After working on your garden beds all day, do you crawl into your own bed feeling sore, stiff, and bent out of shape? Unlike other activities—sports, for example—in which you learn and master specific techniques, most gardeners simply get out there and “dig in” without thinking about the way they move. Therein lies the problem.
Misusing your body while you garden places stress on your muscular and skeletal systems, which can cause discomfort or injury. And when your movements are awkward and inefficient, you waste effort and energy. Below are some basic rules for moving carefully, correctly, and comfortably while you work at your garden chores.
Lifting: When lifting something heavy, we tend to anticipate the weight of the object and tense our bodies in preparation, which causes unnecessary tightening of muscles. Instead, let your body determine how much support is needed during the process. To effectively lift a heavy load, place one foot slightly in front of the other. Place your body weight over the forward leg for better balance—that way, your entire body can participate in the lift, with the powerful thigh muscles (quads) playing a major role.
When lifting anything heavy, always center yourself directly in front of the object. Hold the load close to your midline for better balance and back protection. When exerting effort, do not hold your breath. Exhale through your mouth at the peak of the effort. Avoid lifting heavy objects overhead or lifting anything heavy if your footing
Bending: All bending movements should originate by inclining your torso forward from the hip joints while bending the knees. Over-rounding your back stresses your spinal disks. Your feet should be a comfortable distance apart; if they’re too close together, you won’t have a stable base. If you prefer, place one foot slightly in front of the other, which helps you lift yourself from a lowered position.
5 Habits to Avoid
• Dropping your head too far backward
• Tensing and hunching your shoulders
• Bending over from the waist with knees locked
• Overarching the lower back
• Clutching with hands and fingers
Carrying: Your arms, not your hands and fingers, should be the predominant source of power when carrying objects. Avoid clutching heavy objects with your hands or fingertips. Carry heavy loads close to your midline to protect your back, arms, and shoulders. When carrying a heavy or bulky object such as a large flowerpot, rest it on your forearms and against your body, close to your midline. Whenever possible, avoid carrying a heavy load, such as a filled watering can, in one hand. This causes the body to sag or displaces one hip to the side, stressing your hip and lower back. A rule of thumb, green or otherwise: Make several trips carrying light loads rather than one back-stressing effort.
Pushing: When pushing a heavy load in a cart or wheelbarrow, use your leg strength to assist your arms and shoulders. When your knees are bent, your quads can support the push. When pushing a heavy load uphill, accompany the effort with deep, fluid breaths. Also try to keep your abdominal muscles pulled in for back protection. If you find the load too heavy to handle, let someone else take the handles.
Dragging and pulling: When moving backward and dragging something in front of you, such as a tarp filled with soil, keep your knees flexed and your back just slightly rounded. When moving forward and pulling something behind you, such as a wheelbarrow or hose, avoid twisting your upper torso. Face directly forward (shoulders squared) as you move, whether you’re pulling the load with one or both hands.
Reaching overhead: When working with your arms raised overhead (pulling at a vine or pruning a shrub), avoid locking your elbows or hunching your shoulders. For better stability and range of motion, place one foot slightly in front of the other. When reaching overhead, avoid arching your lower back. To keep neck strain at bay, avoid dropping your head too far backward. The higher you lift your chin, the more stress you’re placing on the cervical spine.
Turning: Make turning movements slowly and smoothly, whether you’re working on the ground or standing up. Abrupt, rapid twists and turns stress the spinal disks, especially if you twist from the waist only without moving your lower body. When moving soil or compost with a spade or pitchfork, swivel your entire body moving your feet in the direction you are moving the load.