I have worked with many individuals over the age of 65 who have DDD and I have them routinely lift heavy weights without issue. If you modify your weight and keep it below a level that is not aggravating symptoms, you will be okay.
It is safe to lift heavy with degenerative disc disease. Nothing is off limits with symptomatic DDD other than modifying activities and weight that flares up symptoms.
Here is an exercise program for degenerative disc disease if you’ve been looking for one
Should you avoid axial loading if you have DDD?
NO! I can’t believe there is information on the internet that is suggesting this. There is literally an article that says “do not do leg press or squats if you have DDD.”
This is absolute insanity and couldn’t be further from the truth.
Squats, deadlifts, leg press, and other activities that load the spine are completely safe and they should be encouraged as they help us build muscle mass and slow down the aging process and our loss of function into older age.
Just choose a weight that is doable for you and that doesn’t flare up symptoms, focus on progressing that over time, and you should be okay.
Check out this exercise treatment program article I wrote for some ideas.
Is Squatting Safe for DDD?
Yes, squatting is safe. Even with a barbell on your back, it’s safe.
Even if you have osteoporosis, squatting and deadlifting is still safe.
There was a randomized clinical trial done a few years back called the LIFTmor trial and it took two groups of osteoporotic women through a high-intensity resistance training program.
There was no increased fracture prevalence in those in the high-intensity resistance training group.
As with any resistance training program, start light, and then progress over time. Hire a coach or trainer if you aren’t sure how to do this safely.
Can lifting weights cause DDD?
No. DDD is a progressive thing that happens over time in ALL people. Is it possible that high amounts of repetitive motion cause increased symptoms, yes, however, this is also not conclusive.
There is some evidence to suggest in runners, that if you are an elite runner, literally running marathons and such, that your risk of knee osteoarthritis goes up. But guess what… so does being sedentary (not moving).
The people who had the lowest overall prevalence of osteoarthritis are those who are recreational runners.
Now we can’t necessarily say this is directly correlated to spinal arthritis, however, let’s say we do… it would make sense to then say that most people who lift weights aren’t lifting at an elite level and likely will not have to worry about the increased injury risk of elite lifters (or athletes of any sport).
Can the fear of lifting with DDD cause more disability?
This is completely my opinion, so take it with a grain of salt… I believe that when people have had prior experiences of experiencing pain with lifting, they sometimes develop a fear about lifting anything even remotely heavy.
The people who have had the worst outcomes when working with me have been those who have high levels of fear and a previous back injury or pain and are then asked to lift something heavy.
Oftentimes, my approach with these folks is to slowly progress them over time with incredibly lightweight so that I can help build their confidence.
How do you build muscle with degenerative disc disease?
Lifting weights, pilates, and various other types of resistance training programs can help you build muscle.
Even bodyweight workout programs can be sufficient depending on your strength and ability levels.
As we talked about above, lifting heavy weights is fine, and encouraged as long as it doesn’t further aggravate symptoms (if you have them).