Sciatica - back exercises

From Injured Back to Back Hiking in No Time

Features, Health & Fitness

“Here’s another whiner!” used to be my thoughts when people complained about lower back problems.

Until, of course, it hit me.

There I was, about to go for a hike when I bent down to tie my shoelaces and BOOM! My back went. It didn’t go very far, mind you. Getting to the couch was all it managed.

Once there (and sprawled out in an overly-dramatic position), I reached out to Dr Death for a likely morbid diagnosis.

Thankfully, Dr Death (AKA Google) was rather upbeat about my prognosis. And with a lot of help from YouTube and stopping very common exercises for good, here’s how I went from not being able to walk/sit/lie down without being in pain to doing mountainous hikes soon after.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical expert and have no medical training (but I do have some snazzy plasters). I’m simply sharing my experience and the excellent resources I used. You may wish to seek medical help for a diagnosis and hope you can get your dodgy back to the GP.

My Lower Back Pain Symptoms

The symptoms of my lower back pain had started a couple of days before: involuntary leg kicks and tingles down my left leg when I was in bed. I was either morphing into an Irish River Dancer or something was amiss.

My back hadn’t felt 100 percent for a few days before the shoelace episode, either. But once my back had ‘gone’, pain shot down the left side of my back and down into the base of bottom. It hurt to sit. To lie down. To walk. Basically, being a standing scarecrow was about all I was fit for.

Google announced I had sciatica. It sounded more like an Italian STD than a back issue.

But I dutifully researched it and found out how to quickly get rid of it.

What is Sciatica?

  • The sciatic nerve runs from your lower back down both legs to your feet
  • The nerve can get trapped, irritated or compressed causing tingling, pain, leg kicks, numbness, back and bottom pain
  • Sciatica is often (though not always) caused by a slipped disc – when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out
  • Sciatica occurs on one side at a time, left or right, but if you experience it on both sides simultaneously, the NHS website says it could be serious and to get to A&E (scroll to the red and black box of this page)
  • Sitting down for long periods of time aggravates it, so mild walking and standing at your desk is recommended
  • Sciatica normally lasts up to eight weeks
  • The NHS website says you can get rid of sciatica yourself without seeking medical help

How I Got Rid of my Sciatica and was Hiking Uphill Again in 2 Weeks

I found two amazing YouTube videos for sciatic nerve relief and after one session, I already had less pain. After three days, I could sit in more or less no pain. It took longer to get back to full mobility but these were like miracle exercises for me.

First up, I did the HasFit Sciatic Nerve Relief 18-minute video (above) as soon as I got up. It’s incredible and REALLY works. It felt more like a calming meditation video than a ‘help! I can’t move my back properly’ routine.

I then did these Dr Jo exercises (above) straight after.

After about a week, I did the back strengthening exercises (shown in the HasFit video below) in the evening while still doing the 18-min sciatica HasFit video in the morning. (You’ll need to determine if your back is up to doing both videos in a day.)

What I Changed for Good

It was only after trying to work out what had aggravated my lower back and caused sciatica in the fist place that I realised I needed to change a few things.

First up, I’d been doing my workouts all wrong. It seems many gym bunnies and personal trainers are doing them incorrectly, too.

I COMPLETELY STOPPED doing the following routines:

Touching my Toes (standing or sitting)
Yogis might insist this is great. A top-notch physio will insist it isn’t because you’re hyper-extending your back. So this stretch is out. It also means I sit down to do my shoelaces or squat down with a straight back.

Full Planks
How to get rid of sciatica
Thousands of videos will tell you full planks are great for abs and strengthening your lower back. But any physio worth her weight in gold will tell you otherwise. They are really, really bad. Quite simply, unless you’re doing them perfectly (most people aren’t) you are putting intense strain on your lower back and doing it harm.

Leg raises not good for sciaticaLeg Raises
Another lower back killer. You have to keep your back completely flat while you lower both your legs down and up which is impossible for most of us. I can’t figure out how flat my back is so it’s much safer to stop leg raises completely.

Knee to Elbow Sit-Ups
Any sit ups are horrific for putting strain on the lower back but these were my speciality. I’ve since kicked them to the ground.

My New Back-Friendly Abs Exercises

All of these strengthen the core and help the lower back if done correctly.

The Dead Bug

Sciatica dead bug
These were actually prescribed to me by a physio when I had knee problems because it loosens your IT band down your thigh. It also works your abs and strengthens your lower back. Lie on your back and keeping your back completely flat, lower one arm and the opposite leg while keeping the other arm and leg above you, as pictured above. Then swap to the other arm and leg.



Sciatica bird dog exercise

Strengthens your back and helps your balance by focusing on your core. That in turn works your abs. Get on all fours and lift one leg and the opposite arm so they are in line with your back. Then swap to the other arm and leg. Your back should remain flat during this.

If you have no idea what the hell these sketches are depicting, just google the exercise terms above and you’ll see what I mean. (Yes, I know I cannot draw but it adds comical value to the post!)

Tensing Your Abs
Sounds so simple. And it is! Sit down and do these tensing exercises (video above) and voila, you might never need do any other abs exercises again! (Start the video at 3 mins.)

What I Shouldn’t Have Done to Relieve My Sciatica

I watched a ‘gentle beginners yoga for sciatica’ video and wished I hadn’t. It made it worse, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. On the only two other occasions I’d been to a yoga class, I’d spent the whole time trying not to laugh at breathing noises that sounded like mating walruses, before I was plagued with a sore lower back for a month. (Yogis would say it’s karma. I’d say yeah, whatevs, yoga is not my thang!)

Make Sure your Backpack has Proper Support

I’d also used a pack-away teeny-weeny backpack for several day hikes. Even though I knew I shouldn’t be doing it because it had zero back support. (I wasn’t practising what I preach about the importance of good backpacks!)

If you’re going hiking, make sure your backpack has hip straps (yep, even for day hikes), otherwise you’ll be on your way to back problems. Heaving 2-3 litres of water plus other kit just on your shoulders will damage your lower back. I’m a massive Osprey backpack fan because they’re ultra-comfy and super durable, but whichever brand you choose make sure it’s comfy and has supportive hip straps.

Get a Supportive Mattress

If it’s saggy, the coils have gone, or it’s just old, replace it. A useless mattress is a killer for bad backs. Sleeping on the floor on a sleeping mat is better than a bad mattress.


And that’s it! These things all worked for me. Hopefully they will for you, too. Within two weeks I was back hiking in the mountains and before long was doing 8 to 9-hr hikes.

But remember, always seek medical help if in doubt that you have sciatica or if your back does not get better or gets worse. 

If you’ve got any tips for helping with sciatica, pop them in the comments below.

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