I remember to have read somewhere (and it seems to me reasonable) that you might damage your spinal disks by repetitive excessive stress with not enough recovery time (yes, correct form for the exercises, do not overtrain, reps within the strength / hypertrophy / endurance range, yak yak yak)

I wonder what is safer: more weight but less reps, or a lighter load that happens however more times. Of course, both cases must be somehow equivalent. Let's say that both cases lead to the same theoretical one-rep maximum calculation.

To put it in numbers, let's say you are dealing with Overhead Press. You might equally well do either:

  • Up to 15 reps, close to failure, with 30 kg or
  • Up to 5 reps, close to failure, with 44 kg.

For this example I have used Brzycki's one-rep max formula (for no special reason).

The question is, what of the two options is safer for your spinal disks?

  • "well established" by whom?
    – user2861
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 23:14
  • @LegoStormtroopr, I changed the first statement.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 30, 2013 at 0:00
  • Not sure where you heard that, but I've sourced a few articles for you that you can use to refute that claim.
    – user2861
    Commented Jun 30, 2013 at 2:55

2 Answers 2


After a quick research session, I can't find any research that shows that heavy lifting contributes to spinal disc degeneration. So, lift according to your goals, eg. more repetitions for hypertrophy or endurance, less reps for strength.

Previously, heavy physical loading was the main suspected risk factor for disc degeneration. However, results of exposure-discordant monozygotic and classic twin studies suggest that physical loading specific to occupation and sport has a relatively minor role in disc degeneration

Source: Lumbar Disc Degeneration: Epidemiology and Genetic Influences

The study showed that intensive training will increase the [bone mineral content] to an extent that the spine can tolerate extraordinary loads.

Source: The Loads on the Lumbar Spine During Extreme Weight Lifting

In fact, resistance training can actually reduce the need for surgery:

A large number of patients who had been told they needed surgery were able to avoid surgery in the short term by aggressive strengthening exercise.

Source: Can spinal surgery be prevented by aggressive strengthening exercises? A prospective study of cervical and lumbar patients

If you are worried about disc compression, you can use a weight belt:

Results suggest that the use of a lifting belt increases IAP, which may reduce disc compressive force and improve lifting safety

Source: Effects of a Belt on Intra-Abdominal Pressure during Weight Lifting

  • Thanks, (+1). My worries are about the cervical and thoracic disks in relation to exercises like Overhead Press, Vertical Upright Row, Shoulder Shrugs and alike. I have a tickling feeling in my middle back, under my left scapula, from a couple of weeks and it is driving me mad, I can't wait to have the MRI.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 16:36
  • 1
    @Mephisto If you are worried, go light or just stop completely. Better to spend a few weeks off than a lifetime of pain.
    – user2861
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 22:56

With regard to spinal disk safety during exercise, the critical factor is amount of impact rather than actual load (within reason). So doing static lifts will usually be less stressful than playing basketball or running for example.

Having said that, maintaining good form during lifts is also critical especially when your back is involved. In my experience, people are much more likely to lose form when doing heavy sets, so longer lighter sets are safer.

Another factor to consider, is wether you already have a damaged disk or not (I do). If you do, stay away from heavy loads (I do). If you are just trying to avoid injury, limit short heavy sets for strength training only.

  • Clever answer! (+1) I hadn't thought about it, but yes, performing the reps with high speed, and specially bouncing the bar back instead of allowing it to pause for a moment and then reversing the movement slowly, creates a peak of mechanical stress (hey, I am a physicist!). Very clever. I don't know if I have slightly damaged a thoracic disk, I have a tickling on my back (like an electric current) under my left scapula. My therapist says it is due to muscular impingement and that it will get well, but I suspect it has to do with a slightly prolapsed or damaged disk.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 20:54
  • I'll probably have a MRI soon, as soon as my insurance gives permission (probably next week). Where is your damaged disk? Is it a strongly herniated lumbar disk, a prolapsed disk?
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jun 29, 2013 at 20:55
  • 1
    I have a damaged lumbar disk. It was agony for almost 6 month but for now I have it under control doing lots of core strengthening. My advice is stay away from heavy stuff until you have a definite diagnosis or your symptoms have disappeared.
    – zeFrenchy
    Commented Jun 30, 2013 at 0:23
  • Everybody talks about core strengthening in relation to lumbar disks problems. I wonder if there is some similar recommendation for upper back and cervical disks.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 0:11
  • There's probably stuff you can do. Ask a physiotherapist. With regards to lumbar disk, I think good core strength just ensures your back stays in the correct position most of the time, hence reducing 'bad' loading of the damaged disk.
    – zeFrenchy
    Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 7:24

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