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Expert Guidance for Personal Trainers: Clients with a Herniated Disc

personal trainer for herniated disc banner image

Being a personal trainer for those who have a herniated disc can be difficult to navigate. That’s why we’ve got a guide full of advice about the condition itself and styles of training that will work best.

In this article we’ll cover:

Before we start, download our free course prospectus to learn about our Level 4 Nutrition Course.

 

Key Information You Need to Be an Effective PT for Herniated Disc Clients

It’s vital that as a personal trainer for clients with herniated discs, you understand exactly what the condition is, and how it will affect training. 

The discs of the back are positioned between vertebrae and serve three primary functions:

  • As shock absorbers for movement in the body
  • Act as strong stabilisers, holding the vertebrae together
  • They’re joints that help with the movement of the spine

It’s normal that because of regular, strenuous exercise and age, the spinal discs start to degenerate over time.

Long periods of sitting also cause the spine to flex unnaturally increasing the chance of herniation.

Because of our sedentary lifestyle and types of work, this is increasingly common.

A herniated disc is when the disc degenerates to such an extent that the disc nucleus, the ‘stuffing’, is pushed out of place because its casing has ruptured or torn:

personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

When this happens it presses on the nerve root that surrounds the disc and vertebrae, causing the sufferer a great deal of pain.  

Alternative names for a herniated disc include:

  • Slipped disc
  • Disc bulge
  • A prolapsed disc  

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

pain personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

The pressure on the nerve will cause pain all along the nerve site, and where this is felt in the body will depend on where the damaged disc is.

For example, If the damage is a cervical herniated disc, the pain will most likely be felt in the shoulders or the arms.

If the herniation is in the lumbar region, at the bottom of the back, it will most likely cause pain in any or all of the following:

  • Legs
  • Feet
  • Buttocks
  • Hips

It’s also common for cramps, pins and needles and numbness to be experienced along the affected nerve. 

Obviously this hugely impacts a client’s ability to train because of the pain levels as well as the risk of further damage. 

To accommodate for this, and to make sure your clients aren’t harmed further, you have to be careful what you include in your exercise programme for herniated disc clients.

A lot of people might think that you should cease exercising with a condition like this but the opposite is the case.

The key is strengthening the muscles, primarily in the back, in order to support the spine and alleviate the pain.

5 Key Tips on Building a Successful Exercise Programme for Herniated Disc

We’ll now look at some tips any personal trainer for herniated disc clients can use so that you know what to include, and avoid, to make programmes as effective and safe as possible!

#1 Avoid Athletics and Sports in Any Exercise Programme for Herniated Disc Clients 

rugby personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

Using athletics and sports activities can often be a great way to add variety to your exercise programmes.

However, if you’re a personal trainer for herniated disc clients, you should tell your clients to avoid these activities because there’s huge risks associated. 

There’s plenty of sudden movements and changes in direction in sports and athletics that can potentially jar the spine.

This will not only be extremely painful, but it will also impair your client’s healing time. This is because a herniated disc is less capable of absorbing impact and protecting the spine.

This means that during contact sports especially, your client risks further injury or their recovery time being a lot slower. 

This could happen either through movement or impact on the spine or other areas affected by the herniated disc such as the: 

  • Shoulders
  • Legs
  • Hips
  • Arms

boxing personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

Below are the sports and athletics you should avoid putting in your exercise programme for herniated disc clients:

  • Rugby
  • Boxing
  • Running

Rugby involves a lot of quick changes in direction and a lot of contact, so you should advise your clients to avoid this sport if you’re a personal trainer for herniated disc clients.

Boxing is especially bad for clients who have a cervical herniated disc because the shoulders and the arms will take the most impact, putting pressure on the already injured disc.

It’s now believed that there are benefits of running for strengthening the back, or alleviating lower back pain, but when the disc is herniated this is much more dangerous.

As well as potentially jarring the back, it’s especially risky to run uphill because this requires forward bending in the spine, adding pressure to the disc. 

