T Nation

Limited Squats and Deadlifts


I would love to hear from you guys regarding a recent diagnosis my orthopaedist gave me regarding my spine and a new strategy I'm needing for muscle gain. The good news is that I don't have an injury that needs to heal, just an incredibly painful irritation of the femoral nerve during squats and deadlifts.

While he thinks I should be able to go light in about six weeks, at age 45, he doesn't see me being able to go very heavy going forward as an mri of the spine showed the nerve canal is being hampered by a disc and will always cause that pain if I continue to try to go heavy. Been lifting only a couple of years now, but still wanting to gain strength and muscle.

I will probably include lighter squats and deadlifts as part of complexes, but any advice on what direction you guys would focus since heavy squats and deadlifts are probably not something I can concentrate on. Are unilateral movements the answer, though I know they're not the most effective at gaining overall strength?


What exactly what the issue at that spine - stenosis (narrowing of the space where the nerve runs), disc bulge (what size and location), arthritic changes at the vertebra, etc? If it is a disc bulge, did the doctor discuss the possibility of epidural steroidal injections? How did the injury initially occur? When was the injury as well?

With most injuries, it is hard to predict the future of how things will go, and with discs/back injuries that is VERY true. I would say you are on the right mind frame to start light and with some single leg work. It is hard to give full advice without a physical assessment or knowing the whole situation, but I really don't like the idea of completely ruling out things. Just seems like a defeatist attitude to me, but doctors will usually be very conservative with their suggestions.

Can you go back to heavy deadlifts/squats? Maybe. You many have to make modifications (style of squat, trap bar deadlift vs straight bar, etc). For now though, find out why the injury happened. Determine if there was there a mobility issue, movement pattern issue, technique issue, muscular imbalances, etc. Focus of fixing whatever the underlying problem is, get strong using movements that limit stress on the injured area, and progress as you can pain free.

On a side note, I would like to say this is a very refreshing post made by PhilAmmons. Instead of just asking to be fixed he gave some good information, already sought out an opinion of a physician/somebody who could evaluate him in person, came up with some solutions and asked for opinions.

Best of luck Phil!


Thanks for the response, I really appreciate it. Actually, the doctor did notice a strength imbalance in the left leg right away (that's where the intense pain happened: the lower back to the left quad) on my initial visit. He did not mention it again after evaluating the mri. He said that the disc was degenerative (actually have four that are, but he says that it is very common), not bulging; he was not overly concerned with it, just part of the normal aging process.

It sounds like the word for what I have may be stenosis, from the disc starting to degenerate and narrow the space where the nerve runs. He did not discuss any of the injections. Just wants me to not do deadlifts, squats, overhead presses for six weeks, and then see him before going back to doing squats and deadlifts at very low levels.

The nerve pain first occurred a little over a year ago, doing sandbag carries. It had shown up again in the last year doing deadlifts, sandbag and kettlebell getups, kickbacks of dumbbells when I would do presses, and last week for the first time with squats. Have tried the trap bar deadlift, and it happened there as well.

Thanks again for the response, I appreciate the feedback on the direction I think I need to go.


Glad to help! To reiterate what I had said earlier and go off of the new information you gave, for now do as the doctor instructed and back off squats and deadlifts. If you have the avaiability, find a good practitioner/coach who can do a functional movement screen and assess any mobility/stability deficits you may have and coach/cue proper technique. Focus on some single leg work and good movement quality. It would help at this point in time to work on some lumbar stability work as well (plank variations, palloff press variations, etc) along with glute activation/hip mobility work.


Hey this could be a blessing in disguise.

I injured my back to the point of no return. Can't deadlift at all, can't squat over 135..

I shifted the focus of my workout to heavy upper body compound movements (weighted dips/chins and incline/overhead presses) and very light low body conditioning, maybe you should consider it.

It's simply not worth it squatting/deadlifting heavy when you are in such a precarious condition, thats how I fucked up, dont make the same mistake. Regardless, heavy deadlifting is over rated, sorry, but its true.

Edit: LevelHeaded's recommendation of planks for lumbar stability is pretty spot on.


Please explain this? Squatting and deadlifting are the most important lifts to gaining mass and strength... what other way is there to gain real strength?



You say it like there is a mathmatical proof that deadlifting and squatting build size and strength. Well, there isn't.

You used the phrase "real strength". What is real strength? Strength in real life movements (i.e. random stability variables)? Maximal strength? Strength endurance? Also, "strength" is very 'movement specific'. Adding 100 lbs to your deadlift isn't going to bring your bench up in the slightest.

