March 26, 2009

Confessions of a weight-lifting wimp

Note: the names have been changed to protect the pusillanimous. Any resemblance between the narrator of this story and the blogger writing this post is absolutely, positively, and in all ways completely and utterly spurious and coincidental, and any insinuations of a putative resemblance will most probably be referred to the Cranky Fitness lawyers, who haven't been fed for awhile and are definitely not vegetarians. So there.

Insert stereotypical lawyer joke here... if you dare...

The "back" story

Where I work, there's a break room with a filtered water dispenser. They call it a "water cooler," though the water's not all that cool. Still, the guy comes and delivers huge clear plastic jugs that weigh ... well, a lot. People wander in to the break room and fill up their tea cups or water bottles and wander off to pretend to work. As the day progresses, the amount of water available gets lower and lower until it's gone. It's like some kind of lottery, to see who's going to be the one faced with the empty water bottle.

If you lose the water cooler lottery, you have to replace the jug of water with a full one. Full ones are heavy. They are also on the floor.

To replace the empty water jug, you have to pick up a full one and then, while holding it at waist level, rotate the heavy jug 180 degrees and place it on a pedestal. I tried doing this once, long ago. The lifting-the-heavy-jug-from-the-floor part went fine. When I tried to rotate the jug, which involves the use of my arms, my back convinced me it was a very bad idea. I figured it was because I was a wimp. So, I played the feminine card, waiting until someone of the male persuasion walked by and batting my eyelashes plaintively until he replaced the water jug for me.

The moment of truth

That worked fine until one day when I was waiting for a handy man to walk past, and this tiny female co-worker walked into the break room. "Oh, is the water out?" she asked, and quickly upended a full jug and put it in place.

Now, not only is this woman several inches shorter than my 5'3, she compounds this offense by being very nice, very thin, very fine-boned and several months pregnant. I was put in my place, but good. (Not by the very nice co-worker, by my conscience.) It was time to find some exercise that would strengthen my back.

Push ups don't strengthen the back

Fast forward a few months. I've completed the 100 push up challenge, albeit in the modified 'girly' form. (Hey, I do what I can do.) And lo, there came a day when the water jug was completely empty, as was the break room. "Hell," I told myself. "I can lift this body 100 times with my arms; I can raise this water jug. So I did. And my back complained for several days afterward.

So what can I do to strengthen my back?

The 200 sit up challenge would strength the muscles around the waist/abdomen area, but what hurts is higher up, above the waist where the ribs start. What challenge would help with that?

The back says "Ow!" right where the polka dots meet the skin :(

I've looked at weight lifting sites. I even looked at the Body for Life book. Got kinda scared. I mean, all the people who take the Body for Life 12 Week challenge do end up fitter by the end, but they also seem inexplicably to become very blond and tan -- to the point of being orange. That scares me. People may laugh, but Tanorexia is becoming prevalent among the celebrity set these days. And where the celebs lead, people follow. I'm expecting next to open a magazine and read that the new trend is... orange babies...

Are there any exercises out there that are specifically designed to strengthen the part of the back that's just above the waist?

If so, could someone share them with me? Without charging $24.99 a month in three easy installments?


  1. When lifting water you need to do it with your legs, not your back. Strength in the upper body doesn't mean it will be easy to lift.
    I wish I knew of a great exercise but I can't think of one right off the top of my head. I will ask my trainer next time.
    Good post.

  2. We had those waterjugs when I owned my studio and I was surprised how HARD THEY WERE to life when I didnt focus on HOISTING from the legs.

    Im imagining you dont wanna do dead lifts so, perhaps, more **core work** too?
    when your core is strong your low back is more supported as well.
    Any exercises which will force you to stabilize against the pull of gravity or another external force.

    (bridges, side planks, planks, those roman chairs in the gym when used properly...)
    Im gonna cut myself off here before I start adding video :) Ive just been there with the low back and was shocked how much a strong ab.wall helped!

  3. I don't know if they still make the water coolers the same way, but back when I worked somewhere that had one, the worst part of the task was trying to tip the ginormous water bottle and aim the huge gushing stream of water into the tiny hole. I ended up drenching the break room several times.

    So yeah, I'd concur with advice so far--use legs more than back when lifting. And it's probably good to get an overall strength training plan (I know, yuck) rather than target one particular set of muscles. Core and legs would help a lot.

    If you can do 100 pushups, you definitely have the determination!