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#2 Use Yoga as a Personal Trainer for Herniated Disc Clients

cobra personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

Another one of the best things you can do as a personal trainer for herniated disc clients is include yoga in your exercise programmes.

Yoga is made up of steady, strengthening stretches that encourage blood flow and muscle strength, especially in the core.

Increasing blood flow will help the healing process by supplying the area with oxygen. This will also help relieve muscle tension easing pain levels for your clients!

Strengthening your core will mean that these muscles support the damaged area and take strain off the back muscles surrounding the area, especially if you’re a PT for those with a herniated disc in their lower back.

Yoga also improves posture which will help take pressure off your client’s spine and stop it from bending in a way that risks further damage.

The first thing you’ll need to do is get a Level 3 yoga teacher training qualification. Our own course provides all of the foundational knowledge you’ll need to use stretches in your sessions with clients:

level 3 personal trainer for herniated disc image

This will also give you an edge over other trainers because you’ll be able to offer a wider range of services and your clients won’t have to go elsewhere for yoga classes.

You should ease clients into this practice gently if they have no prior experience and you want to make sure you’re choosing one of the gentler styles of yoga.

You can do this by inviting clients to attend a beginner’s yoga class with you or check out our tips on how to teach a vinyasa yoga class.

This is a style that can easily be scaled and adapted for different abilities and needs!

You can find out more about Level 3 and all of our yoga teacher training courses here.

 

#3 Include Plenty of Stretches as a PT for Herniated Disc Clients

hamstring personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

Yoga stretches are important to include in the programme when you’re a personal trainer for those with a herniated disc.

However, you also need to make sure you work with your clients to stretch appropriately before all of your sessions, even for a yoga-based exercise programme.

This will act as an extensive warm up for your client and make sure that there’s plenty of blood flow to the affected area.

They will also encourage flexibility and make the back more supple, meaning the muscles are better equipped to stabilise the herniated area.

For a herniated disc in the cervical region you want to make sure you’re including plenty of shoulder stretches and upper back stretches.

For example, you can include this simple shoulder roll which, despite its simplicity, will help to gently warm up your client’s muscles without risking further damage to the herniated disc: 

If you’re a personal trainer for those with a herniated disc in the lumbar region, you’ll need to focus on the lower back, legs, and glutes.

You’ll need to make sure you include some calf stretches and hamstring stretches to ensure the muscles in the legs, along the sciatic nerve, are warmed up enough for your session!

If you want to choose the safest versions of these stretches, where the back isn’t too strained, you should prioritise floor hamstring stretches such as a supine hamstring stretch:

#4 A Personal Trainer for a Herniated Disc Client Should Perform a Pain Test

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Last but not least, any personal trainer for those with a herniated disc should complete a pain test.

Obviously you’ll be used to completing an initial assessment, and asking about any injuries or longstanding conditions, in the personal trainer consultation and PAR-Q.

However, before you design a herniated disc exercise programme you can protect your client further by completing a pain test with them.

Nobody will be able to understand the pain levels of your client like them! You need to make sure you’re sensitive to this and not push them beyond their comfort zone.

You can stretch their muscles and help their condition without putting them in pain. Usually if they are in pain in a particular position this will mean you’re putting unnecessary pressure on the injured area.

This won’t just protect your clients but will also mean you have less risk of injuring your client further and protecting yourself from any claims on your insurance.

You want to do a test that finds out where along the spine is most painful and which exercises and movements to avoid.

You should have a seated test with your client where they do the following:

  • Sit upright on a stool or backless seat of some sort with arms straight down
  • Get them to hold the edges of the seat and pull, holding themselves in the seat with a neutral spine
  • Do this again but get them to lean forward so that the spin is flexed
  • Repeat again but get them to arch their shoulders backwards, sticking their chest out whilst they pull on the bottom of the seat

If the first action hurts then this is likely to be a compression pain trigger. This means when the back is straight the disc is being compressed.

seated personal trainer for herniated disc image

If the second exercise is the one that’s painful, this means your client has a flexion pain trigger. This means you should avoid exercises that put weight on whilst bending forward.

