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Don’t Worry About Lifting Technique

The importance of “lift with your legs, not your back” to prevent back pain has been exaggerated

updated (first published 2008)
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

The conventional wisdom is that we must not stoop to lift heavy objects. To avoid injury, we should squat down and then lift with our legs, not our backs. In this article, I argue that this is not just incorrect, but actually counter-productive. The truth is undoubtedly in the middle, but decades ago the pendulum of public opinion and “common sense” swung all the way to one side and got stuck there; I think it needs a firm (evidence-based) push back towards the centre.

For a more thorough and technical review of both sides of this topic, see Greg Lehman’s excellent review, “Revisiting the spinal flexion debate: prepare for doubt.” This article focusses just on making the case that the conventional wisdom is a myth: stooping to lift is not a significant risk factor for back pain, and most people don’t need to be taught how to lift simple heavy objects “properly.” Several sub-topics are not covered here, especially the athletic extremes (like powerlifting), special occupational challenges (like nursing or piano moving), or lifting during rehab.

A typical workplace safety sign cautioning against improper lifting technique, superimposed with bright read text, “Alarmist nonsense.”

The risks of poor lifting technique have been exaggerated.

Your back isn’t fragile and you already know how to lift things

The bark of back pain is usually worse than its bite, and has surprisingly little to do with structural problems in spines like degeneration and injuries like “slipped” discs, muscle strains, pinched nerves, and so on. Although these things do happen, they are not as common or inevitably painful as most people imagine.1 Back pain is complex. Whether we get back pain is influenced by many non-obvious factors.

Although we can’t lift heavy things just any old way, we don’t really need to be taught either. What matters most is so obvious that it’s hard to get wrong: just keep objects close to the body.2 As long as we do that, there’s not much we can do to improve on it, and in particular neither stooping nor squatting has an obvious safety advantage (the science coming below).

Although some of this still sounds a bit contrarian and radical today, the value of trying to tinker with people’s lifting habits to has been under fire for a long time. In 1997, Dr. Nortin Hadler wrote a paper for the journal Spine with the subtitle: “what you lift or how you lift matters far less than whether you lift or when.”3 In 2002, physical therapist Leon Straker wrote:4

Little evidence supports the effectiveness of training programs to change workers’ lifting habits and any attempt at change may just increase risk as workers lose the protection of well practiced and conditioned movement patterns.

That opinion was backed by a 2008 review of several years worth of evidence about lifting technique and low back pain:5

There is no evidence to support use of advice or training in working techniques … for preventing back pain or consequent disability. The findings challenge current widespread practice of advising workers on correct lifting technique.

(I’ll review some more specific and recent evidence below.)

I think that training people to lift “properly” probably doesn’t work because backs are actually tough as good boots, and what makes backs hurt (or get injured) isn’t influenced all that much — if at all — by how you lift things. The conventional wisdom is based on an assumption of a fragility that just doesn’t exist in the back, so it’s not too surprising that the training doesn’t make much difference: there’s no vulnerability to avoid.

And that’s not the only bogus assumption in this mess.

Does heavy lifting actually increase the risk of back pain?

If lifting heavy things at work leads to back pain, then it would make more sense to be careful about how you do it. If.

As much as I appreciate their conclusions, Martimo et al. begin their paper with a whopper of another unjustified assumption, in the first sentence: “Heavy lifting at work increases the risk of back pain.”

If that assumption isn’t correct, the entire discussion is a moot point, right? And yet the authors support it with only a single reference to a 1999 paper published in an obscure journal, International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics6 … and that paper supports nothing of the kind. It does not show that “heavy lifting increases the risk of back pain.”7 It’s a bogus citation! I am not making this up.

But that’s now ancient data in any case. Much more recently, a 2010 review concluded it’s “unlikely” that lifting was a cause of back pain in workers.8 A 2012 review found little to no evidence for any connection between back pain stooping over repeatedly or for long periods9 — a different angle on the same problem. Not enough reviews for you? Okay: a 2011 review of eight reviews “did not support” the conventional wisdom either.10

Never mind the weight: how about just the amount of time spent bending over? The stoopage factor? A 2015 study of 198 workers not only failed to find a link between the amount of back flexion and higher pain intensity, they found the opposite: more time spent flexing beyond 30˚ was linked to lower back pain intensity!11

None of this means that no one will ever hurt their back lifting something at work, but obviously the connection is nowhere near as obvious as everyone assumes. (Even the experts assumed it until quite recent history.) Likely there are major X factors.12

There’s no real smoke around lifting, so there’s probably no back pain fire.

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Does stooping even put more load on the spine?

