3 years ago

11 Safe Shoveling Techniques To Keep Your Back Fit & Healthy

Shoveling and digging can be back-breaking work so learn how to do it the right way with these safe shoveling techniques.

safe shoveling techniques

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If you have to dig and shovel all day at work then you'll know just how sore your back can get after a hard days graft. 

As it can be physically demanding to the extent of being punishing and dangerous for your body if done without the right care and attention. 

Especially your back. 

And while a bad back may be worth it if you're digging for hidden treasure, it's certainly not if you're digging up someone's back garden! 

But it's not just laborers and manual workers that have to watch out for bad backs from shoveling.

As this also applies to gardeners or anyone that lives in snowy climates where shoveling snow is a daily necessity (hello my Canadian friends!).

And if you're not careful you can easily develop an aching and burning sensation in your lower back that just gets angrier and angrier as the day goes on. 

Which can make your life a misery and lead to muscle twinges and spasms galore. 

Not to mention sciatic pain shooting down your legs from the inflammation in your muscles pinching and irritating your nerves

However, the problem for some tradespeople is that long days spent digging and shoveling are unavoidable. 

And unfortunately they can get into bad habits such as:

  • Not warming up beforehand.
  • Lifting too much weight on each 'dig' and putting their muscles under extra strain.
  • Shoveling for long periods without taking a break.
  • Holding their bodies in an awkward posture while digging which puts extra strain and pressure on their backs.

But the good news is shoveling doesn't have to lead to back pain.

Because by getting into good habits and using safe shoveling techniques you can prevent this pain from happening.

And I'll go through what you need to do one by one now.

1. Warm Up Properly

This is probably the one thing that gets overlooked the most.

But it's absolutely vital that you stretch your body and warm up before starting to dig.

I mean you wouldn't attempt to lift 200 lbs at the gym or go on a 10 mile run without limbering up first would you?

So why skip it before work?

Think about it.

Digging and shoveling for long periods is bloody hard work.

So it makes sense to give your body every chance of making it through unscathed.

Which means before you pick up that shovel you need to make sure your muscles are warm and ready.

As by doing this you'll lower the risk of injury and muscle strains while also giving yourself more energy to perform better and get more done.

So run through a series of dynamic stretches to loosen up and get your blood pumping before you start and you'll be good to go.

The video above from Fitness Blender should give you an idea of what to do.

2. Keep Your Core Muscles Strong

You need to keep your body strong enough to withstand the rigours of working hard at a manual job.

As this will help you to prevent back pain and injuries from occurring.

And having strong core muscles can really help you when digging and shoveling.

Because having a strong core will protect, stabilise, and support your spine, while also helping you to maintain a healthy and balanced posture.

All of which will protect your back from the powerful movements needed to dig, shovel and lift.

And reduce any pressure and strain you feel as you work.

So make sure you are doing core strengthening exercises regularly outside of work, such as those in the video above.

And you can strengthen your core through a variety of activities such as yogapilates, and swimming

3. Maintain A Healthy Posture While Shoveling

It's really important to keep your body balanced while digging or shoveling as this will minimise any strain on your lower back.

So you need to make sure you maintain a healthy posture at each stage of the dig.

And as a guide you should aim for the following:

When Shoveling

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and have your shoulders and hips facing towards the load.
  • Keep your knees bent, back straight and push from the the handle.
  • Shift your weight from your back leg to your front leg rather than bending at the waist.
  • Now engage your core muscles, bend your knees and squat down with your legs apart, but remember to keep you back straight while doing so.
  • Keeping your back straight, lift from the legs until you are in a standing position.
  • If you need to throw the load off to the side, turn your body to face that way first rather than twisting.

