Every year about this time, well-intentioned men and women commit themselves to sprucing up the yard and preparing the garden. Like me, you want your lawn to appear plush, your shrubs to look sharp, and your flower beds to be striking in appearance. You are determined to do it right, and to do it all by yourself. The amount of time it takes is irrelevant and you will spare no effort in achieving your landscaping goals for 1998.
Actually you've tried this before, but every spring you seem to experience an injury that thwarts your progress and prevents you from receiving the Yard of the Year award. But this spring is going to be different. You have spent the past two months conditioning your cardiovascular system, strengthening your muscles, and improving your joint flexibility. You're in really good shape, and you're determined not to break down this time around.
While your attitude is great and your physical preparation most admirable, these factors may not be sufficient to avoid an injury. Putting yourself in poor leverage situations or using improper biomechanics can quickly undermine your conditioning efforts, and leave you sidelined as your grass grows out of control.
To prevent this from happening to you again this year, I have identified a half dozen yard and garden procedures that you should avoid at all costs for a safe and successful spring season. Please consider these recommendations carefully.
1. Do not bend forward at the waist when pushing your power lawnmower. While a slight forward lean may be acceptable, bending too far forward can place excessive stress on the low back. Try to walk with a relatively erect posture, with your arms at a comfortable level when pushing the mower. Be particularly careful turning the mower around, by staying close to the handle and avoiding abrupt trunk twisting movements.
2. Do not attempt to overpower your rototiller. Of course, there are rototillers and there are rototillers. Nonetheless, even the smooth-moving rear rototillers resent being pushed around. Set the depth adjuster to the appropriate level and just let the rototiller do its job, without forcing it deeper or faster than it wants to go. Basically, properly performed rototilling is like taking a slow walk while holding two handles. It is far better for you and your garden to till the soil twice under control than to strain both you and your rototiller trying to bite off more dirt than it can chew up.
3. Do not hold hedge-trimmers far from your body. Leverage plays a major role in how much stress an object places on your musculoskeletal system. For example, with your arm at your side, hold a broom or mop in the middle of the handle. It should feel very light. Now try to hold the same broom or mop at the end of the handle. It will feel much heavier due to the leverage disadvantage. Of course, the object's weight is exactly the same, but the unfavorable leverage position places much greater stress on your muscles. Basically, the same thing happens when you hold the hedge trimmer away from your body. As far as your arms, shoulders, and back are concerned, the hedge trimmer is much harder to hold in forward positions and can easily overstress these muscles, as well as their associated joint structures. Try to keep the trimmer close to your body, at approximately waist level, even if this requires using a stepladder on higher hedges and bushes.
4. Do not squat for prolonged periods when planting seeds or picking produce. Unless you have unusual flexibility, sustained squatting can have adverse effects on your knees and ankles. Squatting almost always results in heels lifting off the ground and knees extending farther forward than the feet. Both of these positions create considerable shearing forces across the ankle and knee joints, which can lead to a variety of physical problems. Instead of squatting on both feet, try kneeling on one knee with the other foot flat on the ground. Although knee pads may be desirable for greater comfort, this is a much safer and stronger position for working near ground level. I recommend keeping both knees at approximately right angles, and alternating the kneeling leg every few minutes.
5. Do not hoe or rake with a bent waist. Reaching too far in front of your body when hoeing or raking may place excessive stress in the low back area. When the torso is bent forward, the low back muscles must work extra hard and frequently tend to freeze in this position. If you have ever had difficulty and discomfort trying to straighten up after a sustained session of hoeing or raking, you undoubtedly know the devastating feeling to which I am referring. Do your best to maintain a relatively erect posture and hoe or rake a small area near your feet, moving as much as necessary to do the job and cover the work area.
6. Do not bend forward to lift grass clipping collection containers. Although I am a big fan of mulching mowers, I well remember the days of disconnecting, lifting, carrying, and dumping the grass clipping collection container. Whether you use a walking or riding mower, the problem remains the same, namely, bending over to disconnect and lift a somewhat weighty container filled to the brim with grass clippings. The forward-bending lifting action places significant stress on your low back musculature, and can lead to serious injuries, particularly if you twist to either side during the lifting movements. Rather than predispose your low back muscles to a variety of problems, keep a fairly erect posture and use the large muscles of your legs to lift the grass clipping bag or box. This requires bending at the knees rather than bending at the hips. When done properly, you perform a backward sitting action to reach the grass clipping collection container. This keeps your heels on the ground and your knees above your shoes for best biomechanics and reduced risk of joint injury. The lifting action is accomplished by your powerful thigh muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals) as you rise to a standing position with your back straight and protected.
As a general guideline, any activity or repetitive movement pattern that causes stiffness or soreness in your lower back or other joint structures should be modified accordingly. This usually requires maintaining a more erect posture, using the leg muscles for lowering and lifting actions, and keeping implements (mowers, hedge trimmers, hoes, rakes, etc.) relatively close to your body. With these things in mind, and an appropriate pre-conditioning program, you should enjoy a productive and injury-free spring season of lawn and garden activity.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is editorial advisor for many publications, including Shape Magazine, Prevention Magazine, Club Industry Magazine, and Men's Health Magazine, and author of several fitness books including the new releases, Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50. Dr. Westcott was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from IDEA, and the Healthy American Fitness Leader Award from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.