differing stages of a bulging disc or herniated disc

What Exercises to Avoid with Bulging Discs? (2023 Guide)

Although certain exercises can help to relieve pain from bulging discs, it can be a real mine-field when it comes to choosing the right ones. There are definitely some exercises to avoid with bulging discs because they are likely to make it worse!

Read on for the exercises to avoid with bulging discs – plus a fantastic set of alternative bulging disc exercises!

Aims of this post:

  • To reveal the exercises to avoid with bulging discs – (even though you’ll see them on YouTube all the time)
  • To discuss the exact mechanism for WHY you need to avoid these exercises
  • To give you a super-effective and safe alternative list of bulging disc exercises

Before we dive in, please be aware that we are part of the Amazon Affiliate programme. This page may contain Amazon affiliate links, so if you choose to purchase a product for your sciatica that we recommend through a link on this page, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps us keep Overcome Sciatica alive! Thank you for your support. Please be assured that we only ever recommend products that we truly believe can help. 

The exercises provided on this page for informational purposes only and are not designed to be a ‘prescription’ of any kind. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider before you begin any new exercise programme.

Exercises to avoid with bulging discs – Have you been aggravating your bulging discs unknowingly?

I am a huge advocate for finding the RIGHT exercises to do for a bulging disc – but as most people who suffer from this problem are aware, it’s all too easy to cause a flare up when you pick the wrong ones.

Luckily, I have put together this article which will show you the exercises to avoid with bulging discs – including the ones I unfortunately see being given to clients before they meet me, far too often…

I have also provided fantastic alternative options for someone who is suffering from sciatica (pain down the back of the leg) and wants to do something about it!

With this information, you will hopefully be able to make the right decision about treating your bulging discs naturally at home without making yourself 10 times worse!

Watch the video below where I outline the exercises to avoid when you have bulging discs:

Firstly, if you want to read more about what a bulging disc is, or if you’re not sure about whether you have one or not, you can read my ultimate guide to bulging discs here.

If you are looking for Piriformis Syndrome exercises to avoid instead, click HERE!

Let’s get right in and identify the exercises to avoid with bulging discs, and exactly why you need to avoid them – PLUS, some of the best exercises for a bulging disc that you can use as an alternative!

The number one exercise to avoid with bulging discs:

The seated hamstring stretch

the seated hamstring stretch is the number one bulging disc exercise to avoid

Have you ever been told that you need to stretch your hamstrings to help the pain at the back of your leg?

Maybe your personal trainer, physiotherapist or even doctor told you to stretch your legs to help with your bulging disc?

Well, if you’ve been doing the above stretch, there’s a good chance that you’ve been making the sciatica from your bulging disc WORSE, not better!

The hamstrings are a muscle group that sit at the back of the leg.

They are certainly at risk of getting tight for lots of people – especially those who sit for long periods of the day like office workers. They are also often tight in people who play sports.

image of the hamstrings

The hamstrings are depicted above in red.

If someone sustains a hamstring injury, often it is the correct thing to do to stretch the hamstrings.

However, if you are suffering with sciatica due to a bulging disc, this exercise is definitely one to be avoided.

This is the most crucial of the exercises to avoid with bulging discs because it’s the one that I see patients doing all the time before they come to see me.

The reason people start to do this stretch actually seems quite sensible – if you have tightness at the back of your leg, and the hamstrings are known to get tight, surely it makes sense to stretch them?

However, in this case, that logic is definitely wrong!

Although someone with sciatica from a bulging disc is likely to feel that the pain is down the back of the leg, with sciatica it isn’t the hamstring that’s causing the pain; it’s the sciatic nerve.

You see, the sciatic nerve runs under the hamstrings, which is why it often FEELS like the hamstring itself that is causing the pain in sciatica.

So when you stretch in this way, it probably won’t help to alleviate the pain.

