Why A Disk Injury Doesn’t Mean the End of Your Lifting Career

We all have seen that guy in the gym who does bench and upper body day every day with the huge chest and tiny legs. I have one in my gym who competes in powerlifting, bench only. When I asked him why he doesn’t compete in squat or deadlift, he replied, “because I hurt my disk in high school, and was told never to squat again.”

He was shocked when I told him about Layne Norton, who has herniated multiple disks, rehabbed them, and successfully placed 1st with a pain-free 715kg (1,576 lb) total as a 105 kg lifter at his first meet post injury, the 6th Annual USAPL Central Florida Open Powerlifting Championships.

Back Injury, Power Lifting, Disc


So, what does it mean if you have been told that you have a bulging, slipped or herniated disk? Or it feels like you “threw out your back?” #1 Disks don’t “slip” and you can’t “throw out your back.” Those are just sayings people use that do not accurately describe what is going on and sound a lot worse than what is actually causing the sensation you feel.

Your disks are fluid filled cartilage between your vertebrae. This fluid increases and decreases depending on hydration status, time of day, age, etc. The increased fluid can be detected on a scan and labeled as a “bulging disk”.

The good news is that just because your MRI may reveal bulging disks does not mean that it is the cause of your back pain. Current studies are showing that bulging disks can be found on the MRI’s of those with and without back pain. In some cases, those with severe back pain hear that everything on their scan was okay, meanwhile, others with no pain have imaging done that reveals bulging disks.

Scans can also detect herniated disks, which is just an injured disk. This injury, like any other injury, can lead to bleeding, inflammation, and swelling, which is what the MRI detects, and is a part of the normal healing process. The good news is that disks heal with time as swelling and inflammation decrease, leading to increased function, similar to how other joint injuries in your body heal. Initially, you may need to adjust your training throughout the different stages of healing. This may include but is not limited to: decreasing the number of reps or the amount of weight that you lift, or adjusting the range of motion of some of your lifts. A doctor of physical therapy with lifting experience under their belt would be able to help you with this process, and making those decisions.

So what if you are one of the people who has back pain but all imaging came back normal, or if you have bulging disks but are unsure if they are related to your pain? There are many other factors that can contribute to low back pain, such as: less than optimal movement patterns put under heavy load, repetitive movement, overtraining, lack of skill in specific movements, soft tissue irritation, decreased mobility leading to compensatory strategies, and the list goes on.

Not every athlete is the same, and not all back pain is the same, which is why it is important to seek out the help of a Doctor of Physical Therapy who is familiar with your barbell sport who can help determine which factors are contributing to your pain, instead of looking on Google for the “5 best exercises for back pain”. Not all types of physical therapy are the same, so be sure to find a provider that looks at your joints, soft tissue, and movement together as a whole, and does not just focus on only one area or body part.

If you have hesitated to get back in the gym, lift heavier weights, told to stop lifting, stopped competing in a specific lift, thought about retirement or even just have a question about your back, contact us today at 336-271-6677 to speak to our Doctor of Physical Therapy and back pain specialist about your specific situation and how we can help you get back to being active, healthy and lifting heavy!

About The Author

Dr. Kaitlin Herzog

Dr. Herzog attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. She went on to earn her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Wheeling Jesuit University. Kaitlin has been an athlete for most of her life and was introduced to physical therapy when she had several sports-related injuries. She decided to become a physical therapist to help others maintain an active lifestyle while staying pain free. Kaitlin uses a hands-on approach to help people of all backgrounds optimize their movement and performance. Dr. Herzog is a record-holding competitive powerlifter, and you can find her training or competing in her spare time. She also enjoys Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, sports, hiking, baking, crafts, traveling, and exploring Greensboro with friends.​

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