When it comes to you doing a leg workout with a bad back, you need to train smart.
The worst thing you can do is perform movements that will aggravate the problem area and make things worse.
Before I became a personal trainer, I experienced lower back pain during my leg workouts for years not realizing that it’s not normal. Once I learned what exercises to choose that were more back-friendly, the pain went away and I’ve been good to go ever since.
Today I’ll be giving you the 12 best exercises for a back-friendly leg workout, a full leg workout for you to do, and answer the most common FAQ’s about leg workouts with a bad back.
- Leg exercises to avoid if you have back pain
- Complete back-friendly leg workout
- The 12 best back-friendly leg exercises
- Split stance squats
- Bulgarian split squats
- Reverse lunges
- Sliding leg curls
- Lying leg curls
- Single leg deadlifts
- 4 point TKE
- Leg extensions
- Goblet squats
- Weighted step-ups
- Trap bar deadlifts
- What’s causing your lower back pain during leg workouts?
- Should I train legs if my back is sore?
- What leg exercises can I do with a herniated disc?
If you experience any back pain, whether from working out or random activities around your house, you’re going to want to consider avoiding certain movements that cause spinal compression and excessive hinging with a heavy load.
That sounds fancy and all, but it’s quite simple.
Until your back pain heals, you should avoid leg exercises that require you to place a barbell on your back or exercise that require a heavy load being raised from the ground.
The most common exercises that you might want to avoid if you have back pain are:
- Barbell back squats
- Barbell reverse lunges
- Romanian deadlifts
- Straight bar deadlifts
Are there anything wrong with these exercises? Absolutely not! But when we're designing a leg workout with back pain in mind, there are better options.
Here’s a full back pain-friendly leg workout that will target all areas of your legs, not stress your lower back, and also include working your core.
A1: Split stance squats - 3 sets of 6 - 8 reps per side
A2: Deadbugs - 3 sets of 10 reps per side
Rest 90 seconds - 2 minutes after A2
B1: Goblet squats - 3 sets of 8 - 10 reps
B2: Lying leg curls - 3 sets of 8 - 10 reps
Rest 2 minutes after B2
C1: Sliding leg curls (or SHELC) - 3 sets of 12
C2: Leg extensions - 3 sets of 12
C3: Isometric plank - 3 sets of 30 - 45 seconds
Rest 90 seconds after c3
Screenshot the leg workout with back pain below to use at the gym! Below the workout, you’ll find the breakdown of the 12 best back-friendly leg exercises to build your own workout.
Split Stance Squats
Performing unilateral (single leg) movements is going to be your sweet spot when building leg workouts with a bad back. Doing them allows you to create adequate stress on your muscles but at a lighter load capacity since you’re doing them on one leg at a time.
The first movement is a split stance squat and can be performed with two dumbbells or one goblet style.
Bulgarian Split Squats
If you want to try a harder unilateral variation, lift your back leg onto a bench and perform a Bulgarian split squat. Raising the leg increases the demand on your front leg since you won’t be able to push up with the foot on the bench.
Dumbbell Reverse Lunges
If you’ve caught onto a trend here, I love using dumbbells when making leg workouts for clients with back pain. Holding dumbbells on your side or in goblet position takes away any stress on your spine that a bar might give you.
Another benefit of the dumbbell reverse lunge is that it’s a safe alternative if you have knee pain as well. Stepping backwards requires less stress on your knees than forward walking lunges.
Since you’ll be avoiding heavy Romanian deadlifts that target your hamstrings, we can still get a great back-friendly leg workout by adding in exercises that focus on knee flexion.
One of those movements is called the SHELC.
$10 bucks if you know what it stands for!
Supine Hip Extension Leg Curls
A fancy way of saying lift your butt off the ground and curl the ball. Your hamstrings will be singing after this exercise!
Sliding Leg Curls
Another way to target your hamstrings without irritating your back is by using sliders. This movement is very similar to your SHELC, but instead of a ball, you’ll use sliders.
I love this movement if you are traveling since the sliders are easy to throw into a bag and bring with you anywhere.
Lying Leg Curls
Here’s the third exercise in a row with a similar movement pattern.
The lying leg curl is a staple at every gym I’ve ever been too and is simple to learn and is perfect to help prevent back pain during a leg workout.
