Can I exercise with a hernia?
A bodybuilder explains the risks of exercising with a hernia through his own personal hernia story, from injury to post-surgery recovery.
Can I exercise with a hernia?
I remember the day well. I always took pride in being physically fit. My strength was nearly unduplicated at the gym. I had never had an injury before from lifting so heavy, and so often. But this day my luck ran out. I developed an inguinal hernia. A couple of my buddies challenged me to a friendly bench press competition on a Saturday morning.
As we slowly worked our way up with heavier weights, the competition grew a bit more fierce. None of us wanted to lose. The weight incrementally got up to around 375 pounds. The other two tried and failed. I took my turn, struggled with it, and completed the rep. I won the contest, but at a significant cost.
Who said getting an inguinal hernia weightlifting wasn’t painful?
I had felt a stabbing pain on that last movement, somewhere down around the groin. I did not make it known to my friends; otherwise, the victory of out-benching them would have asterisks next to it. I just told them that I was done lifting for the day and excused myself to the locker room. Once I was away from prying eyes, I dared to look down. Right away, my heart dropped.
I definitely had an inguinal hernia from weightlifting next to my groin; the telltale bulge couldn’t mean anything else. Although it was a bit painful, I was more concerned about having surgery and being out for a few months from training. I knew people who had hernia surgery, and they did not return to lifting for months. This inguinal hernia was not going to beat me. I asked myself, can you exercise with a hernia? Can you lift weights with a hernia?
I really wanted to know, can you exercise with a hernia? Can you lift weights with a hernia?
What is an inguinal hernia?
I kept my inguinal hernia a secret from everyone and continued exercising four days a week, mostly in the gym. I was in my early 30s and didn’t want to admit to people I was injured, especially to my training buddies in the weight room. Here I was, a healthy young man at my physical peak; I didn’t want others to see I was flawed.
In my head, I always thought health problems come from carelessness and lack of fitness. To remain healthy, all one has to do was train hard, eat well, and not do anything stupid.
I don’t about talk about my health – ever
Ignoring my own mantra, I had hurt myself during a benching competition trying to prove I was the bigger man. Sharing this information with others was not high on my list. There was no way I was going to share this with anyone. Working out with a hernia was not going to be a problem.
You see, gym-goers would always joke not to go too heavy otherwise, you will give yourself a hernia. And now I had done precisely that. I always thought hernias were for older guys who were a bit overweight. But the more I read about it, the more I realized that it was a common injury for weightlifters. Some researchers even believe genetic mechanisms might predispose individuals to develop inguinal hernias.
Is exercising with a hernia ever okay?
I researched options online for exercising with a hernia. Nearly all of the sites told me everything would be fine if I didn’t push myself hard, and if lifting weights, I should wear an inguinal hernia bandage. They also advised it was better to see a doctor straight away and have the hernia fixed to avoid a serious injury.
I decided to ignore the second piece of advice. So, I quietly suffered from my inguinal hernia for nearly two years. I still worked out just as hard as ever. I also wore. I even helped my sister move to a new place and did not mention it to her even though I was carrying the heaviest items out of her house.
I felt that if I ignored it, and it just remained bothering me a bit, here and there, I could handle it. What is the worst thing that could happen weightlifting with a hernia? Then the day I thought wouldn’t happen happened. I woke up, and it was incredibly painful. I first realized that I would not be working out with a hernia for a few days, or so I thought. I actually started walking around with a limp. By the end of the day, I finally broke down and went to see my regular doctor.
“Men die, on average, five years younger than women do. Why? Because they want to.”
“Can I exercise with a hernia” The raw answer from my doctor about exercising with a hernia
After taking one look at my groin, he confirmed what I knew already: “you have an inguinal hernia.” I sat down in front of him and asked him a question, ‘is exercising with a hernia okay and is okay to delay hernia surgery’? I then waited for him to say something. He immediately recommended me to a surgeon and said he knew a specialist experienced in hernia procedures.
He also said a few things a doctor has never said to me:
“Ryan, you are a bloody idiot!
Don’t you know that people can die from an inguinal hernia?
Why would you wait until now to finally come in?
If you don’t talk about your health, chances are you will die prematurely from something preventable.
Do you really want people to know you died from working out with a hernia?
Working out with a hernia is never okay unless you understand the risks “
I sheepishly explained that the hernia wasn’t hurting much until lately. My doctor informed me I was lucky because if I would have waited longer, I might not be here. It is hard to argue with someone when you know you are in the wrong. Even though I did not appreciate listening to the doctor lecture me like a little kid, I fully deserved it. I have never been a fan of uncomfortable, awkward conversations when I am in the center of them.