Take a look at powerlifting competitions. If the movements they tested were Incline Bench, Bicep Curl and Weighted Pullup...do you think competitors would still flat bench/dead/squat to build "strength"?

You said "Squatting and deadlifting are the most important lifts to gaining mass and strength." This has become a truism in the lifting world, which is sad. Size/strength are determinant on WAY more things (movement/height/limb lengths/food/genetics/consistency/weight amount/technique/etc).

Squatting/deadlifting won't get your upper body bigger. No one has an upper body hypertrophy program that is centered on squatting/deadlifting.

Strength/Size are useless terms unless you are more specific. If you said "Deadlifting is the most important movement to gain strength in the motion of picking things off of the ground that are attached to a bar assuming you can pull at the perfect spot so you don't have to use any balance.." then I would agree.

Relating this back to the OP, it all depends on how you define strong and big. Ceasing to deadlift and squat will not end your lifting career, I absolutely assure you.


I understand your points and see where you are coming from in your responses. I also see how Kenshin possibly misunderstood your statement (or at least how I understood your statement). I agree that there is more than one way to gain size/strength and that squats and deadlifts are not absolutely necessary, but they are GREAT tools to use. I would say that I don't agree with the "heavy deadlifting" is over-rated statement - I would agree with a statement along the lines of "heavy deadlifting at the cost of improper techinque is over-rated", or any exercise at the expense of proper technique is over-rated.

Also, I can say that unless a person is already a elite level lifter, if you brought up their deadlift 100lbs, their bench would definitely go up. Just the gains in strength from the leg drive alone, not to mention the increased strength in the upper back from deadlifts, would significantly help a person increase poundage of their bench. Would a bench specific program increase a bench more than a deadlifting specific program, yes. But if that bench specific position neglected to address other body parts (upper back, glutes, etc), it would suffer gaining optimal results.

Now, I am not saying that everybody is ready to deadlift/squat heavy weights. But I also don't agree with bastardizing heavy deadlifts and squats as a whole. I can't remember where I read/heard this from, but I think this paraphrased quote sums up my opinon the best: "The are very few contraindicated lifts, but many contraindicated lifters." If a person is physically capable (mobility, stability, strength, movement patterns, etc) of performing heavy deadlifts and they fit into their training goals, I would strongly encourage them to intelligently program them into their training.

Linking this back to the OP, he obviously isn't ready for any kind of heavy deadlifting or squatting or any exercise where there is movement towards a loaded, flexed spine position. With his current injury, bringing up the lagging parts and addressing any weaknesses will not only keep his strength and conditioning levels up, but also fix and underlying issues that may present themselves in the future as injury/pathology.



I certainly don't think Squat and Dead are useless, they easily trump my list of best exercises. I agree with most things that you said about them, no doubt. But I have to contend to what you say towards the end of your post: "With his current injury, bringing up the lagging parts and addressing any weaknesses will not only keep his strength and conditioning levels up" <-- What do you mean here by "strength" and "bring up lagging parts"? I don't want to argue semantics, please give me some examples.

As for the deadlift to bench carryover, I only have my experience to rely on and the experience of people i have trained, which showed no translatable gains. Also, leg drive (for the bench) is very different than hip drive (squat/dead). Even more, leg "drive" is a misleading term, it should be "leg locking" or something similar. When you use your legs to help your bench you aren't really moving them, you are flexing them to make a more solid unit of your upper body so it is easier to push off of. Solid units are always easier to push off of, compared to say, benching while holding your legs straight out. <-- I would like your opinion on this too.


Yes, Levelhead summed up what I meant pretty well.

Is it not true that a program without squatting and deadlifting is gonna be incomplete? For example if your doing alot of upper body to keep yourself from having to work your back (if you have a disc injury like me) will this not make you more susceptible to muscle imbalances and injury?

And what I meant by "real strength" is functional strength. Being able to move things. After all,. is that not what is most usefull to us in real life? Most people want to be strong, I dont know many people who strive to be weak. Bench pressing and curling have very little to do with real strengh as your rarely gonna find yourself in a situation where you have to push something while laying on your back or curl something. However.. you are gonna be placed in many situations where you have to push or pick something up. I'm not expert and I really know very little about the specifics of weightraining or how the body works. I lifted on and off for years and I've done alot of combat sports. When I was squatting and deadlifing all the time, I was stronger then most of the people who didn't, even alot of the guys who were bigger then me who could benchpress alot more then me.


