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What is the Safest Way to Lift Heavy Items?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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If you improperly lift heavy items, whether they are packages or older toddlers, you can injure your back or strain the muscles surrounding your back. Shoulders and arms may also be injured, depending upon how you lift. Since back pain is no fun to deal with, and can indicate a mild, moderate or even serious injury, it’s best to avoid improper lifting techniques.

Two common mistakes occur when people try to lift heavy items. The first of these mistakes can be overestimating your strength when considering whether to lift something heavy alone. If you’re not used to heavy lifting, even a 30-40 pound (13.61-18.14 kg) item can be challenging to lift alone. Additionally, if the item has an awkward shape, it may be harder to get the kind of grasp on it you need to lift it safely. The standard rule when considering whether or not you can or should lift something alone is “when it doubt, ask someone to help out.” Don’t let pride stand in the way of safe lifting tactics.

Another mistake, and most of us do this on a regular basis, is to bend at the waist to pick things up off the floor. When you bend at the waist, you’re really working the muscles of your back, chest and shoulders, and your chances for injury increases. Instead you might consider the following for when you need to lift something heavy:

    1. Instead of bending at the waist, bend at the knees and come to a squat position, if the item is on the floor, or to a position just below the object if it’s on a slightly higher surface, such as on a shorter coffee table. This will help you rely more on leg strength to lift items, than on back and shoulder strength.
    2. Pick up the item, if you feel it’s safe to pick it up by yourself, and bring it as close to your body as possible. This can be called hugging. The farther your arms have to extend, the more likely injury will occur.
    3. Use your leg strength to smoothly and gently push up from the bent knee position.
    4. Don’t twist or look around as you’re lifting, which can shift the way your body is carrying the weight and strain or injure various muscles. Also don’t jerk upward quickly.
    5. If you are straining to pick up the item, and your legs will not straighten, get some help.
    6. Plan out exactly where and how you will release the item. Be careful not to drop it on your toes or fingers, and bend the knees again if you must put the item on a surface lower than your waist.

Being able to lift heavy items safely is all about moving slowly, lifting with the legs, planning the lift (and release), and being reasonable about what you can lift alone. When two people lift something together, the load should be shared evenly, and having two people of similar height helps, since both people are carrying the item at approximately the same height and can coordinate a smoother knee bend and lift technique. Moreover, pay attention to any doctor’s recommendations on lifting if you are pregnant, have recently had surgery or have injuries that might be worsened by lifting even light objects. Taking the extra time to lift heavy items safely or getting help if you need it can prove an incredible time saver if it means you won’t be recovering from a back injury.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon187642 — On Jun 18, 2011

Try having no choice but to lift heavy crap alone because you're the only one on the dock. Try having a boss who, although he's no Mr. Olympia himself, think everyone should be able to deadlift a 400 pound load on their own and cart it all the way out to some creep's absurdly-lifted truck. These rules are like "In a perfect world, we would all lift from a squatting position and be able to ask someone for help. Wntil then, there's Worker's Comp."

Stay safe everyone, remember that minimum wage labor jobs--any job, really--isn't worth your life.

By anon132804 — On Dec 08, 2010

The "bend at the knees" advice is common, I think, because it is simple to get across. But I also think it misses the mark if you are lifting objects that are truly heavy for you.

A deep squat forces inflexible people to round their lower back, and that, combined with jerking the object, is generally the source of injury. Personally, I think a better simple phrase is "keep your back straight and tight."

If the lifter is forced to keep their back rigid and straight when they lift, they will have little choice but to bend their knees and assume the form used by powerlifters performing the deadlift. Those lifters have perfected the appropriate perfect biomechanical motion of raising a heavy weight from the floor, as evidenced by the tremendous weights they move safely every day in training. The power comes from the legs, the safety comes from the spinal stabilizers.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia...
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