So you may believe that you must keep your back straight when you lift but is this really true. We are going to examine the research to answer the question, “Is lifting with a rounded back bad?”
Do you fear bending your lower back, expecting that your back might go on you? If I told you that your fear was misplaced and that lifting with a rounded back wasn’t bad at all would you believe me? A study by Villumsen et al (2014) looked to see if there was any relationship between forwards bending of the back and the incidence of lower back pain and not only did they find that bending more didn’t increase back pain but they found that a small degree (up to 30 degrees flexion) actually reduced their back pain!
Have manual handling courses got it wrong about keeping your back straight when you lift?
I have a few issues with manual handling courses on this subject, the first one is that even if you must lift with a straight back they don’t coach people to physically be able to do it. Amazingly people often can’t keep their back straight because they have poor body awareness and control or insufficient flexibility in their hips and knees, not to mention the strength needed to lift with their legs and not their back.
The next issue is that as we have mentioned above there is nothing wrong with bending your back, it is designed to do this as a human being and we sometimes can’t lift with a straight back because of the scenario that we are in. Where you are likely to hurt yourself is doing something that you are not used to so you have poor strength and flexibility to bend under load and certainly avoiding bending won’t make your rounded back position stronger and more flexible. The video below discussed this more:
Can you even keep your back straight if you tried?
It would appear that the Lumbar spine doesn’t move much, it is likely that most motion occurs more above in the Thoracic spine and below in the hips. In fact, the Lumbar spine is more built for stability than motion. Here is a fascinating study where they told people to lift in three different ways and they looked at how much the Lumbar spine moved and bent during the lifting. The first group were told to lift as they felt natural (freestyle) and their Lumbar flexion (bending) was measured at 38 degrees. Next, they asked them to purposefully round their backs when lifting and they measured 41 degrees of flexion and finally, they instructed them to extend (arch) the lower back they still had 30 degrees flexion. So, the lower back rounds in lifting no matter how you try to lift even if you try to arch it the opposite way (Arjmand et al 2005).
Keep your back straight on a squat?
Now what you might say is that if you trained yourself to improve your body awareness then you would be able to keep your back straight when you lift. Therefore surely seasoned gym-goers or powerlifters will have a straight back when they squat won’t they? Potvin et al (1991) found that spinal flexion occurred when squatting to a 40-degree amount even though they were cued to stay in neutral alignment. So you can’t keep your back straight in this instance either.
Is a straight back stronger?
In this same study by Arjmand et al (2005) they looked at the influence on various biomechanical factors from the three types of lifting and incredibly they found that a slightly flexed lifting posture was optimal when it came to internal spinal loading and more optimal active and passive muscle forces. So it seems that if you could slightly arch your back when you lift this maybe not the best position but don’t worry you probably can’t do it anyway. It is interesting though because in our Physio clinics in Staffordshire I have seen many patients who have hurt their back in a squat because they overemphasised Lumbar arching and this overstressed their back effectively injuring it.
The content in this blog article is provided for general information purposes only and is not meant to replace a physiotherapy or medical consultation.