Medically reviewed by Dr. Brian Paris, D.C on Jan. 20, 2019.
Targeted herniated disc exercises are one of the best herniated disc treatments if your goal is to permanently heal a herniated disc. The trick is knowing what kinds of exercise will help your herniated disc – and not make matters worse.
I’ve helped hundreds of thousands of people around the world eliminate their back pain without invasive treatments over the last 15 years — including herniated disc pain.
Before I get into the specific exercises, I want to tell you a little bit about herniated discs, as well as three steps you should take before you start any exercise program if you want optimal results.
Table of Contents
What is a herniated disc and how do I know if I have one?
Herniated discs, sometimes called slipped discs, ruptured discs or bulging discs, occur when material inside the disc, called the nucleus pulposus, breaks through the disc’s annulus – the tough outer wall. The disc herniates as the disc material protrudes through the wall.
Sometimes a herniated disc can cause acute pain when the disc material hits a nerve root.
Symptoms of a herniated disc can vary dramatically, but is most commonly associated with sciatica, when the herniated or bulging disc presses on your sciatic nerve. You might also experience tingling, numbness, neck pain, low back pain or leg pain.
Other times, a herniated disc causes no pain at all. In fact, most remain asymptomatic for at least a little while.
One review of MRIs published in the New England Journal of Medicine found over 60% of adults without back pain have a herniated disc! (i)
Imaging tests can tell you for sure whether or not you have disc herniation, but they’re not always necessary (and there are reasons you may want to avoid them). Usually, a medical history and physical examination is enough to make a diagnosis.
If you already know you have a herniated disc, whether it’s causing pain or not, you’ll want to make sure you stick to stretching exercises and extension exercises that won’t make the problem worse.
3 steps to take before starting a herniated disc exercise program
If you’re in major pain or are experiencing weakness, you’re probably not going to want to exercise. That’s why it’s important to follow these three steps first.
1. Address the herniated disc symptoms
I’m not a fan of Big Pharma’s pain medications, but you’ll want to do something to take the edge off before you start exercising. Instead of pain pills, I recommend a combination or natural painkillers (the best are proteolytic enzymes) and heat therapy. For optimal results, try a heating pad that uses far-infrared heat technology.
2. Relieve the pressure
It’s important to relieve the spinal compression caused by everyday gravitational forces.
The way you do this is through spinal decompression – which is nothing more than a fancy term meaning “relieve the pressure on my spine so my spinal discs can function normally again.”
I recommend inversion therapy. As little as a 15% inversion angle can make a tremendous difference as gravity gently relieves pressure by pulling in the opposite from normal direction.
The easiest way to accomplish this is with an inversion chair, but you can also use a large exercise ball.
Simply lie across the ball face up, and gently roll back towards the floor. Rest in that position for 10-15 seconds as your spine gently decompresses.
3. Support your discs
This step is incredibly simple: Drink more water (try squeezing lemon into it for added benefits) and take a natural high-grade multivitamin.
You want to make sure to ensure your body has the proper hydration as well as the nutrients it needs to repair herniated discs, injuries, and plain old daily wear and tear.
6 best exercises for herniated discs
Safe herniated disc exercises during recovery are those that are either very gentle, provide extra support to your body by their nature, and/or are highly targeted to helping your specific underlying problem.
Here are six exercises I can recommend if you’re concerned about exercising with a herniated disc.
Please note, if you experience any type of sharp pain, discontinue the exercise. Our goal is pain relief, not pain.
Prone into press-up back extension
This exercise helps reduce herniated disc pain and pressure.
Step 1: Get into a prone position face down on the floor, with your forearms resting on the floor and palms on the ground.
Step 2: Gently push yourself upwards until you’re resting on your forearms.
Step 3: Hold for 30 seconds, working up to between three to five minutes over time.
Lowered opposite arm leg extension
This exercise may benefit people with pain from a lumbar herniated disc because it strengthens and helps stabilize lower back muscles.
Step 1: Lie on your stomach with your arms stretched over your head.
Step 2: Raise your right arm with your thumb pointed up, and raise your left leg with your feet pointing down. Hold for three seconds and slowly lower down.