When Digging

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and have your shoulders and hips facing towards your spade.
  • Keep the head of the spade standing straight at a 90 degree angle from the ground with your feet close by and the handle in front of you.
  • Keeping your back straight use your body weight to push down with one foot centered on the blade.
  • Once the blade is in the the ground step back with one foot.
  • Now engage your core muscles, bend your knees and squat down with your legs apart, but remember to keep you back straight while doing so.
  • Use the momentum of this movement to lift the head of the spade out of the ground with your load.
  • Keeping your back straight, lift from the legs until you are in a standing position.
  • If you need to throw the load off to the side, turn your body to face that way first rather than twisting.

4. Always Lift With Your Legs

It's when you lift a fully loaded spade or shovel that good technique becomes vital.

As you always need to lift with your legs rather than your back.

Doing this will help you to avoid straining your back as you work.

So when lifting make sure your knees are bent, your back is straight, your core muscles are engaged, and use the power of your legs to lift the weight of the load.

As this will protect your back from any excessive bending that would put it under great strain during an extended period of digging.

5. Don't Twist Your Body

don't twist when digging

One of the biggest causes of back pain from digging and shoveling is when you twist your body to throw the load off to the side or over your shoulder.

So don't do it!

As this repetitive twisting alongside the extra weight will cause havoc on your back.

Instead you always need to get rid of the load by throwing it straight in front of you.

So if you do need to throw it to the side or behind you, turn your body to face that direction first so you're not twisting.

You can do this by moving your feet and turning your whole body in unison, rather than keeping your feet planted and only twisting at the waist.

Your back will thank you immensely for it.

6. Hold Your Shovel Correctly

How you hold the shovel plays a big part in how much strain your back comes under.

Because if you place both hands up by the handle when shoveling all the weight of the load will be felt in your lower back.

And it can force you into an awkward position that makes bending from the back unavoidable.

So to keep this strain off your back and limit excessive bending you need to get your grip right.

Ideally your hands should be about 12" apart, with one hand on the handle and the other closer to the blade.

This puts you in a much more stable position and lowers the chance of injuring your back, as the pressure from the load is spread evenly.

And this will also help you if you need to lift heavier loads too, but be wary of this as I'll explain next.

7. Don't Overload Your Shovel

Now I don't know about you, but the shovel above looks like it's loaded perfectly to me!

But when you're at work you need to be very careful when loading yours.

Because by loading up your shovel to the brim every time you dig you are putting your back under more strain.

And while loading up to the full with each action gets the job done quicker, what you save in time you gain in pain!

So keep your loads lighter and more manageable and don't be tempted to go for gold.

Also when loading and unloading the shovel keep the weight of the load close to your body.

Because the farther away you hold it from you, the more strain your lower back will come under.

And finally, when unloading your shovel don't over-extend yourself when throwing the load.

As this overstretching and jolting will do your back no favors, so get closer and drop it instead.

8. Use A Wheelbarrow

Photo credit: Berend Broerse

It's a good idea to use a wheelbarrow rather than moving each individual load on foot all day.

As this will save you energy and take a lot of pressure off your back.

And this also limits the need to have to keep twisting and turning as you dig.

Because by placing the wheelbarrow close in front of you means you don't need to overreach or overstretch yourself when dropping your load.

And these things can really help to minimise any strain on your back from digging and shoveling all day.

But just be aware that you also need to be careful when unloading the wheelbarrow as that can be a cause of back pain too!

So make sure you:

  • Don't overload it.
  • When unloading lift from underneath and use an underhand grip.
  • Bend from the knees keeping your back straight and use your leg muscles to lift it up.
  • Once you have it up, keep your back straight and lean into it using your body weight to tilt it forward to empty it.

9. Take Regular Breaks

Even the most simple of tasks can cause an injury when done repetitively.

So you need to be extremely careful when doing a powerful and intense activity like digging or shoveling for an extended period of time.

Because the consequences of overdoing it are a nightmare for your back.

So learn to pace yourself and take frequent breaks when possible.

As not only will this give your aching muscles a break, it will also stop these movements from becoming too repetitive.

So try to take a break for a few minutes every half an hour or so and use this time to have a good stretch.

As this will help to relieve any tension that has built up in your body.

