Strength training with a chronic back injury

Been dealing with a back injury for multiple years, 1x surgery L5-S1 herniation

With cycling my back has never been better and i really like TR both the app and the podcast and forums.

This summer i decided to go for fun and education and setting up for structured winter training, planing to race more in Iceland next summer. I realize the importance of strength training but i do not wish to put a lateral force down my spinal column such as with barbell squats, anyone here dealing with similar issues and have a solid strength plan such as a kettlebell plan or something entirely different.

two time l5-s1 discectomy patient checking-in;

  1. do a search on my name and l5-s1, i wrote a fairly detailed post on back stuff about 9 month ago. i’m on mobile right now so linking and finding is a bit hard.
  2. the big key is to build mobility and protect your back; this means taking mobility seriously with daily work. Build out your core strength so that as you start to do strength training you not only have the proper flexibility to ensure you aren’t improperly loading your spine, but you have the core strength to support and protect it.
  3. As you develop a strength training plan work with a coach who knows how to coach form. There is nothing wrong with squats or deadlifts if you are doing them properly, it’s when you don’t take care of #2 above and you have bad form that the risk of injury goes up exponentially. If a coach doesn’t have you starting with a dowel or empty barbell go find someone else.
  4. Go slow and avoid 1RM efforts. i will do a 5x5 rather than try and find a 1 or 3RM. it avoids ever having to put a huge amount of weight on the bar which to #3 above means your form should always be rock solid. The goal is building strength, you can measure progress without a 1RM.
  5. The only standard movement I would change out is a barbell deadlift to trap bar deadlift. While with proper form a standard DL is no issue, its too easy to load the lower back as you try and get the bar around your knees, because a lot of people let the weight get too far out in front. Trap bar all but eliminates this issue. KB’s are good, but watch again form so you aren’t loading lumber spine incorrectly.

Hope the back feels better. It’s taken me 2yrs since my last surgery to finally be in a place where both cycling and gym it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s been twice a day routine of stretching, and it’s been a lot fo time just working small things. Now i can spend 6hrs in the saddle without back acting up, and can lift heavy in the gym without problems. All of which have me far healthier than I was pre-surgery.


Thanks for the reply!

Great points.

Yeah, I’ve had an L5-S1 discectomy and, due to the extreme herniation, an L5-S1 fusion. The most important thing to remember is your patience and consistency. No big jumps in weight, and doing less this week with the confidence that you can do it again next week is better than doing more but being uncertain how the next week will shape up.

To address “force down my spinal column”: any weight you support above the waist is loading your spinal column. If you’re holding a kettlebell in your hands, it doesn’t matter if you’re holding it below your waist, the force is transferred up your arms, to your shoulders, down your spine, and then to your legs. You need stronger muscles in your back to support and stabilize the spine, but you need that whether you’re carrying groceries, picking up a child, bending over to pet a dog, or squatting a barbell. But squatting a barbell gives you a lot of opportunities for controlled, steady progressive overload to build the muscles instead of further herniating the discs.

All that said… after my fusion was solid (6-8 months post-op), I spent another year where my primary and most strenuous exercise was doing yoga 1-2x a week. Maybe a yoga class is a good avenue for you, maybe something else is, but regular consistent work on balance, stability, and body weight resistance isn’t a bad way to spend some time. You can build pretty impressive strength that way, working through progressively harder variations.

I didn’t do that. I eventually started going to the gym, and worked with a physiotherapist on form. Over the next couple of years I learned that if I always lift only in the winter, I’ll always start the next winter at pretty much the same place, and I’ll always finish the off season at the same place, and I won’t really progress year over year. Lifting through the racing season this year, I’m finally breaking plateaus (albeit slowly, because patience is key!). So I’d recommend doing that, but be mindful of your volume, don’t get greedy, and just be confident that even holding on to strength gains while going hard on the bike is an accomplishment.

I agree with @RONDAL on his points. I don’t ever need to find out what my 1RM, 3RM, or 5RM is. I can estimate them, but even at 5 reps I always want to feel like I’m at 90-95% of what I could do. That’s plenty hard, it triggers supercompensation and strength gains, it’s enough for hypertrophy, and I never feel like I need to deviate from excellent, back-protecting form to get the weight up.


Thanks for the advise, started squats and deadlifts 2x week, 3x12 for 2 weeks to get the neurons firing and building confidence 50kg squat and 70kg deadlift i am 83kg so just light and safe, warmup mobility and random kettlebell drills.

Progress slowly to lower reps and more weight.