Bodybuilding with scoliosis

As thousands of people have noticed in my 15 years of doing YouTube videos, yes I am crooked, its called scoliosis which means my spine “C” shaped rather than straight up and down when viewed from the front. Its most often caused by genetic asymmetry in the skeleton, for example, a short leg like I have. I was diagnosed with Scoliosis as a teen and it rarely gets better, it almost always gets worse with time as mine has. Even without lifting, mild scoliosis can cause excruciating lower back pain and in more extreme cases, even trouble breathing. Lifting weights with scoliosis is even more problematic. Short of wearing a body brace for years, or physical therapy to relieve pain, there is not you can do about it.

What should you do if you have scoliosis?

First of all, see a doctor! If you catch it early there are things you can do like putting a lift in a shoe if there is a short leg or a back brace if its really severe. In my case, by the time I got to a doctor about it in high school it was too late and all the lift did was cause excruciating back pain because my body had already adapted to it. Please note that the last time I saw a doctor about my scoliosis was almost a half century ago so its very possible my information on this page is out of date!

Is weight lifting with scoliosis healthy?

Should you lift weights if you have scoliosis? YES! I would say that its even more important for someone with scoliosis to lift weights than it is for a person with a normal skeleton, here is why. The spine is basically a stack of little blocks. Anyone who has played with Lego can tell you this. If a tall stack of lego blocks is perfectly straight, it can carry incredible loads set on top of it. On the other hand, if that pile of Lego blocks is crooked, it falls apart with the smallest load [lego demo]. If you have scoliosis, its more important than ever to build up the abdominal core muscles and the spinal extensors to support your crooked spaghetti noodle of a spine.

What exercises are good for those with scoliosis?

Just a reminder, I am not a medical professional AND I do not know everything. What I am telling you is just what I have discovered from personal experience. Anything that strengthens your core will help support your spine and keep scoliosis from causing lower back pain. The rotisserie core workout is the best place to start – do it once daily if you can but at least 2x weekly. The other critical set of muscles to strengthen if you have scoliosis are the spinal extensors. This one is really counter-intuitive because there are signs everywhere at work telling you “lift with your legs, not your back!” but as any powerlifter will tell you, this is hogwash. Lifting with a *rounded* back will result in injury whereas lifting with a straight and neutral back is good for you … if you build up to it slowly. The best way to start is by doing supermans on the floor, then graduate to bent over barbell rows for lats, then stiff legged deadlifts. Here is my video on building up your spinal extensors.

What exercises are bad for scoliosis?

First, if you are really concerned then ask your doctor for a prescription for physical therapy so you can get personalized help for your exact condition. If you have scoliosis then this is your spine [lego image]. Anything exercise that compresses your spine is not a good idea to go really heavy because its going to crush the stack of legos. So what is the worst spine crushing exercise of all? The shrug. The reason is that for most people, they can shrug even more than they can squat. Even though the weight is at belt level, the weight is compressing the spine because the barbell is hanging from your arms which attach at the shoulders which connects to the top of the spine. The second worst exercise for those with scoliosis is the squat. What makes squats even worse for people with scoliosis is that the quads are the biggest muscle in the body so that to work them out adequately requires lots of weight. The third worst exercise for those with scoliosis is the standing overhead press. This is not nearly as bad as the previous two exercises because most people can only OHP a fraction of what they can squat or shrug. The last exercise that is a bad idea for those with scoliosis is the standing calf raise machine. In this machine, you push up against shoulder pads to lift incredible amounts of weight with your calves – not a great idea for those with scoliosis. Although deadlifts might seem really bad, I have actually found that they are helpful. I suspect two reasons, the first is that for most people, they deadlift less weight than they squat and second, deadlifts build up your spinal extensor strength which is good.

How to workout quads with scoliosis?

The reason I am focusing on the quads is that they are the biggest muscle in the body and typically people use squats which is a no-no for those with scoliosis because of the massive spinal compression they generate. The best way to workout quads is to choose exercises that do not compress the spine at all. The second best thing to do is to use very high reps with very low weight on the quad exercises that compress the spine. For non spinal compression exercise, the king is the leg press machine, or if you workout at home, the now infamous Scooby Skateboard Squatz :) The leg extension machine is also a great quad exercise but its very easy to destroy your knees if you use bad form. I have also found that lunges are a great leg workout for those with scoliosis because they use only a small fraction of the weight that would be used in squatting. Here is an example of my scoliosis friendly leg workout. There are also sports that workout the quads, the best being football (USA soccer), other great quad workouts are running and intense biking.

What about upper body exercises for scoliosis?

Other than the above mentioned shrugs and OHP which I have found are bad for causing lower back pain in those of us with scoliosis, I have found that upper body exercises are not affected by my scoliosis which makes sense as there is very little spinal compression. The biggest lift for upper body is the bench press and on that, you are laying on a bench and the spine is not under any load at all. Similarly, all exercises done laying or leaning on a bench do not compress the spine. The exercises that are done seated on a bench are typically with very light weights when compared to the weights used in squatting. I know of no safe alternatives to shrugs and OHP for those with scoliosis, your only option is to use low weights with high reps.

What about other lower body exercises?

Other than the above mentioned standing calf raise machine, I have not found any other leg work to be detrimental to scoliosis. Scoliosis safe alternative to the standing calf raise machine is the seated calf raise machine where the weight. All hamstring machines are fine. All thigh spreading/squeezing machines are fine.