck for months. Unlike me, though, he never did ANYTHING in terms of exercising and still ended up healing – we surf together now. So this goes to show these symptoms will likely go away over time, it just takes a LOT of patience. FT did help me get out of it quicker after I was past the initial excruciating pain. Most importantly, it helped me strengthen my back so that this doesn’t happen again in the future – now I know what to do and NOT to do. Hang in there!

  6. Wow!! Thank you for sharing your research. This was well done and very useful. I experienced a herniated disc two weeks ago and am going stir crazy wanting to move more and not allow my muscles to atrophy. I’m in my mid forties and a woman and this is a critical time for me to be building long term strength. Being down for two weeks has been agony. Though the pain has been bad so it has kept me moving slow to heal. I’m grateful for these exercises to slowly inch back into things.

    • Team BackPainTraining

      March 2, 2020 at 3:51 pm

      Hey Jennifer, yeah this forces you to have LOTS of patience, everything in your life kind of goes to a halt but thank god it’s only temporary (though in my case it did take me a few months to recover my mobility). The FT exercises can really speed things up provided you don’t force it initially, take it really slow, anything that causes sustained pain should be stopped until you’re able to do it painlessly. I personally started with a super-mellow version of the Founder, either with my arms stretched backward or with my hands resting on the back a chair in front of me. Hang in there and arm yourself with patience, if you’re like me you should see small but daily progress.

  7. Hi Everyone, thank you for sharing the experiences and input. I’m in early forties and Had sciatica flare due to L5-S1 disc herniation in early January . Pain went away after a steroid injection . Am back extension favoring . Had to use crutches for 3 days and then was able to get around . In about 2-3 weeks , am able to sit also . Started PT and am doing stretches daily. The leg pain has completely gone away. Once in a while , only the lower back seems to act up. Any inputs and am crazy worried about recurrence . Also what’s the best exercises for core strengthening?
    Have not gotten into a whole lot of back flexion due to worry of recurrence.
    Any inputs appreciated.
    Thanks

  8. Hi Everyone , thanks for the valuable input and experiences. I am in early forties and had sciatica episode due to lumbar herniated disc L5-S1 early January. Back extension favoring . Pain went away after steroid muscle injection. Then after using crutches for 3 days, was able to walk and later in about 2-3 weeks , could sit also. Am doing PT . Improving ; however the lower. Back seems to act up once in a while. The leg pain has completely gone away. Some heel numbness persists. What are the best core strengthening exercises? Have not done a whole lot of back flexion as I am scared of recurrence. Any inputs appreciated. Thanks.

  9. Hello, greetings from Istanbul/Turkey.
    I also suffer from herniated disc and as you may guess, it is more painful in corona virus period at home. 2 days ago, I first tried mckenzie extension but it is also not good for me, increased my pain and I will never do it again. FT seems to be much safer.
    Apart from this, my workout routine is more or less the same but I have already noted your tips 🙂
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge.
    Best

    • Team BackPainTraining

      May 18, 2020 at 11:36 am

      Thanks for your comment Guney. It must be painful to suffer back pain on top of the Corona situation. Yes FT has been pretty safe for me, it really got me out of trouble. You just need a bit of patience and do the exerices every day, it’ll go away. Also, don’t forget to sit straight and bend at the hips. Hope you get well soon

  10. Thank you for this great article. I learned a lot from and it will help me during my pain free journey.

  11. Hi, I just want to say that you offer amazing content, and inside, and it is so motivating to see someone who has suffered from the same injuariy as a lot of us here has, and found a way out of it! you bring hope to us all! I found you trough your Kitesurfing site as I am a kite/windsurfer and SUP myself and it is what brings the biggest smile on my face when I am out on the water. however its been tough with the back hurting and I am now so committed to giving FT a go and really dig in! Thank you

    • Team BackPainTraining

      July 19, 2020 at 6:40 pm

      Hey Martin, thanks for the kind words. Yes you will get better if you can really strengthen your back and your core and change your posture habits. It takes time and patience but it really works, and you’ll be back in the water for sure! All the best

  12. Thank you for sharing your views and I like the article a lot. I have been suffering from the after effects of a herniated disc in my lower back. The pain has subsided a lot but has left me with a dull after effect. I have been getting back into working out and had been doing great until the moment I decided to include the McKenzie press up which has left me with pain in my lower back again. I realise now I shouldn’t have done that at all. I am a little worried though because the dull pain hasn’t gone away even though it’s been 9 months and was wondering if that’s normal? The PTs in India are horrible most of the time and most of their Given exercises Have made things worse for me in the past. Being a biologist also makes you realise that a lot of the time people in their profession don’t know everything. You should always get a second opinion.

