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.


Position the Shovel in Front of You

Old mining shovels
Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Shoveling is hard work, so set yourself up for success right from the beginning.

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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Article Sources

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  • Hage, M., Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The Back Pain Book: A Self-Help Guide for Daily Relief of Neck and Low Back Pain. 2nd Edition. Peachtree Publishers. 1992, 2005.
    Cathy Butler. Personal Interview and Course Notes: Effortless Gardening, as developed by Miriam Levenson, Feldenkrais Practitioner.