I was diagnosed with lumbar scoliosis in 7th grade, around 28 degree curvature. I did ballet all growing up so ballet helped keep me strong to a degree as well as flexible. Now I am approaching 35 years old and have been weight training for over ten years and want to share what I have found through trial and error to be effective strength-training exercises versus those that exacerbate or cause pain to someone with a scoliosis spine.
Depending on your curve, certain movements should be avoided and of course each curved spine is unique. I am going to list exercises that should be avoided and then follow-up with a list of exercises that are beneficial (not extensive list, though). I may come back to this list periodically as I think of things to add but this is a good start.
EXERCISES TO AVOID WITH SCOLIOSIS:
- Back squats
- Heavy front or goblet squat with improper form (sinking into curve)
- Russian twists (weighted or non-weighted)
- Conventional barbell deadlifts
- Barbell bench press
- Barbell overhead press
- Too heavy ANYTHING overhead press (spinal load; “too heavy” would be below 8 reps so shoot for 8-15 reps instead with moderate weight)
- Barbell row
- Basically any barbell bilateral upper body work should likely be avoided (all cross-fit movements unless you want to potentially injure your shoulders; very light weight may be OK for seasoned lifter)
- Weighted back extensions
- Excessive side planking on strong side (convex side)
- Extreme core exercises where you can’t use good form
- Heavy leg press where you are fixed and the weight is coming down towards you (if your leg press moves with you and the legs stay fixed this is better and less spinal pressure)
- Loaded standing windmill
- Any rotational weighted movement unless you are working against the rotation (we want to resist the curve as much as we can and strengthen)
STRETCHING/MOBILITY MOVEMENTS THAT ARE GOOD (not extensive list):
- Cat cow
- Lying windmill
- Thoracic spine mobility
- Child’s pose
- Down dog
- Kneeling lunge stretch with side bend (towards front leg)
- Cat-cow with “see your tail” move
- Figure four
- Pigeon pose
EXERCISES THAT ARE GOOD/OK IF YOU HAVE SCOLIOSIS AND HAVE PROPER FORM:
- ANY single leg exercises: lunges (I prefer reverse lunges), Bulgarian split squats, step-ups, single leg deadlift, lateral lunge, curtsy lunge, deficit reverse lunge
- Sumo deadlifts
- Hip thrust/Hip bridges/single leg hip bridges
- Banded exercises for glutes including clamshells, etc.
- Goblet squats or front squats (watch load and form)
- TRX work of almost any kind
- Deadlifts with dumbbells or kettlebells at sides (dual grip prevents you from going too heavy and you can focus more on glutes)
- Kettlebell swing (Russian, not American)
- Stability ball side crunch for weak side
- Stability ball back extensions
- Bird dog
- Bear plank, elbow plank, hand plank, side plank (careful not to do too many on strong side)
- Bird dog row with weak side leg lifted only
- Sumo squats
- Cable row/lat pulldowns
- Most upper body with free weights is OK – (avoid barbell upper work)
- Landmine squat/landmine single leg DL
- Landmine press
The reason back squats are bad is that when you go heavier the barbell is compressing the spine and it becomes very challenging to engage the core enough to prevent that load from pressing down – it’s called fighting against gravity! Overtime that compression is just bad news. You are better off doing goblet squats and then working to gain leg strength through single leg exercises where the weight is held at your sides (not compressing spine). Also, with scoliosis we will be quite imbalanced in not just the spine but also potentially the hips and shoulders too! So that is why barbell upper body work is problematic. If you keep the load light enough you may avoid injury, but, I have found that dumbbells and unilateral work is so much more friendly to those of us with scoliosis because then our arms and shoulders can move more freely and are not in a fixed position as we press the weight or pull the weight.
Conventional deadlifts are problematic because it’s such a mid-to-low back focused movement and it’s impossible for the strong side of our scoliosis back to NOT take over. Sumo deadlifts are better because it’s a more glute focused movement and you keep the torso slightly more erect as you lift the weight – I don’t really feel sumo DLs at all in my back! That is a win! Same for barbell hip thrust – it’s all glute and hamstring. My back is not involved aside from stabilizer core muscles being engaged.
With scoliosis we want to try and engage the weak side as much as the strong side (concave vs. convex). This can be very challenging but if you are staying focused on your core and spine being straight and trying hard to engage that weak side, you can avoid exacerbating muscle imbalances. That is why I love single leg and unilateral work! A Kneeling DB press for example is safer than standing overhead press with both arms working. In a kneeling position we are allowed to really keep form solid through hips and core and focus on one arm at a time. Same with lower body work – any time we are doing one leg at a time it’s automatically easier on the hips and low back if you have imbalances.
Ever since I cut out all of the exercises listed under NOT TO DO I have felt better than ever! I almost NEVER have back pain – unless I sit or stand for too long without being able to move my body. I prioritize glute training which helps tremendously, too. Hip thrust is one of the few lower body moves that I do and go actually pretty heavy and I do not have any issues (of course the key is to start small and slowly build – progressive overload). I do moderately heavy goblet squat or front squats (core is engaged and no spinal compression), and I do a lot of unilateral leg work and bridges, etc. The trick is to keep all the hip stabilizers super strong – and not to put the body in a position where it’s moving weight in a fixed plane (aside from hip thrust or sumo deadlifts since we are not loading/compressing the spine there).
As far are core exercises go, planks and side planks are good! I try to do more side planking on my weaker side though and I try to engage that weak side when I do traditional planks. It can be challenging to do but it’s possible. You have to listen to your body as you train and really pay attention to how you feel during and after a movement. We want to feel even “burning” in the back – not more on one side. Sometimes it’s inevitable and that just means your core may be fatiguing so the strong side is taking over and at that point it’s good to step back or do a different exercise. I hope this list is helpful if you have scoliosis! It’s important that we figure out a way to keep training so we can stay strong and tall and balanced as well age – otherwise we will simply sink into the curve and be very lopsided as we get older – THAT is what we do not want!
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