How to Swap Your Wheels Without Wrenching Your Back

Rob Siegel

I’ve made many references over the past 18 months to my back issues. It’s nothing acute—no smoking-gun bulged discs showing up on the MRI—just the usual 65-year-old-man-stuff of easily-triggered low back pain and sciatica. But it’s annoying as hell.

A four-month-long stint of physical therapy to strengthen my core has helped enormously, allowing me to reach the point where I was able to do all that wrenching on the recently-purchased Nissan Armada without reinjuring myself. However, I feel like I’m always one bad decision away from a relapse, so I try not to make those bad decisions. I lift very little without help (as difficult as that is when you’re used to being a lone wolf working by yourself in the garage), and I don’t yank on things when I’m in a bent or crouched position.

The winter/summer wheel swap has become a bellwether for me—e.g., if I can’t do this, I can’t do anything. When my back issues reemerged in 2022, the combination of rolling a floor jack, skooching down to properly position it under the car, working the jack handle to raise it, cracking the lug nuts, dismounting and mounting the wheels, and using a torque wrench in a bent-over position was difficult enough that I was beginning to think that this part of my life might be over. Fortunately, there are back-saving tricks that allow me to cruise through wheel-swapping. Yeah, I know, this sounds like that “one weird trick” online clickbait. But trust me.

First, let me offer a warning that is crucially important. My college physics professor was killed when the car he was working on fell on him. That’s all the more tragic considering he was my mechanics professor, which, in addition to “mechanics” applying to both the physics as well as to working on cars, has the unbearable irony that mechanics is the study of how physical objects move in response to forces on them, and part of mechanics is “statics,” which analyzes the forces on stationary objects that keep them from moving. Ever since that horrible tragedy, I have been assiduously careful never to work under a car that isn’t properly supported by jack stands and a floor jack as backup. Swapping wheels is a gray area where many folks argue that they’re not technically under the car, so they feel that they can jack up one wheel without taking the time to set that corner of the car on jack stands. I see garages and tire-change shops do this all the time. I’ll admit that there have been times when I’ve done it myself, but in what I describe below, it’s absolutely imperative that you support the car on stands, because there’s no question that part of you is under the car, and you don’t want to get your legs crushed if the jack slips.

I’ve identified four aspects of wheel-swapping that are problematic in my AARP years. I’ll address them each below.

Moving the wheels

I keep the off-season wheels for both my and my wife’s daily driver under the back porch, which is on the opposite side of the house from the garage. Both are slightly downhill from street level. So wheel-swapping both cars requires rolling eight wheels up and down the path a total of 16 times. This bending-while-rolling effort eventually triggers back pain. For a while I was asking my kids to do it for me while I grumbled, “You mean I can’t even do this?” but I found that by keeping my back straight and doing a Groucho-Marx-like duck walk (for those old enough to know the reference), I can keep my dignity and move them myself.

Swapping Wheels bmw spare wheels tires
Just moving the off-season wheels for both cars from under the back porch to the garage makes my back wince if I’m not careful.Rob Siegel

Jacking up the car

I have a mid-rise lift, but it’s usually not worth using it for a simple wheel swap. In the first place, there’s always another car parked over it, often in mid-project. Plus, it takes time to position a car on the mid-rise. The vintage cars get lifted by their frames, which allows a lot of slop in their placement, but it’s difficult to lift my daily-driver 2003 5 Series BMW by anything but the jacking points on the rocker panels, and there’s perhaps two inches of positioning leeway for the lift’s arms and sliding jack pads to be able to reach all four. Plus, as I’ll get to below, the low-back-pain key to all this is keeping the car as close to the floor as possible, so the added height capability of the lift is a detriment, not an advantage.

That means that I swap wheels the old-school way—on the garage floor with a floor jack. In the past, I’d raise the nose of the car by putting the jack in the middle of the front subframe, swap both front wheels, then do the same in the back, but for back-pain reasons, it’s easier for me to do one wheel at a time and use the jack points at the corners. That way I don’t need to crouch down to get eyeballs on where the floor jack is contacting a point deep under the car.

