I can’t do any squats or deadlifts any longer due to a hernia surgery a year ago. I also have slight fractures in the last 3 discs of my vertebrae found by my chiropractor. My only lower body alternatives that I can comfortably work heavy on are leg extensions and stiff-legged deadlifts. Are these sufficient for my lower body? If not, what other safe alternatives can I do to work my lower body hard?
It’s interesting that you feel fine going heavy on stiff-legged deadlifts. Due to the action of bending down when you perform this exercise, there is definitely some stress placed on the back. The stress is significantly increased when you go up in weight and pack on the heavy plates. This is an exercise that I would have thought your doctor would have put on the “Don’t Do” list especially since you have had disc fractures in your back. You should really run this by your physician again just to make sure they are fine with your current training with that specific hamstring exercise. Since I’m not a doctor, I want to make sure you know that it’s imperative that you always consult a qualified professional who is an expert in this field before starting any new exercise plan or changing an existing one. So, any advice I give you should be cleared by your doctor before you get started. It’s much better to be safe than sorry especially when dealing with a very delicate area like the back. The last thing you want to experience is even more damage and pain to the area, so get it fully checked out so you can feel confident with continuing your workout plan.
With the safety concerns out of the way, I think one of the best exercises you can do for your legs when your goal is to target the quadriceps muscles but avoid any excess stress on your back is the machine leg press exercise. This is the machine that you sit in at about a 90 degree angle with your back almost completely straight up and down, and it has a stack of weights actually built into it where you can adjust the poundage by moving a pin to choose your desired resistance.
A company called Life Fitness makes a great leg press machine that you should be able to find at the majority of the big chain gyms. The great thing about this machine is that you can go pretty heavy on it while taking the majority of the stress away from your back. You will be able to get a great leg workout that really builds up your quadriceps as the primary muscle group targeted along with your glutes and hamstring muscles as secondary helper muscles being activated.
I want to make it clear that this leg press machine I’m describing should not be confused with the traditional 45 degree “sled” style leg press in which you have to manually add weighted plates onto and sit down into the machine at a 45 degree angle. This leg press “sled” is a fantastic piece of equipment for building up your legs, however it places way to much stress on your lower back when you lower your legs to the bottom position of the exercise, and with your current back issues it is definitely not an exercise you want to use in your routine to build up your legs.
For your hamstrings, I personally would not even think about touching stiff-legged deadlifts due to the potential issues with placing too much stress on your back. You should be able to get a great hamstring workout by using the traditional seated leg curl machine where you sit at a 90 degree angle with your back up against a protective pad. Your other options are the standing leg curl machine and the lying leg curl machine to really target your hamstrings very well without worrying about your back being stressed too much while you perform the movement.
With your current hernia and back condition, the most important thing you should be aware of when training is simply how you feel when you’re in the gym. Start off very light with any exercise just to be safe and see if you feel any stress or pain in the area where you have had prior problems. If you feel a sense of discomfort, then by all means, stop what you’re doing and choose a safer exercise that eliminates this unwanted stress. Your overall goal is to fully recuperate from your injuries so you can train pain free in the future. As hard as it might be to cut back on training or decrease the overall amount of weight used, the return on investment for this type of smart training with pay huge dividends down the road!