Step 3: Repeat with your opposite arm and leg. Repeat the exercise 10 times.
Opposite arm and leg extension
Not only will this exercise help stabilize your spine, it will also improve strength in your lower back muscles, hamstrings, and glutes.
Step 1: Place your palms on the ground facing forward shoulder-width apart. Place your knees under your hips.
Step 2: Stretch both arms out in front of you, squeezing your abdominal muscles as you simultaneously lift your right arm and left leg. Hold for 3-5 seconds.
Step 3: Slowly lower your leg and arm. Repeat on the other side, raising your left arm and right leg. Repeat each side 5 to 10 times.
Leg Curl with Exercise Ball
This exercise will help strengthen your hamstrings, and the advanced move will work both your hamstrings and glutes.
Step 1: Begin lying down with legs extended, and your feet flexed back on the ball. Rest your arms at your side
Step 2: Slowly pull the ball toward your bottom. Hold for 1-2 seconds, then extend to the starting position.
Repeat this exercise 10-15 times. Perform it at least once per day, and progress to one to
three times per day when ready.
Advanced position: This works both the hamstring and gluts.
Begin by pulling in the ball as you did in the first part of this exercise. When you have pulled in all the way simply lift your hips up by pushing down through the ball. Hold for a moment, and then return to the start of the movement.
Like the basic move, repeat this exercise 10-15 times, and perform at least once per day.
This exercise helps strengthen your lower back, especially if you have a forward tipped pelvis. Make sure that you use the muscles of the lower abdomen for best results.
Step 1: Begin lying on the floor, knees bent, and arms at your hips for support.
Step 2: Slowly bring your knees towards your chest by contracting the muscles of the lower
abdomen. Hold for one to two seconds at the top.
Step 3: Lower and repeat five to eight times.
Perform this exercise at least two to three times per day.
Standing hamstring stretch
This stretch can help relieve sciatic pain as well as pain associated with a lumbar disc herniation. You’ll need a chair placed against a wall with the seat facing out.
Step 1: Rest one foot on the ground and the other on the chair in front of you. Use your right hand against the wall for balance.
Step 2: Straighten your back and lean forward over your extended leg. Try to grab your ankle.
Note: Only stretch to the point where you feel the hamstring muscle stretch — not to the point of pain! Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Step 3: Switch legs. Repeat 3-5 times per leg.
The best treatment option for herniated discs: Muscle Balance Therapy™
While these great exercises may help relieve herniated disc pain for some people, if you want to prevent its recurrence you absolutely must address the number one leading cause of all back pain – muscle imbalances.
In a nutshell, a muscle imbalance occurs when one set of muscles becomes stronger and tight through overuse while an opposing set of muscles becomes weaker and stretched out from underuse.
This unbalanced state pulls your skeletal system out of its proper alignment, which leads to all kinds of painful postural dysfunctions.
Muscle Balance Therapy™ is a systematic approach for identifying what specific muscle imbalances you have. Then, instead of getting a generic set of exercises and stretches, muscle balance therapy gives you targeted exercises to strengthen your underworked, weak muscles and targeted stretches to loosen up those tight, overworked muscles.
By eliminating your muscle imbalances with the provided stretches and exercises, herniated discs are able to resolve naturally and excess pressure from the related postural dysfunctions help prevent future herniated discs.
4 key takeaways about exercising with a herniated disc
- Herniated discs occur when the disc material breaks through the disc’s outer wall. Not all herniated discs are painful.
- Don’t jump right into an exercise program; make sure you relieve pain, reduce pressure, and are hydrated and getting enough nutrients in your diet first.
- Simple stretching and extension exercises provide pain relief for many people.
- Although these general exercises may be helpful, you can only get lasting relief when you address your muscle imbalances.
The fastest way to eliminate back pain — no matter its cause — is understanding all the underlying factors that contribute to back pain.
Editor’s note: This article has been reviewed by a member of our medical advisory board. The content provided is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your physician if you have any questions about your health.
i Jensen, Maureen C. et al. “Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Lumbar Spine in People without Back Pain.” N Engl J Med 1994; 331:69-73