Why 'Lift with Your Legs' is Foolish

Why 'Lift with Your Legs' is Foolish

By Ryan Jones, NASM, PTAGlobal, Spartan SGX, ISSA, PES, ELDOA

Why 'Lift with Your Legs' is Foolish

Have you ever seen an image like the one below?  Or maybe when you helped a friend move, they told you with good intentions to “lift with your legs, not your back.”  Often thought of as common knowledge, right?...  Well, it's foolish, and it really doesn’t make sense.  With that technique, hopefully you’ll never really have to pick up anything wider than that box or you’re screwed.

To this day, I still see graphics in places of work having an individual trying to stay completely upright, bending entirely through their knees, and often going onto the balls of their feet to pick something up from the floor.  Frankly, “lift with your legs,” needs to die, here’s why: Mechanically it doesn’t make sense, and from a psychology standpoint, it creates a lot of fear around loading the spine (and, there shouldn’t be fear around loading the knees either).  The idea behind this technique is to limit back pain or injuries, but it often fails to do so.  Generally speaking, with proper intention, the body responds to stress by adapting and getting stronger, so when we are able to load the spine in a stable and rigid position, we only become more durable.  That's how I and countless others are able to deadlift, as well as move heavy loads from the floor without back pain.  By no means rooted in fear, but resiliency.

What the saying really should be is “lift with your hips,” and this is properly accomplished via a hip hinge.  A hinge functions when two rigid bodies move about an axis, and in this case, the upper leg and spine function to move about the hips.

In hopes of changing your view on why “lift with your legs” is foolish, we’re going to cover psychology, why this saying doesn’t make sense, what a hip hinge is and why it’s preferableFinally, we’ll provide a short written tutorial on how to perform this movement pattern.


The more we understand pain and/or injury, the more we realize how psychology plays a major role in people’s perception of pain.  There are studies where researchers observe individuals who have no complaints of pain, but an MRI or Xray can show a disc bulge (or several).  Conversely, individuals can be riddled with pain and have no observed structural damage or dysfunctions.  How can this be?  The mind is powerful, and deeply intertwined with the nervous system.  The nervous system largely dictates both how we interpret and experience pain from our interaction with the physical world. So when fear is built around a movement (loading the spine), this can create anxiety around, or ‘preload’ the mind for, the anticipation of pain.  This preconceived notion can then influence the perception of pain and precipitate a lack of function.

Oftentimes, when someone “throws out their back” (a catchall phrase that can mean a variety of injuries or conditions), the rehabilitation process involves overcoming fear and empowering the individual to begin moving and loading their spine and entire trunk through various exercises. This is done through educating the person on the various reasons why they experience pain - if it’s a protective mechanism or if the pain is “injury” (like a bulging/herniated disc), the protocol of and how to strengthen and stabilize supportive structures, and the importance of loading and to not avoid it indefinitely.

Why it doesn’t make sense:

Next time you pick up a heavy couch, or a large (wide) box, get as close to the box as you can, try to stay as upright as possible, and squat down while keeping your heels on the floor and keeping the object close to you.  Feel awkward?  Can’t stay upright?  Maybe your knees hit the object?  Or your heels come up?  Well, this mechanic is what’s often shown (see pic above).  Even if an individual has the anatomical structure (shorter lower extremity and longer torso) to demonstrate the less-than optimal position, a majority of people lack the mobility or movement quality to perform this with sound mechanics.  Hopefully after attempting this, you can understand why this doesn’t make sense.  So what is the proper way to pick up a heavy object? The hip hinge.


The hip hinge:

Now, stand as close as you can to that same object.  Slightly bend your knees, push your hips out behind you, allow your torso to travel forward (with a neutral spine), and try to pick it up again.  Notice anything different?  Did your knees get in the way?  Were you able to stay closer to the box?  If you were able to do this mechanic, it most likely felt a lot more natural.

The ability to hinge about the hips is a foundational human movement, yet a huge percentage of clients who come to us initially lack the body awareness and ability to do so.  Or, they have fear around bending forward. In teaching and getting people to utilize the hip hinge, the goal should be to limit the fear around this action, and get people comfortable and confident with this movement pattern.  Granted, this movement pattern does not NEED to be applied to simple things like picking up a pencil, but the next time you help someone move, you can show them why moving like the first image is foolish.

Learn how to hip hinge:

Below is a short instructional on how to hip hinge

  1. Stand ~1-2 foot lengths (your foot) away from a wall
  2. Feet ~hip width apart
  3. Place your hands on the front of your thighs
  4. Pressing your hands against your thighs with slight bend in the knees, start to push hips back to touch the wall with your glutes
  5. Sliding your hands down your thighs while maintaining a neutral spine (natural S curve) throughout
  6. Make contact with the wall lightly (like touching an egg shell) without resting on it. The torso MUST travel forward in a “bowing fashion” in order to maintain balance over the mid/whole foot
  7. Once you make contact with the wall (not resting on it), you may bend your knees further to reach closer to the floor.
  8. To return to the start position, drive your feet through the ground and drive your hips forward ensuring they stay lower than the shoulders and head, then fully stand
  9. Through the movement, brace the trunk (like you’re anticipating a blow to the gut) to help with the stabilizing  the spine
  10. Repeat steps 1-9 when practicing how to pick up objects