Should I Bend My Back or Not?

This is an absolute classic question when it comes to back pain and those lifting weights.

It’s also incredibly poorly understood in my opinion, with experts on either side of the fence. Here is what I think works and makes most sense:

The reason we are taught to “lift with a straight back” is because statistics show that more than 3/4 of adults have a posterior disc bulge even though they have no pain. That means the nucleus of the spinal disk is moving backward towards the spinal chord.

It is best then to err on the side of caution with a number of people this big when teaching to lift. This keeps the disk in neutral and avoids the risks of rupturing the disk when lifting and bend with a heavy load, in the gym for example.

Before we go any further though the spine is not actually straight when moving like this, a better term is “neutral”. This means not being bent forwards or backwards by any amount, however the lower back does have a concave curvature naturally so it should definitely not be straight.

For example, stand up against the wall and put your hand between your lower back and the wall. The wall is straight, your back has a neutral curvature.

Now, you may think well that’s it then, that’s the answer if so many have a disk bulge already. But no, not really because if we move like this all the time we risk mummifying the spine and creating excessive tension where there shouldn’t be leading to even bigger muscle imbalances over time.

The ligaments of the spine and pelvis are responsible for doing a fair amount of the work when we lift and they are important to keep strong (as ligaments hold bones together after all). By mummifying the spine though the lower back muscles becomes rigid and the ligaments get weaker.

This is the type of person that when I put my fingers into their back muscles it feels like a steel rod up the back rather than relaxed muscle tissue.

So if we don’t want to mummify the spine what do you do?

Assuming there is no back pain currently you should be lifting small items with a bent back, that is flexing forwards and making your back stretch to then return to normal on the way up. Small things are objects such as a bag of shopping, shoes, etc.

If it is something you can lift 30x or more in one go you should be bending your back.

If the object is something your could only lift 10x in a row and you may also feel like you need to hold your breath while lifting then, this is something you should do with a neutral spine “straight back lift” unless you are well trained, have a good background in exercise and have been screened for disk issues.

History of Back Pain

So you’ve got a history of back pain and you feel vulnerable each time you bend over to pick something up with a flexed back, so you “protect” it by keeping straight even with the lightest of things.

This will be making the problem worse and is due most often not to an issue with your back but poor core function.

One of the tests that we do when assessing clients is to ask them to bend forwards and touch their toes.

The natural way to do so is to the round your back. As you do this the deep abdominal muscles should activate to stabilise the spine through a pull on the ligaments and I am be able to feel that as the client bends forwards.

When there is a history of back pain, with a tight lower back, doing this test usually nothing happens to the deep abdominal muscles and the organs actually fall forwards stretching them, even more weakening the system further.

Then all that is left holding the fort is the poor lower back muscles, hence they go into spasm often and the back issues continue.

So when that is the case it’s much more about correcting core function and digestive function so that the deep abdominals work as they should to co-contract with the lower back, not leave them to do their own thing.

So in summary, YES we should bend forwards and make out spine work as they are designed and NO we should not be lifting with a straight back when we go for a pair of socks on the bedroom floor. If that is your strategy I would guess that your core is dysfunctional and needs to corrective work.

If that is the case and you would like to make positive changes to that over the next few weeks, comment below and we’ll see how we can make that a reality together.