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The Golden Rules of Proper Lifting Technique

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a project – helping a neighbor move, unloading bags of soil from the truck, or bringing Christmas decorations down from the attic. In the beginning, you’re focused on the task, but then your attention wanders. What could Fred possibly own that’s so heavy? Should I plant strawberries or tomatoes this year? Which box has the Santa salt and pepper shakers? And then it happens – you make a clumsy lift or an awkward twist and suddenly find yourself with an injured back.

Inevitably someone will wag their finger and scold, “You should’ve lifted with your legs, not your back!” We’ve all heard this mantra repeated so often that we may even dream about it at times, yet if this golden rule of lifting is so well known, why do so many people still suffer back injuries? As it turns out, proper lifting technique is about a lot more than simply “lifting with your legs, not your back.”

Your spine is responsible for supporting your upper body, and it’s at its best when you’re standing straight up. Your back muscles are like the spine’s body guards; they’re there to make sure your spine is able to stay upright and protected so it can do its job. This is the second golden rule of lifting – always keep your back straight, whether you’re lifting something as small as your pet Chihuahua or as large as your grandson (seems like yesterday he was still crawling). Here’s an easy trick to get your back straighter – tighten your abdominal (stomach) and gluteus (buttock) muscles. This will naturally “wake up” your back muscles, helping to further straighten your spine.

The act of lifting is a multi-step process, but because proper lifting technique is also ergonomically correct, you’ll find it feels more natural to do it the right way than the wrong way. First, evaluate the load you’re going to lift and plan ahead. Do I have a clear path to my destination? Is lifting the size and weight of this load a realistic goal for me? Here’s the third golden rule of lifting – admit when you need help. This is especially hard for us guys (we gotta be macho, right?), but lifting something that’s too heavy or big for your abilities is one of the easiest ways to get injured, not to mention damage the load should you drop it.

Once you have a course of action planned, you can lift the object. Ideally, the load will be placed on a surface that’s between knee and shoulder height. This is the optimal range for maximizing strength and minimizing risk of injury. If you need to lift something from the ground, bend your legs to lower yourself down, but don’t go down on one knee unless absolutely necessary. Next, grasp the object, tighten the muscles of your stomach, back and hips, and lift. If needed, rest the object on one knee and take a moment to adjust your grip. Then smoothly raise yourself to a standing position. Do not relax the muscles of your stomach, back, and hips until you release the object at the end of the task.

Once you have the load in your arms, proceed quickly but carefully to your destination. Avoid carrying heavy loads for more than 10 feet or 20 seconds, and keep the load as close to your body as possible. If you must place the load to the side, keep your shoulders, back, and hips aligned and turn with your feet. When putting the load down, use the same principles – muscles tight, straight back, bend the legs, rest the load on your knees and readjust if necessary, then place down.

Of course, if your grandkids jump into your arms, half the work is already done. But when transporting less enthusiastic loads, use proper lifting techniques so your back will still be in shape for that second round of piggyback rides.

Don’t let back pain keep you down. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Back Pain Assessment!