It is almost impossible not to flex your spine when lifting something off the ground, and there is remarkably little difference between spinal loading in different lifting techniques. Kingma et al measured 40˚ of spinal flexion even in a pure squat lift,13 the theoretical ideal lifting technique as understood by most people. Meanwhile, the lumbar spine flexed only ten degrees more when lifting the same way.

Or what if we could measure spinal forces directly? Imagine a pressure meter implanted in your back, completely replacing one of your vertebrae. What would it tell you, if you stooped over to pick up an object instead of squatting down to lift with your legs instead of your back? The nearly universal assumption is that stooping puts much more strain on the spine.

But if that was a safe assumption, I wouldn’t be bringing it up here. Just as Kingma et al found, there’s not much difference.

Those meters are actually a thing! Instrumented vertebral body replacements (VBRs) are high-tech gadgets installed in place of a vertebrae. Very cyborg! (Stronger, faster, more… measured?) In a 2016 experiment,14 three patients with VBRs did a bunch of lifting, and their implants measured the forces in squats versus stoops.

The difference was negligible! Squatting is the supposedly “correct” and safe way to lift, but it caused only 4% less load on tissues. That’s even less difference that Kingma et al found measuring flexion:

The current in vivo biomechanical study does not provide evidence that spinal loads differ substantially between stoop and squat lifting.

This is not perfect evidence, or the only evidence, but it’s enough to cast a lot of doubt on the value of advice to “lift with your legs, not your back.” And that’s all we need to make the case that the importance of lifting technique has been exaggerated.

What about back braces and support belts?

No one lifts more than bodybuilders and powerlifters. And bodybuilders must wear those big thick belts for some reason!15 If it makes sense for them, it must make sense for occupational lifting too. Surely.

Unless it doesn’t make sense for them. Siewe et al found that the use of weight belts increased the injury rate of the lumbar spine in powerlifters.16 Ruh roh!

And major recent reviews of the science have shown that there’s little or no prevention benefit to such belts in the workplace.1718 •sad trombone•

Interestingly, even hard braces are amazingly ineffective at reducing the forces on the spine!19 See Spinal Fracture Bracing: My wife’s terrible accident, and a whirlwind tour of the science and biomechanics of her spine brace — fascinating topic.

Supports, braces, and belts mostly just provide some novel sensory input that reinforces the idea of security and stability — a sensation-aided placebo. That is, you don’t just hope that it supports your back, it feels like it does. Unfortunately, this also strongly encourages the insidious idea that backs need stabilizing in the first place. And that’s how you lose The Mind Game in Low Back Pain.

Soldier doing an intense deadlift with an audience of several other soldiers. He’s straining hard, lifting what looks like about 500 lbs.

Safe lifting technique? That’s a lot of stoop, with a lot of weight! Photo by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/U.S. Fifth Fleet

Another lesson from powerlifting

Deadlifts do not look like a “safe” way to lift something heavy with your back. And yet the sport of powerlifting demonstrates that it’s possible to do deadlifts regularly without any obvious pattern of vulnerability to back pain. These guys and gals are stooping over and picking up dramatically more weight than anyone is ever going to lift at work.20 For fun. With, science says, less injury than other sports!21

Most powerlifters try to minimize spinal flexion, especially lumbar flexion, but it’s not clear that many of them are actually succeeding… and for sure many amateurs definitely fail, either because of poor training and/or because it is biomechanically difficult to achieve. Remember, it is nearly impossible not to flex your spine when lifting something off the ground.22 And so most deadlifts and strongman lifts bear a striking resemblance to how people are not supposed to lift, and yet the sport is amazingly safe.

But this isn’t about powerlifting: I’m just using powerlifting as an example to make a point about saner loads. I am definitely not saying that it’s safe for an untrained person to try to lift huge loads willy nilly — technique does matters when you’re trying to get several hundred pounds off the ground! It’s a completely different thing than schlepping stuff around in a warehouse. I am only saying that the range of what it’s possible to do surprisingly safely is just huge. If backs were actually prone to injuries when lifting 20-40 kilos with poor technique or training, it’s unlikely that people could ever safely multiply that by 3-10 times in deadlifts, but they clearly do, even with imperfect elimination of flexion, if that is even possible.

The point is that backs are naturally sturdy and non-fragile, and powerlifting is a great demonstration of that.

Strongman stone lift, 555 lbs … with quite a bit of lumbar flexion. 1:11

Don’t worry about how you lift…but don’t be a fool either!

Obviously you can hurt yourself if you are reckless with heavy loads. And obviously technique does matter for extreme loads (the kind of loads no one would ever be expected to deal with at work). Strain hard enough and you will get a muscle strain (a tear), or worse. And although disc herniations may be less common and less serious and less related to either lifting or back pain than people think, that doesn’t mean you want one.

