Lower back pain is the second-most common reason people visit the doctor (after colds and flu), according to the National Institutes of Health. And an easy way to hurt your back is to pick up something — a box, a child, even a pencil — off the floor the wrong way. 

“The cramps, spasms and pain someone feels when he ‘throws out his back’ are the result of your muscles overworking,” says physical therapist David Reavy of React Physical Therapy in Chicago. A common cause of overworked muscles is bad ergonomics. 

“It’s possible to hurt your back picking up small or lightweight objects if you do it wrong consistently over time,” says Reavy. “It's like the straw that breaks the camel's back.” 

Use these techniques for safe lift-off.

Related: To Avoid Back Pain, Read This Before You Lift That

The basic, all-purpose method 

Stick out your backside. You’ve heard the advice to "lift with your legs," but what does it really mean? Basically, you have to put your backside into it. You can squat to lift an object off the floor or you can hinge forward at the hips. Either way you need to stick your rear in back of you as if you’re coming into a room with your hands full and you need to bump the door shut behind you.

Keep the object close. “Keep the object as close to your body as possible,” says Reavy adds. “If you try to lift something heavy that’s way out in front of your body, your lats will have to work harder. The problem is, most people's lats aren't strong enough to do this, and it puts pressure on the muscle attachments in your back.

Don't slouch or hunch forward. As you squat or bend forward, keep your chest up and your shoulders down. 

Tighten and tuck. To initiate the lift, clench your glutes (the muscles in your buttocks). Bring your hips toward the object as you come to stand. And really tighten your abdominals throughout the lift, as if someone is about to sucker-punch you in the belly. “Your abs are also required to stabilize you,” says Reavy. 

Don't twist. If you have to move the object somewhere that's not directly in front of you, turn your whole body rather than twisting your torso.

Related: Hunch Much? You Could Have Upper Crossed Syndrome

The ballerina method 

Another option, for small objects such as a pencil or tissue: Place one hand on a nearby piece of furniture or counter. Using it for balance, extend one leg behind you as you bend forward at your hips to pick up the item. You’ll look a bit like a ballerina doing an arabesque. 

Related: Are You Sitting All Wrong? Find Out Here

Lifting a child 

When your toddler stands in front of you with his chubby little arms raised to say “pick me up now,” don’t let his impatience cause you to rush. Take your time to use your glutes as you squat, keeping your chest and shoulders up and back and tightening your abs.

That will protect your back. It’s also important when picking up a child to protect your hands. “Picking up a baby or child can result in De Quervain’s disease, which is painful inflammation in the thumb and wrist,” Reavy says.

Rather than hook your thumbs under a child’s armpits, gently and firmly grasp his ribcage with your cupped hands. Keep your fingers all together, not spread apart. Keep the child close to your body as you lift him. This way your wrists won’t be over-stressed. 

Amy Roberts is a certified personal trainer. She writes about fitness, health and a variety of other topics for many well-known publications.