It is actually likely to aggravate your symptoms. I’ll explain why now…

image of the nervous system

If we look at the nerves in the body, they are all connected. The spinal cord, which runs between the bones in our spine, branches off to form every single nerve in the body.

This includes the sciatic nerve.

When we slump forward and reach for our toes, like in a hamstring stretch, we are actually putting a STRETCH on the spinal cord, which in turn STRETCHES the sciatic nerve.

When you have a bulging disc, your sciatic nerve is probably already inflamed and painful.

This inflammation is what causes “sciatica” – which is the medical term for “pain in the leg related to a nerve”.

And there is one thing that has become clear in the medical profession: Nerves hate to be stretched!

When you stretch a nerve, it will complain by increasing its sensitivity and giving you more pain than before. This pain can run all the way from your back to your toes.

The action of putting the sciatic nerve on a stretch is actually a “provocation test” used by doctors and physiotherapists to diagnose sciatica.

It is called a provocation test because it PROVOKES symptoms; it definitely doesn’t make them better!

You can see one of the nerve provocation tests to assess for sciatica below:

Looks a lot like the hamstring stretch from the above pictures right??

This is why we need to avoid stretching the hamstrings – because we inadvertently stretch the sciatic nerve as well.

As a side note, if you are looking for ALTERNATIVE stretches that are proven to help the pain from a bulging disc, I can highly recommend an online course from my good friend, colleague and fellow international sciatica expert, Dean Volk.

He has a brand new sciatica relief video course available – you can see it below:

Check out Dean Volk’s “Kicking Sciatica OUT of the Butt!” Online Pain Relief Course Here!

I can proudly recommend Dean and his course for sciatica sufferers – because I’ve seen his incredible results first-hand. You can check out his course (and get lifetime access to the videos and bonus content) by clicking HERE.

If you want to read more about the exercises to avoid with bulging discs, read on…

An embarrassing story

I have a slightly embarrassing story for you all here:

a story about how I aggravated someone's bulging discs with the hamstring stretch

I was once treating a patient who was referred through to me for “hamstring tightness” at the back of both legs.

I assessed him and agreed that there certainly was hamstring tightness in this gentleman, and that could be a cause for his symptoms. This was especially likely because he spent a large proportion of his day sitting.

I sent him away with lots of hamstring stretches to do at home.

The next week, he came in to see me complaining that his pain was no better. If anything, it was getting slightly worse.

I re-assessed him, making sure to ask him about his back and any sciatica symptoms, which were all clear.

I sent him away again, after doing some soft tissue work on his hamstrings, only for him to come back in again next week with no change yet again!

In the end, I asked for a specialist to review him with me. The specialist suggested that we stop all hamstring stretches and start “nerve flossing exercises” (which I will show you later in the article).

Sure enough, by the following week, this gentleman was drastically better when he came to see me.

Turns out his symptoms were caused by sciatic nerve irritation from a herniated disc, not the hamstrings at all!

I was foxed by the fact that he didn’t have any back pain, or any other signs of sciatica. Now I know to ALWAYS test the sciatic nerve more thoroughly when I see my clients.

Other exercises to avoid with bulging discs:

There are certainly other variations of this hamstring stretch that you need to avoid, too.

A lot of these variations are present in exercises classes, like Yoga and Pilates.

Now I’m not saying that you need to avoid Yoga and Pilates; I actually think these are fantastic methods of returning to full fitness after a herniated disc.

Myth Busted: It isn’t the core strengthening in Yoga and Pilates that helps your back pain and sciatica – read all about why in this post HERE.

It’s just some of the stretches within these classes can put you in a position that is similar to the hamstring stretch we talked about before, and this can aggravate your symptoms.

One of these positions and another exercise to avoid with bulging discs is the “downward dog”:

the downward dog is a bulging disc exercise to avoid

This position almost flips the hamstring stretch upside down, and although it looks different, it is still putting a stretch on the hamstrings.

You may find that bending forward like this is painful anyway, as lots of my herniated disc clients do.

