If your work or recreational activity involves heavy lifting you’ve probably heard and heeded the conventional advice to ‘lift with your legs not with your back.’ Bending your knees and keeping a straight or neutral back has been a core manual handling technique for decades.
Traditional manual handling training developed around the idea that our backs are fragile so heavy lifting should be avoided as much as possible. However, research has shown that manual handling training programs based on this approach have little effect on reducing back pain and injury.
Busting the ‘weak back’ myth
Although around 16% of Australians experience back pain, this doesn’t mean that our backs are weak. In fact, our spines are inherently strong. They’re designed to flex and bend and to cope with occasional and repeated lifting.
Your back can almost certainly do more than you think.
However, like the rest of your amazingly capable body, your back needs exercise and conditioning. Without exposure to lifting and loading, back muscles and ligaments may struggle to stay strong enough to do the work they’re designed to do. Many office workers sit for a prolonged period of time. Over these prolonged periods it is rare for items heavier than a laptop to be lifted – this can reduce the strength and flexibility of muscles and tendons.
While few of us would dream of running 5 or 10 kilometres without preparing our bodies, many of us neglect to condition ourselves for everyday and exceptional lifting. That said, your strong, resilient spine is likely to cope with the occasional heavy lift. If you need to shift the sofa that you lounge on for long stretches, this sudden unaccustomed effort may cause your back to hurt. However, you’re unlikely to sustain the kind of damage that restorative rest won’t remedy.
In short, our backs are designed to lift things. However, our sedentary lifestyles and lack of lifting practice can mean we’re not using them in ways that protect and promote this innate strength and flexibility.
How heavy lifting can result in back pain
If our spines are strong and built to lift and carry heavy loads, then why do we experience pain?
There are a few potential reasons for this, including:
Overworking weak muscles
Without regular strengthening and conditioning exercises, our back muscles can become comparatively weak and lack flexibility. Sudden repeated or heavy lifting may strain these muscles and cause pain and inflammation.
Often, we haven’t warmed up our muscles either. The pain we feel after overworking the muscles in our back is similar to how we would feel sore after a session at the gym when we haven’t exercised in few months.
Sudden twisting or overextension
If we lift what is beyond our capability, we may find that muscles or ligaments become sprained or strained as a result. This occurs when the tissue has been stretched (or even torn) beyond its limits, leading to pain and discomfort. Our back is strong and flexible, but it’s not immune to injury!
While lifting technique is not as clear cut as once thought, lifting without warming up and incorrect technique where your stance is not centred, may lead to a strain or injury.
Read below to find out how to minimise these risks and support your back’s natural function.
1. Exercise to avoid lifting injuries
Exercise can play a crucial role in avoiding and recovering from all kinds of back pain. Rather than avoiding weight lifting, consider adding strength training to your current fitness regime or ask for help to start a new one.
There are loads of potential benefits from strength training, including:
- Improving your spinal stability and posture
- Learning about correct body mechanics
- Increasing bone density
- Reducing your risk of future back injuries
Our physiotherapists can work with you to customise a weight training program that promotes back health. Typically, these programs combine free weights and exercise machines with bodyweight exercises.
2. Plan heavy lifts carefully
Our understanding of how best to lift heavy things is evolving. Flexing or rounding your back for light lifting jobs may not put you at risk of injury. Furthermore, it may train your spine to adapt to flexing and bending.
Although the traditional advice around ‘bent legs, straight back’ is currently being questioned, keeping a neutral or straight back it is still considered a valid technique for lifting anything heavier than you could easily lift in the gym. The contribution that lifting with a straight back makes to pain and injury prevention is less clear than it used to be.
However, combining it with the following things may help avoid pain and damage:
- Warm up before you lift
This helps prepare your joints and muscles for the hefty lifting job. Mimic the moves you’re about to make by stretching your arms overhead, gently twisting your torso, bending your knees and stretching your hamstrings and squatting.
- Get as close as possible to the thing you need to lift
Get a good grip on it and try to keep it between your shoulder and waist. This helps minimise lower back strain.
- Use a wide stance
Place your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. This can help with balance and stability and using your leg strength.
- Try to keep your body centred
Twisting your spine as you lift can put pressure on your discs and increase your risk of back pain and injury.
- Remember to breathe
Holding your breath can put pressure on your abdominals and make you susceptible to injury. Breathe out as you lift then breathe in as you complete the move.
3. Visit your physio
Besides equipping you with a personalised exercise plan to help develop a strong, healthy back, your physio can assess your overall biomechanical health. They can help correct alignment and postural issues, identify and address muscle imbalances and treat the source of musculoskeletal pain.
The Brisbane Spine Clinic’s Leo Hyun and Kelvin Choi have a special interest in powerlifting and can help design and oversee weightlifting programs for people who lift for work or sport. If you would like to discuss strengthening your back for heavy lifting, book an appointment.
All information is general in nature and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. The Brisbane Spine Clinic can consult with you to confirm if this advice is right for you.