I then rephrased my question about working out with a hernia and weight lifting with hernias as a statement:
‘I read online that working out with a hernia is okay.’
Looking somewhat exasperated, he said, ‘the short answer is sometimes!
He then proceeded to explain to me the dangers of leaving my hernia untreated. Yes, most of the time, working out with a hernia, nothing will happen, especially if you are asymptomatic and you adjust your training routine. Avoid weightlifting, as this can increase the risk of further injury.
He explained the optimal positioning of exercises for a hernia is sitting and standing. Because lying positions, especially bench presses, increase intra-abdominal pressure. He also told me other exercises to avoid included core exercises (such as sit-ups), swimming, Pilates, heavy lifting, and contact/high-impact sports.
He said that occasionally hernias can become strangulated, which necessitates immediate emergency surgery, or the consequences could be extreme, i.e., a dangerous infection or even death!
The next day, the surgeon saw me and said I needed the hernia repair surgery within the next week or so. Given that I had an inguinal hernia for so long, he also told me it was necessary to cut me wide open and do a bit of an exploratory procedure to ensure nothing else was wrong with me. He said if I had seen a doctor when the weightlifting hernia first happened, there might have been other minimally-invasive treatment options.
The surgeon also informed me that someone would have to drive me home after the hernia operation and stay with me for 48 hours to ensure there were no complications. This information was just as serious for me as the surgery! Not only would I have to tell everyone I would be on the shelf for a while, but I had to ask for help from others. I always hated having to ask for help on anything ever since I was little. I felt I was indestructible and didn’t need any assistance.
After explaining the situation, one of my dear friends, Devon*, volunteered to drive me to the hospital in the morning, but would not be able to stick around and give me a ride home. I was very appreciative of what he could do. It gave our friendship more meaning, knowing he was there for me when I needed him the most.
Now I was left to find someone that could give me a ride home after the surgery and stay with me for a couple of days. This was not going to be easy. Even though I came from a large family, we weren’t always there for each other. Too many times had I been let down by family when I needed them. I finally caved in, called one of my sisters, and set up a time when she would come to the hospital to pick me up after the hernia surgery. Next, I called one of my brothers and asked if he could spend the night over at my house after the surgery just in case something went wrong. Both of them agreed to help out.
My weight lifting inguinal hernia operation
The day of the surgery arrived, and Devon picked me up at my house at six in the morning. I felt better knowing he was going to walk into the hospital with me and wait until I was taken in for the procedure. I found out later that Devon actually stuck around for the next two hours, making sure the surgery went well. He never told me about doing this. I found out later on through one of the nurses. Unfortunately, Devon passed away a couple of years later, and his staying around on that day when I needed him, is one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me. And doing it so selflessly and never wanting to take credit for staying around a lot longer just showed his type of person.
Regrettably, my sister, who was supposed to pick me up after the hernia surgery, canceled at the last moment and sent my elderly father to pick me up instead. My father and I were not close, hence the reason why I didn’t ask him in the first place. He wasn’t always dependable growing up. I give him credit, though, for turning up.
Dad arrived on time and was there when I was ready to head home. Although, it was a bit embarrassing when he couldn’t figure out where he parked his car in the parking lot. As I waited in a wheelchair at the hospital's front door with a nurse, it felt like I was in some comedy sitcom from back in the day. He kept on crossing the whole parking lot, looking for his car.
The nurse openly wondered if my dad should still be driving after watching him walk around the entire parking lot, pointing his remote-control key at every vehicle. Surprisingly, my brother and I actually had a fun night as he stayed at my house for the next 24 hours. It reminded us of back when we were kids and always shared a bedroom together. It was a bonding moment as I was pretty much helpless on the couch. Strikingly, my surgery brought me closer to four significant people in my life: my dad, my brother and sister, and Devon.
It took me about three months to heal from the weight-lifting hernia surgery until my doctor said I could start working out again: “with light weights, and I do mean light,” were his exact words. I was only allowed to lift weights that were between 10 and 20 pounds at first. It was difficult to sit out that long from doing anything athletic, but everything in life is a learning experience. I knew now I was not indestructible like Bruce Willis’ character in Unbreakable. Plus, asking for help when I truly needed it was alright. I realized that injuries and illnesses, for all their trouble, can actually be a little blessing in bringing family and friends back together.
And I also learned the answer to my question: is it ever okay to be working out with a hernia? No, not really.
Ryan Crawley, the author of "Can I exercise with a hernia?" has been a personal trainer for over 15-years. He is also a professional writer with years of experience with a Masters in Reading and Literacy and a Reading Specialist certificate.