And if you can alternate periods of digging with other tasks then that would be even better.

A change is as good as a rest after all!

10. Stay Hydrated

Photo credit: Don Harder

Digging and shoveling all day is punishing work and you'll definitely work up a sweat while doing it.

So it's important that you keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

As not only will this help you to perform better physically.

It will also give you more energy, ward off fatigue, and improve your circulation.

Which helps your muscles and joints get the blood, oxygen, and nutrients they need to stay healthy.

So you'll be less stiff and sore after a hard days digging if you stay well hydrated.

11. Use And Wear The Right Equipment

While it's extremely important to practice safe shoveling techniques, you also need to make sure you're using the right equipment for the job too.

Because things such as using the right shovel, wearing the right protective clothing, and using a back support belt will all help to minimise any back pain.

Choose The Right Shovel

Firstly you need to use the right shovel for the job you are doing.

As the different shaped heads are designed for different purposes and using the wrong one will only make the job harder.

So keep in mind that round head shovels are best for when you are digging holes, while square head shovels are best for when you are moving materials.

And choose accordingly.

As not only will this make your job easier, it'll also put your back under less strain.

And the design of the shovel is also important because:

  • Using a long-handled shovel is good because it will stop you from bending over as much.
  • A shovel with curved 'D' handles will help to keep your back straighter as you dig or shovel.
  • Shovels with lightweight heads will mean the loads will hold less weight.
  • Also shovels with smaller heads will stop you from overloading it and lifting too much.

So if you're looking for a good shovel that is kind on your back, Bosse Tools have developed both round head and square head shovels that cover all these things and more.

These are especially good for your back as they are long-handled and lightweight (made from fibreglass).

And the genius part of the design is the adjustable 360 degree grip in the middle of the shaft.

As not only will this ensure you keep your hands at the correct distance apart so you can stay in the most stable and supportive position.

But by changing the angle of this grip your hand can also face in the same angle as where you are throwing the load.

This will make it easier to lift and dig while also taking the strain off your back, wrists, and shoulders.

So while they are more expensive than a regular shovel, they are great for helping you to avoid pain.

Take a look for yourself by clicking here and see what you think.

Wear A Back Support Belt

I mentioned earlier how important it is to keep your core muscles strong as they support your back while digging and shoveling.

And the good news is you can give them a big helping hand by wearing a back support belt.

Now it's important to say here that these belts won't make you invincible with a shovel in your hand.

But they will work alongside your core muscles to support and stabilise your lower back as you shovel, dig, and lift.

And they will also encourage you to keep a good posture and digging technique, which is great for relieving pressure.

So it's well worth investing in a good one to give you that extra helping hand.

I've written a review of the best ones for people with back pain here, and my top choice is the Maxar Deluxe Work Belt.

Wear Boots With Good Grip & Support

You need to feel comfortable and have a good grip when you are digging and shoveling.

As this allows you to get good purchase as you perform the powerful movements.

And it'll also keep you nicely balanced and aligned, not to mention minimise the chance of any slips or falls. 

So wearing a good pair of work boots that have both good support and grip is half the battle.

And a pair that combines both of these well are the Keen Utility Men's Pittsburgh Steel Toe Work Boot.

These are perfect for use on site or in the garden.

Use A Good Pair Of Gloves

There's nothing worse than getting blisters while digging is there?

Especially when it happens halfway through the day and you have no choice but to struggle on through the pain.

So get yourself a decent pair of gloves for digging and shoveling and keep your hands blister and pain-free.

A nice thick pair with a good grip like these Carhartt Men's Grain Leather Work Gloves are ideal.

Rounding Up

I hope that you've found few techniques here that will help you out the next time you have to spend a day digging and shovelling.

As they can be a real pain (literally!).

But by following these tips and using the right equipment for the job they don't have to be.

And if you have any other tips and advice on this subject I'd love to hear them in the comments below.

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I'm a psychology graduate and a veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. I want to help people learn how to fight back against persistent back pain just like I have.

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