Activity of the abdominal muscles during symmetric lifting has been a consistent finding in many studies. It has been hypothesized that this antagonistic coactivation increases trunk stiffness to provide stability to the spine. To test this, we investigated whether abdominal activity in lifting is increased in response to destabilizing conditions. Ten healthy male subjects lifted 35l containers containing 15l of water (unstable condition), or ice (stable condition). 3D-kinematics, ground reaction forces, and EMG of selected trunk muscles were recorded. Euler angles of the thorax relative to the pelvis were determined. Inverse dynamics was used to calculate moments about L5S1. Averaged normalized abdominal EMG activity was calculated to express coactivation and an EMG-driven trunk muscle model was used to estimate the flexor moment produced by these muscles and to estimate the L5S1 compression force. Abdominal coactivation was significantly higher when lifting the unstable load. This coincided with significant increases in estimated moments produced by the antagonist muscles and in estimated compression forces on the L5S1 disc, except at the instant of the peak moment about L5S1. The lifting style was not affected by load instability as evidenced by the absence of effects on moments about L5S1 and angles of the thorax relative to the pelvis. The data support the interpretation of abdominal cocontraction during lifting as subserving spinal stability. An alternative function of the increased trunk stiffness due to cocontraction might be to achieve more precise control over the trajectory of lifted weight in order to avoid sloshing of the water mass in the box and the consequent perturbations. © 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.