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Is Lifting Weights With Scoliosis Safe?

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.

Get maximum results with our complete training program! Click to learn more. 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: http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/scoliosis/scoliosis_qa.pdf

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.

Sane, sustainable, and efficient!

The Modern Woman's Guide to Strength Training will help you achieve maximum results, whether you’re new to strength training, or a veteran in the weight room.

  • 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.

A message from GGS…

Dealing with an injury or chronic pain can be frustrating and scary. You feel helpless and out of control, and just want your body to function like it used to.

Trust us, we understand. After working with thousands of women in our community we realize that fear of injury or pain is holding a lot of women back from reaching their potential in the gym.

Fear of injury can put a huge damper on your motivation to train consistently. You may find yourself asking:

  • What’s the point of going to the gym if I’m in pain afterward?
  • I can’t work out as hard as I want to, so why work out at all?
  • What if I hurt myself again?
For many women, it’s enough to make them want to throw in the towel completely.

At Girls Gone Strong we want you to enjoy an active lifestyle, and we want training to be a meaningful part of your life—and staying healthy is key. While it's impossible to prevent injury completely, there are things you can do to reduce your injury risk. We have worked with thousands of women just like you, and in doing so, we’ve been able to test and refine the best methods to stay safe and healthy. Now we’ve taken our proven methods and put them it into a simple, easy-to-follow handbook.

Learn how you can stay safe and healthy, and get great results!


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.

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