Wayne L. Westcott: Technique helps you safely conquer yard work
As the weather becomes warmer and the grass becomes greener, many of us will spend more time working in our yards and gardens. For me, this is the time of the year to get more fresh air and partake in more outdoor activities.
However, it is important to be physically prepared for yard and garden work and use proper movement mechanics to avoid soreness and injury. Getting in good physical shape is the first step, and I recommend a program consisting of strength training and flexibility exercises.
Do eight to 10 standard weightstack machines (or dumbbell exercises) and four to five basic stretches two or three days each week for overall musculoskeletal fitness.
Once you begin your lawn and garden conditioning program, be sure that you perform each action in the safest possible manner. Posture and body position are equally important considerations when performing yard and garden tasks. Let’s take a biomechanical look at some typical movements you will make with tools in hand.
Assuming you use a push mower, you can burn a lot of calories mowing a moderately sized lawn. Be careful to walk tall without bending forward at the waist, which can place extra stress on your lower back. Also, avoid off-balance turns when cutting. Instead, keep a good base of support with your feet, and don’t allow the handle to move too far away from your body when changing directions. For some people, starting the lawnmower is more problematic than using it. If your pull-start takes a lot of strength or requires a lot of pulls, place your feet in a staggered position and pull across your body using your leg, torso and upper body muscles to assist your arm action. Switch sides after three pulls.
Hedge trimming can be the most troublesome outdoor task if you are not position-conscious and patient. To reduce the risk of back injury, keep the hedge trimmer at waist level with your elbows close to your body. Lifting the trimmers above your waist and extending your arms away from your body greatly increases the stress on your lower and upper back muscles. Of course, keeping the trimmers low and close necessitates the use of stepladders on higher bushes and shrubs. Just remember that spending a little more time trimming is better than spending a lot more time recuperating from low back pain.
Pay careful attention to technique. Maintain a relatively erect posture as you rake diagonally across your body. Keep your feet at least shoulder-width apart, and keep your arms reasonably close to your body. Do not lean forward or backward, and do not twist your torso unnecessarily. Be sure to switch sides every 5 to 10 pulls to prevent muscle imbalance and overuse injuries.
Although somewhat similar to raking, hoeing usually requires greater force to break up soil and make trenches for planting seeds. Therefore, you need a very solid stance and an erect upper body. I suggest hoeing in an alternating manner, a few diagonal pulls to the left side of the body and a few diagonal pulls to the right side of the body. Don’t dig too deep and risk injury. If you need greater depth, go over the same trench a second or third time.
Regardless of what you are planting, you must get close to the ground. Unfortunately, most gardeners bend at their waist, placing unnecessary stress on their lower back muscles. A better technique is to squat with one knee on the ground (use kneepads for comfort). This permits a shorter reach to the ground, less torque on your back, and a more comfortable head position. In fact, you can place one arm across your thigh for even greater support and stability. Make sure you change knee and foot positions every minute or two.
Don’t let this seemingly simple task fool you. You quickly bend over to pull-out a dandelion, then a clump of crabgrass, and so on until you injure your back. Like planting, take time to place one knee on the ground to prevent overreaching at the shoulders and overstraining at the back. Of course, getting up and down uses the large muscles of the legs, but these movements provide high levels of exercise with low risk of injury.Keep an excising tool with you for hard-to-pull weeds, as well as a bag to collect the weeds so you don’t have to repeat the pick up process.
The difference between using a lawnmower and a rototiller is analogous to that between driving an automobile and a tractor-trailer. They both do fine on the straightaway, but making tight rototiller turns (especially next to fences) requires both muscle strength and skillful maneuvering. Walk tall, and keep the tiller handles relatively close to your body for control. Turn in tight circles where you can, and use reverse where you are blocked, such as corners or fences. Tilting the tiller engine downward changes the balance point and reduces the muscular effort for turning the machine. Apply the same pull-cord starting strategy recommended for lawnmowers, but be extra careful of unexpected recoil. You are well-advised to let the machine do the work, setting the depth control for progressively deeper churning, rather than struggling to dig too deep on the first go-round.
Applying these basic yard and garden movement mechanics should enhance your outdoor productivity and reduce your chance of injury, making these activities even more satisfying.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science at Quincy (Mass.) College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has authored 24 books on strength training and physical fitness.