How to avoid back pain when gardening. Why don’t people do this?
It recently occurred to me that there is a very easy way to avoid back pain when gardening which no one had ever thought to tell me. After looking at a dozen or so websites I began to wonder if the idea had actually ever occurred to anyone else. Despite spending what felt like a considerable length of time reading through the top search results on google I largely came across the same sort of advice, none of which included what now seems obvious to me. It is almost as though the people giving advice had never actually done any gardening themselves. Certainly the advice on offer is good advice but it seems as though everyone is just spouting the same wisdom that has been around for decades and no-one has made the link between gardening and modern techniques for preventing muscle damage.
The typical advice you will see is stuff that is worth doing along with the advice that I will offer you because any one piece of advice can always be helped by adding a little more positive advice. Obviously you want to take a break when you get too worn otherwise you will find yourself doing more damage in the long run. However, if you have a lot of space that needs digging or weeding then taking a break as often as you need might not be an option that you will appreciate. Luckily I have worked out how to prolong the period before you are likely to be bothered by back pain. In fact I have personally discovered that I end up having to stop out of exhaustion before the back pain gets to me, which feels like quite a feat considering how much my back used to hurt in the past.
Naturally you should make sure not to do your gardening without warming up first, and you should avoid letting cold breezes blow on your back. So many times I have been absolutely fine until the point the wind blows and I have been hit by agony. One tip that I particularly liked the look of is the use of a gardening apron that works something like a weight lifter’s belt to hold your back in shape. I thought that was quite original. Likewise I read a great deal of advice about bending knees when lifting and making sure to use the right size tools for your body shape, whether that be using a small spade or a long handled spade. But nowhere did I see any mention of balance.
The way to avoid back pain when gardening that no one seems to have realised is to focus on maintaining a balance in the way you use your muscles. Anyone who spends time in the gym working on weights knows the importance of balance. In fact one of the main reasons that people progress to using weights instead of exercise machines is to maintain this sort of balance. The problem with the machines is that they force you to continue exercising your muscles in a very rigid fixed manner whereas free weights allow your muscles to move in a far more natural way. Gardening lies somewhere between these two. On the one hand you are able to move in a manner which is far more natural as you are not tied into such a rigid pattern of motion as an exercise machine, but on the other hand people tend to enforce a repetitive pattern of motion on themselves anyway. By escaping the repetitivity and lack of balance you will quickly find that instead of pulling your back out of place you will begin to pull it back into place.
My tendency when digging is to stand on my left leg and then use my right leg to push the spade into the ground. I then apply pressure on the spade handle by pushing it down on my left hand side, before bracing and lifting the spade with the strength of my right arm whilst balancing the weight with my left arm. Often the only additional advice that would be offered is to make sure that you do that lifting with the aid of your knees. The problem with this is that after you have done a few dozen repetitions you start to feel your back aching and you have to stop for a break and stretch out your spine. This is caused as you have some muscles getting tired more quickly than their corresponding muscles on the opposite side of your body. My first thought was that this could be helped by exercising all your muscle groups in the gym. That certainly helps to a degree because it does help to build up an energy store and create muscles that are far less easy to tire out, but most gardeners are too busy in the garden to waste time going to the gym. It also does not prevent the imbalance that is the root of the problem, it merely delays it.
The technique that I developed was simply to swap my spade wielding hand every 5-10 repetitions. When doing this I immediately found that I was exhausting both sides of my body at an equal rate. This prevented the usual back pains because I no longer had one side with strong fresh muscles pulling on my spine and pelvis while the other side with tired worn out muscles was feeling to weak to pull back. The sensation of making this swap felt unnatural at first. As a right handed digger I had to try and teach my body a new trick. It was a bit like learning to play pool or snooker with my left hand instead of my right hand, a trick that Ronnie O’Sullivan has used in the past and seemingly amazed the commentators with. It immediately made a difference as it felt as though the aches were actually being pulled out of my be the usually troublesome opposing muscles.
Having tried this with digging I then decided that it would be a good idea to use the same technique with trowel weeding. Many people overcome the problem of imbalance when weeding by putting both knees on the ground at the same time. The difficulty this causes is that you then become far less mobile. My tendency is to put my right knee on the ground so I started to alternate by putting my left knee on the ground. Surprisingly this was far more difficult for me than alternating my digging stance. When descending towards the ground my body tried to continue doing things as it always had and it we tricky adjusting the way in which I knelt whilst in descent. As I became more adept at alternating my knees when weeding I began to discover the pain in my hips was far reduced as well as the pain in my knee and if I was picking up something I had unrooted with a spade or a fork I also found that the arm which continued to hold the spade/fork upright felt far less pain as well.
So it is as simple as that. I am now far more able to dig for far longer without back pain. In addition to reduced back pain I have also discovered that the energy I have available for digging is also increased due to using the abilities of twice the muscles. It seems so obvious when you think about it but it is that initial habit of doing it in the one way that is hard to overcome. It does feel unnatural when first trying it, a bit like juggling or rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head, but if you stick with it you will find that you will be able to do far more gardening work with far less effort. You will feel far less back pain and you will no doubt be able to continue gardening into a far more advanced age. This may also have knock on effects to maintain health into older age both through the exercise and the chance to continue eating your lovely homegrown greens.