I’m just getting over a herniation at L5-S1 with major sciatica pain. I’ve been training heavy again for 4 months and am 90% pain free.
The biggest thing is understanding what caused the herniation. In your case, and in most cases, flexion in the spine causes herniation. Loading your spine isnt a problem as long as your spine is stiff and does not bend. So the #1 goal is not to bend, while getting stronger. Your problem will heal as long as you dont keep hurting it, but you will have to be concious of it forever.
Instead of squatting, start with lunges or single leg squats or split squats or step ups. Then work your way back to squatting after you’ve become stronger, but only go as deep as you can while avoiding the butt wink or tuck under at the bottom. Never go so heavy that you start to turn the squat into a good morning. Front squats might work better for you.
Instead of deadlifts, do back raises. Again, only go through a range of motion that you can maintain an arched or neutral spine. Dont push it. Then move to trap bar deadlifts, or rack pulls. Dont pull from the floor if you cant get into position without rounding your back. Dont go super heavy or super fast.
Instead of pressing, incline bench is probably your best bet, though pressing isnt as bad if you are strict about it. It does compress the spine, but you will never go into flexion. Sometimes too much extension though can aggravate your issues.
In your every day life, never bend over to pick something up. You round your back when you do. Squat or lunge or single-leg good morning, or deadlift it up. Always be aware of what positon your back is in and never take it for granted. People throw their back out grabbing pencils all the time. Its not the weight, its the flexion.
Dont do sit-ups. Thats flexion. Same with hanging leg raises or most ab exercises. If you cant keep your lower back neutral, dont do them. Use an ab wheel, or hanging knee raises in a chair instead.
Get Dr. Stuart McGill’s book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. It can be heavy on the science talk, but it tells you exactly what to avoid and exactly how to strengthen your back and abs without risking your disc.
Ben Bruno here on T-Nation has a bunch of articles about back friendly alternatives to squatting and deadlifting. Tons of single leg ideas. Search the articles.
And check out Brian Carroll’s training log at EliteFTS. He went to Dr. McGill back in May and has been rehabbing multiple herniated discs and skeletal fractures in his spine and is almost ready to compete again. Read through his log. All of it.
PS AVOID FLEXING YOUR SPINE