5 Worst Exercises For Sciatica
(plus What To Do Instead)

What Are The WORST Exercises For Sciatica?

Watch the video to learn the absolute worst exercises for sciatica that you should definitely avoid, plus alternative exercises to help you sciatica get better.

6 Natural Solutions To Stop Sciatica, More 4 Life Physical Therapy St. Louis MO 63011 Gladly Serving Ballwin, Manchester, Chesterfield, Des Peres, Ellisville, and St. Louis County.

What Is Sciatica?

One thing you should know before we discuss the five worst exercises for sciatica is that sciatica isn't really a diagnosis.

It's not just one thing, and so the proper treatment for sciatica really depends to on the cause of the problem.

However, there are 5 really common exercises that people do for sciatica that may actually be doing more harm than good.

So I'll explain why they're bad and alternative exercises you can do instead to help relieve your sciatica.

The 5 Worst Exercises For Sciatica

  1. Stretching Your Hamstrings
  2. Foam Rolling Your Hamstrings
  3. Overstretching Your Piriformis
  4. Tennis Ball On You Piriformis
  5. Cobra Pose (Prone Press-Up)

Worst Sciatica Exercise #1 - Stretching Your Hamstrings

The number one exercise that I see people doing that they think they're doing good for sciatica and it's actually probably causing more harm than good is stretching their hamstrings.

Worst exercise for sciatica hamstring stretch

People often think that tight hamstrings are a major cause of back pain, and for some people, they are in very rare cases. But for most people, tight hamstrings aren't a huge contributor to back pain.

Furthermore, your sciatic nerve runs through your hamstring.

Now you might think that if something is tight and hurts, you should stretch it, right?

Not quite.

A lot of times, the reason that people have what feels like a tight hamstring is actually because the nerve is irritated, and it hurts when they stretch.

However because it's overstretched, then stretching it further and continuing to overstretch it is only going to make the problem worse.

Your sciatic nerve runs from your back down through your hip and all the way down your leg.  If you keep stretching your hamstrings, you sciatic nerve is just going to get it more angry.

Furthermore, muscles were made to stretch, but nerves aren't.

That when you overstretch a nerve, it can actually cause some damage to the nerve, and nerves don't heal quickly.

So you do want to get your sciatic nerve moving a little bit better, but you don't want to overstretch it.

GOOD Sciatica Exercise #1 - Pain Free Sciatic Nerve Glides

So one alternative to stretching your hamstrings is just to do a sciatic nerve glide.

alternative sciatica exercise nerve glide

You do that by sitting in a chair, and you'll straighten your leg out but not to the extent that it's bothering you.

So if it hurts to straighten your knee all the way, just move it through the range that you can comfortably.

Nerves need 3 things to be healthy:

  1. Space
  2. Movement
  3. Blood flow

When you do sciatic nerve glides, you help move your sciatic nerve back and forth through the tissues (such as your hamstrings). You also create an increase in blood flow in the process.

So instead of statically stretching your hamstring in an end-range position, you just want to move back and forth through the range of hamstring stretching that feels comfortable.

This should be an active stretch, not a static prolonged hold at end range.

Learn more more about when and how to do sciatic nerve glides here.

Nerve Glides For Sciatica Stretch

So that's the first stretch that you should avoid if you do have sciatica.

Worst Sciatica Exercise #2 - Foam Rolling Your Hamstrings

The second worst exercise for sciatica is foam rolling your hamstrings.

Worst exercise for sciatica rolling hamstrings

A lot of people think that when something hurts, then you should foam roll it.

Again, for many of the same reasons, that's not good for your sciatic nerve.

If the nerve is already inflamed and sore, and you roll on it with a foam roller, if it's just going to make it more inflamed and sore.

GOOD Sciatica Exercise #2 - Roll Foams r

Instead of foam rolling your painful hamstring, you might try rolling the non-painful leg.

Even more importantly though, many people with sciatica have tight hip flexors.

Tight hip flexors can throw your back into extension and pinches on the nerve roots where the sciatic nerve comes out.

So it's often more beneficial to actually roll on your quads and your hip flexors instead of your hamstrings.

alternative sciatica exercise foam rolling quads

Roll the things that AREN'T painful but are contributing to the problem.

So instead of just treating the symptom, you want to treat the things that are actually contributing to the symptoms.

Worst Sciatica Exercise #3 - Overstretching The Piriformis

Another exercise that I commonly see people do for sciatica that is sometimes good but sometimes bad is a piriformis stretch.

The sciatic nerve runs underneath your piriformis, but in a small percentage of people, it actually pokes through the piriformis.

Piriformis syndrome

There's something called piriformis syndrome, where the sciatic nerve is being compressed underneath your piriformis.

Now that can happen if your piriformis is spasmed and tight around that sciatic nerve, particularly if it's piercing through the piriformis.

If the muscle is stiff and short, stretching it can be good.  However, OVERSTRETCHING it as far as you can go just irritates the muscle more.

