Like fielding a fly ball, resist the temptation to use only one arm on the trimming device. Holding the trimmer with both hands reduces the resistance on all of the involved muscles and joint structures, as well as provides more stability for precise cutting patterns. After a few minutes of trimming, set the device down and change your activity. For example, spend several minutes raking and bagging the cuttings to give your trimming muscles a necessary rest. Alternating these activities should not make the job any longer, and may greatly reduce your injury risk.
Working in the garden can also be problematic if you are not physically fit or use your tools improperly. Hoeing is somewhat similar to raking, but requires more muscle effort as you are moving relatively heavy piles of soil rather than relatively light piles of leaves. Like raking, keep your body as straight as possible and switch sides frequently. Use even shorter strokes than raking, always keeping your upper arms fairly close to your body. Don't let roots or rocks frustrate you, and don't dig too deep as it is always better to take a second hoeing session than to experience a musculoskeletal injury.
Spading is tough on your body no matter how skillful you are at turning the soil upside down. My best advice is to do two small/shallow spades rather than one large/deep spade. I also suggest doing your spading work in small segments, resting frequently or alternating spading with less stressful garden activities. Make it a point to wear very strong, sturdy and supportive shoes whenever you spade the garden.
If you use a rototiller, operate it as you would a lawnmower. In other words, keep your body upright without leaning forwards to push or backwards to pull. Walk reasonably close to the tiller, and keep your upper arms relatively near your torso. If possible, adjust the handlebars so that your elbows are comfortably bent as you maneuver the machine.
The major problem with rototillers is turning them around at the ends of your garden plot. Try to make your turns at a slow speed and with a small radius, always using the machine leverage/balance to your advantage. Always use the reverse gear rather than pulling the heavy apparatus backwards. Control is the key to safe and productive rototilling, and this is one activity where fast movements are not recommended. Give yourself plenty of time to do the job, and if necessary, divide your garden into several rototilling segments.
Even though tools are not typically used for planting seeds, I strongly suggest that you avoid bending over when you seed your garden. Instead, place one knee on the ground and place the other foot flat in front of you. Although this slows down the planting process, it allows you to work for longer periods of time with much less stress on your lower back. Alternate leg positions every few minutes, and periodically stand up and stretch.
As a final recommendation, lawn and gardening activities are always more effective, efficient and enjoyable when you are in good physical condition. Start today with a few basic exercises (half squats for your legs, trunk curls for your midsection, pushups for your upper body), some simple stretches (figure four stretch, letter T stretch), and regular aerobic activity (stationary cycling, walking) to prepare yourself for a great outdoor season.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South
Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Strength Training Past 50 and Strength and Power for Young Athletes.