Another commonly prescribed exercise to avoid with bulging discs is this variation of the hamstring stretch, shown here:

the supine hamstring stretch is another bulging disc exercise to avoid.

The above stretch will probably feel absolutely awful for you if you are suffering from a bulging disc right now!

You should definitely avoid this exercise if you have sciatica from a bulging disc. It is yet another variation of the number one exercise to avoid with bulging discs that we spoke about earlier, just with you on your back instead of sitting.

This video shows THREE more hamstring stretches that are exercises to avoid with bulging discs – even if your doctor or physio said otherwise:

Hopefully now you can see why stretching the hamstrings has to be the number one exercise to avoid with bulging discs.

I hope this will be enough of an explanation for you to take it OUT of your own treatment plan!

But What Else Should I Avoid If I Have a Bulging Disc?

Here are some more of the exercises and activities to avoid with sciatica pain from a bulging disc:

  • Straight-legged sit-ups
    These put extra, unwanted stress on the spine and also place tension on the sciatic nerve. Avoid these at all costs while suffering from a bulging disc.
  • Heavy Squats
    While squats aren’t necessarily a “bad” exercise, when you have sciatica from a bulging disc, they may place strain on the lower back and increase disc pressure – making sciatica worse.
  • Straight-legged Deadlifts
    Straight leg deadlifts (or Romanian Deadlifts) are actually good for your back… IF performed correctly – but one slight mistake and you can make a disc bulge worse. They also put a stretch on your hamstrings – which is exactly what we want to avoid as discussed in this article!

Now let’s discuss options for replacing the hamstring stretch with an effective alternative.

Try These Bulging Disc Exercises Instead!

So now we know that hamstring stretches are exercises to avoid with bulging discs, what can we do instead?

Let’s talk about some of the better exercises for a bulging disc – ones that aren’t likely to make symptoms worse.

There is a very effective exercise to replace the hamstring stretch with, which is in some ways similar but the subtle differences make it a completely separate technique.

The exercise you could replace it with is called “Sciatic Nerve Flossing”.

Nerve flossing is a technique which relates to the fact that nerves have to run through very tight spaces to get to their target limb or tissue.

Along their course, they can get trapped or pinched, which directly causes irritation. This irritation is felt as sciatica.

If we can perform specific movements which “floss” the nerve safely through these tight spaces, we can help it to “glide” more freely through these gaps, which can dramatically reduce symptoms!

Below demonstrates how to perform this nerve flossing technique:

Please note: This exercise is not suitable for all. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise programme for sciatica.

an image of nerve flossing, which is a good alternative to the bulging disc exercises to avoid discussed in this article.

Start off perched on the side of a seat or bed. Extend your painful leg in front of you. Lift your chin up, and as you do so, bring your toes up towards you at the ankle while keeping the leg straight. 

Then, drop your chin down to your chest while also dropping the toes towards the floor as shown in the second picture. 

To perform this exercise, simply alternate between the first and second position shown. 

Here is a video of this action in motion. The lady doing it has her foot lifted off the floor, but one can keep their foot down if they’d rather:

What Other Exercises Can I Do for a Bulging Disc?

Along with the nerve flossing techniques that I have described above, there are other stretches you can do that will help your bulging disc.

Even though stretching the hamstrings is not advisable when you have a bulging disc causing sciatica, that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from stretching other muscles in the legs, like the gluteals, piriformis and quadriceps.

Let’s have a quick look at some easy stretches for these muscles below.

Remember to STOP any of these stretches if they make your symptoms worse at any point!

Option: Try Stretching the Opposite Leg

The video below demonstrates a hugely effective alternative to the herniated disc exercises to avoid and is one that I prescribe often. Again, it will not be suitable for everyone so be sure to get checked over by a doctor BEFORE trying this exercise:

Gluteal Stretch

the gluteal stretch is a great exercise for bulging discs

Sat on the floor as shown, pull one knee across your body towards the opposite shoulder and hold for 30 seconds.

