Shoveling Wisely, Save Your Back

Shoveling Wisely, Save Your Back by William Smith, MS, NSCA, CSCS, MEPD

Living in the Northeast we expect a certain level of snow, thus the dreaded shoveling and possibility of days of back pain and muscle soreness thereafter.  This past week ‘Snowmaggedon’ was predicted to pound the East Coast with snowfalls expected to reach historic levels not seen in years. Today as my wife was shoveling the driveway (she’s a former trainer no stopping her) I thought, it would be a great time to revisit tips to maintain a healthy back during shoveling.  As a point of reference, besides my professional background in fitness, growing up in Michigan gives me a lot of ‘street cred’ in this department!

Mechanism for Injury: Bending and Twisting

Shoveling involves a fair amount of bending and twisting.  This places a tremendous amount of strain on the spine and the cushioning between the discs known as the intervertebral discs.  They act as spacers of sorts between the vertebrae from the head to the hips.  During the aging process, the discs may become dehydrated or brittle, resulting in loss of height and stability in the back.  Lifestyle factors such regular back strengthening, proper nutrition and hydration and suitable ergonomic set-up at your workspace.

With this said, implementing the necessary lifestyle modifications will set you up for a healthy back during shoveling and related activities of daily living such as bending over to do the laundry!

Protecting your Back: Pre-Shoveling Circuit Prevent Pain with Strong Hips

A safe argument can be made that the glutes, i.e. butt muscles, are the most important muscle groups in the body for lower back health.  It’s no coincidence that since the US workforce, along with an increasingly large part of the industrialized global workforce, sits most of the day ‘flat butt syndrome’ (not sure if that’s a technical name) is an ever growing concern.  Basically the more we sit the less we use our hips resulting in the flatter, less tone backside. This may explain to a degree why 70-80% of human beings experiences back pain at some point during their life.

Before you go out and shovel try these basic preparatory exercises for the hips and back:

Hip Extensions: Lie on your back and lift the hips up and down 15 times.
Single Leg Stance: Stand on one leg and lift the opposite side leg out to the side 10 times
Squeeze Glutes: Contract your butt muscles 15 times
Tennis Ball Rub on the Feet: Circulation/Self-Massage for 30 seconds per foot
Note: Relaxing the muscles in your feet will allow foot to ‘splay’ or open up thereby activating more muscles in the feet, legs and hips.

By ‘activating’ the hips before you perform physical activity, particularly with your back, you’ll have improved body awareness, known as proprioception, and working muscles receive increased blood flow.  The 3 preparatory exercises above will assist in this regard

In closing, when you actually get out there to shovel remember these tips:
● Brace your core muscles before lifting
● Bend at your hips not the back, bend the knees
● ‘Show the Chest’ prior to lifting for better postural alignment
● Press the Feet into the Ground to ‘root’ into the ground

Safe shoveling my friends! Protect that back and recover to shovel another day!


WILLIAM SMITH, MS, NSCA, CSCS, MEPD, completed his B.S. in exercise science at Western Michigan University followed by a master’s degree in education and a post-graduate program at Rutgers University. In 1993, Will began coaching triathletes and working with athletes and post-rehab clientele. He was a Division I Collegiate Strength Coach and has been competing in triathlons and marathons since 1998, finishing 7 marathons and 1/2 Ironman. Will currently works for the #1 Ranked Hospital developing Employer-Based Health and Wellness Programs for Companies, specializing in installing On-Site Medical and Health Suites to assist in lowering employee healthcare costs. Will has advanced specialty certifications in cancer, post-rehab exercise and athletic development. Will has also co-authored the definitive guide to triathlon training, Tri Power. He is also the author of several books in the popular Exercises For series including Exercises for Heart Health, Exercises for Back Pain, Exercises for Brain Health, and many others.