This is why if you’re a personal trainer for those with a herniated disc you should always avoid deadlifts. These put pressure on the disc and cause them to compress even when done properly, with a healthy spine.

Lastly, if the third exercise causes your client pain then this is when they have an extension pain trigger. This means you should avoid movements that mimic this position.

So, for example, if your client has an extension pain trigger you should avoid doing overhead weights or chest presses. 

If you want to know more about personal training for clients with long term health conditions, check out our other articles below: 

#5 Take Further Qualifications as a Personal Trainer for Herniated Disc Clients  

We’ll now run through some of the key qualifications that will help inform your training. As a PT for herniated disc clients one of the best things you can do is develop your skills.

Not only will you widen the pool of clients you can cater to, you’re more able to advertise yourself as an expert and as having a niche.

An Exercise Referral Qualification Will Help When Training Clients With a Herniated Disc

qualified personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

If you’re a personal trainer for a herniated disc client, you can understand the condition in more detail, and how exercise can help, by completing a Level 3 exercise referral course.

This is designed to provide you with a deep understanding of different long term health conditions and how you can use exercise as part of a rehabilitation programme.

You will learn how you can help clients using exercise as well as when and how to refer clients to other professionals for further medical help.

You’ll also learn about planning an exercise referral programme specifically and how to deal sensitively, and safely, with people with more severe difficulties and conditions.

You’ll also be able to advertise yourself as a specialist like Rafael at Ten Health and Fitness has done:

rafael personal trainer for herniated disc image

By completing a Level 3 exercise referral qualification he’s able to advertise himself as an experienced movement specialist having worked with a variety of conditions:

ten health personal trainer for herniated disc image

You Can Develop Further as a PT for Herniated Disc Clients with a Level 4 Lower Back Pain Course

lumbar personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

From there you can also complete a Level 4 lower back pain course if you want to make this your niche and be the go to personal trainer for a herniated disc and other back problems!

This will build on your existing knowledge and give you more specific skills for building an exercise programme for a range of different back problems and their causes. 

This will allow you to develop a niche specific to being a PT for those with a herniated disc. You’ll also be able to cater to a broad range of other back issues though. 

You’ll also learn about the causes of lower back pain and the risks in training associated with herniated discs.

This will mean that you can integrate being a personal trainer for herniated disc clients into your standard sessions, helping all of your clients to avoid these issues in future!

Compete an SMT Qualification as a Personal Trainer for Herniated Disc Clients 

SMT personal trainer for herniated disc image

Another one of the best treatments you can offer as a PT for those with a herniated disc is sports massage therapy.

If you complete a Level 3 sports massage therapy course like ours you’ll be able to offer this service to help prevent further injury and help all your clients’ recovery time.

Sports massage increases the blood flow and circulation to the massaged area. As we mentioned earlier, this will help provide oxygen to the injured area and help speed up healing.

If you want to become a sports massage therapist you will attract more clients by offering a wide range of services that will help people with herniated discs and other back issues.

The sports massage therapist salary is also one of the highest in the fitness industry because of the calibre of clients you can work with.

As well as informing your standard sessions and working with amateur sports people, you’ve also got the potential to work with sports teams and professional athletes too!

So, this is why you can complete a range of further qualifications to advertise yourself as a specialist and increase your services as well as your income!

 

3 Effective PT Exercises for Clients with a Herniated Disc

We’ve given you some holistic tips about how you can enhance your training and be as safe and effective as possible.

Now we’ll run through some of the best specific exercises that you can use as a personal trainer for a herniated disc client.

#1 Plank is One of the Best PT Exercises for a Herniated Disc

plank personal trainer for herniated disc graphic

A plank exercise is one of the best ones you can include as a personal trainer for any herniated disc client, regardless of where the herniation is along the spine.

This is because it will strengthen the core and glute muscles to support the stabilisation of the spine and take the pressure off the back.

