Simple Lifting: Stay Close, Be Happy, & Work as a Team

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 12.02.40 PMWith teachers on the mind, I had a follow-up thought as they prepare to set-up or move into new classrooms for the year. Proper lifting can seem both confusing and impractical at times, but it is an important concept to master in order to maintain a pain-free back, and make sure you start the year off right. With that in mind, here are three “refined” keys to have in mind when moving into classrooms over the next week. 

1> Get as close as possible!

I find this to be the most important element because it will still be beneficial even if the next tips are forgotten: The more distance between ourselves (and more specifically, our spines) and our object of interest, the harder our bodies must work to successfully get that object moving. When discussing biomechanics, we call this a “moment arm”, and a longer moment arm generates greater amounts of torque about the spine. If the distance between us and our object is made as small as possible, therefore, it spares our spines from increased load — limiting the risk of injury. So get close!

Flex and Extend

I’ve moved my hands away so you can see better. The highest flat yellow bars are approximately PSIS level — your thumbs — and the lowest yellow bars are the ASIS level — your middle fingers. Notice how with arching the back, the vertical distance between these lines gets larger, while with flattening of the back the distance becomes smaller. Find the mid-point between these positions — your “neutral spine”!

2> Stay in your “happy place”.

I borrow the term “happy place” from my favourite childhood movie, Hook (Old Peter Pan). I think this is more relatable for some than the official concept — Neutral Spine. To find this ideal low back position, try this: 

> Place your hands on your hips, with middle finger at the bony front of your pelvis (called the ASIS), and your thumbs at the back of your hips (called the PSIS).

> Arch your lower back — feel how your middle finger dips lower, while your thumb rises up? Good.

> Now do the complete opposite — flatten your lower back, so your middle fingers rise higher, while your thumb drops towards the floor. Good. 

Right in the middle of these two positions (repeat again if necessary!) is the sweet spot, the happy place, the Neutral Spine. This is, for most people, where we can tolerate the most load without putting a great stress through our backs. If this doesn’t make sense, maybe consider this — if you pick up a grocery bag with your arm, do you pick it up with your elbow straight? What about with it completely bent? No, it’s easiest with the elbow slightly bent — or somewhere between our extremes of motion. This middle ground is where we are strongest, most efficient, and least likely to be injured. The same applies to our backs. 

3> Don’t worry about lifting with your knees, or with your hips.

If these cues have worked well for you in the past, great! Continue with it. If you don’t really understand what they mean, I recommend focusing on keeping a Neutral Spine position first and foremost. “Lifting with the hips”, or “lifting with the knees” is generally used to help people to NOT lift with the legs straight (forcing you to bend completely through the back). In reality, I’d prefer you used your knees, hips, and ankles to support a neutral spine, so use everything — team effort, right? 

BONUS TIP*: Anticipate the Weight.

I like to remind patients, especially those with lower back pain already, to treat lifting activities with intent. What does this mean? It means considering what it is you need to do before you do it. Consider: are you more likely to hear about somebody with low back pain because they moved a big heavy object (couch, table, sack of potatoes), or because they were “just reaching for my shoes” / “just grabbing my backpack” / “just picking up my keys”?

I hear a lot more of the second variety — little things that don’t require a lot of effort, but people have forgotten to use the keys above to bend and lift safely! So I say “anticipate the weight” because I find (anecdotally) that people prepare themselves better for moving bigger objects, and therefore hurt themselves less. As such, if we use the same intent with all our bending and lifting activities, I think we might be a lot better off as a result.

*Not a real bonus — I’ll never intentionally hide information that matters — just something I remembered to add-on late. 

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