Repeat this a few times per day on each side.

Piriformis Stretch

image of the piriformis stretch

Lying on the floor as shown, cross the leg to be stretched over the other leg.

Now, bring both knees up towards your chest. You should feel a stretch in your buttock. Hold for 30 seconds.

Quadriceps Stretch

image of the quads stretch

A runners favourite – whilst standing, bend the knee that is be stretched and grasp the foot in your hand.

You should feel a stretch at the front of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds.

You can see a more in-depth description of these stretches by clicking HERE. 

Here is another idea for a bulging disc exercise that can help with sciatica calf pain:

What Else Can I Do for a Bulging Disc, Other Than Exercises?

This is a great question. Whenever treating this kind of problem, bulging disc exercises are only ONE part of the equation.

I would always take a holistic approach when treating anyone with this kind of problem. This holistic approach will involve looking at diet, exercise, general health and whether there are any products I can recommend to help the problem get better faster.

Here are some of my top tips:

#1 – Cut Walking Distance (Or Take Regular Breaks)

While walking will be good for a bulging disc, walking upright for extended periods of time can aggravate the symptoms of a bulging disc and cause increased pain, no matter how many bulging disc exercises you include in your routine.

My advice: Try to build in regular breaks into your walks. If you know there is a bench on your usual route, make an effort to stop and sit there for a while, even if you don’t feel you need to at the time.

#2 – Try a TENS Machine

Many of my patients with a bulging disc find that a TENS machine can help to relieve their symptoms, when used alongside herniated disc exercises.

A TENS machine works by sending a small electrical signal into the muscles of the back, providing pain relief in many cases and loosening tight muscles.

Here is an example of a TENS machine that I commonly recommend to my clients:

You can also find an entire post I wrote showing you the best TENS machines on the market at the moment by clicking HERE.

#3 – Use a Muscle Rub

Creams for muscle pain can help some people to experience relief and they are handy to carry around to use when walking, if the exercises for a bulging disc can’t shift the pain.

Here is the cream that we recommend for people with back pain due to a bulging disc:

#4 – Improve Your General Health

If you’re over-fifty and struggling to recover from a bulging disc, there may be some general health issues that are hampering your recovery.

While there are too many possibilities to list here, one thing that may provide benefit is getting a copy of my book, Thriving Beyond Fifty, and working through some of the tips and strategies in there for improving your general health and recovering from injury.

You can read more about the book below:

Top Tip: Grab a copy of my #1 Best-Selling book, Thriving Beyond Fifty for more health, wellness and recovery strategies! 

Click HERE to view the book on Amazon (UK)!

Click HERE to view the book on Amazon (USA)!


I hope you can now see exactly why the hamstring stretch is the top exercise to avoid with bulging discs, and how replacing it with a nerve flossing exercise can dramatically help symptoms.

If you have found this information useful, and know someone else who could benefit from it too, please consider sharing this article on social media! I really appreciate all the likes, comments and shares that I get and I try to reply to every comment.

If you are struggling to find help for your bulging disc, I can whole-heartedly recommend Dean Volk’s online course, which you can see more details on below:

Are You Looking for RAPID Relief from Sciatica?

My good friend, colleague and fellow international sciatica expert, Dean Volk, has a brand new sciatica relief video course available – and I’m delighted to be an official sponsor!

Check out Dean Volk’s “Kicking Sciatica OUT of the Butt!” Online Pain Relief Course Here!

I can proudly recommend Dean and his course for sciatica sufferers – because I’ve seen his incredible results first-hand. You can check out his course (and get lifetime access to the videos and bonus content) by clicking HERE.

The information on Overcome Sciatica should never be used as a substitute for medical advice from a doctor. Never put into action any tips or techniques from Overcome Sciatica without checking with your doctor first. Please see full terms of use here.

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