You are only as incomplete (and complete for that matter) as your goals tell you that you are.
I cannot deadlift and squat anymore but I have never been in better shape. I learned how to power clean with great technique (I have no idea how I can painlessly do this btw) and my lower body is tempered with plenty of sprinting. There are endless ways around lots of things.

I might sound condescending, so please do not take it in that way. How many situations in real life could you imagine someone needing to pick up an olympic bar with weighted plates on both sides of it? Deadlifting strength does not transfer to real life "picking stuff up" strength as much as one might think. So many things immediately change: leg positions, back angles, hand positions, finger grasping, knee bending, distance from ground, etc... I promise you that no person in the world who can deadlift upto 500lbs can pick anywhere near that amount off of the ground if it were a log, or anything other than an olympic bar for that matter.


No offense taken.

Is your injury a disc related problem? I'm just wondering because if so, how do you sprint? I cant run at all without alot of pain. Anytime my body is jar'd I feel it in my back. My chiro told me to never run again. lol Hoping she was wrong. Just curious because i find it amazing to hear people doing stuff even with such a major injury. Amazes me.

And I believe your wrong about deadlifting and squatting not transferring to real life. When I wrestled and did Jiu-Jitsu, I was stronger then most people my size and even alof of the guys bigger then me. Most of my friends never done DL's or squats. When they lifted they just benched, curled and done mostly upperbody exercises. In fighting whether it be throwing a punch, kick, or wrestling or whatever, the power comes from the floor. Through the legs and hips and back. Thats why most professional athletes that I know of (especially wresters and MMA fighters) but also NFL players and even Tiger Woods, squat and deadlift.


What I meant with what you quoted me saying was basically to not just stop training due to the injury and continue training around the injury. So for the OPs situation, heavy deadlifts and squats are out of the question, so he can focus on some single leg work, lighter lower extremity exercises, and upper extremity exercises to maintain his strength levels and conditioning. He can also address weak areas (lagging parts) whether they be related to an injured body part (example of lacking lumbar stability so focus on that) or an unrelated body part that he hasn't been able to focus on (example is low back injury forces limited lower body work, so you focus on thoracic mobility or mid-back musculature if that was a weak area for you). Not sure what you are asking for when asking me what I mean by "strength". I guess I can answer by saying I just mean for him to stay close to what his numbers for his lifts are and to be able to continue to perform whatever activity he has goals to do.

What you explained with stable vs unstable surface in terms of bench is what I refer to as "leg drive". Plant the feet firmly into the ground, create a solid base, and drive through the heels to further enforce that solid base. "Leg drive" is just the terminology that I and others I have trained with use.


My injuries are disc related (although Xrays cant say much i suppose) and I have (i can remember the doctor in the ER saying) "extreme muscular strain" but I can sprint no problem now. Once again, I have no idea why because if I even attempt to deadlift 135 I spasm with pain. As I write this I am starting to believe that I could have been misdiagnosed!!

Ok, but thats not what I said. I said it isnt as much as one would think. Sure, its definitely there, just only a lower percentage, which depends on the variables i stated above. Also, your example of juijitsu is hardly "real life" related, lol, its gym related, just like deadlifting. But yea, i agree, deadlifting definitely helps full contact sports, no doubt.


I think you are off base and misguided with this statement and this is where the "functional training" bullshit that gets tossed around starts messing shit up. The strength training that you do in the weight room should be there to build a solid, all around foundation of strength. I don't think anybody is deadlifting to be able to increase real life "picking up stuff strength".

Any athletic player will greatly benefit performance wise from deadlifting, but not because of being able to pick something heavy off the ground with two feet securely planted, etc. They will benefit because of increase strength of the gluteals and hamstrings as well as increase lumbar stabilizer strength, grip strength, etc. so when they are playing football they can do so with higher force/power, increased resilience, etc.

Not all of your training needs to be "sports specific". The only people who should have their weight training "sport specific" are olympic and power lifters. Other than that, all other athletes lift to build upon their overall strength and then perform their sport/activity (football, baseball, wrestling, etc) to increase their ability at that specific activity.

Yes,there are very few specific exercises that may translate better to your sport and an exercise's risk vs reward ratio will change depending on the sport of the athlete, but overall strength training should be there just to build a overall base of strength. Specificity should be left to that individual athletic activity.