Whether it’s lifting at work, home, or for exercise proper form is critical to reducing your risk of injury. The mantra “lift with your legs, not your back” holds true, but needs to be unpacked. What’s the difference between them? Why shouldn’t I lift with my back? How do I lift with my legs?

Words alone are not enough to teach lifting safety. A study of workers found that as engagement increased, accidents and injuries decreased. This means practice and critiques on your form.

Back vs Legs

The muscles of your back, specifically the erector spinae muscles, function to hold you upright. They hold the spine erect. While large, they don’t posses the same strength as our hip and leg muscles. Using our back muscles to lift heavy loads could result in sprains, strains, and even tears.

Erector Spinae Muscles; Spinalis, Longissimus, and Iliocostal

Erector Spinae Muscles; Spinalis, Longissimus, and Iliocostal

But why are they weaker? One important reason is their location. Core muscles, like the abdominal muscles and the erector spinae, can increase the pressure in the abdomen when they contract. This increase in pressure puts extra strain on the lumbar discs which could lead to a herniation.

There are numerous hip and leg muscles for lifting. Compared to the back muscles, they are much stronger and don’t increase the abdominal pressure. Utilizing them, you can lift without increasing the risk of injury.

Proper Lift Techniques

That’s right, techniques; as in more than one technique. There are many ways to lift properly and different objects require different ways to lift. The goal is to keep the object as close to your body as possible and move your hips back to avoid injuring weak muscles or massively increasing pressure in your low back. These techniques are attempting to prevent muscle sprains, tears, and disc herniations; not chronic, aching, annoying low back pain as evidence suggests that heavy lifting does not cause this type of pain.

We’re going to look at two different lifts; the squat and the hip-hinge. Both are great ways to lift properly and avoid the injures mentioned above. These lifts activate larger muscles and keep the lumbar spine from flexing to much.

The Squat

Squats are usually what most people think of when they try to lift with their legs. Instead of bending the forward at the back, the lifter sinks their hips back and down to lower the upper body to a height conducive to lifting the object. While doing this, the back remains straight which lowers the strain and pressure being placed on the region.

Check out this video on proper squat form.


While we don’t want the knees to drift to far forward in this lift, they will come forward naturally. This can be difficult when lifting certain objects because the knees may get in the way. That’s where the next technique shines.

The Hip-Hinge

If we look back to the image of the proper lifting stick figure in the green circle, he probably didn’t squat lift that box. His knees would get in the way. That’s where the hip-hinge can be useful. Like the squat, the hip-hinge has the lifter move the hips back but not down. Do this by placing your weight on your heels before lifting the object. This helps us pick up objects without bumping our knees and can also be useful when you must reach to move heavy objects from a truck bed or table top. Again, the key is to utilize our larger, stronger muscles and reduce the pressure on the low back.

Check this one out to see a hip-hinge as an exercise.


Practice makes perfect

Like we mentioned before, just talking about good ways to lift isn’t enough. You need to actively practice them and get feedback from others. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re keeping your back straight or knees in the right place. A trainer, physical therapist, or doctor of chiropractic can help make sure you’re performing them correctly.

Squats and hip-hinges also make great weight training exercises. Working on these lifts in a controlled environment can strengthen your muscles to help prevent injury and make lifting objects at work easier. Just remember to have good form while exercising and make sure you talk with your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

This blog provides general information and discussions about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your health care provider or seek other professional medical treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something that have read on this blog or in any linked materials. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or emergency services immediately.