Single Leg Deadlifts
The three previous exercises focused on knee flexion to hit the hamstrings, but we need to remember that the hamstrings also connect from the hip.
Doing a single leg deadlift will pull your hips into extension and target the muscles that you can’t get by only knee flexion.
I love the single leg deadlift because you can’t load it up anywhere near a traditional deadlift and it requires extra stability since you’re on one leg.
4 Point TKE
To target your quads in a back-friendly AND knee-friendly way, try out the 4 point TKE’s
If you get proper knee bend, your quads will be on fire. Make sure to take your time on each step and not rush it. 1 complete round should take around 10 seconds.
Another way to target your quadriceps without putting stress on your back is using the leg extension machine. Having your back supported by the machine allows you to isolate your quads.
When performing this exercise, really think about digging your glutes into the bench.
To keep yourself away from spinal compression but still working in a squat pattern, the goblet squat is the exercise for you.
To perform the movement, keep one end of the dumbbell in the throat area and the other end will line up around your chest area. Squat and push your butt back as if you were sitting in a chair and you have a perfect goblet squat.
Surprise, surprise, we’re back to another exercise with dumbbells! I told you I love them.
Performing step-ups is one of the best swaps you can make from barbell squats to rid yourself of back pain you may experience from a heavy bar on your back.
Don’t rush these when you do them. As you can see in the video, I am in control of my body as I lower back down to the ground.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
I mentioned in the exercises to avoid two different deadlift variations, but I decided to add trap bar deadlifts into the exercises you CAN do for a couple reasons.
First off, since you’re in the middle of the bar, the weight is distributed around your whole body, taking the stress of your lower back.
Second, this deadlift variation makes you have to bend your knees more, so you get more quad activation. That’s something you don’t get with traditional deadlifts.
I’ll advise you to try this out with light weight and see how your back feels before you jump into anything heavy.
From working with clients in person for multiple years, I’ve noticed common themes arise when someone tells me they’ve had lower back pain during leg workouts before.
The most common reasons are:
Using too heavy a weight without proper form
Sometimes the ego gets the best of us and we want to lift a weight where we end up sacrificing form. When it comes to doing this with leg workouts, the lower back is one of the first areas to flare up if your form isn’t perfect.
Trying to train through pain
If there was a list of the 10 commandments of joint-friendly workouts to create longevity in the gym, one of the top commandments would be to never train through pain.
A minor issue that you feel during a leg workout can balloon out of control in a matter of reps and keep you out of the gym for weeks.
If you do an experience and experience pain, stop immediately.
Rounding your lower back
A neutral spine is critical for safe leg training and if you tend to round your back, either from bad form or too heavy a weight, the problems will start right away. When I am first working with a client, I will often have them turn to the side and watch their position in the mirror as they do an exercise to ensure their spine stays neutral.
Excessive lower back arch
The opposite of rounding can also cause issues in your back. On certain lifts, if you you are overarching your back (spinal flexion), it’s going to be harder for your core muscles to help you with a lift. That neutral spine is important AND bracing your core throughout a movement.
Lifting a heavy weight with weak glutes makes your lower back muscles have to work harder and can cause excess stress on them. Big glutes shouldn’t be all the craze! We want them strong too!
If you’re lower back is sore but you don’t have any sharp, shooting pain, it’s ok to train your legs and focus on your back-friendly leg exercises. Do unilateral exercises and avoid movements that require spinal compression or heavy loads.
Performing unilateral movements with dumbbells, not barbells, is going to be your best option to working out with a herniated disk. Focusing on knee dominant movements, such as Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and goblet squats will be better for your back than move hinge movements like deadlifts or kettlebell swings. If you do have a herniated disc, always consult with your doctor before performing any leg exercises.
Leg Workout With Back Pain Summary
The most important thing to always remember when exercising is to listen to your body. If an exercise feels off and irritates your back, it’s not worth it to continue. Even if the exercise is on my list of back-friendly leg exercises but it hurts, try another one. That’s why there is 12 of them!
I always tell my clients “there’s always a swap we can make if a movement hurts”.
Always keep that in mind!
For additional resources that may help your lower back for leg workouts, check out these articles.