Swapping Wheels bmw floor jack pinch weld placement
I didn’t think I’d ever make use of the factory jack points in this manner (“Real men use the subframes”), but it works well.Rob Siegel

Using the jacking points on the corners of the wheel wells has the added advantage that the lever arm of the floor jack is well-clear of the body of the car, which lets me pump it up and down using my foot. This is another big wear-and-tear savings on my back. I can also do this if I use my long-reach floor jack on the middle of the front subframe, but it probably weighs four times as much as my small aluminum jack.

Swapping Wheels bmw floor jack foot pump
They say “lift with your legs,” but here it’s just the foot.Rob Siegel

The back-saving key is to raise the wheel just enough to set the corner of the car on a jack stand and swap it. Don’t put the car up any higher than it needs to be.

Loosening the lug nuts

Before you jack up the wheel, if you don’t have an impact wrench, you need to crack the lug nuts the old-fashioned way with a breaker bar. By all means, save your back by putting one foot on the end of the breaker bar and standing on it, but be careful not to lose your balance and twist funny when it lets go. An air-driven or electric impact wrench is a major back-saver, as you can position yourself directly in front of the wheel and zip the nuts off. Leave one nut on finger-tight.

Swapping Wheels bmw wheel air impact
I do love my air tools.Rob Siegel

Finally, the “one weird trick.” When you mount or dismount the wheel, don’t ever lift it with your hands, arms, and back—lift it instead with your knees and legs. With the corner of the car safely supported by a jack stand, sit directly in front of the wheel and slide your legs around it. Then slide your feet toward you and raise your knees until some part of your legs contact the tire. It could be your shins, knees, or thighs. Whatever feels comfortable to you. Loosen the last lug nut and tip the wheel onto your legs. Then slide your feet forward, lower your knees, and roll the wheel onto the floor.

Removal is easy because you have gravity working for you. “The trick” is far more important on installation—roll the wheel onto your legs and pull your feet toward you to raise your knees to get it onto the hub. If the hub has studs, rotate the hub or the wheel to get them through the holes. It’s a little tricker if the hub has threaded holes and the studs are part of the lug nuts. Most hubs have a raised ring in the center that the bore in the wheel sits on. You need to use your knees to maneuver the wheel onto it, then rotate it to line up the holes and spin the nuts on.

Swapping Wheels bmw wheel feet lift
It really is an incredibly useful trick.Rob Siegel

Use your foot on the torque wrench

Get the lug nuts seated with a ratchet wrench. If you have an impact wrench, you can put it on its lowest setting and give a quick blip of the trigger to snug each nut down. Then lower the car, set a torque wrench to the appropriate setting, and use your foot instead of your back to torque the nuts down. You can hear and feel the click of the torque wrench just as easily as if it’s in your hands. You still need to bend down to move the torque wrench from lug nut to lug nut, and with five per wheel, four wheels, two cars, even this needs to be done with care if your back is sensitive, but it’s still way less wear-and-tear than forcing your upper body to crank the torque wrench.

Swapping Wheels bmw foot breaker
Foot to the rescue. Again.Rob Siegel

Although I didn’t have to swap seasonal wheels on the Armada, I did have to pull the front wheels off and put them back on to do the front struts. They’re 20-inch wheels, a full three inches bigger than anything else I’ve ever owned. Using these steps, I got them off and on again without so much as a sidelong glance from my back.

I hope some of you find this as helpful as I have.

Dealing with those four transmissions under the porch, though, is another matter.


Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website,

Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: The Free-Thinking Genius of Helene Rother and Nash Motors


    I’ve been doing that leg lift to maneuver wheels on and off the studs for many years. It works great! I’m a small chick who doesn’t work out, and I don’t have the upper body strength to just sling wheels on and off. Sometimes it takes some creativity to work around physical limitations, but I’d rather deal with dirty pants than a wrecked back.

