Your Gardening Body: How to Scoop Mulch and Use a Wheelbarrow Without Strain or Pain

Anne Asher, a movement specialist from The MOVE! Blog, has been kind enough to answer some common questions about how professional and/or passionate gardeners can reduce the strain that comes from repetitive gardening tasks. Check out her new product – great for winter time – called Clear the Blear. Here’s this month’s installment:

Dear Anne,

In winter, I love to mulch my gardens, because mulch protects plants’ roots from the frost, keeps the soil surface from forming a crust when the rains beat down on it, and keeps the weeds from coming up.

But shoveling loads of mulch, either from off the ground if we have mulch delivered by a dump-truck, or out of a pickup truck, can be repetitive and tiring on the lower back. I find I have a tendency to stoop while scooping.

I’d love some tips on how to shovel light loads like this, where the material does not weigh much and you shovel more quickly than when working soil.

Tips on using a wheelbarrow would also be much appreciated!

Hi, Gen,

There are a couple of tricks to minimizing fatigue of low back muscles. In general if you can strengthen the muscles of your hips, particularly the hamstrings and gluteus max in the back, the gluteus medius on the sides, and the adductors on the inside of your leg, you will be able to get support at the hip joint while you work. Your new found strength will help you avoid using your back. A good Pilates class, or a targeted gym workout should be all you need.

Also, remember to move your whole body rather than twisting at the spine. This takes some conscious effort in the beginning, because most of us don’t think about how we do the chore – we just do it. So you really have to be aware of what your body is doing when you shovel and dump, shovel and dump.

And as for the wheelbarrow, an important point to remember is that the weight you control is supported by an invisible triangle, made by the relationship between the wheel and the two handles. The idea of a triangle should help keep things more stable as you maneuver the thing. At the apex of the triangle is the small and moveable wheel – that’s the only place where movement of the wheelbarrow can happen.

Set yourself up for success in the beginning by centering your body in between the two handles. Face your hips directly in front of the container, and line them up so they are level with the lip. When using the wheelbarrow, try to use whole body leverage rather than your hands and wrists, or even shoulders. Lean your body weight in when dumping the mulch out, for example. Just as when you shovel, you should try to move your body as a whole when maneuvering the wheelbarrow. Wherever possible, avoid muscling through, using only one or two body parts.

Paying attention to my hip joints and using my legs, not my back, for power
Trying not to twist my spine as I turn
Moving my scoop of mulch with my whole body, not by twisting at the spine
Trying to keep my wrists more straight instead of twisting them as I dump the mulch
Using my body weight to push rather than just my arms, back and shoulders

***Do you have any areas that hurt you when you garden? Let us know in the comments, and Anne can answer your questions in future articles.***

Anne Asher has been in the bodywork and holistic health field for over 20 years.  She has worked in chiropractors’ offices, physical therapy clinics and in her own business.  She taught Pilates based exercise to people with chronic musculoskeletal pain for 5 years in Humboldt County.  Anne is now the Back and Neck Pain guide on is a New York Times web property.

If you like this post, you may also enjoy:

Your Gardening Body: Digging Without Strain or Pain

Your Gardening Body: Using Loppers Safely Without Strain or Pain

Your Gardening Body: How to Rake and Sweep Without Strain or Pain

4 responses to “Your Gardening Body: How to Scoop Mulch and Use a Wheelbarrow Without Strain or Pain”

  1. Ooh! Wheelbarrows! That reminds me that I just bought a new one — for $100 at Lowe’s, they had this Jackson 6 cubic foot heavy-gauge wheelbarrow with a no-flat tire.

    Amazon Link – Jackson M6T22BB

    It’s a very nice unit — the wheel is large and straight, the mounting is sturdy and it’s well-assembled. The handles are thicker than average, and even with six cubic feet of river rock the wheelbarrow is easy to lift, keep stable, and move — and I’m not that big of a guy.

    One extra tip I can give for those who are tall enough is to move the wheelbarrow with your arms hanging straight — this is a rock climber technique to avoid arm fatigue. You can basically let the weight hang from the bones and tendons in your shoulders and you don’t expend any energy in the process.

  2. Oooh, Karl, I am jealous, that is fancy. I always get the cheapest large ones from Ace or wherever, but now I’m seeing yours I am wondering if it’s time for an upgrade.

    And thank you for that tip about keeping your arms straight! That is awesome. I will probably never try rock climbing since I am a total wuss, so I would never have come across this tip naturally. LOL.

  3. One thing I do that seems to help is alternate sides. If I fill the barrow from the left one load, I fill it from the right on the next load. I end up with a mild ache on both sides instead of a murderous ache on one. I also alternate sides when raking.