Prevent Back Pain by Teaching Yourself to Bend and Lift Properly

If you’re not worried about your back, you should be. Low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, and half of all Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year.

Compounding the issue is that back pain is sneaky. Your back can seem perfectly fine one day, and then boom, you bend over to pick up a feather and find yourself needing a trip to the emergency room.

The trouble often results from a lifetime of misuse, with repeated, unnoticed microinjuries adding up over time until one day your back finally says “enough is enough.” It might seem as if one single harmless movement caused the problem, when in reality the injury is the result of a lifetime of poor posture and thousands upon thousands of misguided twists and lifts and bends.

So yes, you should be worried about your back now—and train yourself to use it properly—before any accumulated damage manifests itself in missed work and medical bills.

And you can start with the basics.

How Do You Bend Over?

If there’s one piece of advice we’re all familiar with, it’s “lift with your legs, not with your back.” But what does that mean? Basically, we’re supposed to lift from a squatting position, straightening our legs as we go up rather than bending and unbending our back.

But of course it’s more complicated than that. That awkward curve of the back in the improper lift puts a great deal of pressure on the vertebrae and discs, and so it’s important to keep the torso upright and solid as you lift, engaging your entire core to keep the back stabilized. But also important is the position of your feet and knees, what you do with your hips as you lower and rise, and keeping yourself close to the object you’re lifting.

Here’s a video that explains the squat pretty well:

Note the emphasis he gave to something called the “hip hinge.” Even when not using this basic squat for sitting or lifting, the hip hinge is an important technique to master.

Consider a recent story from NPR: “Lost Art Of Bending Over: How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines.” Now, this isn’t the first time that NPR has run a story implying that less industrialized cultures don’t have the back pain problems that we do, and that’s a debatable claim. But it introduces another technique for bending over (and sometimes lifting) that has plenty of proponents, from weightlifters all the way down to toddlers. It’s called the deadlift:

Watching those two videos side by side, the differences between the squat and the deadlift seem almost subtle. The key points are that both rely on the hip hinge to account for much of the lowering and raising of the body, and both are careful to avoid any bending of the spine.

Both also involve a degree of strength and flexibility that many of us who spend our days stuck at our desks just don’t have. With our weak legs, flabby core muscles, and tight hamstrings, we have a tendency to try to cheat what should be a natural movement. Instead of a safe squat or deadlift, we end up curving and sometimes twisting our backs to get that extra few inches of reach—and that’s where the trouble comes in.

Your Prescription

You care about your back, and you want to do all you can to keep it healthy and strong for as long as possible. And so there are a couple things you need to do:

  1. Be conscious of the movements you make, so that you maintain proper posture when bending and lifting.
  2. Exercise to increase your overall strength and flexibility. A strong core, legs, and glutes, along with flexible hamstrings, will make your posture better, make bending and lifting easier, and keep your back healthy and happy.