Shoveling Tips to Save Your Back

By Erin Higins, DPT
Jumpstart Physical Therapy 

With all the crazy snowstorms we've had in the past few weeks, more than likely a few of you have experienced back pain or soreness. While most people have snow blowers, it is inevitable that at least some lifting and pushing of snow by hand -- to make sure the driveway, stairs, and walkways are clear - is necessary. Here are some tips to help you shovel safely to minimize the risk of back pain, including strains, sprains and bulging discs.

1)    Warm up! You wouldn't start a workout without warming up, would you? When you are shoveling snow you are exercising, so make sure that you warm up your muscles to decrease your risk for muscle strains. Try doing some squats, lunges, and arm circles among other things.

2)    Pace yourself: Sure, you want to get the shoveling over with as soon as possible. But it's important to make sure that you maintain proper form throughout the shoveling session. Lift only small amounts of snow at a time to decrease the load on your back, and take breaks if you get tired. If possible, it's best to shovel when the snow is fresh and fluffier. If you wait too long, the snow will get slushy or icy and thus heavier!

3)    Use the right equipment:

  1. Snow blower: Use a snow blower when possible to decrease the need for lifting. Make sure you keep you abs tight as you push the machine. Proper body mechanics are just as important with heavy pushing as with lifting.
  2. Boots: Wear boots with good tread in order to decrease your risk for slipping and falling.
  3. Shovel: Make sure you use a shovel for its intended purpose. Shovels are either made to push snow or to lift snow. Using the wrong type can increase your risk for injury. Try getting lightweight shovels for lifting; the snow is heavy enough, no need to add the weight of a heavy shovel! Additionally, try using a shovel with a curved handle to improve your posture while working.

4)    Use proper form

  1. Bend at the hips and knees, not the back: Make sure you keep your abs/core tight when lifting and pushing snow in order to keep you back/spine in a straight line. Bending at your back puts too much stress on your back muscles and discs, putting you at risk for injury. Lifting should always be with the legs.
  2. Keep the snow close: When holding the shovel, keep your hands comfortably apart with one on the handle and the other closer to the shovel blade itself. This will decrease the force needed to lift the white stuff. Also walk the snow over to the snow bank rather than reaching or throwing it as these actions put more strain on your back and make it nearly impossible to keep your abs tight.
  3. Face your opponent: Face the snow pile as you lift it in order to keep your spine in a straight line. Twisting your back to throw or lift the snow to the side or over your shoulder puts abnormal forces on your spine and thus increases your risk for injury. Instead, turn your whole body to dump the snow in the bank.

Good lifting mechanics are vital, especially with repetitive lifting like that required when it snows. Remember that practice makes perfect, so make sure that you work on your lifting form at all times - while shoveling, while in the gym, or while doing household chores. Before you know it, it will be second nature to you!