Getting serious about work after a summer of shortened weeks can be rough, especially for those of us who lug heavy backpacks, laptop bags, and gym bags around the city. The majority of people who carry bags are at risk for back pain due to heavy loads, uneven distribution of weight, and hunched shoulders.

With prolonged wear, our bad bag-carrying habits can lead to severe pain and serious problems. The American Physical Therapy Association has also found that people who carry heavy bags incorrectly show increases in energy expenditure, postural changes, and gait alterations, putting them at risk for long-term problems if these habits aren’t corrected early on.

Want to avoid the backpack blues? Check out our warning signs, how to find the right fit, and exercises to help strengthen your back and prevent future injury.

Is My Pain Backpack-Related?

If you want to stay pain-free, keep the following questions in mind:

  • Is the weight of your bag greater than 10% of your body weight? Experts say 10% of bodyweight is the maximum safe weight for a bag.
  • Do you feel numbness or pins and needles in your arms or legs?
  • Do you struggle to put the pack on?
  • Are you wearing your bag over one shoulder instead of two?
  • Are red areas or pressure indentations noticeable on your shoulders or back?
  • If you can answer yes to even one of these questions, it’s time to look for a new solution. Read on below for help in choosing a bag that fits!

Finding the Right Fit

First things first – if you’re carrying a gym bag or lap top bag with a single strap and wearing it over one shoulder, it’s time to switch. Even wearing the strap across your chest isn’t safe – you want two straps for an even distribution of weight.

Now, most importantly, your backpack should fit over the middle of your back, NOT over your low back. If you notice it hangs too low, pull the straps in the front to make sure it sits high and tight.

This can be helped if you go with a boxier backpack rather than one that is long in its design. Long packs place excessive load below the waist, altering body mechanics and leading to pain.

The backpack shouldn’t block the natural movement of your arms while walking. A change in your movement patterns puts you at risk for back pain.

The best backpacks have multiple compartments, compared to those with just one large compartment. With the weight spread to both sides and at various levels, the contents don’t rest in just one area of the back. Compartments prevent shifting of the load during movement, making it easier to keep the load distributed evenly.

Padding is also important on the back of the pack but also on the straps. Your backpack should have wide, padded straps in order to decrease the pressure points across the shoulders and back.

Finally, look for a backpack with a chest strap that connects the two shouler straps. Make sure to always carry the backpack with the straps over both shoulders and the chest strap connected. Never carry a backpack slung over a single shoulder!

Preparing for a Backpack

Wearing a backpack isn’t exactly strenuous activity, but if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk hunched over a computer, you could be even greater risk for back problems.

Even bad posture in general can increase the likelihood of backpack-induced pain, as the slouched-over position creates tight muscles in front of the shoulders in addition to weak core stabilizers. If you’re worried you might be at risk, check out these exercises for keeping your back healthy.

1. Doorway Pec Stretch



Stand facing the doorway about six inches away from the frame. Hold your arms up at right angles, so that your body looks like a football goal post, and place them against the walls on each side of you. Put one foot in front and one foot in back so they’re in two different rooms. Keeping your upper arms at shoulder level, straighten your back and lean your upper body forward so you feel a stretch in your chest. Hold the position for as long as you can, relax, and then switch feet.

2. Shoulder Taps

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You’ll want core stability endurance to carry a backpack all over NYC. Start in a push-up position with the arms extended and abdominal muscles braced, feet shoulder-width apart. Lift one arm up and touch the opposite shoulder. Repeat on the other side and alternate.

3. Floor Y’s

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This exercise is great for improving torso and shoulder girdle strength. Lay on your stomach facing the ground with your arms raised in a Y over your head (elbows straight!). Your toes should be pointing towards the ground, like you’re doing a push-up – dig them in to stabilize your body and brace your abdominals. When you’re ready, raise your arms up off the ground so they are at about ear-level. Hold for three counts, and then lower slowly. Make sure to keep your shoulders extended! Shrugging them adds more tension, doing the opposite of what you want to achieve.