Well it’s that time of year again. The yard and garden beckon for your attention. While you may have good intentions, you always seem to find a way to throw out your back! Rats! It’s certainly no fun to deal with low back pain while gardening or doing yard work. Luckily, there are some things you can do to prevent it! Let’s start with some of the most common causes of injury or low back pain while gardening / doing yard work.

Common causes of low back pain while gardening or during yard work

  • Bending improperly
  • Biasing all your work to one side.
  • A weak core
  • Stiff hips
  • Improper gardening or yard work tools
  • Poor movement patterns
  • Working too hard without breaks

Good news: I’m Chris Sovey, owner and Physical Therapist and Registered Nurse at Healthy Consumer Physical Therapy in Lansing, MI. I’m going to show you exactly how to stop low back pain during gardening or yard work from all these causes.

How To Stop Low Back Pain While Gardening or During Yard Work

Bending improperly

Bending improperly can cause low back pain while gardening

Improper bending

Your hips are marvelous in design. They are meant to move in multiple directions and stabilize your low back. All this freedom of motion allows you to take stress off your low back if you use the hips correctly.

Let’s say you need to pull out a weed (or bend over for any reason). The general rule of thumb with all bending is to take up all the available range of motion in the hips FIRST. This is in contrast to repeatedly bending your spine forward. You are cruising for a bruising, as they say…. Or rather a herniated disc.

To pull a weed properly, we would want to either:

  1. Bend forward with a straight back, and abs in.
  2. Squat at the hips with the abs in.
  3. Try a “golfer’s lift.” Keep a straight spine and bend down with a straight leg on the ground, and your other leg behind you.
  4. Side sit on the ground and switch sides frequently.

Regardless of your method used, the concept is the same: take up all the available range of motion at the hips FIRST.

Biasing all your work to one side

It’s rarely a good idea to do all our work using only one side of the body. We become too biased and develop muscle imbalances as a result. This is true for life in general, not just gardening or yard work. Admittedly, it will typically feel more “comfortable” and “natural” to use our dominant side.

Try switching that rake, hoe, or other tool to the opposite side of your body You will reduce your risk for injury. This is because gardening or yard work typically involves repeated twisting, and side bending, which is not so great for the spine when it is all done on one side.

A weak core

Ah, the ever elusive core! Everyone talks about it. It’s importance is certainly necessary in gardening or yard work. I’m not suggesting doing 1000 crunches or 5 minutes of planks to stop low back pain while gardening. No. It is much more subtle than that. You first need to know how to find the right muscles to make the core work. That requires training and repetition.

On a basic level, you can think of breathing in, breathing out, then “shrink-wrapping” around your front, back, and sides of the thorax. There are many more details than this, and I recommend working with a physical therapist, such as myself, if this is confusing.

Performing this maneuver (gently) before bending forward to the ground is a useful strategy to stabilize the low back. Many other exercises can be prescribed by a physical therapist to help you develop your core.

Stiff hips

A proper squat to pull weeds.

Remember how we talked about taking up all the available range of motion at the hips first? Ah, yes. Well, here it is again. Stiff hips will come back to haunt you in your gardening / yard work. That’s why proper stretching and moving the hips before deep bending is paramount to preventing injuries. While it’s impossible to make a blanket statement on the right exercises to do for stiff hips, some general suggestions are provided in the video above or in the section below.

Improper tools

While this might seem obvious to some, make sure you have the right tools for the job, and that they are sized appropriately for you. If you are shoveling, raking, or using any other tool to help you complete a job, it needs to be sized and used according to your needs. If a rake is too short, you will have to bend to the side excessively. The same thing would be true with a shovel in the winter time for shoveling snow.

Poor movement patterns

What do I mean by poor movement patterns? In order to avoid injury and stop low back pain while gardening or doing yard work, it is critical to properly transfer weight through your body from your foot, all the way up to your hands. If you try to “muscle your way through” everything, using only your shoulders, you’re in trouble.

Much like the video above, a physical therapist can show you how to transfer your weight forward and back appropriately. For instance, raking requires you to lean your entire body weight forward, and pull back through the abdominals as you rock back. This will help reduce low back pain while gardening.

In gardening, if you are working on your hands and knees, it is critical to be able to rock forward and back, without over-extending your shoulders. These are demonstrated in the video above.

Working too hard without breaks

Do you listen to your body or push through your work? I always recommend taking at least a short 5-minute break every hour of work. Stretch out your back, legs, and shoulders, to counter all the forward bending you likely just did. This will prevent excessive fatigue, which is when people are most prone to injury. This is a perfect time to grab a glass of water. Set a time on your phone if you need to.

Correct positioning of the shoulders, neck, and head

While this article is primarily focused around preventing injuries in the low back, we need to show some love to the rest of the body. Much like holding a cell phone can wreak havoc on your neck, rounded shoulders and a slumped upper back is a killer on the low spine as well. Remember, everything is connected. Keep your shoulders back, and try not to round your upper back all the time. It really wears down your spine.

Stretches and Exercises That May Help

Dang! Those hips again. Stretching out the hips and spine are two of the most important factors to preventing injury. Please remember these stretches are for educational purposes only, and should be assessed by a medical professional.

  1. Seated Hamstring Stretch

    1. Start seated on an elevated surface, with the hips above the knees.
    2. Make sure your pelvis is level and not twisted.
    3. Bring your left leg straight out in front of you, with the heel propped up.
    4. Hinge forward from the hips, until you feel a mild stretch on the back of the left thigh.
    5. Hold for 3-4 seconds, repeat 10 times per leg.
  2. Seated Piriformis Stretch

    1. Start seated on an elevated surface, with the hips above the knees.
    2. Make sure your pelvis is level and not twisted.
    3. Bring your left ankle across your R thigh, enough so your L leg is flush, and not hanging out to the side
    4. Hinge forward from the hips, until you feel a mild stretch on the back / side of the left butt-cheek.
    5. Hold for 3-4 seconds, repeat 10 times per leg.
  3. Seated Hip Hinge

    1. Start seated on an elevated surface, with the hips above the knees and legs wide apart.
    2. Make sure your pelvis is level and not twisted.
    3. Hinge from your hips with a straight back until you cannot go any further.
    4. Do not fold the spine forward.
    5. Hyper-mobile women may not need this stretch. More men do. You should feel a gentle pull on the inside of your thighs / groin.
    6. Hold for 3-4 seconds, repeat 10 times.
  4. Supported Squats

    1. Stand with your feet wide near a counter or pole.
    2. Drop the tail down towards the floor as much as you can.

Hamstring Stretch

Squat Exercise

Inner Thigh Stretch

Piriformis Stretch

Always stop exercising immediately if you feel any discomfort or pain.

Physical Therapy Can Help

So let’s assume you tried all these things, but you are still having an issue with low back pain while gardening or doing yard work.

My next recommended step is to come on down and see us at Healthy Consumer Physical Therapy. There may be some nagging, undiagnosed issue that needs some 1-on-1 attention.

If your pain is stopping you from doing the things you love (including gardening or other outdoor activities), give us a ring. We always provide a 15-minute free, no obligation phone discovery sessions to see if we can help or not. Chances are, we can. Click the link below, and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel in the video above for more helpful and practical tips like this.

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