The benefits of plank exercises are that you’re engaging a lot of the key muscles you want to strengthen in your clients whilst demanding very little movement from the spine.

When done properly it engages all of the following muscles which will help to relieve pressure in the surrounding area of the herniated disc:

  • Abdominal muscles
  • Hips
  • Shoulders
  • Upper back muscles

You can either use a standard plank or use a side plank in order to exercise different muscle.

You should be careful doing more dynamic plank exercises however. If you want your clients to do a forearm to hand movement make sure you ease them into it by doing a stationary position first.

When you do get your clients to move you should only do so if their arms and core are strong enough to make the movement gentle and smooth without jarring the back. 

Get your clients to see if they can hold a position or complete an exercise for 30 seconds. 

You can modify the exercise by getting them to start on their knees, in a table top position, whilst they build up their strength.

You can then scale this up to 1 minute at a time as they improve and their strength increases. 

#2 Use Birddog if You’re a Personal Trainer for a Herniated Disc Client

birddog personal trainer for herniated disc image

A birddog is another useful exercise for training clients with a herniated disc. This is because it extends and stretches the spine.

It also exercises the following muscles:

  • Glutes
  • Upper Back 

Much like in a plank, your clients will be engaging their core muscles and strengthening their alignment with this exercise.

This is why it’s a great option to include in a herniated disc exercise programme, regardless of where the herniated disc is on the back.

As the upper back is engaged this would help strengthen the muscles needed to support a cervical herniation.

The engagement of the glutes and core means this exercise will also strengthen the muscles needed to support a lumbar herniation. 

Get your client to get on their hands and knees in a tabletop position, ensuring that their spine is in a neutral position. 

Knees should be hip width apart with hands shoulder width apart, stabilised with fingers spread out to support the wrists.

Then your clients should raise their left leg and right arm, extending them out steadily and keeping the hips and shoulders parallel to the ground.

The chin should be tucked under and the gaze towards the floor. Then you can scale how long your client holds the position based on their increasing strength.

Start with 2 sets of 8 reps with clients holding the position for 5 to 10 seconds. 

Once they increase in ability you can increase the sets to 3, reps to 12, and the hold for 20 seconds.

#3 Include a Seated Row Exercise if You’re a Personal Trainer for a Herniated Disc Client

straight row personal trainer for herniated disc image

The seated row, as long as the back remains stationary and straight, is a great way of strengthening the core muscles to support a herniated disc.

This seated row exercise should always be performed with you monitoring the client and ensuring that a bend doesn’t happen in their back whilst they’re on the machine.

This is not only good for the core and legs but the arms and shoulders as well. That’s why it’s a great holistic aerobic exercise for a herniation in both the cervical and lumbar region. 

From the seated position the knees should be soft and slightly bent whilst the back is straight and the core engaged.

Your client’s arms should be straight in front of them holding on to the machine with the shoulders dropped down away from the ears.

Then have your client gently pull on the handles moving the shoulder blades back, bending and flexing the elbows.

They should pull the handle close to the belly button and hold for a count of 2 before releasing the arms back to a lengthened position.

They should repeat this for around 15 reps at first and you can build this up as their arm and core strength increases!

With all of these exercises remember the ones you choose should be based on the results of the pain test you do initially.

 

Before You Go!

That concludes our list of tips and exercises you can use as a personal trainer for a herniated disc client.

Hopefully, you’ve found plenty of helpful advice and specific exercises to include in your exercise programme for those with a herniated disc.

Don’t forget, you can learn more about expanding your client base by reading about our Level 4 Nutrition qualification or download our free course prospectus here for further information.

 

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Written by Jessie Florence Jones

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

Jessie has a 1st class honours degree in English Literature from University of Leeds and an MA in English Literature from Durham University. Naturally Jessie has a real passion for writing especially about film, culture and wellbeing. Outside of writing she loves hiking, country walks and yoga, which she has done religiously since lockdown.

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