Thinking Through It

It began yesterday, when I was thrust into yet another battle with "conventional wisdom," only somewhat against myself. For the first time in quite a wile, I ended up last Friday with a sciatic nerve flare up. How did that happen? Well, it's probably related to the much heavier dead lifts and squats I'm doing. But I can say there was no specific lift or event that gave the slightest clue.

Anyway, it was pretty uncomfortable over the weekend and I took it easy. Sitting in any position but a contorted one with my right big toe touching my left ear was painful. Monday came around, and I moved my workout to Tuesday afternoon (the 'yesterday' from above). I took a long walk in the morning and noticed something. Whereas, I could hardly move my right leg forward without a lot of pain upon getting out of bed, once I was three minutes into the walk I had total relief. Then, when I got back I sat at my stand-up computer bench on a barstool. Pain returned. I stood the rest of the day and felt good. But, pain was still there various times. The relationship was pretty clear: the more activity, the less pain. Sitting and even laying in bed was more painful.

So: should I work out, or not? I recalled that in a number of cases where my back was a bit tired or sore — and other muscles or joints as well — a workout was exactly what I needed.

So, while the conventional wisdom is take drugs, take it easy, lay in bed, I decided to move around, but in a sensible way.

So I went to the gym.

I told my trainer what I wanted to do and he agreed. We went back to an old-style mostly isolation routine, full body. First I did chest flys on a machine, then lat pull downs, some push ups, dips (triceps) machine, more pushups, some curls and a shoulder exercise I can't describe. Funny thing is this: back when we began doing the high volume compound stuff (linked above) my trainer said it would be instructive to go back and do the isolation periodically as a measure of progress.

Well, I had told my trainer of the nerve issue and said I wanted to do a light & easy workout, mainly for the activity. It turns out, however, that light and easy was actually more weight in every exercise than I was doing intensely just a couple of months ago. It was so easy, in fact, that I barely broke a sweat.

For legs, we did some extensions and then did the incline leg press with only about 160 on it, and I did a bunch of very, very slow reps with a wide, high stance in order to get into a very deep squat. This was basically a weighted stretching exercise and it felt good.

My sciatic is far better today, and I think I'm on the road to a near-term recovery. If anyone has experience with this or knows anything about it from a training and conditioning perspective, I'd love to hear your comments.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Jessica on May 20, 2009 at 13:47

    I have had sciatica for a few years now, and only recently figured out that's what it was. I'm sure I got it from sitting at a desk all day, and not getting enough exercise. It became worse when I lost weight – the only thing that didn't get better by going paleo, in fact – probably because the new lack of padding in my posterior made the nerves more susceptible to pressure.

    I have directly correlated that walking more and exercising more makes the pain go away, and it seems to work almost immediately.

  2. Bud on May 20, 2009 at 14:44

    Get down on your hands and knees…hands flat on the floor with knees about 6 inches apart. Keep your face horizontal with the floor and your head level throughout this exercise. VERY SLOWLY, extend your left leg and right arm horizontal with the floor keeping your back straight at all times. Hold for ten seconds. Slowly move back in original position. Extend right leg and left arm horizontal to floor. Hold for ten seconds.
    Repeat exercise 10 times per session….3 sessions per day. This exercise opens up nerve channels and assists in realignment of the spine. Remember to keep your back straight at all times without any tension. Also remember to BREATHE just as you do for any workout. Do these movements very slowly. This exercise always gets rid of my back and pinched nerve pain after two days. After completing the day's exercise, a whole bottle of an excellent vintage red wine enhances the procedure and speeds up the process.

  3. Minneapolis J on May 20, 2009 at 15:04

    Richard, I had similar symptoms a few years back. Only worry is that if you feel a great amount of sciatica again(and yes it comes and goes) you may have a herniated disc/bulging disc in your lower back. Have you had an MRI done on your lower back? You should check to see that you dont have bulging disc.

