Sciatica is caused by compression on the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that starts outside the base of your spine near your pelvis and travels down the back side of your leg from your glute to your foot. Pain with sciatica may occur anywhere along this path or radiate throughout.
- Abby Halpin, DPT, Abby Halpin, DPT, is a physical therapist and the owner of Forte Performance and Physical Therapy.
- Dr. Libby Bergman, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, MTC, Dr. Libby Bergman, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, MTC, is a physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist at City PT.
- Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, DPT, physical therapist based in Southern California
“People with sciatica may experience sharp shooting, pulsing, or burning pain in those areas,” says Abby Halpin, DPT, a physical therapist and the owner of Forte Performance and Physical Therapy. They may have altered sensations such as numbness or tingling, explains Dr. Halpin. “Because the sciatic nerve contains motor information, the leg may feel heavy, weak, or hard to move,” she says. “Symptoms may only last a few seconds or be constant and chronic.”
What causes sciatica?
Dr. Halpin says that sciatica can happen to anyone, but it’s more common in people between 30 to 50 years old. Symptoms often come on gradually. “It can happen when someone remains in a position that compresses the nerve tissue for a long period of time, such as sitting, standing, working in awkward positions, or moving repetitively for long bouts of the day, especially bending or twisting,” explains Dr. Halpin.
“Imagine falling asleep on your arm and waking up with it tingling or numb,” she says. “That is also a form of nerve compression, although a very temporary one, that is somewhat similar to how sciatica may start. Although in sciatica's case, it's not just one night of sleeping in an odd position—it's usually many weeks or months of being in these compressive positions that are problematic for sciatica sufferers.”
Dr. Halpin says that reduced physical activity is often at the root of acute or sudden sciatica because people who are less active may be less resilient to movements that compress the spine or leg. This, in turn, can cause pain and inflammation of the sciatic nerve.
“A classic example is someone who is quite sedentary in their everyday life but then bends down to lift a heavy couch one day,” she says. “The low back joints and soft tissues around the nerve are not used to that kind of weight and movement and will send a signal to the brain that something dangerous may be happening. The resultant pain is to get you out of the dangerous situation, but can result in ongoing sciatica until recovery occurs.”
How strength training can alleviate symptoms of sciatica
What is the best exercise to relieve sciatica? Dr. Halpin says that strength training is the ideal way to build resilience against the types of load and compression that may otherwise lead to sciatica. “By practicing lifting heavy loads often, muscles are better equipped to withstand compressive loads and can keep the sciatic nerve from bearing too much pressure,” she says.
Strength training also keeps people able to move, sit, and stand in a variety of positions, Dr. Halpin adds. “By having a broad movement ‘vocabulary,’ people can avoid using the same movements or positions all the time, which means spending less time putting pressure on their sciatic nerves in the same way,” she explains. “Resilience and variety are vital to staying healthy.”
7 strength training exercises for sciatica pain
If you're looking to do some sciatica self-care, try these exercises to make your body more resilient and ease nerve pain.
1. 90-90 hip lift
This gentle exercise builds strength in your glutes, hamstrings, and core.
- Start lying on your back on the floor with your feet on the seat of a chair or flat against a wall. Your hips and knees are bent at 90 degrees (hence the name) with your shins parallel to the floor, with your arms extending by your sides, palms pressing down into the floor.
- Without physically moving your feet, press your heels down to activate the back side of your legs. Then, tuck your tailbone and lift it an inch or two off the floor—without lifting your low back—before lowering it back down. You should feel the backs of your thighs (hamstrings) working.
- Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.
This is a foundational exercise that strengthens the entire posterior chain (backside of your body). You’ll also get a good stretch in your hamstrings, and glutes, lengthening the sciatic nerve.
- Start standing holding a weight or any household object, such as a jug of laundry detergent, in both hands in front of your body with your arms straight.
- Keep a soft bend in your knees while you hinge at the hips, keeping your back flat, but allowing your torso to fold forward to a 45-degree angle while you slide the weight down the front of your shins toward the floor.
- Press through your heels to stand back up, squeezing your glutes at the top.
- Complete three sets of 8–10 reps.
Rockbacks are one of the best exercises for sciatica and low back dysfunction because they increase the mind-body connection in your core muscles and build strength in the deep abdominal and low-back muscles. These muscles can help protect the spine and the nerves.
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Keep your arms straight and press your hips back to hover over your heels while keeping your back flat.
- Slowly return to your start position.
- Complete three sets of 8–10 reps.
