Lifting With Low Back Pain

Lifting is a part of your daily life. But sorting through advice about lifting with back pain can be confusing. This is a guide to help you navigate how you might improve your tolerance for lifting while reducing your back pain.

Is Lifting Inherently Bad for You?

A common myth is that lifting is inherently bad for your back. Recent evidence has challenged the idea that you should avoid lifting to protect your back. Even if you experience pain or flare-ups, lifting is almost always safe and can be an important motion to help get your back pain under control. Back pain researchers Mary O’Keefe and Kieran O’Sullivan give this guidance:

It is true that doing manual jobs in an awkward posture with heavy loads and objects not close to the person's body increases the risk of an episode of new onset low back pain. Interestingly, the risk increases if the person is distracted or tired during the manual jobs. This still does not mean that these activities are dangerous or doing damage or that these activities should be avoided.”

Lifting is a natural motion and your back is made to bend and lift. When you avoid a certain activity, you grow less tolerant and resilient to performing it in the future. When you gradually ease yourself into an activity, you grow stronger and more resilient.

Avoidance of lifting or other activities that might cause pain can be a contributing factor to your ongoing pain. It can take practice and dedication to work lifting back into your life. But it’s important to keep trying, even when setbacks occur. It may take many attempts, possibly with the help of your coach, to find what works for you.

Pain Doesn’t Always Equal Damage

It is almost always safe to move despite ongoing pain. A protective pain buffer can give you a safety cushion to nudge into pain. This allows you to use movement as an important stimulus to adapt and grow more resilient to lifting despite ongoing pain.

Tips for Lifting

Light loads:

  • Stay relaxed to move fluidly with light loads. It’s natural to want to protect yourself by bracing the muscles in your core when you lift something. But habitually tensing your muscles for everyday lifting can actually lead to more pain over time.

  • Lift in a way that feels comfortable for you. There is no one right way to lift. Find what works for you and your body. This can be a combination of lifting with your legs and your back.

Heavier loads:

  • Keep the weight close to your body. This reduces the overall load of the object.

  • Be intentional about your body position. We are naturally stronger in certain positions, and it can be useful to take a moment to assess your body position and find a firm stance before lifting a heavy load. A combination of squatting and deadlift positions can be beneficial for heavy lifting.

  • Stay near a neutral range with your spine. “Neutral” is a range, not one position. It might be the natural position your low back is in while standing, or in a range between a slightly convex or slightly concave curve of your spine. When lifting heavy loads, work around a neutral position that feels best for you.

The more we do something, the more our bodies become resilient to that movement. Lifting as a form of exercise can be a great way to prepare yourself to lift for work and life. Reach out to your coach if you have questions about how to work these tips into your lifting!

When Lifting Causes Pain

Try to balance letting things calm down by avoiding some painful activities with building tolerance and strength to those painful activities by staying consistent and gradually doing more. An all-or-nothing mentality is not best. The tips below can help you find that balance.

  • Some pain is fine. Remember, our pain buffer gives us a safety cushion that allows us to start moving more even as pain persists. But don’t push through unacceptable levels of pain. While movement is almost always safe because of a big pain buffer, it’s probably not a good idea to consistently push through high amounts of pain.

  • Look at your habits. It is easy to build habits with pain and do things over and over. Reflect and try to break any lifting habits that continue to irritate your symptoms.

  • Setbacks are common. Recovery is rarely a straight path, but your effort is not wasted. Ups and downs are common. Keep it up!

  • Add variations. Variety can help calm things down. Allowing different sitting postures and lifting techniques might help you do more with less pain. Like all joints, backs are made to move and adapt.

  • Stay consistent! Consistency is the key to change. It can be tempting to look for quick fixes but with persistent pain, consistency wins every time.

  • Gradually do more. It can take dedication to get your body and pain system to adapt. Continuing to challenge it is important for reducing pain and preparing your body to do more.

Key Takeaways

  1. Lifting is a natural movement that is not inherently bad for your back.

  2. It is almost always safe to lift despite ongoing pain.

  3. You can practice lifting in a variety of ways that feel comfortable for your body and build your resilience for lifting.


  1. O'Keefe, M., & O'Sullivan, K. (2019, April 09). All you ever wanted to know about back pain. Retrieved from