Picking up groceries or heavy boxes without aggravating your back should be no trouble if you work on improving core stability, hip mobility, and lower body strength. When you're lacking any of these, though, the teeny tiny muscles of your lower back (called erector spinae, because they're responsible for holding your spine erect) fire up, which is a bad thing because they simply are not strong enough to do heavy lifting. Then, you pay the painful price!
Here's why these three functions are the building blocks for healthy lifting, plus three exercises that will give you the foundation to pick up anything without killing your back.
If you lack range of motion at your hips, you will find yourself leaning forward with an arched back to lift things off of the floor. That's bad news for your back because this posture takes the super-strong glutes out of the equation, and transfers the burden of their work on the fragile lower back. Squats can help you fix this issue: They improve flexibility in your hips so you can lift things with an elevated spine. (Take your squats a step further by adding heavy weights)
The move: Goblet Squats
When learning deep squats for hip mobility, goblet squats are a good place to start. Holding a heavy weight in front of you creates a counterbalance that will prevent you from toppling as your bum drops down and back, and turning your legs outward allows your hips to open more than they would if your feet were facing straight forward.
- With both hands, hold a 10kg dumbbell in toward your chest. Stand tall with your legs wider than hip-width apart and toes turned out to 2 o'clock and 10 o'clock.
- Drop your buttocks down behind you, tracking your knees in the same direction as your toes and moving the dumbbell further away from your chest for balance. Make sure to keep your spine as erect as possible throughout the range of the squat. Continue to drop your buttocks until you feel like your lower back would curl under if you lowered any further (at which point, you have squatted too deeply). Hold here momentarily.
- Lift back up to starting position with control. Continue for 15 repetitions, rest and then do one more set of 15.
Lower Body Strength
Your legs and glutes should be your workhorses when picking things up. After all, they are the largest muscles of the body, so they should also be the strongest! When these big boys are not working as they ought to be, the smaller structures of your lower back will take charge; this reverse in roles often leads to back pain.
The move: Forward Step-Ups
Not only do step-ups work the buttocks in a big way, but they also strengthen the quadriceps. Together, strong legs and buns make for a lower body that can efficiently help you do the lifting you need throughout your days. Bonus: This exercise works your core, which is recruited to help you stabilise on the box through the movement.
- Select a box or bench that is 8-12" tall, and place your right foot on top of it.
- Lift your left foot from the floor to meet it, keeping the majority of your body weight on the right foot.
- Without removing your right foot from the box, return your left foot to the floor. Repeat 15 times on this leg, then switch and do 15 reps on the other leg.
Your core muscles exist to stabilise your spine. When your spine is unsupported by a weak core, work that should be shared by your whole trunk gets dumped on the lower back, making it do overtime. By engaging all of your middle muscles when you lift things, you recruit the abs, lower back, mid-back and upper back to split the effort.
The move: Low Plank
This is the gold-standard exercise for "turning on" your stabilising core muscles. Planks are just as effective on your forearms as they are on your hands, and this way, they won't kill your wrists! If standard low plank, described below, feels too challenging, try propping your forearms up on a bench. As you get stronger and more stable, you'll be able to drop to a lower prop, like a footstool, then eventually to the floor.
- Place your forearms on the floor, parallel to one another and line your shoulders up over your elbows. Curl your feet into the ground beneath you to grip the floor.
- Lift your body and hold steady in a straight line from shoulder to hip to heel. Actively "tighten up" through your belly, as if bracing for a punch, and hold for 15 seconds. (This is the same sensation you should feel before you bend down to pick objects up, so make a mental note to "turn on" these core muscles before lifting.)
- Lower down to take a break; repeat two more times.
First published: 29 Oct 2019