How To Prevent Back Strain While Gardening

Esther Gokhale founded the Gokhale Method for posture and spinal alignment after suffering a herniated disk that left her in excruciating pain after the birth of her first child. Low impact activity like gardening, however, can be a likely source of back pain and tension even for people without a history of spinal injury. Between bending to snatch weeds, pushing wheelbarrows, and lifting heavy pots or bags of soil, gardening can be physically strenuous and potentially injurious– especially in aging populations and among people with poor posture.

Still, gardening doesn’t have to contribute to back pain or any of the other tension-building practices of modern living, like sitting at a desk or craning one’s neck over an iPhone. Below, listen to Gokhale explain why so many indigenous populations live off the land without back pain, and find some of her recommendations for how to protect your back while gardening, as excerpted from her website, below.

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Hinge At The Hips

When planting flowers and digging in the dirt, practice hip hinging to save your knees and lower back. Maintain your spinal shape as you bend from the hips, and take a wider stance to reach the ground more easily. When you feel your hamstrings pulling, bend your knees to keep from tucking. In general, whenever you bend your knees they should never track over your feet, and you should keep your shoulders back to maintain good blood flow to your arms and hands. Try resting one elbow or forearm on your thigh as the other hand performs your gardening tasks to reduce the demand on the muscles in your back.

Squeeze Your Glutes!

Pushing a heavy load is a great way to strengthen your gluteal muscles and improve posture. When using a lawnmower or heavy wheelbarrow, squeeze your glutes extra hard to push your back leg into the ground and propel yourself forward. Earth is much more forgiving than pavement, giving you a chance to work on footstrike and the process of rolling the back foot from heel to toe as you push off.

Try A B-Squat

If your knees are healthy, the “B” squat allows you to garden close to the ground while preserving a healthy back shape. Lift one heel off the ground, open your legs to help your pelvis align properly, and pivot from side to side so as not to fatigue the muscles of either leg. As with hiphinging, take care that your knees track over your feet.

Engage Your Core

When pulling weeds or lifting anything heavy, remember to engage your inner corset (e.g. squeeze your core muscles). As Gokhale and numerous specialists note in the NPR segment above, a strong core is the key to a health back. Stay close to the tool, flowerpot, or stubborn weeds you are moving. When a task is within easy reach, you are more likely to use the deeper muscles in your back and abs and less likely to twist or distort your spine (so instead of reaching over the fence, maybe go inside the garden so as to avoid straining your back). For lifting very heavy items, bend your knees more and always engage your gluteal and leg muscles. (As they say: “lift from the legs, not the back”.)

Try Sitting With A Wedge

If you are working on a stationary project, it may be useful to stacksit cross-legged with a wedge. In people who have tucked their pelvis for years, the surrounding tissues have adapted to this architecture. The muscles and ligaments in the groin, as well as the hamstrings, tend to be short and tight. A wedge compensates for this distorted baseline position and allows you to stack your spine effortlessly and comfortably on its base, allowing you to sit for extended periods in one position. Fold a blanket or mat to create the height that you need. Sit on the edge of this “wedge” to maintain pelvic anteversion and stay upright and relaxed. Roll yours shoulder back, lengthen your neck and hip-hinge forward to tend to garden tasks.

Keep Tabs on Your Body

Often, when we get involved with consuming activities, our bodies slip back into old habits. Remember to open your chest and breathe deeply, so oxygen can flow freely into your system. Take time to enjoy your surroundings. After a day’s work you will feel renewed, refreshed and left with a “good” sore rather than laid up with an aching back!

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