The Best Exercises for Sciatica and Moves to Avoid

Sciatica is the term used to describe symptoms of a compressed sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It runs from the lumbar spine down the leg to the foot. When it is irritated, it causes pain, numbness, and/or or tingling in these areas.

In general, exercising is good for relieving pain from sciatica. However, it's important to know which types of exercise are safe. Some can have the opposite effect and actually make the pain worse.

This article discusses the best exercises to do if you have sciatica. It also lists some specific exercises and activities you should avoid.

Exercises to Avoid With Sciatica

Verywell / Nez Riaz

What Is Sciatica?

Sciatica occurs when a damaged disc in the spine or other tissues put so much pressure on the sciatic nerve that it disrupts the nerve's ability to function properly. When this happens, it is known as a compressed or pinched nerve.

Sciatica symptoms start in the lower back and travel down the leg. In some cases, symptoms can affect the foot as well.

Sciatica symptoms include:

  • Burning pain
  • Electric-shock like pain
  • Numbness
  • Pins and needles
  • Tingling

Possible causes of sciatica include:

How Exercise Can Help Sciatica

Sciatica often gets better on its own with time, but some exercises may help speed up healing. The trick is to add activity gradually and slow down if symptoms return. This approach is known as "symptom-guided" exercise.

Low-impact activities and gentle stretching can help loosen up lower back and leg muscles. Strengthening your core muscles (also called abdominal muscles) is also important for treating sciatica.

Exercises for Sciatica

Here are some exercises that can make pain from sciatica feel better:

Low-Impact Aerobic Activity

Low-impact aerobic activity increases circulation and helps to loosen stiff muscles. Start by warming up with 10 to 15 minutes of low-impact aerobic activity, such as:

Your lower back, legs, or hips may feel stiff or a little achy when you start your warm-up. This is normal. The muscles should loosen up after a few minutes.

You should do a low-impact aerobic activity at least five times a week and slowly increase how long you do it. As long as you are not feeling pain, you can do this type of exercise daily.

Strengthening Exercises

After warming up, move on to exercises that strengthen core muscles. Some examples of these include:

  1. Pelvic tilt
  2. Bridge
  3. Modified plank

Once you can do these exercises easily, you can try more advanced core-strengthening moves as long as they don't cause pain.

Strengthening exercises should be done three or four times a week, but never two days in a row.

Stretches

Gently stretching your hamstrings and lower back can relieve sciatica, but make sure to follow these tips for stretching properly:

  • Always warm up with light aerobic activity before stretching.
  • Avoid stretches that bend forward or rotate at the torso.
  • Do not force a stretch. If you feel resistance, don't push yourself.
  • If you experience pain doing a particular stretch, stop doing it.
  • Never stretch cold muscles. If you can't do warm-up exercises, apply moist heat for 15 to 20 minutes before stretching.
  • If you feel the muscle tense up, stop, relax the muscle, then try again.
  • Support the stretch using your arms, a towel, a scarf, or a strap.

Stretches that help some people with sciatica include:

  1. Single knee to chest stretch
  2. Double knee to chest stretch
  3. Piriformis stretches
  4. Supine hamstring stretch

Recap

An exercise routine for treating sciatica includes low-impact aerobics, core-strengthening exercises, and gentle stretching. Start slowly and gradually work your way up to a more intense workout. If your symptoms return, slow down and return to the basics.

How Exercise Can Hurt Sciatica

Keeping active can loosen tight muscles and help you feel better. However, some activities and movements can put pressure on the lower back, hips, and/or thighs and make symptoms worse. Here are examples of the types of movements that can cause sciatic pain:

  • Bending forward with straight legs
  • Lifting both legs off the ground while lying down
  • Running, jumping, or other high-impact activities
  • Squatting
  • Twisting or rotating the torso

Exercises to Avoid

Here are specific exercises to avoid if you have sciatic nerve pain.

