How to Shovel and Dig Without Straining Your Back

The opportunity to use a shovel is available all year round, which means the risk of back strain or other spine injury is there, too. Learning how to dig your garden or shovel snow with good body mechanics is easy to do and only takes a few minutes.

Before shoveling, dress for success by wearing sturdy closed-toe or steel toe footwear, gloves, and long pants. Also, check to ensure that digging will not hit any lines or pipes and that the removed material can be deposited in a safe place.

1

Warmup Before Shoveling

Old mining shovels
Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Shoveling is hard work for your muscles, heart, and lungs. You will want to warm up your muscles first, just as you would before a workout at the gym. Walking around for a few minutes or marching in place is recommended. Dynamic stretches or flexibility exercises for your arms, shoulders, legs, stomach, and back may also be done. These take your muscles through the full range of motion in a fluid fashion, rather than holding a static stretch.

If you have a history of heart disease or heart attack, talk to your healthcare provider to see if shoveling is allowed or may put you at risk of a heart attack.

2

Position the Shovel in Front of You

Position the top of the shovel blade so that it is level. Ideally, it should be parallel to the top of your hip bones (pelvis) assuming your hip bones are level.

Place your feet hip-wide apart and keep the shovel close to your body.

3

Place One Foot on the Shovel

Germany, Bavaria, Human legs with spade on field
Westend61 / Getty Images

Position your feet so that one foot is in front of the other. Next, place your front foot on the shovel blade. Anchor your back leg into the ground to help stabilize your body posture.

4

Lean In

Farmer digging a hole
Image Source / Getty Images

Lean your weight forward onto the shovel. Let the weight of your body sink the shovel into the ground. Leveraging the dirt or snow in this way will help you avoid muscle strain associated with digging or shoveling.

Keep your spine in one long unbroken, but flexible line.

5

Begin Lifting

To begin lifting the dirt up, shift your weight to your back leg, using a gliding motion of the pelvis. Make sure you bend at hips and knees, and not the back. If you don't initiate the lifting from the pelvis you will be working harder than you need and may cause yourself back or neck strain.

6

Lower Your Body to Lift the Shovel Up

Leverage the shovel out of the ground by bending the knees (especially the back leg) to lower your body down more. By lowering your body down when you lift the shovel up, you are positioning your center under the weight you are trying to lift, and harnessing the power of the pelvis, hips, and legs rather than the back.

7

Move Your Body to Dump the Dirt Out

Farmers digging a hole
Image Source / Getty Images

Instead of heaving the dirt over your shoulder or behind your body, why not take a less straining approach? It will likely save you energy and help you to avoid muscle strain if you move your whole body to where you want the dirt to go, then just turn the shovel handle to let it fall there. As usual, any bending should be at the hips and knees to help you avoid using the vulnerable areas of your back to do the heavy work.

8

Start Slow and Pace Yourself

Be sure to start slowly when you are shoveling or digging, and pace yourself. Monitor your body for pain or strain. If you feel anything amiss, check your form or cease this activity.

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Article Sources
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  1. University of Vermont Extension. Shoveling snow.

Additional Reading
  • Cathy Butler. Personal Interview and Course Notes: Effortless Gardening, as developed by Miriam Levenson, Feldenkrais Practitioner.