A herniated or bulging disc is the protrusion of a disc in the spine between two vertebrae, such that it compresses a nerve and creates pain. Herniated disc is the most commonly diagnosed chronic back problem. Certain bodybuilding exercises that put strain on the lower back can aggravate a herniated disc. For example, heavy barbell squats, deadlifts, bent-over rows, standing shoulder presses and bench presses can put undue stress on the lower back. Follow a few basic guidelines to swap these exercises out for alternatives that may not cause chronic back pain.
Do hack squats instead of barbell squats. The plate-loading hack squat machine resembles a leg press machine, only with your feet on a platform below you. Hack squats spread the weight out over a larger surface area to prevent excess strain on the lower back. Do your hack squats as low as you comfortably can to fully engage the quadriceps muscles.
Try different variations of deadlifts to decrease the stress on the lower back. A power rack is useful, as you can set the pins to different heights, rather than deadlifting off the floor. For example, set the pins just below knee level and try a light set of rack deadlifts. Stiff-leg deadlifts are another alternative for training the hamstrings. You can also replace barbell deadlifts with the same exercises using dumbbells. If none of these work for you, simply exclude this exercise, finding other ways to train the leg and back muscles.
Replace bent-over rows with chest-supported dumbbell rows. Barbell bent-over rows can put the lower back in a precarious stabilizing position. X-rep authors Jonathan Lawson and Steve Holman recommend the chest-supported variation because they claim it better targets the muscles of the midback. Seated cable rows are another acceptable alternative.
Avoid any standing power movements, such as the standing barbell shoulder press. The momentum used in generating the power to press the weight upward can aggravate a herniated disc. Instead, try the seated dumbbell shoulder press, where the back is supported by the pad of the bench. Another great alternative is dumbbell upright rows, which focus attention on the shoulder-widening medial head of the deltoids.
Replace heavy bench presses with dumbbell presses. Or use the self-spotting Smith machine so that you can easily unload the weight if you experience lower back pain. Another great alternative is the decline bench press, which "Ironman Magazine" writers Jonathan Lawson and Steve Holman claim is the best overall chest exercise.
Control your weights. There is a law of diminishing returns in bodybuilding because the heavier you train, the harder it is to increase the weight and the more likely you are to be injured. Use controlled repetition speed by counting a slow three- to six-second cadence while lowering the weight on every rep. This technique allows you to get more muscle growth stimulus with lighter poundage.