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PHB chapter 7, "Using Ability Scores", mentions that it's possible to "lift" more than one can normally carry:

Push, Drag, or Lift. You can push, drag, or lift a weight in pounds up to twice your carrying capacity (or 30 times your Strength score). While pushing or dragging weight in excess of your carrying capacity, your speed drops to 5 feet.

It seems implied that movement is impossible while lifting a weight that is too heavy to carry—otherwise, one could circumvent the movement restrictions on pushing and dragging by opting to lift the weight instead.

What does it mean to "lift" in this context? Off the ground? Overhead?

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To lift something is to elevate it from the ground. There's no reason this can't be an overhead lift, but you can't combine this with lateral movement.

Lifting something upwards and moving it laterally is carrying, and these rules are for moving 'more than one can normally carry'. You can push, drag or lift more than you can normally carry, but the rules are not intended to allow you to carry more than you can normally carry. So the options are:

  • Push or drag an object - it remains on the ground, but you move it 'sideways'
  • Lift an object - you lift it from the ground, but are unable to move it 'sideways'

'Your speed drops to five feet' whilst pushing or dragging. The implication is obviously that when you lift a heavy object your speed functionally drops to zero, rather than being unrestricted.

For example, you could lift up a heavy statue if somebody was trapped underneath it, allowing them to escape, or you could push the statue along the ground at 5 feet per round. You could not lift the statue up and place it on a pedestal 5 feet away.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So you’re saying in D&D, a character’s deadlift and overhead press are the same? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 15 at 10:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes. The rules don't make a distinction between the two and aren't intended to simulate biomechanics with that fidelity \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Jul 15 at 10:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could also distinguish between carrying short-term and long-term carrying. E.g.: I can carry a 40 lb. bag of gravel from the trunk of the car to the back yard, but I couldn't walk around all day, fight monsters, or do much of anything else while carrying it... \$\endgroup\$ Jul 15 at 16:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarrelHoffman You can use the variant encumbrance rules in the PHB for that -- carrying 5 x Strength drops your speed by 10, carrying 10 x Strength drops it by 20 and imposes disadvantage on almost everything. \$\endgroup\$
    – Marq
    Jul 16 at 11:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ The idea that you can't move even five feet after successfully lifting something overhead seems unrealistic—I think that was the reason for my confusion. That does seem to be the way the rules are intended to work, in any case. \$\endgroup\$
    – intuited
    Jul 17 at 5:09

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