Avoid Spring Digging Injuries in the Garden

With spring comes the urge to plant. And that means digging. Are you aware of what digging does to your risk for injury?

By nature, we humans are creatures of habit. So if we dig planting holes with the left leg on the spade and the right leg in back, chances are we always dig in that configuration. Over time, this creates imbalanced muscle groups through the legs, pelvis, trunk and even shoulders and arms.

Muscle imbalance is common throughout the body in all people, not just gardeners. Because of strength and flexibility differences on either side of, or between front and back of the pelvis, you may be closer to a back or hip injury than you realize. This is especially true when you do heavy work in the garden, which challenges your muscles and joints.

When we dig in are in a modified lunge position. You may remember the lunge from high school Phy Ed or from yoga. Either way, when we dig, one foot is on the top of the spade and the other stays straight. The knee and hip joints of that front leg are bent and stay that way for an extended period of time. The back leg is straight. The pelvis supports both legs, no matter what they are doing.

Favoring one leg or the other while doing routine tasks often causes muscle imbalance in the pelvis. In other words, habitual digging in which you always grab the shovel with the same hand, and always stand and troubleshoot the same way, builds strength in some muscles as others grow weak and tight. So if you always put your right foot on the spade, your right quadriceps muscle may be stronger than your left. And depending on how you use your shovel, you may have stronger quads than hamstrings (muscles at the backs of the legs). This can lead to reduced hip flexibility and tight back muscles, as well as other body problems.

Muscles imbalance can over time lead to a loss of support for certain joints. And then, with just one stressful movement, WHAM! You get injured.

What to do?

The first thing to do is develop body awareness and core strength. We live in a time where there are many great holistic movement and body work practices to try. Yoga and Pilates develop core strength, balance and alignment. Feldenkrais helps you to unlearn habits and postures that tweak the joints. These are just a few mind-body techniques that can build the type of body alignment, strength and flexibility you need to sustain long hours in the garden.

Then, once you've become stronger in your trunk, pelvis and legs, think about switching sides every so often. If your left foot is usually the one on the spade, then try the digging action with your right foot and ground the left one behind you, for stabilization. A word of caution: start the side switching in small time increments. Do not be too demanding of your weak side at first. This can result in an injury. Just try it out, and let your muscles get used to working on the non-dominant side. Little by little you can increase the intensity and the length of time you work with your weak side.