    • Team BackPainTraining

      August 10, 2020 at 8:47 am

      I tried doing the McKenzie press-up for a while but it did more harm than good to me. All the PTs I’ve seen have been a disaster as well, some of them recommending that I stopped doing any physical activity forever. As explained in the website, the only thing that worked and still works today 5 years later is the Foundation Training approach. Every time I feel a bit of pain for whatever reason (e.g. after overdoing it surfing the waves) I do the Founder exercises and others in their list and everything goes back in place. It’s like magic stick for me, a secret weapon. Things is, you have to believe it and have the patience to follow the approach over a certain period. My take is, keep doing it as long as it doesn’t increase the pain – if it does scale it down like they explain in the videos. These guys know what they’re doing, worked for hundreds of people (unless of course you have a special condition). All the best!

  13. Incredible site. Thanks so much. I am (or “was”??) a very active triathlete. Essentially woke up one day with numbness in the calf and foot and excruciating sciatic pain. Looking back, I’ve had back pain over the years here and there but it never really stopped me or led me to question whether it was a disc issue.

    For the past two months I’ve been eating bone broth regularly, taking all the supplements, using inversion table daily, doing all the PT daily…on and on and on. Have spent a ridiculous amount of time, energy and money trying to rehab. I’ve been insistent on a “natural” approach and have stayed away from the injections to this point. Although it seems I’ve reached a plateau and now I’m reconsidering those.

    Interesting that you struggled with the McKenzie extensions, too. Those have never felt right to me, and that’s been on my mind the whole time. Those extensions are seemingly at the core of any PT strategy, so I’ve been wondering all along if my efforts are essentially worthless. (Like maybe there’s a piece of the disc caught somewhere that just needs to be removed surgically and nothing I can do will affect it?). But I have zero medical background, so who knows.

    Numbness in the foot has improved lately, so I’m taking that as at least one good sign. Many other symptoms are much like yours. Have also been trying the foundation training for the past few weeks.

    No real question here, I suppose. Just comforting to see your site and happy to hear a success story.

    Many thanks!

  14. Pearson Liliana

    October 15, 2020 at 7:08 am

    Surgery has always made me nervous, even though I’ve never had a bad experience with it myself. I just prefer not to have surgery if I have any other option available. The pain and other symptoms from my herniated disc are getting better, even if it’s happening slowly. My doctor said that it is reasonable for me to just keep doing home treatment and take better care of my back. The pain from my herniated disc is the worst pain I have ever felt. My leg feels like it is on fire. I know that isn’t true for everyone who has a herniated disc, but it sure is in my case. I’m willing to try a month or so of conservative treatment. But if there isn’t a dramatic improvement, my doctor has agreed to go ahead with plans for surgery.

  15. HI, Backpaintraining guy, Like all others on this site I am thankful for your inside and you sharing your story, I found Foundation Training 5 years ago when I first injured my disk, but I did not stick to the program back then and it took me two years to recover from an L5/S1 disk bulge. December 20th, 2020 I reinjured it again… 🙁 by pulling a drawer out of a closet the wrong way.. I am a surfer, kitesurfer, and SUPer like yourself and enjoy an active lifestyle. However, I have had 2 kids in the past 3 years so my exercise routine has not been the best to say atleast.. I have been a true weekend warrior… the past 3 years.. not the best.
    However, this time I got on the FT 2 weeks after I injured the disk again and have been doing it for 4 weeks now, I have followed along on their daily exercises schedule and I have also been doing some PT stuff that my PT gave me. and now 6 weeks after I injured my disk again I have very little sciatica pain and can get 100% pain-free when laying down on my back with leg up in 90 deg. the Pain seems to centralize more.

    Now to my question to you?
    When you started doing FT, how much did you do per day? what was your daily training routine to get to 100% recovery?

    Kitesurfer, Squamish Canada

  16. Avoid squats entirely! Too risky!

  17. I just received the diagnosis of disc protrusion and experienced “maybe” the same pain you described in your post. And no, anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxants, Tylenol, gabapentin, systemic oral steroids DIDN’T help. Just want to say thank you for your time and effort to put those complicated info into a concise and easy-to-follow post. Your post gave me hope!

    • Team BackPainTraining

      February 14, 2021 at 10:14 am

      Really glad my experience helps. Yes there is hope, I’ve totally recovered and several years after the injury I no longer have any signs of back pain, I’m back to normal life. I did permanently change the way I sit, bend, and stretch. The right posture and the right move will fix you up in many cases, you’ll just need patience and keeping at it for the first few weeks or months. Hope you get better soon!

  18. Hi, thank you for the great article. I’ve had a herniated disc for 7 months now and I’ve been searching treatments on how to fix it it. Your article is very informative but I wanted to ask do the herniated discs reabsorb, do you still feel them after you were healed? I’ve read in some places that the exercises help the disks go back into place. Is it true?
    Thank you!!!