  4. Todd Hargrove on May 20, 2009 at 18:49


    Sciatica is a tricky one. It can come and go unexpectedly. The only thing you can be sure of is that that your brain has concluded, rightly or wrongly, that you would benefit from a pain signal in the area of the sciatic nerve. This might mean the sciatic is irritated or inflamed. Or not! I have a few posts on the science of pain and nerve mechanics at my blog that might be of interest.

  5. Richard Nikoley on May 20, 2009 at 15:08

    Interesting, Bud. This, while not at all the same, reminds me of an exercise I do for lower back strain/pain. Flat on your stomach n the floor, hands at your sides: now, bend from the lower back to simultaneously lift head to the ceiling, feet 7 calves to the ceiling, and hands to the ceiling. Push hard, as hard as you can,hold for ten seconds, repeat three times.

    Always cures my lower-back pain within two to three sessions.

    Right now my pain is gone, but if/when it comes back I'll give this a try,

  6. Richard Nikoley on May 20, 2009 at 15:41

    Pain has been completely gone since this AM. So, I'll just continue to watch, but feeling great.

  7. returning to the cave on May 21, 2009 at 23:41

    There is a book called "treat your own back" by McKenzie (or McGill), and there is this one movement:

    You go on a plank position, and let your hips sink to the floor. To picture: Feet on floor, hips on floor, elbows supporting the shoulders.

    Lying in this position for a few minutes, and also if there is pain, moving away from the pain (i.e.: Pain on left side, move hip to right), makes for miracles.

    That day I felt something in my back move back into its place.

    Also a controversial advice:

    Had extreme leg pain due to a hernia + gluteus cramp and was suffering heavy from not being able to lie or sit. Modern doctors prescribed heavy painkillers and muscle relaxants, but was of no help. the I got the advice:

    Soak a towel in hot water, squeeze the water out and let the towel rest on your buttocks,/hip for half hour or so. the heat should be wet, so do not put anything under the towel. Hot wet towel, on these places.

    Pain gone after that.


    And as a last comment:

    It helps future problems if the hip flexors (especially these), hamstrings, glutes and quads are stretched. If these are tight(usually the hip flexors) , they pull the spine when walking and eventually cause a problem.


    What I do when I get back pain, immediately do that plank thing for few minutes and then stretch my hip flexors, pain usually leaves me.

  8. Patrik on May 22, 2009 at 00:35


    While DLs and squats can most certainly be the cause, I would also evaluate whether the leg press might not be as well.

    Art has made some great points about leg press and how it creates potentially injurious forces on the spine.

    He advises using one leg at a time as lessen the forces.


    BTW I will state my bias quite openly:

    I think machines are not way to go contra McGuff and his "science". (This is not ad hominem, just skepticism.)

    Without going into any of the details of the machine vs. free weight debate — Keith makes a very compelling case by virtue of his results.

    McGuff does not.

    (Yes, I know that Keith could be a genetic monster and Doug just hasn't been dealt the same genetic hand…but I remain skeptical.)

    My guess:

    At some point you will abandon machines. They are the antithesis of natural/evolutionary movement.

  9. Valda Redfern on May 22, 2009 at 12:54

    I haven't had back pain in the past few years (I'm 51), but when I did I tried the yoga-style exercises recommended in the books of the Australian physiotherapist Sarah Key. They seemed to work. She would agree with you that, once the worst is over, exercise and not immobility is the way to deal with back pain.

    Another thing to think about for general improvement of posture and movement is the Alexander Technique. I have been taking lessons for several months now and they've made a big difference to my ease of movement and general feeling of well-being. They're a good way of counteracting the bad habits we all get into after decades of bodily misuse, even those of us who have not suffered specific injuries.

  10. Richard Nikoley on May 22, 2009 at 08:33

    Thanks for the insight and techniques. The plank move is similar to a lower back exercise I do as explained in another comment.

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