As you begin to prepare your lawn and garden for the spring season, pleases consider some of the following suggestions for working safely and successfully with your tools. Unfortunately, using hand tools and machines improperly can cause injuries which can keep you from enjoying these purposeful outdoor activities.
Let’s begin with the rake. After the stormy winter season, you probably have lots of sticks, twigs and leaves on your lawn. When raking these and dead grass into small piles, be sure to hold the rake with a firm but relaxed grip. Use lightweight gloves if you are prone to skin blisters. Try to pull the rake in a diagonal pattern past your side with relatively short strokes. That is, avoid reaching too far forwards or pulling too far backwards, as either of these exaggerated movements can overstress your lower back. To gauge your raking range, periodically check your torso position. You should not notice more than a slight bend at the waist as you reach forward, or pull backwards, and your torso should remain essentially erect throughout each raking action. Change sides every few raking strokes to avoid overstressing the same muscle groups with uninterrupted repetitive movements.
Rather than moving all the debris to one large collection area, make many small deposits throughout the yard. Doing this prevents you from pulling too much material too far, which can be stressful to your arms, shoulders and back. Small piles also facilitate gathering up the leaves and sticks in manageable movements. Just be sure to bend at the knees rather than at the waist when you bag the debris to avoid overloading your low back area.
Once your lawn is raked, you may find some crabgrass or dandelions that need to be removed. Using a hand trowel, you can typically dig-out these and other weeds without much difficulty. However, don’t be tempted to bend over to reach the roots, as repeated waist bending can adversely affect your lower back. Instead, take time to kneel on one knee which provides torso support and stability, and minimizes back-rounding as you pop out the offensive plants.
The next step in your lawn work is likely to involve pushing a lime spreader or a lawnmower. Unless you have a hilly piece of property, your body should remain relatively straight as you propel the spreader or mower. Try not to lean forward or backwards unless you are mowing on an inclined or declined surface. Pay special attention to turning the equipment. Make close, pivot-type turns without flinging your arms too far from your body. Also, avoid overstriding as this can be problematic to your hip and back areas. The key to enjoying each lawn-mowing session is unhurried movements, moderate strides and smooth turns.
If your mower has a grass-collecting unit, be careful as you detach it, carry it and dump the contents. Remember to bend at the knees rather than at the waist, and to carry the collection unit close to your body. Do your best to dump the grass clippings near the ground, and don’t even think about holding the collection apparatus over a fence. The leverage factors associated with over-fence dumping can place excessive forces on your arms, shoulders and back, and this procedure should not be part of your game plan.
If you have hedges or bushes to trim, do so in short times segments with sufficient rest between successive cuttings. Whether you use manual or electric trimmers, holding the implement in front of your body is more tensive than you may think. To reduce stress on your arms, shoulders and back, make every effort to keep your upper arms close to your body. That is, try to trim at waist level rather than at shoulder level. This may require moving a step stool or a ladder, but it is a much better alternative than back pain or shoulder injury.
Like fielding a fly ball, resist the temptation to use only one arm on the trimming device. Holding the trimmer with both hands reduces the resistance on all of the involved muscles and joint structures, as well as provides more stability for precise cutting patterns. After a few minutes of trimming, set the device down and change your activity. For example, spend several minutes raking and bagging the cuttings to give your trimming muscles a necessary rest. Alternating these activities should not make the job any longer, and may greatly reduce your injury risk.
Working in the garden can also be problematic if you are not physically fit or use your tools improperly. Hoeing is somewhat similar to raking, but requires more muscle effort as you are moving relatively heavy piles of soil rather than relatively light piles of leaves. Like raking, keep your body as straight as possible and switch sides frequently. Use even shorter strokes than raking, always keeping your upper arms fairly close to your body. Don’t let roots or rocks frustrate you, and don’t dig too deep as it is always better to take a second hoeing session than to experience a musculoskeletal injury.
Spading is tough on your body no matter how skillful you are at turning the soil upside down. My best advice is to do two small/shallow spades rather than one large/deep spade. I also suggest doing your spading work in small segments, resting frequently or alternating spading with less stressful garden activities. Make it a point to wear very strong, sturdy and supportive shoes whenever you spade the garden.
If you use a rototiller, operate it as you would a lawnmower. In other words, keep your body upright without leaning forwards to push or backwards to pull. Walk reasonably close to the tiller, and keep your upper arms relatively near your torso. If possible, adjust the handlebars so that your elbows are comfortably bent as you maneuver the machine.
The major problem with rototillers is turning them around at the ends of your garden plot. Try to make your turns at a slow speed and with a small radius, always using the machine leverage/balance to your advantage. Always use the reverse gear rather than pulling the heavy apparatus backwards. Control is the key to safe and productive rototilling, and this is one activity where fast movements are not recommended. Give yourself plenty of time to do the job, and if necessary, divide your garden into several rototilling segments.
Even though tools are not typically used for planting seeds, I strongly suggest that you avoid bending over when you seed your garden. Instead, place one knee on the ground and place the other foot flat in front of you. Although this slows down the planting process, it allows you to work for longer periods of time with much less stress on your lower back. Alternate leg positions every few minutes, and periodically stand up and stretch.
As a final recommendation, lawn and gardening activities are always more effective, efficient and enjoyable when you are in good physical condition. Start today with a few basic exercises (half squats for your legs, trunk curls for your midsection, pushups for your upper body), some simple stretches (figure four stretch, letter T stretch), and regular aerobic activity (stationary cycling, walking) to prepare yourself for a great outdoor season.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Strength Training Past 50 and Strength and Power for Young Athletes.