Everyone lifts. Not everyone lifts well.

Over the past 30-plus years I have treated many patients who have injured their backs while lifting something they had no business lifting—especially given the way in which they lifted it!

In the late 1980s my first place of employment as a physical therapist was in a New York–based spine specialty center. Our comprehensive approach offered patients, who were currently receiving physical therapy, the opportunity to go to “Back School.” This day-long, multi-faceted course provided participants with an education pertaining to standing, sitting and sleeping postures, workplace ergonomics, activities of daily living and recreation, and home exercises which would help to protect an “at-risk spine” from life’s assaults.

Included in our Back School curriculum was instruction in proper (safe) lifting techniques. Today I am eager to share with you this very same instruction in hopes that you will never become someone’s patient after employing a poor lifting technique or two… or possibly a dozen repetitive lifts which abused, rather than properly used, your body.
Begin treating your spine with respect by using these 5 L’s of Lifting:
Don’t be caught off guard by how heavy something is. Before the actual lift, always “sample” the weight of the object you plan on lifting with a nudge, rocking it to one side, or partially tipping or lifting a corner of it.

Get as close to the object as you can, even straddling the corner of it if possible. The closer the object’s weight is to your center of gravity—your pelvis—the shorter the lever, and the less force you will place on your back.

The muscles you have in your thighs and buttocks are much larger in mass than the muscles that run along your spine. Use them to your advantage. Always bend your knees when lifting a heavy object, and purposefully push down through your feet as you rise up with your load. This way, the muscles in your back can act as a “support staff” during the lift, rather than as your primary lifting team.

Position your low back in lordosis, which is a fancy medical word for the backward, C-shaped arch that should be maintained in your lumbar spine. By lifting a heavy object with your low back in this arched position, you will protect against disc bulges and, therefore, injury.
Once this lordotic back position is achieved, add to it an abdominal brace. Not the Velcro® type you wrap around the outside of your waist. Rather, a deep abdominal muscle contraction activated by gently drawing your belly button in towards your spine. This simple abdominal contraction in turn activates the core muscles of your low back and pelvis, as well, allowing you to lift with a firm foundation.

Finally, inhale as you bend down (primarily from your knees) to grab hold of the load. Exhale slowly during your lift. Truth be told, this last “L” does
more to protect your heart than your back. Holding one’s breath during exertion can potentially overload a weakened heart and lead to an unwelcomed cardiac situation.

What if these 5 Ls of Lifting instructions have found you a day—or a year—too late, and you’ve already injured yourself by lifting improperly? My rule of thumb when it comes to pain management is this: if your pain level is above a “5” on a scale of “10,” ice! Place a wet paper towel between your skin and the ice pack and rest in a lying down (unweighted) position for 15 minutes. (Your skin should be numb when you are finished icing.) Repeat up to three times a day. And yes, ice even if your pain is chronic (many months in duration). Heat is NOT a friend of inflammation caused by injury.

If your symptoms continue beyond a month, please seek professional intervention. My bias is, of course, that you find yourself a highly skilled, manual physical therapist who will be able to offer you their comprehensive expertise. And remember, from now on, to always lift responsibly!