4. Diagonal chops
This is a good strength training exercise for sciatica because it strengthens the entire core while simultaneously mobilizing the spine.
- Start standing with your feet about hip-width apart and knees bent softly. Hold a weight or household object such as a bottle of water with two hands.
- Reach up at a diagonal to your right and feel your trunk and left leg (heel high) to rotate to that side.
- Reverse to swing the weight (with control) down outside your opposite hip, so that you’re making a large, diagonal sweeping motion across your body.
- Complete three sets of 8–10 reps per side.
5. Goblet squats
Dr. Halpin says that strengthening exercises like this one can help make sure your body is resilient and able to handle functional movements during everyday activities.
- Start standing with your feet slightly wider than hips. Clasp your hands together in front of your chest. (Optional: Hold the top of a dumbbell vertically in both hands.)
- Squat down by bending your knees and sitting your hips backwards and down toward your heels. Go as low as you can while keeping your heels on the floor. Aim your elbows toward or just inside your knees.
- Press through your heels to stand all the way back up.
- Complete three sets of 8–10 reps.
This is a good total-body strengthening exercise. It also builds core strength and low-back stability. Dr. Halpin says you can make this exercise more difficult by holding a dumbbell or weighted object.
- Start standing with your feet slightly wider than hips, elbows bent, and fists up by your shoulders.
- Squat to a comfortable depth while keeping your heels on the floor.
- Stand back up, reaching your hands straight overhead as you do so. Bring your hands back down to start position.
- Complete three sets of 8–10 reps.
7. Rounded planks
This exercise is great for sciatica because it strengthens your core while not putting as much strain on your lower back.
- Get down on your hands and knees. Exhale and round your back slightly while feeling your abdominals engage.
- Step each foot back into a plank, keeping your hips low and back rounded.
- Hold the position for 4–5 breaths, focusing on exhaling slowly and fully with each breath.
- Repeat 3–4 more times.
What not to do with sciatica?
This condition doesn't necessarily mean there are particular movements that are totally off-limits. "When we say 'sciatica,' we’re talking about a symptom of an underlying cause," explains physical therapist Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, DPT. "This could be a disc herniation, pinched nerve, neural tension, or irritation."
To figure out if there are exercises you should avoid, you need to zero in on the underlying cause of your sciatica symptoms (something a physical therapist would be able to help you with). You'll also want to pay attention to how your body is healing, and what stage of recovery you're in. "For example, a disc herniation in the acute stage of recovery could be made worse with a front-loaded bent-over lift (aka deadlift), but this does depend heavily on the stage of recovery," says Dr. VanDenMeerendonk. "We’re not saying deadlifts are bad for disc-herniated sciatica necessarily—it all depends on the persons recovery stage, and pain/movement tolerance."
However, Dr. VanDenMeerendonk does note one red flag you'll want to pay attention to whenever you're working out: "If the sciatica is peripheralizing during exercise—meaning it is traveling further down the leg and getting worse—then we need to consider modifying or stopping the exercise," he says.
Don't forget about stretches for sciatica relief
In addition to strengthening your body to make it more resilient, lengthening your muscles through stretches for sciatica can also help bring some relief from sciatica symptoms.
“In general, the goal of stretching is to decrease pressure on the nerve root and relax surrounding tissues that are contributing to the pain due to spasms and blood flow constriction,” Libby Bergman, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist previously told Well+Good. “However, stretching too aggressively or too early in the course of the condition may aggravate sensitized neural tissue.”
A physical therapist can help you zero in on the stretches that will be most helpful for you, depending on what's causing your sciatica. But here are a few ideas to get you started. Sciatic nerve glides can also be useful. Just remember to be gentle with your approach, and back off if you start to feel any pain.
How long it typically takes for sciatica pain to go away
Dr. Halpin says that many people who have sciatica symptoms often worry that they will have sciatica forever, but recovery is definitely possible. “It can take up to a year for symptoms to fully resolve, but that does not mean that the intense symptoms last that long,” she says. “The longest-lasting symptoms are usually small areas of numbness on the leg or foot. Getting an assessment from a physical therapist is the best way to figure out how and why the symptoms started, as well as make a plan to make changes that will reduce pain and weakness.”
Remember, movement is medicine. Consider investing in some shoes for sciatica that will keep you on your feet more comfortably until you recover. Staying active can help prevent the nerve compression that often causes this type of pain, and if you’re already experiencing it, the strength training exercises for sciatica above may help alleviate symptoms.
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