What Kind of Cardio for a Bad Back

I’ve posted before regarding my lower back; have had sciatica and disk problems for about 10 years(I am 38)hurt it playing basketball and got some good advice to lay off a while, which I have.

So anyway, I have had no problems lifting, although I try to stay away from ballistic movements. I have made good progress recently, and I am trying to lose some more fat for summer. All going well, right? Well, I decided to throw some hill sprints in on the off lifting days, so Tuesday I did a decent warm up, and because I did not want to overdo it the first day, ran 5 100 yard sprints and felt great…until yesterday. Started getting sore yesterday afternoon and by this morning was ready to bite a bullet. I have learned over the years that staying in bed and feeling sorry for myself is the wrong thing to do mentally and physically, so I got up, stretched a little, did a few minutes on the (very slow) treadmill, and took a whirlpool bath. Now I am sitting in this stinking chair at work, a bit hopped up on pain killers.

The thing that boggles me is that I do two pretty decent workouts plus a Tabata once a week with no problems. I throw a little running in and it will set my training back a week or more. What do you guys suggest for a more low impact way to get my heartrate up and burn a little fat? It is evident to me that it will be a long time, if ever, for this problem to heal. I guess I could go back to just walking, only because I don’t seem to have a whole lot of choice.

Thanks for letting me rant.



Try a stationary bike. If that still hurts, make a move to the recumbent bike.

You can still do interval training on them to make the most of your time/efforts. But, I’d go easy first to see if you’ll be doubled-ever the next day.

Hope it’s pain-free!

Recumbant bike. A lot of people scoff at this because it looks casual, but the fact is, it is very effective at getting your heart in your target zone and providing a great cardio workout.

For me, I find doing an elliptical machine works well. Your body is upright which I always find easier on my back. I can get in a decent workout, get my HR up, sweat a bit and the non-jarring movement gets my back loosened up nicely. Manly stuff? Not especially, but your back won’t much care.




You are not going to believe this, but those strider type machines, like the Gazelle, actually gets your heart rate up, and burns serious calories. I have a glass back, and tried another brand in a gym, and it was a damn good workout. Again, not manly, but effective, and it is non-impact so it will not aggrevate sciatica.

I went from 240lbs to 182lbs using a
rowing machine from www.concept2.com its highly recommended for people with bad backs and shit like that. Right now
I use it for a 20minute “power row” to
keep fit but it’s also great for fat loss.

BTW: I get sciatica, got a bum knee, I’m 39 and I lift every other day and row on non lift days. The fat just melted when I was doing 10000meters in 40 minutes every night.

[quote]40&Big wrote:
Recumbant bike. A lot of people scoff at this because it looks casual, but the fact is, it is very effective at getting your heart in your target zone and providing a great cardio workout. [/quote]

Second this. Do your Tabata on recumbant bike would be a pretty good idea. (Trust me, tabata on recumbant bike is still Tabata)

I would acutally go for aqua training e.g. running/lunging in chest-deep water, mulitple rounds of shadow boxing in water etc.

Before some of you bashing this idea saying it is for grandmothers, well, this had been part of K-1 top-10 Ray Sefo’s training camp before he fought Musashi in K-1 Japan.

I have two torn discs, gives me sciatica real bad on my right side. I’ve found that the ellipticals are best. I like the recumbent bikes, but find doing intervals better on the ellipticals.

[quote]fekkeneejit wrote:

BTW: I get sciatica, got a bum knee, I’m 39 and I lift every other day and row on non lift days. The fat just melted when I was doing 10000meters in 40 minutes every night.[/quote]

Gotta prop this recommendation up. Tabata on the ergometer, is the real Tabata !! (seriously, you can track your power output on the erg - so you can always see how hard you have to pull for Tabata-level intensity) something, that you cannot do on a recumbent bike !!

Rowing, outside of sprinting, or crossfit style training is the ultimate form of cardio. But then again, I’m a little biased!


Check out Mike R and Carl V’s Superior Circuit articles. Maybe you can create some exercises based on the modules they have that won’t hurt your back. Also, jumping rope is great for cardio, although that might actually aggravate your condition more.

And I just remembered that CT wrote an article on shoulder Gliding. You just get the lid of one of those 5-lb tubs of protein, put your feet on it, get in the push-up position, and drag your body for a set distance. I believe he said that for fat loss/GPP purpose, “walking” slowly for longer distances is best. I use these at least once weekly (“walking” as fast as I can). If you shorten the rest periods and practically “sprint” your HR goes up like crazy. I even tried these with the Tabata protocol, “stepping” as fast as possible for 20 seconds and resting only 10…it was fun to say the least. But I will be trying them again with weight. Again, not sure how taxing they might be on your back, but just some ideas.


I started out using a treadmill but, as speed/resistance picked up, I found that my shins and knees were getting sore.

I tried the Eliptical Runner. Didn’t like it as the stride seemed to be too long for me.

Tried the Precor and love it. You can go from slow to fast instantly, control the incline, and resistance. Much better work out than a treadmill. The stride seems more normal so I can last longer. Best of all no shin or knee pain. Maybe worth a try for the back.

My back is a pain as well. Have you tried running stairs? Either actual steps or the Stair Stepper - not the stair master, but the one with the revolving steps - much of the impact is taken by your calves. It’s definitely high intensity, but it doesn’t bother my back in a high impact way. Walking on an incline does. Running is out of the question. The elliptical is ok.

The best choices have already been stated: swim, bike, walk (preferably in a fasted state), elip machine. If you can row without pain that is also a great option.

Ultimately, you’re going to have to do some experimentation (start slow) and see what gives you a good cardio workout without immediate or delayed pain.

Your first expiriment results: hill sprints are bad.

Already some good suggestions posted above - give 'em a shot.

Take a look at my “Cardio Confusion” article for some ideas beyond regular ol’ steady-state. Some higher-rep work with bands, cables, and/or free weights can be just as effective when it comes to getting your heart rate up, and you’ll improve recovery in the process. You’d probably benefit greatly from some dynamic flexibility work, too.

I have a friend and colleague- totally non athletic - smokes - way overweight and recently damaged his back.

I am worried about him obviously. I think the easiest way to get him to do some excercises is to get him into the pool.

Can someone please put me onto a program for the pool? A program as mentioned above with shadow boxing/running/ etc.


You might try an arm ergometer. It will make you feel as though you are doing reverse cardio per se. But its a killer upper body workout.

I really appreciate all the responses. I am using what I have (a treadmill) to walk on none lifting days. Got out of bed Saturday in worse pain than I have been in for years. Did my stretching the last couple of days, but sitting and particularly standing makes me want to eat a bullet.

Saw a new Dr. today, and was pleasantly surprised that he took the time to talk about long range options, rather than just pump me full of meds. (Which I am gladly taking short term). I have never had an MRI, even though this has been off and on for quite a few years. Doc asked me if I was open to this; his reasoning is that until we pinpoint the exact problem, a long term treatment plan is hit or miss. Gonna cost me a bit, even with health insurance, but I really want to nail this down.

We talked briefly about surgical procedures; he made an interesting statement: Back surgery has gotten a bad rap and has often been misapplied; he said lower back surgery does not help back pain, but leg pain, by helping relieve the impingement on the sciatic nerve. I would rather avoid this if I could, but these episodes have actually worsened as I have go myself into better shape. I have probably missed 6 weeks of training since the beginning of the year because of this.

Anybody had back surgery and what were your results?