  4. I hate changing our water jug but it always seems to happen when I'm alone in the office and I'm too thirsty to wait so I have to do it myself. Besides the problem of lifting that thing off the ground to hoist it on the cooler, I am also a grade A klutz so bad things happen. Last time I had to change it I hurt myself, not my back from lifting, but my nose when I was pulling off the empty one while standing a bit too close and rammed that stupid thing right up into my face. Good times, good times.

  5. dragonmamma/naomiMarch 26, 2009 at 7:33 AM

    Like everyone else says: it's in the legs.

    Start with bodyweight squats. Legs shoulder-width apart, toes either straight ahead or pointed slightly outward, whichever seems more natural.

    At a controlled speed (not too fast) drop into a deep squat. Keep those heels on the ground, and keep your weight in your heels. The mistake most people make is to put their weight into the balls of their feet and toes.

    As you go up and down, keep your body vertical, eyes looking straight ahead. None of this leaning forward and pushing off your thighs with your hands stuff! Let the legs do all the work.

    If you're not in great shape, your thighs might start burning after just a few reps. Try them at least a few times throughout the day, and see if you can work up to doing 20,

  6. Oh I can't lift ours either. And nor can the other women - either I do it together with another women, or get a man to do it for me.

    My excuse is that being pear shaped I have a naturally weak upper body...

  7. My upper body strength is pretty good having hauled my body around for so long. I never balked at the water cooler challenge except to notice I was one of the few who like your buddy at work, just picked up the new one and hoisted it onto the cooler while few others bothered.

    I learned early on to -- what *they* called "pinch your nickel" which means to pretend you have a coin in your butt cheeks and pinching your cheeks together while lifting will protect much of your back.

    Sometimes I think the paper toilet roll weighs just as much because I normally have to change that too.

  8. I find those water bottles very awkward to pick up/hold onto, not just because they are heavy, but I'm a small person and I have small arms. I usually wait for someone else to deal with it as well. :)

    I'd agree that full body strength training would probably be helpful, or you could try some yoga or pilates.

  9. You definitely got some good advice about using the legs & more. But I did want to add that you need to strengthen both the core & the back. If you work one & not the other, you become imbalanced & risk injury.. just like any other body parts, work the opposing group like legs, you need to work the front & back (quads & hamstrings). Saying all that, you got some great advice on the core.. planks, roman chair, you can do bicycles etc. For the back & specifically the lower back, you can do hyperextensions on the hyperextension machine at the gym (but use perfect form or will lead to more probs than you started with) or you can do floor based ones at home. I jut did a post on strengthening the back on March 16th & have some links to exercises you can do at home. BUT, you need to strengthen all parts of the back & core to stay strong.

    I love your blog.. just found it not too long ago.

    Good luck & yes, water bottles are tough, especially if you are short like me!

  10. First: you crack me up! This line? "but they also seem inexplicably to become very blond and tan" LOVE it.

    Second: To echo MizFit, I really do think the secret to back pain is strengthening the core. And not just doing situps. Do a wide variety of core work including ab exercises that get the obliques, transverse and back. Since you specifically requested back ideas, have you ever done a simple superman? You can do them anywhere with no equipment and they're very effective. (Just lay on your stomach, lift your arms & legs and torso and then hold for 30 s - 1 m. Other upper back strengtheners include upright rows, bent over rows, renegade rows, bench rows, body rows pec dec flys, chest pulls etc. Check out to see videos of all of them! good luck Merry!

  11. My suggestion is to have the "cooler" replaced with one of them new fangled taps which continuously gives water until the reservoir or well runs dry. They work real simple by turning a knob or lifting a leaver to dispense as much or as little water you need. You can add a filter such as one made by Britta and you'll never have to worry about back injuries again.

  12. My problem is not putting the new jug on, it's taking the old one off. It sticks a little and then pops off, smacking my in the forehead every d@mn time.

    Got any exercises for strengthening the forehead?

  13. I definitely believe that you should be lifting with your legs and not your back, if you are feeling it in your back when you lift a water bottle you are doing it wrong.

    But to answer your question about strengthening your back, you definitely need to stregthen your core as well as your back, planks are good for your core, or if you have a stability ball there are a bunch of good exercises to do on the ball for your core, which also include back extensions...The stability ball is your friend when it comes to the core.

  14. Work on your core. Try to hold a V-sit or a plank.

    And push-ups from the knees do not work the lower back as much as those from the feet. BK explained it once to me. It has to do with levers: the farther away something is from the fulcrum (spelling?), the heavier it seems. (your knees/feet are the fulcrum).