    Rob thanks for the detailed instructions, however you are ONLY 65!!!! So maybe you can enlighten your readers to the abuse of your body you engaged in during your youth, were you a WWF wrestler in Austin or what? 😁😁😁 seriously good advice to the aging baby boomers that still work on their own cars….

    Sounds good, but with unibody cars, once you use the jack points to lift it, you’re now stuck with trying to find a place to put the jack stand.

    For this reason, I’ve always been considering getting a set of Jackpoint jack stands, so lifting and supporting the vehicle can happen all in the same place. Current vehicles don’t need such a solution but expected future purchases will. Just need to justify the cost to myself as they’re not cheap (although still less expensive than any kind of 4 corner lift).

    If you want to save your back and still torque the wheels properly get some torque rods in the proper levels.

    That way you can hit the mark, not damage the car studs and make sure it is safe. Also with torque ratings nearly 150 FT LBs give or take 10 FT LBS on many new large vehicles the rods really help with an adjustable electric wrench.

    As for storing and moving. Get a cheap cart from Harbor Freight and dolly them where you need them with the proper leverage.

    I also use a wheel cart. It is the diameter of my tires and has wheels under I stack the tires in their storage cover and put them on the cart I can move it anywhere.

    Jack ramps make it easier too where the car is high enough you can get the jack under it in tough areas and also you can more easily see the jack points.

    If I am doing tires I never lift it more than needed. Not only easier but you don’t nick up the inside of a 10 inch wide wheel.

    Most of this is common sense. If it hurts then take a look at what you are doing for a better way.

    What is a torque rod as a tool? I’m familiar with that being a suspension piece jointed on both ends.

    Torque rod, Torque stick. They are like an extension that is made to tell you when you reach a specific torque value. they are color coded and made to fit many number of settings.

    It is the same way to use an impact if you can’t do it other wise.

    Rob—use a hand truck to move the winter wheels and tires to the garage. You can easily do four at a time.

    I empathize with Rob on tire changing.

    I coped in several ways. i made some tools that made i easier, and I restrict myself to one car a day.

    i have a QuickJack that raises the car about 18 inches. On the German cars, I have a guide stud to replace one of the wheel bolts after I zing them off with the air wrench.

    I made a tool for my smaller jack. It is a platform for the tire to rest on, with 2 rollers, one on each side. The tire actually rests on the rollers. I raise this jack up under the tire until it just takes the tire’s weight. Then I can slide the jack away from the car, lower it to the floor, and easily remove the tire from the jack/tool. I put the new tire on the tool, again fairly easily when it is at floor level. Then I raise the jack, and push it under the car. The rollers let me rotate the tire/wheel until the studs/bolts line up. Then it is easy to start the bolts. When they are hand tight, I hit them a bit with the air wrench. I lower and remove the tool, then, using a torque limiting stick, I tighten them wit the air wrench. I have checked with a torque wrench, and the 90 ft-lb stick is remarkably accurate.

    I used to have a wheeled platform to stack the tires on. But putting the 4th tire on top of the stack was getting to be a little much. So I made a slightly larger platform, to store the tires standing upright. One side of it folds down to make a ramp so I can roll the tires onto the platform, no lifting.

    As I get older, I have to work smarter, not harder.

    If anyone wants a picture of the 2 tools, let me know.

    I had a 12V winch not being used. Mounted it on the back wall of my garage, cable through a pulley on the roof truss. Just slip a hose protected cable through the center of the wheel and hoist them up to the tire rack on the side wall. Works great for lifting up or down.

    As someone who spent 18 years swapping commercial tires on and off as a diesel mechanic, a few tips of my own:

    -I use a floor jack that has a locking pin at full height, saves the jackstand and I just do one corner at a time.
    -A long prybar (36″) goes a long way for leveraging tires on and off their home.
    -A creeper seat combined with the floor jack at full height makes for a nice position to work.