    • Team BackPainTraining

      March 14, 2021 at 10:05 am

      Hi Monica, first I want to say again that I’m NOT a doctor, so everything I write is only based my own personal experience, I have no medical knowledge other than what I’ve researched online (or what my crappy doctors have told me when I got injured, which turned out to be completely wrong for me for the most part. Many doctors don’t know how to deal with herniation other than with pills).
      With that out of the way, I do feel my herniated disc(s) were reabsorbed somewhat, that’s actually the purpose of doing those specific moves. Decompression movements “decompress” the vertebrae, i.e. push them apart somewhat. I’m pretty sure if I were to get X-rays today I would still see reduced space between my L5 and L4 (and a few others as well), which means I do remain vulnerable to bad movements and posture. However, I’ve learned to avoid those, it’s now become second nature, sitting up straight and doing stretches before and/or after workout sessions has kept me completely pain free for years. Normal life, with new body habits – which are great for me anyways.
      So again, I do believe my discs are back in place but they could easily slip back out if I were to start doing bad movements again, as caused my herniation in the first place.
      Try doing the Foundation Training stretches (avoid anything that’s painful, “no pain no gain” does NOT apply here), be patient and consistent, and if your condition is anything similar to mine, you should back to normal within a few weeks.

  19. Hi! greetings from Mexico!
    I’m so happy I found this site. It is a very comprehensive guideline for all of us who want to go through this recovery journey to go back to our lives.
    I am now 6 weeks since diagnosed with 3 herniated discs, and even though I have gained some mobility with PT and meds, I definitely need to redesign my daily training sessions and make it all about my core. As you, and as a runner, I was all about training or lifting to improve my endurance and pace, but I definitely neglected my spine.
    So thank you for this, you gave me some motivation, perspective and great resources to read.

  20. alexander r marco

    August 14, 2021 at 1:53 am

    Excellent article!! I’ve been dealing with a herniated L-4,L-5 and S-1 for about 6 months that has improved but still experiencing left hip discomfort. In your selection of exercises you don’t include any type of side plank variation. Is there a reason for that? The reason I ask is because it seems my left hip area seem to get aggravated when I do any type of side planks. Also, I just received Eric Goodman’s “True to Form” book and will be implementing FT into my routine.

    • Team BackPainTraining

      August 15, 2021 at 9:53 am

      I couldn’t do any type of side plank with my hernation, too painful. I just stuck to Eric’s moves. Fast forward a few yearsthough, no problem at all for any kind of move.

  21. Wonderfull Article !! gave me some relief
    I am just 22 and had l5-s1 herniated disc.
    I want to ask that after you recovered , are you able to run and do other physical activities ??

    • Team BackPainTraining

      September 5, 2021 at 3:09 pm

      Yes, about 7-8 months after the injury, I was able to resume most of my physical activity. I progressively returned to completely normal, but I continued doing FT for several years for prevention.

  22. Hi Team BackPain Training,

    I’ve been suffering from a nagging L5/S1 herniation for 18 months. I get a little reprieve from acupuncture, but I’m scared to get back into extensive exercise at risk of making things worse. Things that often make it a little bit better in addition to acupuncture: sleeping flat on my back, walking, using a support pillow, limiting sitting, and the mcgill big 3 exercises . Things that make it angry- sitting too long. I started doing Foundation Training about 5 months ago but wasn’t seeing measurable results after 4-5 weeks so I stopped. Perhaps I should have stuck with it longer…how long did it take before you started to notice a difference? Can I ask how much time you committed a day and how many days a week? I’m assuming you signed up for their program and did a video or two a day every day? I hope I’m doing it right. I am willing to do anything at this point. I’m not in debilitating bed-bound pain, but its still rather depressing, can’t get it out of my mind because it’s constantly nagging in my butt or aching in my low back dull pain. Thanks for your advice. I hope to get to where you are.

    • Team BackPainTraining

      November 18, 2021 at 11:18 am

      Hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing your experience. I personally saw some small results from FT relatively quickly, after a couple of weeks. I did purchase their program, and I was doing it for about 10 minutes once or twice per day, every single day – that was my main thing in life at that point. I believe I was doing 2 or 3 videos each time, depending on the length of the video and the strain I felt. I never forced it and only did moves that didn’t hurt. I wouldn’t have been able to do the more advanced videos early on, mostly variants of the Founder. That really worked well for me over a few weeks – as it does for many people.
      I would give it another try in a consistent and dedicated way, I’m pretty sure it will pay off for you. Just make sure you don’t do anything that increases pain – if so you should definitely stop.
      You got this!

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