You use your lower back for everything. And when you injure it, you really find out just how much you rely on a strong and healthy back. You use your back for sitting at the computer, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, driving a car, and even holding up a cup of water. It is your main support system for your whole upper body (the lumbar region and core muscles).
As this winter rolls in, beware of injuring or training your back from shoveling snow. If you have a snow blower or somebody else to do it for you, you can stop reading this article right now. But for the select few of us who still shovel, here are several ways to help less or even do away with the pain, simply by making some changes.
I need to preface the below with some facts about our body. First, the main muscle systems used while shoveling snow are the lower back / core, arms, and legs. If you were to order those muscle groups from strongest to weakest, it would be: 1) Lower back / core, 2) Arms, 3) Back. The majority of the following tips and tricks to lessen lower back pain is simply to take advantage of your stronger muscle systems. Remember, the first link to break in a chain is the weakest one.
1. Warming Up
Before performing any type of physical activity, our body needs to prepare for what we're about to do to it. At rest, most of the blood in our bodies is not in our muscles, but flowing very slowly in our insides, keeping our internals oxygenated. If we were to jump into shoveling (or any demanding activity), we increase the chances of using a poorly prepares muscle, which may lead to muscle tears and or soreness for days to come. Warm up simply by doing a few torso twists, body weight squats, and even some jumping jacks. By incorporating your whole body into a warm up, you start pumping blood faster, get the blood out to your muscles, and warm them up. Remember what happens to a cold rubber band when you stretch it …
In conjunction with warm up, stretching is key. Just like in a golf swing, you use a full range of motion during the swing, and so you have to warm up by doing light resistance stretching. By having an increased range of motion, you are less likely to use weaker parts of the body and more more on your stronger ones (legs and arms). Start out by thoroughly stretching out your legs, torso (side bends and twists), and shoulder rotations.
3. Favor the Legs
As mentioned in the preface, our legs are the strongest in our body. If a person can bench press 300 pounds, he can typically leg press 500 lbs or more. It's a fact that our legs are stronger. Now compare this strength range to our lower backs. Imagine trying to lift even half the weight of a leg press … ouch! Now why in the world would we rely on our lower back when we have huge pistons below us, able to lower our bodies to pick up some snow, and then raise our bodies to pick up the snow. Through your shoveling, make sure you are lowering yourself with your legs. This may look goofy and feel awkward, but you'll be thankful that you took advantage of your strongest muscles.
4. Straight Forward Motion
Your legs are generally positioned to go in a straight up and down motion. Your back can rotate, swivel, turn, and bend. If you rely on your back to do all the above, you're asking for trouble. Instead, here are two tips you can use to less the workload of the lower back and core. 1) Once you have picked up the snow, turn your whole body and face the direction you want to toss the snow. In this manner, you are tossing the snow in a straight forward way, completely taking out the torso rotation and hence saving your back. 2) Use more arms. Your arms have a large range of motion of tossing snow. With the help of pushing with your legs and the range you have available with your arms, you are free to toss snow with minimum lower back involved.
5. Static Arms
Using arms is better than using the lower back, but I caution you with the workload you may be placing on your arms. Let me explain what a rower does. When rowing, there are three motions involved: the stress with the legs, the lower back extension to straighten the body, and the arms pulling the ores at the end. Beginner rowers often start the arm pull motion at the beginning, which leads to arm soreness before anything else. It becomes their bottleneck. This is because they are not relying on their strong leg power to do the first and hardest part of the job. Same ting goes for shoveling snow. When squatting down to get some snow, do not stop half way and rely on your arms to do the rest. Keep your arms flexed in a static (not moving) position, squat down, push the shovel to pick up some snow, then using your legs, pick up the snow. Again, this might look goofy and awkward, but believe me, your legs are much better suited for such a job as this.
6. Alternating Sides
Any repetitive motion for a long period of time is bound to cause soreness (ie tennis elbow). Well, to less lower back pain due to a repetitive tossing motion to your left, for example, why not try tossing to your right every other toss. Also, try changing hand grips so that if your shovel was to your right, leading with the left arm, change it to the left side, leading with your right arm. This makes sense if you are facing the snow on one side of the driveway / sidewalk, and then switching sides and shovel position.
7. Smaller Portions of Snow
This should be a no-brainer. In order to move 1000 pounds of snow, we could lift massive amounts of 50 pound-fulls of snow in the shovel with each toss and get it done it 20 tosses, with the added bonus of low back pain for days ahead. OR, surprise surprise, you can decrease the load, increase the tosses involved, and avoid the dreaded low back bonus. I'm much more be tossing 20 pounds at a time, making my work easier, quicker, less strain, less pain, walk away without a limp, and have no need for an ice bag or massage. However, the massage could still be a good bonus if you ask me.
I wish you all the best this winter season in shoveling snow. With the above seven tips, you should be well on your way to a lot less back pain, if any. Thank you, and God bless!