Bent-Over Row

The bent-over row is a weightlifting exercise that strengthens muscles in the backs of the arms and back. If it's not done the right way, it can hurt your back and put you at risk for a strain or injury.

Moves like the bent-over row increase your risk for disc problems that can worsen sciatica. (Discs provide cushioning and support between each vertebra in your spine.)

Rounding your back when you pick up a barbell or hand weights can further aggravate the sciatic nerve.

Seated Hamstring Stretch

Hamstring stretches are often recommended for lower back pain. However, the seated hamstring stretch, or hurdle stretch, puts pressure on the sciatic nerve.

This stretch is done with one leg stretched out straight and the other leg bent with the bottom of the foot touching the knee of the straight leg. You bend at the waist over the straight leg to stretch the hamstring muscle. This position pulls at the sciatic nerves and causes irritation.

Forward Bends

Avoid exercises that require you to bend forward from the waist, such as touching your toes or the floor from a standing position. Pilates, calisthenics, and yoga often use forward bends. The downward-facing dog yoga pose is an example of a forward bend.

Double Leg Lift

Exercises that require you to lift both legs at the same time while lying on your back engage the core. Core exercises strengthen abdominal and lower back muscles but can also cause pain in the sciatic nerve.

Double leg lifts put a strain on weak abdominal muscles. As a result, the lower back takes on the weight of your legs. This can lead to a disc injury and cause sciatic pain.

Leg Circles

Exercises that involve swinging your leg in a full circle stretch the hamstring suddenly, which can make sciatica symptoms worse. Some Pilates moves, yoga poses, and circuit-training workouts involve leg circles.

High-Impact Exercises

Exercises that put stress on the hips and pelvis can also aggravate sciatica. You should avoid running, jumping, high-impact aerobics, and horseback riding.

Summary

Sciatica often goes away on its own over time, but some kinds of exercise can help the pain and some can make it worse.

Exercises that relieve sciatica include low-impact aerobic activities like walking, certain strengthening exercises, and gentle stretching. Exercises that can make it worse include high-impact activities like running and aerobics, and some core-strengthening exercises.

A Word From Verywell

If you have sciatica, you know how painful the symptoms can be.

The most important thing to remember about exercise and sciatica is not to overdo it. Once the sciatic nerve is already irritated, it doesn't take much to trigger symptoms. Listen to your body and stop or slow down if you experience any pain.

If you aren't sure how to do exercises on your own, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to a physical therapist who can design an exercise program that's best for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What can someone do for sciatica pain when pregnant?

    Even if certain stretches or exercises are not permitted while pregnant, there are other remedies for sciatica pain that are safe. Some ideas are to take a warm shower, use a heating pad, or take over-the-counter pain relievers that are safe for pregnant women.

  • How often should someone do stretches to help sciatica pain?

    It is best to do sciatica stretches once daily to get the maximum amount of relief.

Was this page helpful?
8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Sciatica.

  2. Ropper AH, Zafonte RD. Sciatica. N Engl J Med. 2015;372(13):1240–8. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1410151

  3. Hopayian K, Song F, Riera R, Sambandan S. The clinical features of the piriformis syndrome: a systematic reviewEur Spine J. 2010;19(12):2095-2109. doi:10.1007/s00586-010-1504-9

  4. Koes BW, van Tulder MW, Peul WC. Diagnosis and treatment of sciaticaBMJ. 2007;334(7607):1313‐1317. doi:10.1136/bmj.39223.428495.BE

  5. Dulebohn SC, Ngnitewe Massa R, Mesfin FB. Disc herniation. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing.

  6. Shim HY, Lim OK, Bae KH, Park SM, Lee JK, Park KD. Sciatic nerve injury caused by a stretching exercise in a trained dancer. Ann Rehabil Med. 2013;37(6):886–90. doi:10.5535/arm.2013.37.6.886

  7. Cleveland Clinic. How to handle sciatica during your pregnancy.

  8. Complete Physical Rehabilitation. How often should I do my exercise?

Additional Reading