Is Lifting Weights With Scoliosis Safe?

By Ann Wendel

If you've been diagnosed with scoliosis, you might be wondering if there are movements or exercises you need to avoid, and what you can do to stay safe and continue training. Or perhaps you're a personal trainer and have a client with scoliosis. In either case, if you've ever searched for resources and information online, you've probably found yourself swimming in an ocean of conflicting information.

Today, I want to help you better understand this condition and how to proceed with training. Let's start by taking a look at the spine.

The spine is made up of 33 individual bones stacked on top of each other. We have seven cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, five lumbar vertebrae, five fused bones that make up the sacrum, and four fused bones that make up the coccyx (tailbone). So we have 24 articulating (moving) vertebrae and nine fused vertebrae.




In most people, the vertebrae stack right on top of each other, giving the appearance of symmetry to the spine and ribs. I say the appearance of symmetry because in reality, none of us are perfectly symmetrical, and slight deviations aren’t a cause for concern.

Scoliosis is a condition in which the person’s spinal axis has a three dimensional deviation. Although a plain x-ray may show what looks like a C or S curve to the spine, the vertebrae actually deviate in all three planes (flexion/extension, side-bending, and rotation). Scoliosis is typically classified as congenital (present from birth), idiopathic (unknown cause at any age), or secondary to a primary condition such as cerebral palsy or other neuromuscular condition.

Scoliosis can range from very minor deviations of the spine to severe deviations that can begin to limit heart and lung function causing shortness of breath or chest pain. Scoliosis is typically diagnosed if the spinal curvature is more than 10 degrees to the right or left as the examiner faces the patient. When the person bends forward, they may have a noticeable rib hump viewed from the back, as the rotation of the spine causes the ribs to rotate along with it.


Image Source:

Image Source: National Institute of Health


Most mild cases of scoliosis can be addressed with physical therapy to stretch tight muscles, strengthen weakened muscles, and develop neuromuscular stability around the spine. More severe cases may require surgery.

scoliosis-xray-450x270As an example of surgical fixation, here is a picture (shared with permission) from one of my clients. She underwent fixation with instrumentation with a fusion of T1–S1 with rods from T3–4 to S1 with stabilization into the ilium (hip bones) to treat a severe scoliosis. When she first came to see me, she was in incredible pain, and walked slowly with a cane. (Image shared with permission.)

When I looked at her x-rays, I wasn’t sure she would be able to move much at all; but, she continually surprises me. With lots of hard work on her part, she now takes Pilates, weight lifts, and walks community distances with no problems. This is a great case example of the necessity to treat the patient in front of you, as they present, rather than treating what the x-ray looks like!

My general advice for working with a client who has scoliosis is as follows:

  • If the client complains of pain, please refer them out to a licensed physical therapist for an evaluation. The PT can make recommendations for follow-up with a physician if needed. The client is more appropriate for physical therapy if pain is limiting their function. We promise we’ll send them back to you when they are appropriate for coaching and training.
  • If the client is not complaining of pain, but looking for generalized strength and conditioning, avoid any exercises or stretches that cause pain. If the client has worked with a physical therapist before, reach out to the therapist to learn about the client’s treatment and possible limitations. We are always happy to coordinate with you to facilitate the patient’s progress.
  • Focus on movements that stretch tight muscle groups (on the concave side of the curve) and build strength in the muscles that are weakened from being on stretch (the convex side of the curve).
  • Avoid forceful motions if the client has a history of pain. For example, don’t teach them aggressive foam roller extensions if they haven’t been cleared for that.
  • Don’t provide manual therapy to your clients with scoliosis. I have seen trainers perform “adjustments” to client’s spines, and not only is this outside the scope of practice for a trainer, but it can also be dangerous to the client. If you are also a licensed massage therapist and working with clients with scoliosis, opt for pain-free soft tissue mobilization as an adjunct to training and recovery.
  • Focus on exercises to develop control in rotation and anti-rotation, integrating the deep central stability system and the pelvic floor, as described here.
  • Go slowly with weight progressions. Increase load to the spine slowly for back squats, and avoid overhead presses if that increases discomfort.
  • If you are trained in the use of kettlebells, they can be a fantastic way to increase strength and motor control. I love using the Turkish get-up and windmills to develop flexibility and control.

Note from GGS: A condition such as scoliosis usually requires specific treatment and training protocols. If you are not diagnosed with a particular condition and are simply feeling achy, stiff, or locked up, we strongly recommend including injury prevention strategies in your training program to address mobility, stability, and overall movement.

Get in the best shape of your life—for good.

With Girls Gone Strong Coaching, you’ll get the support, accountability, and expert coaching to eat and exercise in a sustainable way — without restrictive diets or spending your life in the gym.

Whether your health and fitness goals are to…

  • Get stronger
  • Gain muscle
  • Lose body fat
  • Improve your pull-ups
  • Have a safe and healthy pregnancy
  • Return to exercise safely postpartum
  • Heal your relationship with food
  • Increase your confidence

... or anything else, we’ll help you achieve them. You can experience life-changing results while eating and exercising in a way that actually fits into your life — instead of controlling it.

Throughout our 12-month program, you’ll get a simple, step-by-step plan for developing nutrition, fitness, and mindset habits that will lead the way in reaching your goal.

Your coach is available 5 days a week to answer questions and help you navigate situations — like eating while you’re on vacation, exercise substitutions so you don’t aggravate your knee pain, or planning a workout with limited equipment options — so you always have support when you need it. And together, you'll find the best path toward long-term results in a way that works for you.

You’ll learn how to:

  • Improve your nutrition without giving up the foods you love
  • Exercise safely and effectively so you’re getting maximum results from your workouts without burning yourself out
  • Increase your confidence, love the way your body looks, feels, and performs — and enjoy your life more than you ever thought possible

And you’ll become the happiest, fittest, strongest version of yourself, one step at a time.

Interested in learning more? Join our free, no-obligation pre-sale list.

Twice a year we accept a small number of new coaching clients. Join the free, no-obligation pre-sale list below for the chance to enroll early and save up to 45% off the general public price.

Don't miss out!

Enrollment opens July 14, 2024.

Get on the GGS Coaching for Women pre-sale list today.

We'll send you more info about the program and give you the chance to enroll early and save up to 45% off the general public price.

The program opens only twice a year. Spots are limited.

GGS Coaching Pre-Sale (No Phone)

About the author:  Ann Wendel

Ann Wendel is an internationally-recognized women's health Physical Therapist (PT), a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), and a Certified Myofascial Trigger Point Therapist (CMTPT). In addition to owning and operating Prana Physical Therapy in Alexandria, VA, Ann writes, travels, speaks, and consults with other physical therapists and business owners. You can connect with Ann on Facebook and Twitter.

More Resources

envelope-oclosechevron-upchevron-downbookmark-otwitterfacebookchainbars linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram