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Bending over often doesn't hurt or damage your back! 

Bend with your knees and not your back! Have you been told this is the best way to lift something? Nearly every day I see people bending over and modifying their normal movement to prevent strain on their lower back. This is either adapted from having lower back pain or it is "preventative". I bend like this, so I won't have lower back pain. Does this sound like you? Have you ever been told that if you been over the wrong way, you may have or develop back pain?

While I’m sure whoever told you this had the best of intentions, the reality is these statements simply are not true. They actually make us worse when providers tell us things that don’t encourage us but rather make us fearful of movement. For example, “Don’t bend over because you have a herniated disc and it can make it worse.” While it can be uncomfortable, there is no study to show that the disc material will change after bending over. You can see how a statement like that would enable us to do less, move less, and ultimately perpetuate the problem.

Flexing our spine or bending over is completely safe and it is natural movement for our back.

Let’s dive into what research and experience tells us about bending over with lower back pain so we can debunk this myth.

First, make sure you are actually experiencing lower back pain. It can be difficult to tell the difference between hip and lower back pain. I often see people that are certain that it is their back that is bothering them but after investigation, it’s their hips. It is helpful to dial this in first! Also, back pain can be scary especially chronic back pain. If you have red flag symptoms such progressive numbness and tingling, history of cancer, trauma, and etc, then a thorough medical examination is warranted.

What is the best way to bend over? 

The best way to bend over with lower back pain is to focus on using your hips and knees to assist in the movement. They are strong, capable joints.

Let's explore this together! It's not as complicated as you may think! First off, every body is different and everyone's lower back pain is different. So, what works for you, may not work for someone else and what works for them, may not work for you! I am sure you have found this to be true. The goal is, to be able to flex your spine do the things you want to do in life without lower back pain. You can bend over and do it in a way that doesn’t make you stress other parts of your body as well. Notice, how I didn’t say avoid bending over! Only in some rare cases do I recommend purchasing a reacher to help you pick up things from the ground or change the way our bodies are made to move.

Two key aspects to being able to bend over without back pain are, strengthen your hips and knees and make sure you have good mobility in your spine.

Strengthening your hips and knees.

Strengthening your spine is important. We need to build our resiliency. That is, how much can you do or how much you are capable of doing. To improve your capacity and ability to move, you must work at it. When people bend over and feel a sudden sharp pain or a pop in their lower back, it can be scary and may or may not lead to discomfort. Back pain occurs in 90% of people in their lifetime so if you have the strength to do what you ask of your body, you are less likely to have pain when bending over.

Check out this little workout I put together to help you buidl your back strength! 

Mobility of your spine, hips, and ankles.

Motion is lotion, when it comes to the joints in your body. That's why when you are stiff, you feel better after moving! You have to have good mobility or joint movement, in order to improve your ability to flex your spine. When you flex or bend over, the joints in your back separate and your hip joints compress. This is normal but that's why we have to consider what's happening in others areas of your body when you are having difficulty bending over or fearful bending over will hurt your back. Mobility work is very safe for you back and here is a great way to improve the mobility of your back.

Mobility stretching of back in hands and knees position
Mobility stretching of back in hands and knees position

The Truth About Bending Forward and Lower Back pain.

When researchers analyzed a lot of data and articles, they found that bending over is not a risk factor for developing lower back pain. They also found that bending forward while lifting something was not associated with a greater risk for persistent lower back pain. Bingo! This is great news. In other words, it is 100% safe to bend forward at your back. Assuming that you have built some resiliency and strength in your back and surrounding areas! 

In other words, it is 100% safe to bend forward at your back.

In fact, it’s necessary! Any time we grab laundry from the washer or pick up our phone off the ground when we accidentally drop it, we have to bend forward using our lower backs! You may feel more pressure in your lower back when you bend forward, but this doesn’t mean that the motion is harmful. Pressure and even soreness into your lower back doesn’t mean that damage is being done.

  • Try this! Try warming up your lower back before you tackle cleaning out your garage! This can make all the difference!

Our backs were designed to be able to bend forward and the research clearly tells us there is no reason to avoid bending over with our lower backs.

Generally, what I recommend is that lifting normal household items such as bottles of water and even gallons of milk are completely fine to lift. Lifting a bag of salt may require some more thought but still not impossible. You may have to work up to lifting heavy objects. It's really no different than working out to improve your strength. I don’t care how you lift lighter objects because the risk of injury is very low. If you do have pain lifting even the lightest of objects then mobility work is often recommended.

Now have you every noticed that you have more difficulty in the morning? This is very normal and there is a simple explanation for stiffness in the morning! 

Is it better to Keep Your Back Straight When Bending Over?

For most of our day-to-day motions, there is really no reason to focus on keeping your back straight when bending over. From experience, I have seen that those who keep their back really straight when bending over have experienced back pain for a long time. It looks un-natural and it has to feel that way. If you have pain then working on your mobility and strength deficits is important. I have seen many people who have had fusions of their back and still gain the ability to bend over without focusing on keeping their back straight. If they can do it, then so can you.

But there may be a few situations where adopting a straighter position in your lower back could be helpful. If you are going to deadlift a really heavy weight from the ground, you may be able to generate more power during the movement if you try to keep your back straight. Think, Olympic weightlifters.

It just comes down to your personal preference and what you are trying to accomplish with the movement in this case.

What’s most important is that we don’t develop a mindset where we fear bending forward and using our lower back. Movement is safe and we need to be bending forward to keep our backs mobile, strong, and resilient.

In summary, bending over or flexing your back doesn't do damage or hurt your back. It is safe and completely natural. Our backs are stronger than we think but we may need to give them a little TLC to make sure they stay pain free and resilient. There are many ways to do this but you just need to do something. Workouts to improve mobility and strength are a great place to start. Sometimes our body needs our attention so instead of changing the way you bend over, improve your strength and range of motion so you can do what you want.

If you want to know more about improving hip and lower back pain check out this free webinar. It covers differences between hip and back pain as well as common treatments for both as well as best evidence for recovery! 

Revision Health Services now offers telehealth for Florida residents as well as massage and physical therapy locally in, Nocatee, Ponte Vedra, and St. Johns, Florida. To find out if our services could be the best fit for you, reach out and let's chat!

Until next time, stay healthy, keep moving, and take care of yourself.


Dr. Michael Derry is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and board certified in orthopedics. He is very passionate about treating lower back pain and helping people build their resiliency. He has spent time assisting at universities as well as managing large clinics before starting his own practice in Jacksonville, FL.

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