Everyone knows to lift with your legs. Most people don’t do it, but most of us have heard that phrase somewhere, sometime. I’m here to tell you (again) that lifting with your legs is extremely important. However, it’s only half the battle to avoid injury. You must also “protect with the abs”! That means you must contract the abdominal muscles and stabilize the lumbar spine in the neutral position. Those of you who have been “lifting with the legs” may have actually been putting yourselves more at risk of injury if you weren’t also protecting with your abdominal muscles. This is because you can lift more weight with your legs than your back muscles. But now you have more weight on an unprotected spine and thus, a greater chance of straining a ligament or blowing out a disc.
What should it be? Protect with your abs; then lift with your legs (with a caveat of never twist during the lift!) So how do we achieve this amazing feat of lifting without hurting the lower back? Let’s break it down. First you must learn how to perform what is commonly known as a pelvic tilt. More accurately, contracting your abdominals so as to stabilize your lumbar spine in the pelvic neutral position. Everybody knows how to do that, right? Let’s focus in on that for a second. Lie down on the floor face up with your knees bent to about 90 and your feet flat on the floor. This is a basic sit-up position. Now contract your abdominal muscles. There should be a resultant flattening of the stomach and the slight flattening of your lower back toward the floor (that’s the pelvic tilt part). This is not as easy as it sounds because few people do this regularly and thus must learn how to connect the cognitive brain to control the abdominal muscles. Make sure you’re not “sucking in your gut.” This will not protect your spine from that box of junk in the garage you want to dispose. If you’re not sure if you are doing it right, try this: put your hands over your abdominals and start to do a curl sit-up…feel when the abs contract. Then lie flat in the starting position and try contracting the abs without raising your head/shoulders. Again, feel for the abdominals to contract. The ribs should be pulled slightly down toward your pelvis (not raise up toward the head as when you suck your gut in). As you start to get good at this, now make sure you’re not holding your breath. Yes, this can be done. Your abs control your spine position while your diaphragm does the breathing. Once you’ve mastered this, you need to practice it in other positions besides lying supine on the floor. Try it sitting, standing, whatever. It will be a huge benefit in many activities…such as lifting.
Now that you can perform a pelvic neutral stabilization properly in all positions (friends and loved ones alike will be impressed!), let’s go back to lifting. The first thing to do is get as close to the object you’re lifting as possible with your feet comfortably a little wider than your hips. Now do that pelvic tilt (yes, tighten the abs), squat down and grab the bag – then as you lift with your legs, tighten the abs just a little more to make sure you are protecting your spine. During this maneuver, also keep the object as close to you as possible. Now turn, don’t twist and place it where you want. Also, remember it is just as important to tighten/protect with the abs and use your legs when lowering the object back down to the ground.
This sequence should be used on any bending lift - no matter how easy it seems. Whether you are picking up a penny for luck or a heavy box, you should protect with the abs and lift with the legs.
Here are a few exercises to help improve your safe lifting capacity:
1. Do the pelvic tilt as previously described in detail above.
2. Curl sit-ups – pelvic tilt position hands across chest, curl your head and shoulders up until just the shoulder blades no longer contact the floor – no higher
3. Chair squats – sitting in a chair with your feet comfortably hip-width apart. Contract the abs and stand up – then keep the abs tight as you slowly sit back down (Don’t plop!). Repeat 10-20 times.