Lifting Heavy Objects: Debunking Myths and Mastering Safe Lifting Techniques

Discover the truth about lifting heavy objects and back pain. Learn safe lifting techniques from Hinge Health's physical therapists to build a more resilient back.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-lifting-heavy-object

Lifting Heavy Objects: Debunking Myths and Mastering Safe Lifting Techniques

Discover the truth about lifting heavy objects and back pain. Learn safe lifting techniques from Hinge Health's physical therapists to build a more resilient back.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-lifting-heavy-object

Lifting Heavy Objects: Debunking Myths and Mastering Safe Lifting Techniques

Discover the truth about lifting heavy objects and back pain. Learn safe lifting techniques from Hinge Health's physical therapists to build a more resilient back.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-lifting-heavy-object

Lifting Heavy Objects: Debunking Myths and Mastering Safe Lifting Techniques

Discover the truth about lifting heavy objects and back pain. Learn safe lifting techniques from Hinge Health's physical therapists to build a more resilient back.

Published Date: Apr 9, 2024
woman-lifting-heavy-object
Table of Contents

If you think back pain typically stems from carrying something heavy or that the only way to safely lift is “with your legs,” it might be time to think again. Lifting heavy objects is rarely the primary cause of back pain. Lifestyle factors and underlying health issues also play an important role. What’s more, research has debunked the notion that “using your leg muscles” is a safer lifting technique than “lifting with your back.” (It turns out that squatting and bending over put a similar amount of pressure on the spine.)

“Lifting heavy objects isn’t inherently bad for your back, and there isn’t one right way to do it,” says Julianne Payton, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. People get into trouble, she says, when they lift heavier loads than they’re used to without adequate preparation. You can also put undue stress on your back by lifting and carrying in a position that feels awkward to you.

Here, learn more about how to lift heavy objects while protecting your back with help from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Payton is a Hinge Health physical therapist with 8 years of experience and specializes in ergonomics and workplace injuries.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Safe Lifting Techniques: A Hinge Health Perspective

A common myth is that lifting is 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. “It’s easy to point to lifting technique as the problem when it comes to back pain,” says Dr. Payton, “but that’s often only one factor among many.” 

Our bodies were made to move, and the muscles that run along your spine — the back extensors — are among the strongest in the body, says Dr. Payton. That means you don’t need to shy away from lifting or treat your back like it’s exceptionally fragile. Lifting is a natural motion and your back is made to bend and lift. When you avoid a certain activity, like lifting, you grow less tolerant and resilient to performing it in the future. But when you gradually ease yourself into an activity, you grow stronger and more resilient. 

Physical Therapist-Approved Safe Lifting Techniques 

Don’t worry so much about ergonomic lifting. You should lift in a way that feels natural to you. Everyone’s body is different, so there aren’t any hard and fast rules about “safe lifting technique.” However, if you have underlying issues like back arthritis, or you’re typically sedentary, some extra caution may be warranted and the following steps may reduce the risk of pain and injury.

  • Warm up appropriately. “People are most likely to notice back pain after lifting something heavy if they aren’t used to that kind of load, so it leads to an injury or flare up,” says Dr. Payton. One of the best things you can do to get your body ready for what you’re about to lift is to warm up with movement that is similar to what you’ll be tasked with doing when you have to lift, she adds. For instance, if you’re going to be lifting heavy items from the ground to waist-height, practice doing squats (without weights). If you plan to be lifting something from waist-height to above your head, then do squats while holding your arms up above your head. 

  • Keep heavy objects close to your body. This reduces the overall load of the object. The farther away an object is from your body, the more leverage it exerts on your spine and back muscles. By keeping the object close to your body, you decrease the amount of force exerted on your spine and back muscles. This reduces the risk of straining or injuring these muscles. It also helps to keep the object you’re lifting in front of you. This helps give you better control and coordination when you lift, reducing the likelihood of sudden movements or awkward positions that could contribute to injury.

  • 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. 

  • Aim for hip height. Everyone’s body is unique, so it’s wise to take note of what feels right to you when lifting and carrying heavy objects. But for most people, carrying something around hip height — as opposed to up by your chest or below your waist — tends to be the sweet spot, says Dr. Payton. “It’s usually the easiest zone to lift in and minimizes stress on the body,” she says.

  • Listen to your body. Some people feel more comfortable lifting with their legs, but that doesn’t apply to everyone. Experiment and see what feels best to you. Keep in mind that you might also need to change your stance — maybe you need to have your feet further apart or closer together, or maybe you need to stagger them a bit to get more leverage. “If it feels really awkward, try it another way,” says Dr. Payton. 

  • Take frequent breaks. Rest is important. When you pause, take a moment to put your hands on your hips and bend backward. That motion helps because it’s opposite of what you’re doing when lifting, says Dr. Payton.

  • Remember to breathe. Many people subconsciously hold their breath while lifting and carrying. Remind yourself to breathe during the process and right after you set the object back down. This can help you stabilize your entire core, which can help you lift heavier objects. It can also improve your concentration so you can better coordinate your actions and maintain control when you lift.  

Exercises to Prepare for Heavy Lifting

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  • Standing Child’s Pose
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About to help a friend move, haul luggage, or move some boxes into a storage unit? A generally active lifestyle is good for your back, but the moves above can help better prepare you for lifting and carrying objects.

Exercises to Keep Your Back Strong

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  • Woodpecker
  • Superman
  • Standing Back Extension

Whether you work in a stock room lifting heavy boxes, are a parent who often picks up growing toddlers, or just need to lift things sporadically in everyday life, the above moves recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists can help you stay strong and prevent pain and injuries related to lifting.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Pay Attention to Your Overall Health 

This can help prevent back pain and allow you to lift heavier loads. “Back pain is rarely caused by one thing, and lifestyle is part of the equation. If you haven’t been sleeping or eating well and then you help a friend move, you’re more apt to feel pain than you would have if you had been well-rested and well-nourished,” says Dr. Payton. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Murphy, M. (2023, July 28). 8 common myths about back pain. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/8-common-myths-about-back-pain#:~:text=Myth%3A%20Lifting%20heavy%20objects%20is,the%20development%20of%20back%20pain

  2. Hongo, M., Itoi, E., Sinaki, M., Shimada, Y., Miyakoshi, N., & Okada, K. (2005). Effects of Reducing Resistance, Repetitions, and Frequency of Back-Strengthening Exercise in Healthy Young Women: A Pilot Study. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 86(7), 1299–1303. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2004.12.030

  3. Kingma, I., Faber, G. S., & Dieen, J. H. van. (2010). How to lift a box that is too large to fit between the knees. Ergonomics, 53(10), 1228–1238. doi:10.1080/00140139.2010.512983