When it comes to weightlifting, few conditions can sideline your routine quite like radiating sciatic pain and muscle weakness. If you are experiencing low back strain and numbness, burning, or tingling down the back of your leg, don’t miss this expert guide on weight training with sciatica:
What is sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in your body, and it travels from your lower spine down the back of each of your legs all the way to your toes. Generating sensation and strength in your legs, the sciatic nerve essentially connects the spinal cord to your lower leg and feet muscles as well as your hamstring and the outside of your thigh. It is also responsible for triggering reflexes in your legs.
When you incur an injury or develop a condition which places internal pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can become pinched or impaired, leading to a variety of symptoms that don’t just disrupt your weightlifting routine but make simple daily tasks hard to complete as well. This is known as sciatica. Common causes of sciatica include a lumbar disc herniation (also called a ruptured or bulging disc) where the shock-absorbing pad between vertebrae of the spine busts through its external casing and impinges a nerve. Other sources of sciatica pain may be a tight piriformis muscle in the buttocks, a bone spur on the spine, lumbar spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), degenerative disc disease, and muscle spasms.
What are the symptoms?
Depending on the source of your sciatic pain, symptoms may vary but often are localized to the buttocks region and down one or both legs – they include:
Weakness or difficulty standing
Moderate to severe pain in hip, rear, or leg
5 total nerves in the lower back funnel into the sciatic nerve, so any strain or damage to the lumbar spine region can actually radiate pain and other symptoms down the sciatic nerve itself. Symptoms may flare-up or chronically persist for months at a time, though they are typically targeted to one leg.
How can weight lifting aggravate the sciatic nerve?
The nature of weightlifting doesn’t necessarily predispose you to sciatic nerve irritation, however, there are common risk factors for sciatica, like low back strain, which weight training can exacerbate. Incorrect lifting technique on an angled leg press machine, for example, can cause you to round the lower back, placing inordinate pressure on the vertebrae and discs, potentially leading to nerve impingement.
Other activities like stiff deadlifts, standing overhead presses, seated abductor machines, and straight leg crunches or sit-ups can stress and strain the lumbar spine region and generate inflammation that leads to sciatica.
Tips for Weight Training with Sciatica
Follow a handful of basic rules and you’ll be in good shape to keep up with your weight training routine while mitigating painful side effects of sciatic nerve irritation.
Nail perfect form – body mechanics are key to not just weightlifting performance and progression, but avoiding injury. Connect with a personal trainer or other knowledgeable instructor at your gym to get the low-down on lifting technique and mechanics to avoid sciatic nerve damage.
Wear a sciatica brace – compression and support from a sciatica brace you wear in your day to day life outside of the gym can help reinforce the lower spine and relieve pressure off of the sciatic nerve.
Avoid straight leg exercises – lying on your back with your legs straight and trying to do crunches, sit-ups, or leg raises puts direct pressure on key lower back muscles, aggravating the sciatic nerve.
Skip overhead weightlifting – much of the compression on the discs and vertebrae in your spinal column come from overhead lifting, including a standing overhead press or even a simple dumbbell shoulder press.
Maintain a neutral spine – the tendency to unnaturally round the lower back with exercises like the bent over row or leg press machines can aggravate lumbar spine strain and thus, the sciatic nerve. Maintain a neutral spine as much as possible when lifting and avoid exercises where you can’t.
Don’t overdo it – lifting too much weight and overtraining can be detrimental to your gains and your sciatic nerve health. Master good form and technique before you start adding weight to your circuit.
Cross-train – try cross-training with lower-impact activities like cycling, swimming, or yoga to help correct muscle imbalances, i.e. weak chest and upper back muscles, that are contributing to your low back strain and sciatica.
Sciatica doesn’t present in exactly the same way from person to person so it’s critical that you seek a medical evaluation from a doctor or sports therapist if low back, hip, and leg pain is keeping you from maintaining your weight training routine.