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How to Lift Safely: Protecting Your Back

You’re going along great on your training – gaining mass, getting stronger and leaner, and then it happens. An injury! A simple muscle pull can mean weeks of recovery, and a tear or separation can require surgery and months of rehabilitation. In this week’s post, we show you how to do the top 4 back-injury-inducing lifts correctly so this won’t happen to you. Knowing how to lift safely, and observing proper form every time, will lead to steady progress and a longer training lifetime. Those injuries don’t just slow progress. They can lead to a permanently weakened muscle that you’ll have to baby for the rest of your lifting career. If you want to make steady progress and build the body you’ve always wanted it’s vital to avoid injury.

In this week’s post we’ll cover the four exercises most likely to result in severe injury to your lower back. Check back at the end of the month for the top 6 upper body exercises.

photo of woman who demonstrates proper weightlifting technique; how to lift safely

The Top 4 Back-Injury-Inducing Lifts – And How To Do Them Right!


There is no exercise that is more effective for building overall lower body strength. You’ll develop strong thighs and glutes, improve your balance and even gain some core strength. Unfortunately, done wrong, you’ll quite likely end up with a serious injury.

Squats and deadlifts are the two exercises most likely to result in a severe back injury. It is vital to keep your back straight while doing squats. Keep your shoulders above your knees. Never bend forward – which will result in lifting with your back, not your legs! Keep the motion slow and controlled. Don’t rest your weight on your knees at the bottom of the motion as this can result in injury to the ligaments in your knee joints. Knees, once injured, may never be the as strong again so it’s very important to protect them.


Probably the very best overall exercise you can do to get stronger. Deadlifts work pretty much every muscle in your body and lead to practical strength that you can use in everyday life.

Notice how Julia’s shoulders stay back of her knees. Her back is straight with a slight inner arch. The movement is smooth and controlled with no jerking of the weight at the start of each lift. Pay close attention to the beginning of the lift and see how she is careful to drop her butt to take the weight with her legs, not her back. Finally, at the top of the motion, tighten the glutes. This extra squeeze will not only help to strengthen those muscles but correct your posture at the top of each lift.

Stiff Leg Deadlift

While this is an excellent exercise for strengthening the lower back, it can also lead to a very serious injury when done incorrectly. I know this from personal experience! Your vertebrae have small ‘spurs’ which lead off from the central column at an angle. These spurs are joined by cushions of ligament. These are called facet joints. I tore mine years ago doing stiff leg deadlifts incorrectly. It literally took years to heal, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My doctor advised that for most people who suffer that injury, it will never heal.  For more about facet joints, there’s a very informative article here.

I spent months barely being able to stand upright, and six months after the injury I still couldn’t swing a 5 lb. sledgehammer. My wife wanted an old rock wall removed from our garden. She had to do it. It took years of careful training and babying my back to get strong and pain-free again. I wish someone had warned me how badly you can do in your back with incorrect lifting technique. Now I’m warning you. Above all else, protect your back from injury!

First, pay close attention to Julia’s technique at the beginning of the exercise. She begins exactly the same way she does for deadlifts, lowering her butt and lifting with her legs. Even though you’re doing a stiff-leg deadlift, getting the bar off the ground safely is vital.

‘Stiff-leg deadlift’ does not mean ‘straight-leg’. Notice she keeps her knees slightly bent. This prevents stretching the hamstrings, which could easily result in injury, especially at the bottom of the motion when those muscles are fully extended. Once again, she keeps a slight inward arch to her lower back throughout. More about the importance of this below. Finally, as always, the motion is smooth and controlled, with no jerking or ballistic movements.

How To Lift Safely: The Vital Inward Back Arch

In all lifts, it is essential to maintain a slight inward arch to your lower back. Lifting with an outward arch, like the figure on the right, fully extends the muscles and ligaments in the lower back. When these extended tissues are put under strain from lifting they can easily be stretched beyond their breaking point.

3d images showing correct and incorrect posture for weight lifting

Always maintain a slight inner arch to your lower back. Never arch your back outwards like the guy on the right. He’s just asking for a severe lower back injury.

Seated Rows

Here’s another exercise where many people will injure their lower back. I see people in the gym doing this wrong all the time! Most noticeably having an outward arch to their back at the front of the row. In many cases this poor technique is the result of lifting too heavy. If you can’t lift with proper technique, I promise you’ll get better and quicker results by lowering the weight until you can lift with good form.

Done properly, a seated row is really two separate movements. Think of the rowing motion at the hips as being a completely separate motion from the pullback at the shoulders. This will help you to remember to isolate the row and keep that slight inward arch to your lower back. Keep your knees bent throughout. Never straighten your legs fully. Once again, this will fully extend your hamstrings which can easily lead to a muscle pull or even a knee injury.

Getting Top Results

This post on how to lift safely is part of a series on getting the best possible results. If you want to build a strong body as quickly as possible we strongly suggest you also read these previous posts:

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Will Dove

Will is a lifelong fitness nut. He started exercising religiously at the age of 16. Now 52, he still works out 5 times per week and maintains a body fat percentage in the single digits. Will is passionate about helping others to achieve their fitness and body image goals, and believes that most people fail to achieve these goals, not through a lack of self-discipline, but through a simple lack of knowledge.