Lift is most commonly associated with the wing of a fixed-wing aircraft, although lift is also generated by propellers, kites, helicopter rotors, rudders, sails and keels on sailboats, hydrofoils, wings on auto racing cars, wind turbines, and other streamlined objects. Lift is also exploited in the animal world, and even in the plant world by the seeds of certain trees. While the common meaning of the word "lift" assumes that lift opposes weight, lift in the technical sense used in this article can be in any direction with respect to gravity, since it is defined with respect to the direction of flow rather than to the direction of gravity.

When an aircraft is flying straight and level (cruise) most of the lift opposes gravity. However, when an aircraft is climbing, descending, or banking in a turn the lift is tilted with respect to the vertical. Lift may also be entirely downwards in some aerobatic manoeuvres, or on the wing on a racing car. In this last case, the term downforce is often used. Lift may also be largely horizontal, for instance on a sail on a sailboat.