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Lifting and bending

These are part of everyday life but often regarded as something unpleasant but necessary. We hear so much, ‘don’t bend your back, bend your knees’ especially from health care professionals. Lifting is seen as potentially dangerous and precise instructions are given as to the weight and shape of the load.

Strangely, cultures where man does not depend on machines, people seldom seem to have problems, yet use their backs continually, often for heavy work. Perhaps this is part of the secret. It is vital to use and move the back throughout the day. Our lifestyle does not lend itself to this activity and indeed often makes us captive in a sitting position. Not only does this result in excessive decompression of our discs, but the many joints in our spine become gummed up and so susceptible to strain and injury.

Machines have distorted our daily activities, from making smoothies and cleaning the floor, to sitting all the way to work. We use a lift or escalator rather than the stairs. Anything to cut down on effort. Machines rather than man. We choose to send an e-mail rather than walk to the next office. Anything for a quiet life.

Without what used to be ‘normal’ activities, our bodies and minds start to breakdown and the back is a major casualty, Pain slows us down yet further and we move less. We start to withdraw from life and increasing hopelessness sets in.

What is such good news is that we can fight both backache and depression by returning to the way we were designed to move.

Each time you bend your back you are pumping fluid into your discs as well as strengthening the tiny muscles, so important to the functioning of our backs. The facet joints keep mobile preventing further episodes of pain and disability.

Most joints, including those of the spine, have capsules with synovial fluid circulating within them, helping to bring about smooth movements. This circulating fluid improves the health of the joint, including eating up fragments of cartilage. The more we move, the more our joints function efficiently and so last longer. The back is key to our activities and must move as much as possible to keep it working without breakdown and pain.

However there are ways of doing so safely and we need to know the techniques and the reasons for them.  

Recent research has shown that the secret of a healthy back is to have a slight rounding of your lower back on certain movements, lifting in particular. Another way to put it, is to flatten the curve in what we call the lumbar spine, the lower five of your vertebral bodies.  This brings in the abdomenal muscle called Transverse Abdominus which acts as a support from the front forming a kind of 'airbag' with Multifidus, small muscles running between the vertebral bodies at the back. These protect the lower spine from sudden strains and uneven, uncontrolled movements. 


This should be done slowly and smoothly so that each part of your spine can be controlled and syncronised. Sudden, jercky movements catch the facet joints unprepared for their task of helping the discs to function safely. Think of going down bone by bone, bringing Multifidus into play. The long Erector muscles are the ones usually going into spasm as a result of strain or nipping of soft tissue round the facet joint, and this must be avoided at all costs. The same applies to straightening up. Bone by bone.

Bend whenever you can, bracing your tummy muscles as you do so. This muscle contraction holds the spine in position while you move. We call it Dynamic Abdomenal Bracing ( DAB) and it will build up tone in your abdomenal muscles, good for developing a flat tummy! Long-handled implements save your energy but are unhelpful for the condition of your back. See each time you bend as a good chance to nourish your discs and exercise the essential muscles, back and front. As these muscles also bring in the pelvic floor muscles which control the bladder, vagina and rectum this will develop good control and function of these important organs.

On a personal note, I have found regular housework with plenty of bending has improved the function and condition of my back and neck, so improving my general health.


Just as with bending, the correct method must be followed. The same care mentioned above is even more relevant as a load puts  an extra strain on the discs, muscles and many joints. The protection involves making absolutly certain that the lumbar spine is held in slight flexion, with a rounding out of the curve. As pointed out above, to do this, you must pull in Transverse Abdomenus as if tucking in your lower stomach (DAB) before taking up the strain.

This may be contrary to advice you have been given but as mentioned above, the knowledge is firmly based on the latest studies done in laboratories specialising in micro-anatomical and physiological studies of the spinal joints.

Anecdotal evidence in treatments backs this up As I've mentioned before, the spine is no longer 'a mysterious black box.' A study of the disc's performance  in lifting, has found that a vital substance, proteoglycan, which nourishes the nucleus pulposa in the middle of the disc, increases with the increased pressure of lifting. It sounds as if lifting a safe amount of weight could in fact be good for your discs.

As far as the load is concerned, the weight and shape of the load should be assessed for safety and here the conventional rules apply: holding the load close to the body and bending the knees to take up its weight. provided that the lower spine is slightly rounded, that is, held in slight flexion. Based on research, It is no longer believed that the spine should be held in a neutral position, in other words a straight back.

It is good to start training and strengthening the back by lifting a light load, say 2 kg, when shopping. If no pain results gradually increase this load