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Training around scoliosis

Anna Martin Fitness - Scoliosis
Anna X-Ray - Scoliosis

So I don't think you guys would be in this blog post if you didn't already know, but I have scoliosis which is a lateral curvature of the spine. This is my back.

I won't bore you with the back story, but basically this just happens - with no real reason, to lots of teenagers, mainly girls. It can be quite painful, mine is a little over moderate at 2 x 45 degree curves. I have 2 so I am lucky because I look straight.

It is really important to train - it helps to strengthen the muscles, decrease pain and to stabilise the curve... BUT as all of you with scoliosis already know, all of this needs to be done in a controlled way.

I will lay out below the biggest game changers that I have found and how they have impacted my training. Don't forget that everyone is different and what has worked for me might not work for you!

1. Training with a knowledgeable PT

This was a super important thing for me. I had trained for around 4-5 years before I started training with a PT who was interested in biomechanics... that mean't that he cared how the body worked and how to improve form, technique and to try to activate lagging muscle groups. This last part is especially important, my lower traps and glutes were weak as sh*t, and I had previously suffered with some rather intense muscle spasms after trying to do heavy leg presses or squats. Finding someone who cares about those kind of things isn't hard, but it might mean that you don't train with the budget PT at your gym. Someone who knows their stuff is likely to cost upward of £45-£50 an hour. But it is worth it.

2. Glute Activation

So like I say, my glutes were WEAK. As in they practically did nothing. I had a flat arse. If I squatted, the load was all through my lower back. And that is exactly what it felt like. When I say that I spent a year learning how to use my glutes that is no lie. I used resistance bands to perform glute activation exercises before all leg day workouts, I also did this kind of stuff on my own at home. I had to learn what it felt like for my butt to engage and how to get the maximum contraction when performing certain movements. Stick with them, and do them religiously. 2 years ago thrusting 30kg made my back ache and I had to lie on the floor in the middle of my training session. Last week I PB'd at 135kg. Start with the basics and focus on your mind to muscle connection before you add load to anything. You are not structurally sound (lol!).... build some sturdier foundations before you start trying to build a multi storey car park on there.

3. Train Back - properly

I realise this might sound basic but make sure you are training your back muscles. Lots. I focused on close grip pulldowns and close grip cable rows for a long time.... the close grip made me feel like my protruding scapula wasn't quite so vicious. Then I moved on to pushdowns, wide grip pulldowns, face pulls, rear delt flyes, barbell bent over rows. There are still somethings that I have to avoid. Like single arm bent over rows. I cannot stabilise myself in that position for love nor money, which means I can't add a heavier load, which means there is no progressive overload. I also do lots of seated single arm work like single arm lat pulldowns, single arm cable rows.... it helps me to try to even out the contraction in each side and to make sure that they are both getting the same amount of attention.

A word of warning, I partially dislocated my shoulder doing a lat pullover about 4 years ago. This was purely because I had no idea what it was like to fully retract the shoulder blades and to pin everything in. Stick with things that feel safe for your body until you have mastered the basics and you feel more confident in your body's ability to do things.

4. See a physio who knows their shit

And do the exercises. This is important. I have had a sports massage every fortnight since I was 13. That is 24 years of massages. No, none of it has been via the NHS or any medical insurance and yes it is expensive. But it's my life. £50 is the price of a night out. £50 is the price of something that stops me from being in pain all the time and helps to reset the muscle tension ready for it to start all over again.

5. Accept that your journey is not the same as the other human's in the gym

You are different and you just have to face that. It will be harder than your average person's. You will cry during your workout and you will have to go into the changing room and tell yourself to sort your shit out. You will also have to lie on the floor in between sets sometimes to stop your back getting the hump. You will also have to be more time flexible and bin off your workouts sometimes because you can feel it about to lose its mind. It is going to happen. It sucks but it is what it is. Your scoliosis is not going anywhere, so you can either learn to train around it and help to make it stronger. Or you can stay exactly as you are, with the same amount of discomfort and pain every single day for the rest of your life. Make a choice to do whatever it takes to move forward. Suck it up.

6. Keep a list of the things that piss your back off and when

So I can't squat. I mean, I can, but my back loses its shit. There are a million other things that I can do instead (check out my insta feed for ideas for workout stuff!)... I do lots of single leg work to try to help my balance and to allow each leg to work to it's fullest potential (they are also a bit wonky muscle mass wise). I can't do anything seated on the floor (like a seated row), it has to be on a bench. I can do strength work on fixed resistance machines like leg curls and leg extensions but I would struggle to do it with a squat or deadlift. I can do heavy rack pulls but I cannot do heavy deadlifts. I can barbell bent over row but I cannot single arm dumbbell bent over row. I can leg press only if my back isn't already angry. I can smash the living crap out of my arms, chest and shoulders now I have learnt how to lock in my mid back but that took AGESSSSSSS to get that to happen (as in 2 years of real concentration). Yes yes, I know, it is an agg, BUT you either do this, or you end up not training because your back cops the mard every time you pick up a dumbbell.

7. Keep a list of the things that make your back happy

Like foam rolling in between sets, certain exercises (mine likes to row), stretching, lying on the floor, walking around in between sets, getting a trigger point ball in there, meditating.... whatever it is, have those things as little go to's to try and stop it from reaching the pinnacle of it's meltdown.

I COMPLETELY understand your frustration... I really do, and I have been there with the random crying because you put your back out doing a bench press (I mean how???!!) but life goes on and there is no cure for scoliosis. Even folks with rods are not pain free. So all we can do is accept it, and then make the best solution possible that suits US and no-one else.... and generally that is being as strong as possible with as much equilibrium between our muscle function as possible. I truly cannot express how much resistance training has changed my life. I used to be in pain 50% of the time, now it is just mildly uncomfortable 20% of the time. I rarely have to bow out of a training session although it does still happen occasionally, and I feel stronger and more confident at 37 than I ever have before.

Anna is a personal trainer and group exercise specialist. Visit to learn more about her classes or if you are a group exercise instructor.

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1 Comment

Hi Anna

I hve just started at the gym and found that I can’t do glute kickbacks on the side of my lower concave curve, my leg just cannot move backwards with a weight? My other leg on the concave side can do it, what’s your take on this?? Is it just weak?! thanks

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