Weight lifting with sciatica can be tricky. While soreness in your lower back and butt sometimes comes with the territory when weight lifting — particularly if your form is off — sciatic nerve pain is a different story.
This "pain in the butt" indicates that your nerve is being compressed. Fortunately, there are targeted sciatica exercises and stretches that can help relieve pain and prevent the condition from getting worse.
See a doctor for a diagnosis and work with a physical therapist for a specific exercise program tailored to your needs.
Recommendations for weight lifting with sciatica will be most accurate if you first determine the underlying cause of your pain. Exercises that might be safe with a tight piriformis might not be safe with a disc herniation.
The Best Sciatica Exercises and Stretches
It's important to incorporate exercises for sciatica, stretches for tight muscles and spine stabilization exercises for your core.
One of the best places to start is the stomach vacuum exercise (aka abdominal draw in or pelvic tilt). Doing this move prior to each exercise, contracts your core muscles to reduce pressure on your spine and sciatic nerve.
1. Supine Core Contraction
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, close to your buttocks.
- Rest your palms on your front hip bones with your fingers extended.
- Tighten your abs as if you are "sucking them in," pulling your belly button down toward your spine.
- Gently press your fingertips into the muscle near your hip bones. You should feel tightening if you are performing the exercise correctly.
- Hold for three to five seconds, then relax.
- Repeat 10 times.
Next, perform 10 reps of each strengthening exercise below, holding the contractions for 1 to 2 seconds. Slowly return to the starting position between reps to avoid excess stress on your back. Work up to 3 sets of each exercise, in a row.
2. Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your arms resting by your sides, knees bent and feet flat on the ground hip-width apart.
- Squeeze your glutes and core, and press your heels into the ground to drive your hips up toward the ceiling until you form a diagonal line from knees to hips to chest.
- Resist the urge to arch your lower back as you raise your hips. Focus on keeping your spine in a neutral position throughout.
- Hold this position for a few seconds with your glutes engaged.
- Slowly lower your hips back down to the ground and reset in the starting position for a second before lifting back up.
3. Modified Plank
- Start on all fours — knees under hips and hands under shoulders.
- Move your hands forward and lean your torso toward the floor, while keeping your abs and glutes engaged.
- Bend your knees so your feet are up in the air.
- Look at the floor to keep your head in a neutral alignment and breathe normally.
- Hold for at least 10 seconds before lowering yourself to the floor or pressing back up into the all-fours position.
4. Bird Dog
- Get on your hands and knees with your hands directly in line with your shoulder and knees in line with your hips.
- Look down at the floor and brace your core (tucking your tailbone just slightly) to create a straight line from the tip of your head to your tailbone.
- On an exhale, reach your left arm straight out in front of you until your upper arm is in line with your ear.
- Simultaneously reach your right leg straight behind you, fully extending your knee.
- Pause here for a moment.
- Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
- Switch sides, reaching your right arm forward and raising your left leg back.
- Pause and then go back to the starting position.
Lastly, stretching tight muscles can be uncomfortable, but if you experience pain or tingling in your leg, you're stretching too far. Aim to hold each sciatica stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, then relax. Repeat 3 times.
Perform stretches on both legs, even if your symptoms are one-sided. Tightness on one side of the body can affect the other.
5. Knee-to-Chest Stretch
- Lie on your back on the floor with your legs bent and arms at your sides.
- Draw your right knee in toward your chest.
- Gently pull your knee to your chest as far as your mobility will allow. You may find it more comfortable to let your knee pointing to the same side shoulder.
- Relax and breathe as you hold the stretch.
6. Lying Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on your back and bend your knees so your feet are flat on the ground.
- Extend your right knee straight so that your right foot points to the ceiling.
- Reach your hands to grasp the back of your right thigh.
- Gently pull toward your chest. Your hips should remain on the floor.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then release.
- Switch legs.
7. Supine Piriformis Stretch
- Lie on your back.
- Cross your right foot over your left thigh and bend your left knee.
- Gently pull your left thigh toward your chest so that you feel a stretch in your right outer hip.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds or as long as as it feels good.
- Switch legs and repeat.
Try Low-Impact Water Aerobics
In addition to stretching and body-weight strength training, water aerobics is one of the best sciatica exercises you can do. That's because much of your body weight is supported by the water, relieving some of the pressure on your joints — including your lower back and hips.
Make sure you get clearance from your doctor or physical therapist first, and check with the class instructor to make sure the class you want to take is recommended for people with sciatica.
Weight Lifting With Sciatica
Is it OK to lift weights with sciatica? That depends. You should avoid aggravating exercises when weight training with sciatica, such as squats and deadlifts. These movements require contraction of the glute muscles and increase the load on your lumbar spine.
So what weight lifting exercises are good for sciatica? Focus on strengthening your upper body while your sciatica heals. Consider using weight machines rather than free weights — machines stabilize the weight for you, relieving some of the burden from your core.
Use proper posture — and wear the right shoes for sciatica — during exercise and as you transition between machines. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your lower back straight.
When retrieving something from the ground, hinge at the hips rather than bending over at the waist. Lift one leg straight out behind you to counterbalance and help keep your spine straight.
Exercises That Can Worsen Sciatica
If you're wondering, "What exercises should I avoid with sciatica?" here's a short list of problematic exercises to cut from your workouts. Additionally, you should always listen to your doctor or physical therapist and their guidelines for what to do and not do.
- Seated hamstring stretch
- Bent-over row
- Sit-ups or crunches
- Double-leg lift
- Forward fold or downward-facing dog
- Abdominal stretches
- High-impact exercise (ex. jumping)
- Running on asphalt or concrete
According to a June 2017 article published by Clinics in Orthopedic Surgery, squatting is one of the movements that increase pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Causes of Sciatica and Sciatic Pain
Sciatic pain occurs when the large sciatic nerve in your buttocks is irritated. This can be caused by a tight piriformis muscle overlaying this nerve. It can also occur when the nerve roots exiting your spine are compressed by arthritis, bone spurs or a herniated disc — cushioning between the stacked bones called vertebrae that make up your spine, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Disc herniation sciatica pain often increases when you bend forward at the waist. Weight lifting exercises that put excess weight on your back, such as barbell back squats, can worsen your symptoms.
Sciatic nerve compression due to a tight piriformis — a condition called piriformis syndrome — is often irritated by sitting, running long distance and cycling. Consider putting these exercises on hold until your pain subsides.
Sciatic Nerve Compression
The sciatic nerve is formed by nerve roots that exit the lumbar and sacral areas of your spinal cord. This large nerve then enters your buttocks region and dives beneath a muscle called the piriformis, according to a June 2015 article in the International Journal of Anatomy and Research.
The sciatic nerve supplies sensation to the back of your leg and powers muscles in your hips and thighs. This large nerve branches off at the knee to supply the muscles in your lower leg and foot.
Compression of the sciatic nerve can cause pain in the lower back and butt that might radiate along the back of your thigh and numbness and/or tingling in the back of your thigh. With prolonged nerve compression, you can develop weakness in your leg muscles.
In severe cases, sciatica can be accompanied by a sudden loss of the ability to control your bowels or bladder. If this occurs, seek immediate medical attention. This condition might require surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic.