Lift heavy stuff without wrecking your back

Move-in time doesn't have to be injury season.

moving in carrying sofa
Maintain a safe stance while lifting heavy sofas.Depositphotos

Between college move-ins, hauling winter gear out of storage, and getting the house ready for winter, the fall is a time for lifting and carrying. That means your mind should be on your back—and how to avoid injuring it.

Throwing out your back not only hurts intensely, but also can kick start a long-term, life-altering problem. While there's no bulletproof way to avoid damage, greater understanding of why and how we mess up our spines can go a long way toward limiting serious pain.

Understand your back

First of all, there's no such thing as plain "back pain," according to Stu McGill, professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo and author of The Back Mechanic. In comparison, if one person gets a leg cramp, and another breaks a tibia, we don't say both experience a general "leg pain."

Ultimately, the best way to prevent both minor and devastating injuries is to understanding the function of your back, and the various muscles on which it relies. McGill explains it in engineering terms: The spine is a flexible rod, and, as he says, “What engineer would take a flexible rod and give it a compressive load?” Imagine trying to balance a bowling ball on a pool noodle, and you start to get an idea of the feat that our spines have to pull off.

In order to support a load, the backbone needs stiffness, and it gets that from muscles in the torso. For example, when weightlifters hold their breath right before making a hard lift, they’re doing so to provide even more rigidity for their spines.

Just like in engineering, the muscles that hold that rod-like backbone upright have to compensate for multiple variables, such as the weight of the load, the duration of time the system is under stress, and how often the lifting action repeats. Any engineer will tell you that, over time, this system will show strain. That, McGill explains, is where the pain comes in.

“Back tissues have a strain limit influenced by repeated and prolonged loads,” says McGill. Usually, when you exceed that limit, you start to feel pain. Each person’s strain limit is different and changes over time. Age, body weight, personal fitness, past injury, and a host of other factors will affect just how much strain your back can take. Overdo it, and you’ll have to reach for the pain killers and hot water bottle.

There are two clear signs that you're pushing your body too far. The first is that you become unable to use the lifting methods we describe below. The second is that you have to hold your breath to perform the action. Remember, weightlifters do this because it gives their backs a little extra rigidity to raise major loads. If you have to do this, it's a sign you're pushing your body too far—so pay attention to your breathing.

Lifting techniques

So you know your back has limits, and you want to take care as you move your buddy into his new house. The proper way to keep back pain at bay is through careful planning and proper form.

McGill studied 80 auto parts workers who were chroming bumpers, which involved lifting 70 pounds of weight all day, every day. The majority of workers reported no back pain, and McGill reveals that, counterintuitively, their back muscles were actually weaker than their coworkers who reported back injury. Why?

“The guys who never had a back injury lifted with better form, so they never experienced problematic tissue strain,” McGill says. “Getting stronger was not the answer; moving better was.”

How does this apply to you? We’ve all heard “lift with your legs,” but there’s a bit more to it than that.

First, stand in front of the object you want to carry and squat, bending your legs while keeping your back in its natural curve. Take a strong grip on the item, holding it below your shoulders, and then push against the ground with your legs, standing up from the squat. Once you’re in a standing position, keep the item at about waist height. Don’t raise the load you’re carrying over your head; to place heavy items on shelves, use a step-stool or ladder. As you climb up, hold it at your waist. To put down the weight, reverse this process.

Using your legs to push up lets you rely on the incredible torquing power of your hips, specially designed to move a large mass—your torso, which averages out to approximately half your body weight—off the ground with ease. Lifting with your back takes more effort and puts more strain on your body.

But what if you can’t pick up the object with leg power alone? Then it’s time to give it a good shove. First, squat down using that lift technique and raise the bulky piece just high enough to put something under it—something like cardboard that will help it slide more easily. Next, keeping your spine straight, brace your lower body in a lunge position that equally distributes your weight, and push outward with your arms. Once your arms are at full extension, stand up, get back into position, and use your arms again. Avoid pulling, since that tends to engage the back muscles.

The proper technique, whether you’re helping a buddy lift a couch or going for a weightlifting record, will help protect your back by keeping tissue strain within its limits. And remember, there’s a good form for any action we take. For example, when pushing or pulling objects in your day-to-day life, such as shopping carts or lawnmowers, use your arms rather than your back.

As a rule of thumb, think of your spine like a bridge: Your lower torso is one end, and your head is the other end. Keep your spine from flexing during a task, and you’re probably in good shape.

Planning ahead is also key to keeping your back healthy. Lifting one 200-pound load may seem like less work than moving ten 20-pound loads, but can your back handle the heavier cargo, even if you use proper technique? Know your limits and plan ahead, especially when you have a lot of work to do.

Respect your body

The flip side of athletic lifting is how we use our backs in our daily lives. Instead of hauling heavy loads or doing backflips, many jobs require that we make our bodies fit into certain set positions for long periods of time. Although the strain at any given moment is minimal, it adds up over time. This is called “postural stress”—and it means your grandmother was right to tell you to sit up straight.

The average American will encounter all sorts of postural stresses: a stiff neck from texting all day, sore shoulders from sitting at a desk, or a throbbing lower back from standing all day. The solution is two-fold.

One, change your position regularly. The argument over just how much harm sitting all day really can do is a bit more complicated than you might think. Still, regularly changing your position, from sitting to standing and back again, will help, as will avoiding stooping positions that put long-term strain on your back.

Two, as we mentioned, proper technique goes a long way. Yes, that means there is a way to sit correctly at your computer. First, settle into your chair, pushing your hips back as far as they'll go. Then, adjust the height so your knees rest at a level equal to or slightly lower than your hips, with both feet on the floor and the back of the chair at a 100 to 110 degree angle. Use lumbar support or upper back support if necessary. Finally, set the armrests at a height where your shoulders can relax and your hands rest on the table top.

What if your desk is so high that you can't have your arms and legs in the right position at the same time? Invest in a foot rest that prevents your limbs from dangling in mid-air.

The last thing that can really help: working on your back to build flexibility and balance. Exercises that develop both strength and balance, such as yoga, can reduce or prevent pain. Pilates, or learning weightlifting form from a certified trainer can also give you a boost.

Keep in mind that even with proper form, a good workout routine, and knowing your limits, nobody is immune to back injury. But if you understand your body, you’ll protect yourself from a lot more pain.