    I’ll also add that my co-worker has to change 6 sets of tires every season (his truck, his car, wife’s car, and the 3 daughters). He bought a small utility trailer that’s sole purpose in life is to store tires. He loads them in, stores them at the back of the yard until next season.
    I think a heavy duty garden cart, even one of the electric motorized ones may suit your purpose Rob.

    How are you changing a tyre with part of you underneath the vehicle? I can’t wrap my head around it.

    As per the next-to-last photo, when you use your knees to raise the wheel up onto the hub, your legs are beneath the car.

    I just changed to Summer tires yesterday on my 2009 E92. I’ll be 71 this August and will probably switch to Michelin CrossClimate to negate any possible injury in the future

    Thanks for the tips and pointers Rob, but I admit I had to cringe a bit when I saw you sitting on your butt with your legs under the car. As you pointed out at the beginning, sometimes cars fall off jacks or jack stands. It happens! But they often will roll a bit forward or a bit backward and it happens very fast. If you are sitting on the ground and that car drops, you have a very good chance of that hub coming down on your leg. You will NOT be able to extract yourself in time, and at best you will destroy your back with the sudden twisting jerking motion. Maybe I’m paranoid but I never put any part of my body under any portion of a car that would drop to the ground if anything failed with the jack/jack stand. It’s just not worth it. Get help if you need it Rob, you’re allowed. Yeah it sucks to have to ask for help, but it sucks much much more to get a leg crushed. Or more.

    Agreed. I’m in my 70s and when I found out Discount Tire does tire rotations and seasonal tire swaps for free we became best friends. 🙂

    A lot of folks may admonish me for this, but I have found that BMWs and Porsches are generally stiff enough that you can jack them at their balance point (some trial and error may be needed) with a block of wood on the jack to where you can lift both (side) tires off the ground simultaneously. Pretty good trick for rotating tires.

    A column partially dedicated to back help moves me to bring up inversion tables again. I know, I know, they’re too expensive (even when free on Craigslist), they take up too much space (even when folded), they can’t possibly help yada yada – I’ve heard all the excuses from people who refuse to try. Rob if you try one and don’t think it helps enough for you to endorse it publicly I will come to your house and change your next two sets of wheels and apologize for my arrogance.

    And since you’ve got what, 12 vehicles Rob, I’ll come and change all the others while Tinkerah does those two. fell out of the back of a semi-trailer and broke my back (lumbar region) in 1978 and had to have a spinal fusion. Since at that time I worked in manual jobs, I had to fight back through physical therapy to keep the ability to earn a living – and I lived with back pain every day for years. I got my inversion machine in 1984 and have been using it ever since (along with appropriate exercises). I credit my inversion table with doing more for me than any doctor ever did – and I mean that wholeheartedly. Those things work!

    Tinkerah gets my vote for comment of the week!

    DUB6, I am so sorry for your accident and your pain. I know any number of folks with back issues, including my son’s father-in-law who has had multiple spinal surgeries. My issues are so far on the left tail of the bell curve that they’re not in the same universe. As long as I don’t do anything stupid that causes an acute re-injury, my average daily pain is maybe 1.5 on a scale of ten. But, you and Tinkerah, I’ll keep the inversion table in mind. Thanks!

    I used to be an industrial mechanic and had to change a lot of heavy wheels and tires. We used a short handled shovel with a piece of round tubing welded to the back side of the shovel head near the top. The combination of the handle (about 3 feet long) and the tubing allowed you to leverage even 4-foot-tall tractor wheels and tires and maneuver them precisely into place.

    I lift each side of my BMWs by using the rear jack pad on each side. By lifting the car by using the rear jack pad, both the front and rear tire will come up off the ground. This way I only need to jack the car up twice for a set of four wheels and tires.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *