Herniated discs are a common injury in strength training, but can easily be avoided. In this extract from Frederic Delavier’s Strength Training Anatomy, Fourth Edition, we look at herniated discs – how they are caused and the steps you can take to prevent them.
A herniated disc is a relatively frequent injury in strength training. It is most often caused by an incorrect back position during certain exercises such as the squat, deadlift, or bent-over row. When doing these exercises, the classic error is rounding the back (vertebral flexion), which pinches the front of the disc and pushes the back of the disc outward. If the intervertebral disc is cracked or aging, the gelatinous liquid of the nucleus pulposus migrates backward and can compress the spinal cord or the roots of the spinal nerves. Symptoms depend on the type of injury, the amount of nucleus pulposus pushed out, and the surface that is compressed. The nucleus pulposus can bulge or, worse, explode through the annulus fibrosus that surrounds it and sometimes even tear the posterior ligament that links the vertebrae to each other. Compression of the nerves caused by the tearing of the annulus fibrosus is particularly painful and incapacitating.
In strength training, hernias usually occur in the lumbar area, most often between the third and fourth or between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae. The pain is dull and deep, sometimes accompanied by swelling and tingling. The pain is felt in the middle of the back or more often to one side, radiating to the gluteus muscles, pelvis, pubis and down the leg, following the path of the sciatic nerve if its root is compressed (hence the name sciatica is used to describe this type of pain).
Generally, these hernias are spontaneously reabsorbed, and the pain eventually disappears. But in some cases, the bulge in the disc does not disappear and continues to press painfully against the nerves or a detached piece of intervertebral cartilage compresses the nerves. In both these cases, a surgeon can remove the part that is pressing against the nerves. To prevent a herniated disc, use proper form and technique when performing risky exercises such as the squat, deadlift, good morning, and bent-over row.
How to prevent a herniated disc
No matter what the exercise, as soon as heavy weights are involved, it is essential to create a block:
- Expanding the chest by holding a deep breath that fills the lungs will support the rib cage and prevent the torso from leaning forward.
- Contracting all of the abdominal muscles will support the core and increase intra-abdominal pressure to prevent the torso from slumping forward.
- Finally, arching the lower back by contracting the lumbar muscles will place the spinal column in extension.
These three actions together are referred as blocking. They will keep you from rounding or bending your back, a position that, when lifting heavy weights, can cause a herniated disc.
Strength Training Anatomy
Header photo by Li Sun