  15. Dance like one of those Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall! Those moves will strengthen your back!!

  16. what has helped my back is laying on my stomach and placing my hands either on my tailbone, or behind my head and lifting my shoulders and chest off the ground in little pulses, then relaxing and repeating.

    i didn't read through all the comments so if this is a repeat.. i apologize! hehe

    have a great day!!!

  17. Wow! These are great suggestions, thank you! Now I have a picture of myself in the middle of the break room dancing like the Rockettes... that's one way to get someone to stop by and ask if I need help ;)

    I'm cool with the lifting up the heavy bottle using my legs; the problem (and pain) comes with the second part of the task, when I have to turn the bottle upside down and lift it onto the pedestal. That's the problem with being short; the legs can't help with that part :(

    But thank you for all these suggestions!

  18. How much does your dog weigh? My first encounter with those water jugs was when I was working at the kennel, lifting dogs into the tub many times a day. Lifting something that didn't try to jump out of my arms, or wiggle around to lick my chin was *easy*.

    (Yes, they're all right--use your legs to protect your back.)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  19. I think everybody has given very good advice. However, I've observed from my own office experience that the best technique seems to be pretending you walked into the breakroom to get something else, then walk back out and hope when you return in 15 minutes someone else will have replaced the jug.

  20. Oooh, tfh, that's the sneaky approach. I like it.

    MaryAnne, it's true the bottles don't wiggle (much), but have you ever had to turn the puppy upside down after you've lifted them? That's the part that kills me.

    And why do dogs hate bath time when they love playing in puddles and getting all wet and muddy? Sorry... got off topic there...

  21. Yeah, yeah, yeah, lift with your legs....then my knees go bust.

    I temporarily solved the water jug problem by conveniently breaking my hand last year, and it's still not exactly right and I'm still wringing some mileage out of that in the way of getting people to do things for me.

    My knee therapist told me to make sure to tighten the abs when lifting to protect the lower back.

  22. I hear you on this one! I used to have one at work, and they're nince until they're empty.

    Maybe the swimming thing? Lay on your stomache on the floor and lift your legs up one by one kind of kicking like swimming (while also lifting your head and alternating the arms).
    Good luck with the endevors! Remember, it's ok to have others do it. Everyone has different weaknesses and strengths. My very strong hubby has weak he doesn't go shopping with me (walking too much), but does stuff around the house.

  23. If you google "swimming exercises back" in google images, you get a person laying stomach first on an exercise ball doing almost reverse crunches. That may be good?

  24. I've done the exercises Diana suggested, and they are quite nice for the back.

    I'm the only one (unless I'm out of the office) who changes the water cooler bottle in my office. I have the weakest arms you'll ever see, but my legs are pretty awesomely strong. I've also come up with a technique that allows me to have to use my arms quickly. If you want to come to Austin, I'd love to show you. ;)

  25. I do one on the exercise ball where I lay out with the ball under my tummy and alternate extending and lifting up the opposite arm/opposite leg, using my other leg/arm to support me. I alternate back and forth. I do it for a minute a day and over time it really has strengthened my back.
    If you don't have a ball, I believer there is a similar move in yoga (i don't do yoga so I'm not entirely sure)...

  26. Excellent! Thanks, Geosomin.
    Not only do I have a ball, I have a minute to spend on exercising :)
    (I love exercise that I can fit in around the work stuff.)

    These are all great suggestions!

  27. Opps, I was reading everyone's comments & noticed I typo'd in mine. I was on minimal sleep when I posted. I wrote to do hyperextensions along with other exercises I posted about on my own blog but meant to say back extensions on the back extension bench at the gym along with the other suggestions in my comment post. They are also called hyperextensions but I wanted to use the more common phrase for people & also to say be careful about hpyerextending too far. Sorry & hope nobody was confused!

  28. I don't have any helpful suggestions for increasing muscle strength (or mine would be in better shape) but I do have suggestions for changing water.

    If you lift the bottle to a table or counter first, then rip off the plastic top, you can slide it into your arms at an upside down angle.

    They make little plastic flow restricting cap thingies that go on top of the opened bottle that keep you from spilling 5 gallons of water all over the place when you flip it. Just ask the delivery person and almost every water company will provide one free.

  29. To a point, weight lifting is often about managing the weight distribution, not the weight itself. There's a physics to it.

    My method is to pick up the jug from the floor and put it on a table. Then I remove the plastic from the top (if it's necessary; not all coolers require this). Then I scoot the jug off the table and onto the inner flat of my right forearm. From there, it's very easy to tip the jug onto the cooler, using my left hand to guide it.

