Call a spade a spade

Mulch, snow, gravel, soil – what do they have in common? Answer:  Moving these materials or substances often involves using a shovel. Whether it be shovelling soil to plant a shrub, snow to clear the driveway, mulch to enrich the garden, or gravel to lay a base for the chicken coop, shovelling is demanding work.  Moreover it is a  functional activity that requires a moderate to high level of cardiovascular and muscular endurance.  In the same vein, it involves repetitive bending, pushing, lifting, throwing and twisting motions while balancing heavy loads. The upside is that shovelling can be an intense workout.  The downside is that shovelling predisposes you to lower back injury.


Shovelling sand against the tide


Recently, my beautiful red Australian Kelpie named “Bowie” passed away suddenly  – we suspect a poisonous snake bite.  A proper burial followed, which required digging her grave in our back paddock in rural New South Wales. The experience reminded me of muscle fatigue, lower back strain, and vertebral disc damage that commonly originates from shovelling.  As a practicing physiotherapist, I often treat patients for lower back pain due to shovelling garden mulch or moving gravel.

Common physical injuries caused by shovelling are due to the following:

  • bending forward from the lumbar spine (low back) and loading the lumbar vertebral discs
  • moving heavy loads – especially loads that are compact and dense such as wet soil, snow and compost, and gravel
  • twisting while bending


Is shovelling making you pain-gry?


Collectively, these movements — particularly when done repetitively — create a perfect scenario for lower back injury. The injury frequently involves overburdened discs of the lumbar spine. This causes swelling of the irritated disc and adjacent soft tissues. Swelling leads to constant lower back pain (discogenic pain), that may be aggravated with sitting and bending forwards. In addition, irritation may become more intense in a sustained sitting position. The pain can also extend (refer) to one of the buttocks and legs.

Following a back injury, it is important to seek medical and health advice. An appropriate assessment, treatment, medication and advice from a physiotherapist can provide relief from pain and, importantly, education regarding injury prevention. However, preventing an injury, as well as the inconvenience and accompanying expense, is a preferred scenario.

Digging yourself out of a hole

What can be done to prevent and reduce the risk of lower back injury when shovelling?

The good news is that there are several preventative actions in your control to protect against low back injury while shovelling!

  1. Gain and maintain strong core muscles and lower limb muscles. Strong and stable abdominal and back muscles protect the lumbar discs and other soft tissues supporting the spine. Strong leg muscles will allow you to bend at the knees and load your legs rather than your lower back. See optimal shovelling technique guidelines below.
  2. Improve flexibility around the hips, lower back and thoracic spine (chest). It is important to allow free movement and adequate range of motion of the joints and muscles adjacent to the lumbar spine. Refer to other blogs I have written about back injury, abdominal strength, and stretching for additional insight.
  3. Undertake smaller bouts of shovelling with frequent rests.
    1. Shovel in small intervals with frequent rests. The rests can involve tasks that are very different in movement patterns.
    2. Tag team the shovelling tasks with a partner – or simply outsource!
  4. Ensure an optimal shovelling technique.
    1. Bend from the hips and knees rather than the lower back. Keep your lower back straight to maintain a neutral lumbar spine. This reduces the load on the discs and soft tissues.
    2. Brace your abdominal muscles as you shovel. This will stabilize your core and spine and protect against overloading the vertebral discs.
Here are three exercises to help maintain a healthy back:

1.   Back extensions while standing  

  • Stand with your legs hip-width apart and your hands on your hips.
  • Lean your trunk backwards, arching in the lower back and lifting your chest up.
  • Hold this position before returning to the start position.

back extensions improve lower back flexibility

2.   Alternate arm and leg raises to strengthen the back muscles

  • Lie face down with your arms stretched overhead and palms on the floor.
  • Gently tighten your abdominal muscles. Then lift one leg and the opposite arm together.
  • Lower your leg and arm together.
  • Repeat on the other side.

alternate arm and leg raises strengthen back muscles


3.   Sit Ups to strengthen the abdominals

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet flat on the floor hip-width apart and your arms beside you.
  • Tuck your chin to your chest, and reach your hands towards your feet. Then lift your head and body until your shoulders lift off the floor.
  • Return to the starting position, controlling the movement as you curl back down, keeping your chin tucked in.

sit ups strengthen abdominals