But training for lifting technique is probably not important because heavy lifting itself probably does not actually increase the risk of back pain significantly in the first place — and so there’s no problem to solve with better technique, and no evidence that there is even any way to significantly improve on our technique. Doubtless heavy lifting is at least a little bit of a factor in back pain, just not a major one — not the kind of factor that generates a nice clear statistical signal.

Back pain that starts with a lifting trauma probably occurs less than most people think, and isn’t as severe, and when it does occur it probably often seems worse than it is due to the common problem of trigger points in back pain.


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

More articles about back pain

What’s new in this article?

MayMany improvements; no important changes in position, just a bunch more detail and references. Clarified the scope of the article, and linked prominently to Greg Lehman’s more thorough and technical review of both sides of the spinal flexion debate. Added video of a strongman stone lift showing extreme stoop lifting. Added evidence that there’s surprisingly little difference in forces on the spine in stoop vs squat lifting. Added the idea that most good lifting technique is simple and intuitive and cannot be improved by teaching. Revised the powerlifting section in a way that I hope powerlifters will think is more acceptable, but doubled down on the most contentious point: I think the evidence is clear that it is impossible to avoid, and I added citations to shore that up.

2016A couple minor changes to make sure it’s completely clear that the article is not arguing that technique doesn’t matter in powerlifting. It does. This article is about occupational lifting, and powerlifting is raised only for an interesting perspective on that topic.

2016Completed major revision and modernization. (After languishing in obscurity for the last eight years — almost never visited by anyone! And forgotten by me.)

2008Publication.

Notes

  1. The evidence on this point is reviewed extremely thoroughly in my low back pain book, but you can also get a good free dose of it from this article: MRI and X-Ray Often Worse than Useless for Back Pain: Medical guidelines “strongly” discourage the use of MRI and X-ray in diagnosing low back pain, because they produce so many false alarms. BACK TO TEXT
  2. Of course things get expontentially more complicated with heavier and/or more awkward objects (sofabeds, patients in a hospital), or working on unstable or uneven surfaces (lugging sofabeds up stairs!). People who move a variety of awkward, heavy things around for a living almost certainly get good at many non-obvious techniques. One of the best examples: lift patients safely (for both patient and nurses) is definitely a complex skill. Again, technique certainly matters… but for most lifting chores, there are just too many variables for there to be any clear “right” way to do it. BACK TO TEXT
  3. Hadler NM. Back pain in the workplace. What you lift or how you lift matters far less than whether you lift or when. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1997 May;22(9):935–40. PubMed #9152441.

    In spite of more than 50 years of concerted effort to diminish task demand, the incidence of compensable back injuries has not wavered. Before we persist for another 50 years in the quest for the "right way to lift," we should consider recent multivariate clinical investigations that suggest alternative approaches. Because task context is at least as important as task content in this regard, it follows that including regional backache under the rubric of "compensable injury" demands reconsideration. Likewise, rather than pursuing the "right way to lift," the more reasonable and humane quest might be for workplaces that are comfortable when we are well and accommodating when we are ill.

