Whether I’m carrying two-pound bag of groceries or a 20-pound box, I can always hear my grandma’s voice saying, “Lift with your legs, not your back.” The advice may sound familiar, but what does it really mean? When you commit to heavy lifting, either in the gym or IRL, like helping a friend move, it’s crucial to do so with proper form and mechanics in order to reduce the risk of hurting yourself.
“Back injuries are the most common visit to orthopedic clinics—with the main culprit being poor posture from sitting or lifting,” says orthopedic surgeon Stephen Liu, MD, founder and chairman of Forme Science, which makes posture-correcting wearables. “Lifting with your legs provides you the power and stability to move loads without injuring your back.
How to lift with your legs properly
When picking something up off the floor or ground, you want to start with your feet under your shoulders. Squat low, keeping your chest upright—imagine you have a logo on the front of your shirt and you’re standing in front of a mirror; you want to be able to see that logo the entire time. Get a good grip on the item you’re lifting, engage your core, then drive down through your heels to stand back up. “You should feel the muscles in your legs doing most of the work, with minimal back pressure,” Dr. Liu says.
Avoid rounding forward over the item your lifting as it puts extra strain on your spine, as well as the deep spinal stabilizers in your back. “Cumulative back strain leads to spine degeneration or a ruptured disc,” Dr. Liu says. Instead, focus on maintaining a proud chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together, and avoid “butt winking.”
By lifting this way, you give yourself the best chance of staying pain free. But the other important thing to keep in mind when lifting with your legs is to never pick up anything that’s too heavy for you to carry. So be realistic with how much weight you can carry.
Perfect your squat form with bodyweight first, so you’ll nail it later with load: