types of snow shovels

Winter can be a tough season for back pain sufferers.  For many people shoveling snow is almost certain to cause low back pain.  Perhaps surprisingly, as a former back pain suffer, I look forward to this season. I enjoy being outside in winter weather and view snow shovelling as a great recreational alternative to going to the gym.  What better than a heavy shovel of snow to raise my pulse, tax my obliques and work on my glutes.  The fireplace and a rewarding glass of wine after can also be a great motivator.   Heres how to shovel snow without injuring your back:

TEC

Whether these demanding activities will improve your fitness and strengthen your core, or cause you to need an appointment with your favourite physiotherapist, is often determined by how you approach the activity.  Here are a few easy tips which can prevent low back pain which I find can be easily remembered by using the acronym TEC:  Technique, Ergonomics and Core.

T-Technique avoids snow shoveling back injuries

Technique relates to how you shovel.  Whenever activities are heavy or repetitive the technique you select becomes more important. Video 

Warm-up

Too often it’s our head space that causes our injuries.  We dive in full force, trying to get the job done quickly when our body is not at the same level of readiness as our head. 

When it comes to demanding activities, it is essential to prepare by warming-up if you want to shovel snow without injuring your back. 

Don’t confuse this recommendation with stretching.  Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, warming-up really means you should raise your body temperature.  This is easily done by starting an activity slowly and avoiding the hard stuff until you feel your body is prepared to work.  You will know you are ready to work harder when you feel warmer and your breathing and heart rate start to increase.  Save the stretching for after the work-out, when your tight muscles need to relax. 

Take breaks

The second mistake we make is trying to get a heavy activity done as quickly as possible.  If an activity takes two hours to complete, doing it all at once is not the same as breaking it into two one-hour sessions.  Instead plan for a 15-minute break to allow your body to recover.  This reduces your risk of injury from fatigue. Always remember that the heavier the activity, the more breaks you need. 

Building strength, not injury

The third most common exercise mistake I see is repeating an activity before your body is ready.  Exercise only makes us stronger if we allow our body to rebuild from the strain. Hard work breaks our muscles down and during this period we are weaker than before we started the exercise.  No matter what type of exercise you do, make sure you build in post-exercise recovery. 

The need to recover is why we shouldn’t repeat the same demanding exercise two days in a row.  This allows sufficient time for our muscles to rebuild. Repeating heavy exercise before our muscles have had time to complete this physiological process raises our risk for injury.  

Ideally, we should exercise on alternate days but when it snows three or four days in a row you may not have a choice.  When this happens try to reduce the intensity by taking more breaks or lifting smaller loads.   Alternatively, perhaps the kid next door needs to earn a few extra dollars.…

To maximize recovery, take a page from the playbook of athletes and make sure you are well hydrated and consider your post-activity nutrition requirements.  In moderation foods that contain both sugar and protein provide your muscles with what they need for recovery i.e. low fat chocolate milk. http://www.rechargewithmilk.ca/compare-it.php

Learn the technique of lifting with your legs as the key on how to shovel snow without injuring your back

If you want to shovel snow without injuring your back you should “lift with your legs”.  Although I find that most people can recite this mantra they don’t actually execute it all that well. Rather than keeping their torso over their legs they lean forward.  When you are lifting in this posture it increases the difficulty of the task as you are now lifting the weight of the snow, the shovel as well as the weight of your upper body.  This can add 40 or 50 lb to a lift.   Keeping your shoulders over your hips reduces the strain on your back. 

This video shows a difficult snow shoveling task .  The area is bordered by a shoulder height barrier.  The shoveller is bending her knees and lifting smaller loads to reduce the strain of the task.

Use the right muscles

As you squat to lift the snow, pause for a moment and feel which muscles are working.  You should be using both your thigh (quadriceps) and buttocks (gluteus maximus) muscles.  Many people who are at risk for low back pain don’t use their buttocks and overuse their back muscles.  The high strain on the back  muscles causes spasms.  

Limit twisting 

Your spine is able to twist but twisting while you are lifting a heavy load is a quite another matter.  In snow shoveling, twisting can be avoided by pushing the snow forward rather than throwing it over your shoulder.  If you need to twist, keep the load lighter and take more breaks.     

types of snow shovels

E-The right Equipment avoids back injuries

Always take a moment to look at which tools you can use for the task.  A larger shovel will get the job done faster but it will also add to the strain.  A lighter, smaller shovel will take a little longer to complete the task however a few extra minutes is well spent in preventing an injury.  You can also consider one of the ergonomically designed, bent-handled snow shovels as they can make a substantial difference in the effort needed to push snow (see picture). 

C-Good Core avoids back injuries 

Despite following the best advice on technique and ergonomics some people will still get injured.  As a treating physiotherapist I have found this can often be traced back to mismatches between what you need to do the task and what strength your body has available.  Video

Before you start the snow season, make sure your abdominals, buttocks and thigh muscles are up to the task. If the snow arrives before you have gotten your core muscles working it is even more important that you focus on the T and E in TEC as this will limit the likelihood of injury.  On non-snow days work on targeted exercises to gain the lifelong support you need to prevent injury.

Next year start your pre-season fitness program in the fall, rather than waiting for the new Year.  Better yet keep the program going all year long as each season has its challenges and activity rewards.

Need more advice

If you need a fitness program our Kinesiologist, John Gray, or our Pilates/Yoga instructor, Aniela Amio can help you find your core.  They can also teach you the technique of how to snow shovel to without hurting your back.   If your back hurts even thinking about snow shoveling book to see one of our physiotherapists to get you on the right track.  Call us at 416-925-4687 or email physio@orthophysio.com to book an appointment.