Worst exercise for sciatica overstretching piriformis

However, in a lot of people who have sciatica, the piriformis isn't even tight.

A lot of times it's weak and overstretched.

By stretching the overlengthened piriformis, you actually make the muscle longer and you overstretch it even more.

So in order to get rid of your sciatica, you want to first test if you actually need to stretch your piriformis.

To do that, you can cross one leg over the other like a figure 4, and just the knee drop down to the side.

Next try it on the other side.

Normal is to be able to get your leg down to close to 90 degrees there.

So if you can get it down to almost parallel with the floor, then that's pretty normal.

In that case, you don't need to stretch your piriformis even if it feels like you're feeling the burn back there.

That's actually probably not a good thing.

However, if your motion is limited, but you don't feel any pain, that's a case where this piriformis stretch might actually be good for you.

So the thing that you SHOULD NOT DO, one of the worst exercises for sciatica, is painful piriformis stretching where you're pushing as hard as you possibly can... particularly when the piriformis isn't stiff or short to begin with.

Just go to the point that it's limited.

alternative sciatica exercise seated piriformis stretch

If it's the OTHER side that's actually more limited than the painful side, then stretch the non-painful side instead.

You want to stretch short, stiff muscles, not just stretching the things the hurt.

So that's the third exercise.

Worst Sciatica Exercise #4 - Tennis Ball On Your Piriformis

The fourth exercise is using a tennis ball underneath your sciatic nerve.

As previously mentions, your sciatic nerve runs through your buttock, underneath the piriformis, or in some people, through the piriformis.

If the sciatic nerve is already irritated in your buttock, when put pressure on it with a tennis ball, you're just mashing down on something that's already sore and painful.

Worst exercise for sciatica tennis ball on piriformis

That doesn't really help the problem.

Now, in many people, the piriformis is actually stiffer on the non-painful side than it is on the painful side.

Alternative Exercise #4

Instead, try using that tennis ball under the other hip and roll on that other hip instead of on the painful hip.

So that's the fourth exercise that you should avoid if you do have sciatica and an alternative for it.

Worst Sciatica Exercise #5 - Cobra Pose

Now the fifth exercise is actually something for sciatica that comes from the back.

Most sciatica does come from a back problem rather than in the buttock or in the hip.

Even if you don't have any back pain, assume the pain is coming from your back until you can rule this out.

One thing that people have historically thought is good for bulging discs or herniated discs, and this comes from many, many years ago, a guy named Robin McKenzie developed this "Treat Your Own Back" book with back pain exercises.

Largely, those were back extension exercises.

And those are good for SOME people.

It's usually younger people who have had a herniated disc and have symptoms that go down their leg.

But doing press-up exercises where you press all the way to end range doesn't really centralize the disc. It actually sometimes extrudes the disc out or makes it bulge or herniated out even farther.

So you DON'T want to do press-ups to end range such as the Cobra pose.

Worst exercise for sciatica cobra pose

If you have sciatica, this is probably a position that you want to avoid, especially if you're over the age of 40, because your spine loses this extension type of motion as you age anyway.

Alternative Extension Exercises For Sciatica

As to what you SHOULD do for sciatic, it really depends on what aggravates your symptoms and what relieves them.

If your symptoms are more aggravated when you're sitting in the car or when you're doing bending type activities, then you may want to do a little bit of extension activity.

But instead of doing a full press-up something more gentle, standing back extension may be better.

standing backward bend exercise

This way you get a smooth c-curve through all your lumbar vertebrae, instead of hinging at that lowest - L4, L5, or S1 - where a lot of sciatica symptoms do come from.

Another alternative is just doing a modified press-up where you just go through a partial range.  That way you don't get a sharp hinge point at the lowest part of your back.

partial press up exercise

That's for sciatica that feels worse when you're sitting or have your back in a rounded position.

As you start to age, you may develop degenerative discs of this or even spinal stenosis or things like that.

In this case, sciatica symptoms are often caused by backward bending type of movements, so forward bending movements may be better.

Forward Bending Exercises For Sciatica

Instead, you can do a child's pose where you kneel and rock back towards your heels. This opens up the spaces in the lower back where the nerve roots come out.

child's pose

Or if you can't get down on the floor comfortably, you can also do that same thing sitting in a chair.

seated forward bending exercise


So, those were the five worst exercises to do for sciatica.

Just to summarize, those were:

  1. Stretching your hamstrings
  2. Foam rolling your hamstrings
  3. Overstretching your piriformis to the point of pain
  4. Using a tennis ball under a painful piriformis
  5. Doing extreme backward bending cobra stretches

Ultimately, you do want to find out what's causing your sciatica in the first place.

Sciatica can be caused by many different things.

It isn't a diagnosis that points to a treatable problem.

It's merely a symptom that means pain in the back of your leg.

Therefore, you need to:

  1. Find out what's causing it
  2. Do the appropriate treatments to help treat that cause

If you need help to find out what's causing YOUR sciatica, and what you can do to help get rid of it as quickly as possible tap the button below to request an appointment with one of our specialists.

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