    “Before we persist for another 50 years in the quest for the ‘right way to lift,’ we should consider…alternative approaches. … The more reasonable and humane quest might be for workplaces that are comfortable when we are well and accommodating when we are ill.” BACK TO TEXT
  4. Straker LM. A review of research on techniques for lifting low-lying objects: 1. Criteria for evaluation. Work. 2002;19(1):9–18. PubMed #12454347. BACK TO TEXT
  5. Martimo KP, Verbeek J, Karppinen J, et al. Effect of training and lifting equipment for preventing back pain in lifting and handling: systematic review. BMJ. 2008. PainSci #55880. BACK TO TEXT
  6. Kuiper JI, Burdorfb A, Verbeek J. Epidemiologic evidence on manual materials handling as a risk factor for back disorders: a systematic review. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. 1999 Aug 23;24(4):389–404. PubMed #10569458. PainSci #55881. BACK TO TEXT
  7. The International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics paper (which is another analysis of other research), comes to underwhelming conclusions about the relationship between low back pain and heavy lifting at work. Even though “a considerable number of epidemiologic studies investigated the risk of lifting,” the authors obtained “only a moderate insight” into the relationship between lifting and low back pain. Mostly what they found is that the available evidence was of low quality and “inconsistent” and “limited.” BACK TO TEXT
  8. Wai EK, Roffey DM, Bishop P, Kwon BK, Dagenais S. Causal assessment of occupational lifting and low back pain: results of a systematic review. Spine J. 2010 Jun;10(6):554–66. PubMed #20494816. BACK TO TEXT
  9. Ribeiro DC, Aldabe D, Abbott JH, Sole G, Milosavljevic S. Dose-response relationship between work-related cumulative postural exposure and low back pain: a systematic review. Ann Occup Hyg. 2012 Jul;56(6):684–96. PubMed #22356808. BACK TO TEXT
  10. Kwon BK, Roffey DM, Bishop PB, Dagenais S, Wai EK. Systematic review: occupational physical activity and low back pain. Occup Med (Lond). 2011 Dec;61(8):541–8. PubMed #21727180. BACK TO TEXT
  11. Villumsen M, Samani A, Jørgensen MB, et al. Are forward bending of the trunk and low back pain associated among Danish blue-collar workers? A cross-sectional field study based on objective measures. Ergonomics. 2015;58(2):246–58. PubMed #25374330. BACK TO TEXT
  12. Something like this is likely: you’ll hurt your back only if you sloppily lift something heavy and you’re under an extraordinary amount of emotional strain as well — like being miserable at work, perhaps. Or it’s just the seriously sleep-deprived lifters who “tweak” their backs. This is what we mean about lifting not being an independent cause: it almost certainly takes more than a bad lift. BACK TO TEXT
  13. Kingma I, Faber GS, van Dieën JH. How to lift a box that is too large to fit between the knees. Ergonomics. 2010 Oct;53(10):1228–38. PubMed #20865606. BACK TO TEXT
  14. Dreischarf M, Rohlmann A, Graichen F, Bergmann G, Schmidt H. In vivo loads on a vertebral body replacement during different lifting techniques. J Biomech. 2016 Apr;49(6):890–5. PubMed #26603872. BACK TO TEXT
  15. Injury prevention is certainly the main casual reason cited by the average bodybuilder. It gets a bit more complex for serious powerlifters. The reasons I’ve seen (example) are a mish-mash of speculation about perfomance enhancement and/or injury prevention, with a strong common denominator: the belief that belts support the spine. Often the mechanism cited is that this facilitates very high abdominal cavity pressures, which in turn supports the spine anteriorly, which in turn makes it possible to lift heavier loads — “without injury” is stated by some and just implied by others. With loads like that there are only a hair-splitting difference between what can be done and what can be done without hurting yourself. I haven’t read enough to know, but I bet there’s plenty of debate about whether the belts actually help (in a biomechanical way), or if they are a placebo that “just” gives lifters a feeling of safety and confidence — which is exactly like the debate about rehabilitative bracing. BACK TO TEXT
  16. Siewe J, Rudat J, Röllinghoff M, et al. Injuries and overuse syndromes in powerlifting. Int J Sports Med. 2011 Sep;32(9):703–11. PubMed #21590644. BACK TO TEXT
  17. Kurustien N, Mekhora K, Jalayondeja W, Nanthavanij S. Trunk Muscle Performance and Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders among Manual Lifting with Back Belt Wearing Workers. J Med Assoc Thai. 2015 Jun;98 Suppl 5:S74–80. PubMed #26387415. “Low correlation was found between back belt use and work-related musculoskeletal disorders.” BACK TO TEXT
  18. Steffens D, Maher CG, Pereira LS, et al. Prevention of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Jan:1–10. PubMed #26752509. Back belts “do not appear to prevent LBP.” BACK TO TEXT
  19. Rohlmann A, Bergmann G, Graichen F, Neff G. Braces do not reduce loads on internal spinal fixation devices. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 1999 Feb;14(2):97–102. PubMed #10619096.

    To determine how much a back brace really braces, German researchers used “telemeterized” implants — steel fixation rods with meters on them! so cyborgy! — to measure the effect of common braces on spinal forces. This is a good experiment. If you have implants stabilizing your spine internally, measuring the stresses on them directly is a pretty clever way of checking to see if an external brace is doing anything.

    Three types of braces were examined: Boston overlap brace, reclination brace, and a lumbotrain harness. Unsurprisingly, they found that “none of the braces studied were able to markedly reduce the loads” on the implants. There was some reduction — just not “marked,” nothing to write home about.

    More surprisingly, some of their measurements showed that bracing increased loading on the implants! That does seem possible. The spine is an extraordinarily dynamic structure. Somewhat like slouching into a comfortable chair, a brace may actually cause some sloppiness of spinal function, resulting in “resting” on the fixations, rather than using muscle to support and control the spine. That’s just a guess, but it seems like a reasonable one to me.

    BACK TO TEXT
  20. The world record in 2015 was Eddie “The Beast” Hall’s 463kg lift. That’s 1020 lbs for you Yanks. BACK TO TEXT
  21. Siewe 2011, op. cit. “The injury rate is low compared to other sports.” Not nonexistent, of course: “0.3 injuries per lifter per year,” or inury per thousand hours of training. BACK TO TEXT
  22. Kingma 2010, op. cit. BACK TO TEXT