    I hope I explained it properly. I concur with some of the others, though, who say it's really not the back that's doing the work here, especially when lifting the jug off the floor. It's legs and abs.

  30. This is very timely for me, Merry! I could use some good back-strengthening exercise advice, too.

    To train for the sport of office water bottle lifting, I'd recommend finding a toddler to carry around all the time. Talk about strengthening your back and core! When I first started back to work, I could schlep those 40+ pound water bottles, no problem!

    Alas, sedentary office life made me weak! So, while it has gotten easier since I started strength training, I still don't *like* doing it. It's the pouring part I find tricky: I start to panic when the water starts glugging out. (Pinched my finger when I didn't move my hand quickly enough one time--ouch!) I just try to tilt it quickly and minimize the splashing, but I usually get some on the wall anyway. OH well. The things that Amy and bunnygirl recommended are helpful, though.

  31. No need to waste money on tanning to turn orange, just eat too many carrots! (Oh, right. We don't want to be orange. I take that back)

    In aikido every class we have to lay out all the mats at the start and pile them all up at the end. Kind of a decent workout. I like doing it because then I have an excuse not to strength train, hehe.

  32. My initial two suggestions are:

    1. Just suck it up and ask your lithe, pregnant co-worker to do the heavy lifting from now on.

    2. Join the Highland Games and learn to lift giant, round boulders for no apparent reason (until now, anyway, apparently the reason is so that you can hoist a water bottle without having to resort to asking your lithe, pregnant co-worker to do it).

    Seriously, though, I have a couple of ideas. Yes, you need to strengthen your legs, but I would also recommend deadlifts and power cleans. You don't need to go heavy, you're not in the Olympics, but if you think about it, lifting and flipping the water bottle is similar to a "clean." If you are unfamiliar with these exercises you can search them on YouTube.

    Good luck.

  33. Do heavy deadlifts.


    They're one of the core, fundamental movements everyone (who doesn't have a physical limitation preventing them) should do. You don't get much more real world applicable than "picking heavy stuff up off the ground"

    Strength standards for adult women doing deadlifts:

    The movement:

    Make sure you keep your lower back locked or arched. It helps to think of pushing the heels into the floor.

  34. Deadlifts for the lower back. Awesome exercise; works the legs, too.

    But really you should be squatting the jug up, then pushing it into place with your arms and upper back. Upper back - Pullups!! I love pullups. Well, hate/love them.

  35. Doing Yoga has really strengthened my lower back.

    For some reason I am out of balance and squats and lunges just make my quads more and more "of steel" while the backs of my legs remain mushy. I don't "feel" anything when I do dead lifts. Must be doing them wrong.

    My top regular exercise picks for lower back: superman, swimmer, bird dog, plank

    Top yoga poses for lower back: sphinx, cobra, upward dog, camel, bridge, all the warriors, half moon

    Also, exercises that work the hamstrings and glutes also work the lower back because it's all connected. I like ballerina-type exercises like lifting your leg up to the back.

  36. hehe love this post as always. First- love the disclaimer. Second - I wonder if you guys actually drink more water than you would if you knew there was like a person on staff to replace it. Does that make sense? Third - I love that the girl was pregnant on top of everything else. Lastly, I have no back exercises because while you're scared of lifting the water because you may hurt your back, i'm scared of lifting weights in fear that i'll hurt myself! I know - silly - but i'll ONLY do upper back exercises. Besides, i'm so late to the party you already have tons of great tips - but I couldn't not comment! :)

  37. I am loving "the water cooler challenge". It should be a new Olypmic sport. The Petite and Pregnant Full Bottle Deadlift maybe?

  38. I agree with all the above...however, if you need a 100-day new challenge in your life, try burpees! They've been amazing for strengthening my core, chest, and arms. We're at day 91 here:

  39. I always hated doing ab work but I love pilates because its not about doing a lot of crunches.

    Matwork moves such as the bridge, roll up, swimming and the swan are a good place to start to strengthen your core muscles. Just practicing the breathing helps!

    In regard to the water bottle situation, I would turn the bottle on the floor (and maybe leave one of those passive aggressive signs for the delivery man about which way to leave the botles on the floor), bend my legs, keep my back as straight as possible, tighten my ab muscles and lift with the legs. Also, the closer the bottle is to your body, the more control you have, the easier it is to lift and you lessen the chance of straining your back.


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