Home What’s the Best Lifting Technique? Ergonomics Done Right®

Written by: Binh Ngo on February 20th, 2018

A common myth heard in the workplace, and even at home, is to “lift with your legs” to prevent back injuries. To maintain the correct posture or “the perfect lift,” the worker squats down, keeping the torso in an upright position while bending at the hips and knees, to retrieve the load. But what if the width of the object interferes with the worker’s knees and prevents the lift?

Although lifting with an upright torso reduces the shearing forces of the spine, squatting too deep, coupled with insufficient hip mobility, causes the lower spine to flex and increases stress on the passive tissues, making the back more susceptible to injury.

Of course, the best way to lift is not to lift at all (or raise the load to waist height). But, if you must lift, keep a couple of things in mind:

  • Don’t bend your back. The anatomy of the spine lends itself to poor stability, especially when bending over, because bending changes the muscle lines of action and passive tissue orientation. However, if you maintain a neutral posture, your spine can handle a lot of load.
  • Brace yourself. Activating your trunk (core) muscles when lifting will hold the stacks of bone (your spine) in place and reduce the likelihood of developing an injury.

All in all, since the human hip and spine anatomy are as unique as fingerprints, choose a lifting technique that works best for your body type, whether it be stoop lifting, squat lifting, lunge lifting, or something in between. Just remember, lifting from the floor increases your risk of injury; to reduce it, keep a neutral spine and brace your core.

4 responses to “What’s the Best Lifting Technique?”

  1. Ramon says:

    Thank you for the very practical and helpful information Binh. It will save a lot of backs from being unnecessarily injured.

    In addition, I would advise the lifter to do a quick “test” of the load. Try the out the weight first before actually proceeding.

  2. Patrick Carley says:

    I have some concerns or questions on this post that you may help me resolve…
    Statement: Don’t bend your back. The anatomy of the spine lends itself to poor stability, especially when bending over
    – Question – if the structural anatomy and tissue design reflects the function of the spine is to establish stability – why would the “spine lend[s] itself to poor stability?

    Statement: because bending changes the muscle lines of action and passive tissue orientation.
    – Question – The direction of superficial and deep spinal muscles are in different directions – what lines of action are you referring to that would cause further changes in the muscle lines of action?

    Statement – Brace yourself. Activating your trunk (core) muscles when lifting will hold the stacks of bone (your spine) in place and reduce the likelihood of developing an injury.
    – Question – If one activates their “trunk (core) muscles when lifting” are they not also activating the iliopsoas, a powerful hip flexor muscle, which would restrict motion into the upright position?

    • Binh Ngo says:

      Thank you for your interest in my blog. My answers are below:

      Question 1: I was specifically referring to the anatomy of the bones in the spinal column. Instead of the spine being composed of one, solid bone like a femur or a humerus, it’s composed of a stack of oddly shaped parts that, without all the surrounding tissues, would quickly topple and fall over. The pro to these oddly shaped parts is that the spine can be wonderfully mobile! However, having an over-abundance of mobility coupled with poor movement mechanics and high loads can often lead to pain and possibly injury. So that’s what I meant by, “the spine lends itself to poor stability.”

      Question 2: The back is comprised of many muscles and in many orientations. The muscles I was mainly referring to were Longissimus Thoracis pars Lumborum and Iliocostalis Lumborum. When the lumbar spine is in its lordotic position during lifting/forward bending, the muscle lines of action work to produce compressive and posterior (protective) shear forces on the lumbar vertebrae. In contrast, when you flex your lumbar spine, the bone orientation changes so that the muscle lines of action begin to run more parallel to the spine rather than posteriorly perpendicular, which increases compression, rather than help offset the anterior shearing of the spine.

      Question 3: Strongly activating the iliopsoas could definitely make it more difficult to return to an upright position. Additionally, muscles also tend to stiffen with high levels of activation, which also adds to your point. With that being said, when I mentioned core muscle activation, I did not mean a 100% maximum voluntary contraction. Depending on the load being lifted, the amount of core activation will vary. Sometimes, only a little activation is needed to provide adequate stability. Furthermore, the muscles that should be targeted for activation should form a “hoop-like” ring around your spine. For example, the rectus abdominis, internal/external obliques, transverse abdominis work to tighten the thoracolumbar fascia. This creates a “hoop-stress” that protects spines which are compression-tolerant. (Those with spinal injuries that are aggravated by additional compression should minimize using this technique until they heal). A quick way to think about how this activation would feel is if someone punched your gut or side and you flinched by tightening your core (without flexing your spine). This, to a lesser degree and a constant level of activation, is what I’m referring to.

      • Ramon Basa, MD says:

        Thank you for clarifying that Binh.

        Related to this and the Hoop-Stress concept, can you kindly comment and elucidate on the use of the commercially available “back supports” and its benefits if any when lifting. Its use continue to be popular despite the official advice of CDC and NIOSH. Are there any new evidence or data? Thanks.

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