At LiveWell Health and Physiotherapy, we see a variety of patients each year with constant lower back pain due to shovelling the snow or have instigated new lower back pain and back problems as a result of shovelling techniques. This year, we want to help our patients shovel snow safely to avoid any back pain and back problems, injuries and spinal compression.

How To Approach Shoveling

Much like raking leaves, before you begin shovelling, we suggest that you warm up your muscles. That’s because muscles that are stiff and cold will be prone to injuries and pain. By warming up your muscles, you not only get them warmed up and in motion, but you also send blood flow through your body. To warm up your muscles, engage in some light stretching and light cardio, targeting parts of your body that you’ll be using the most when you shovel, like these ideas:

Squatting Like You’re Shoveling

As much as we think squats are for getting a better behind, they’re also important for shovelling safely. That’s because a lot of the proper form for shovelling comes from being able to bend at the knees and to safely return up to standing height. Try to do sets of squats before heading outside to shovel. A proper squat will make you look as though you are sitting on an invisible chair.

Be sure to keep your knees bent, but don’t push them over the eye line to your toes. Most importantly, keep your back straight and let your legs do the work!

Stretching Your Wrists, Arms and Legs

Because your wrists arms and legs will be doing a lot of the work, make sure you’re stretching out the muscles in them. Circular arm rotations and circular wrist rotations will help get the muscles moving at various angles.

As for the legs, you’ll want to stretch out your hamstrings and your calves. To stretch your hamstrings, stand on one leg and bend the other, bringing your foot behind to where your heel touches your backside, and hold for 15-20 seconds. Do the same on to the other leg. To stretch out your calves, while standing, extend one leg ahead of you so your heel touches the floor and your toes point to the ceiling. The other leg should be facing 90 degrees outwards, knee slightly bent. Gently bend into the extended leg, which will give a stretch to your calf muscle. Hold for 15-20 seconds and then do the same on the other leg.

Stretch Out Your Back

Stretching out your back prior to shovelling is extremely important to avoid pulling muscles or injuring the spine. For a full backstretch, you’ll want to practice what’s known in yoga as the “child’s pose”. To do this pose, start by kneeling on a soft mat. Bend your upper body forward until your head touches the mat and extend your arms over your head so they touch the mat. To get a deep stretch out of this pose, try to reach your arms forward as far as possible and gently rock from side to side to stretch parts of your lower back.

Get Your Heart Rate Up

We’re not saying you need to go running before you shovel, but it is important to get your heart pumping. By going on a quick walk before shovelling the snow or by doing some jumping jacks to get your entire body moving, you’ll be warming up and getting your heart rate up.

While it may not seem so, shovelling snow can be hard on your heart. If there is not enough blood flowing to the heart in the cold weather, the heart is more prone to failure, heart attacks, and blood clots. That’s why it’s so important to warm up your heart while you warm up your muscles.

If you have had prior heart attacks or are known to have heart problems, it’s important to talk to your General Physician to ensure you are able to shovel without risk.

While You’re Shovelling

When the prep work is done and you head out to shovel, make sure you take these precautions to shovel safely and smartly:

  • Choose a shovel that is appropriate for your height. The right shovel will allow you to hold it comfortably in the starting position where your arms are slightly bent and back, and your back is titled ever so slightly. When holding the shovel, one hand should be on the stick and one should be on the handle at 12 inches apart. The space between them gives you more leverage and power.
  • Pick a plastic shovel instead of a metal shovel because it will be much lighter to hold
  • Pick a shovel with a blade that is proportionate to your size. Although a large shovel blade has the ability to carry more snow, it’s better to pick the one you can easily manage

As you’re shovelling, try to push the snow as much as possible as opposed to lifting it. Pushing snow does not put as much strain on your body. If you do need to lift snow to get it on top of a snowbank or to a different area, be sure you are using a squatting technique. You’ve heard the saying, “Bend from the knees”, but it is truly an important part of shovelling. When picking up snow, bend from the knees and keep your knees bent as you walk it where it needs to go.

And when you do pick up snow, make sure you’re picking up small amounts that are manageable to lift. You may think it’s faster to lift heavy amounts, but it can cause back pain and lower back strains if you’re not careful. It also puts more pressure on the heart, which is why some people have heart attacks when shovelling snow.

Keep in mind, not all snow has the same weight. If you’re shoving freshly fallen snow, it will be much lighter than wet snow and packing snow. Know the type of snow you’re working with and lift only what you can. For easier lifting of heavy bits, move one hand closer to the blade for more control in the lift.

If you’re tackling large snow piles, be sure to only lift a little at a time, and to use the same squatting technique as you would for light snowfalls.  And while it can be tempting when dealing with so much snow, don’t throw snow over your shoulders! Not only can this cause lower back pain, but you also risk injuring your wrists, upper back, and arms. Make sure you’re moving with the snow to where you want it.

To help you shovel safely, it’s also a good idea to invest in winter boots that have good grips to prevent lower back pain and injuries from slips and falls, and always have bags of rock salt to pour over particularly slippery areas.

The Benefits of Shovelling Snow Safely

If you’re shovelling snow safely, you’ll be happy to know that you are on average, burning 230 calories every 30 minutes. Of course, this will vary per person, but it can be a very rewarding winter activity that keeps you fit throughout the colder months.

Just make sure you’re taking breaks frequently to stretch out your muscles and to let your heart rest. If you find that shovelling snow becomes too difficult for you because of lower back pain, muscle pain or health-related issues, it may be a good idea to invest in a snowblower or to hire someone to help clear snow for you.