Your Gardening Body: Digging 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. Here’s this month’s installment:

Dear Anne,

Fall is a great time to plant shrubs and trees, because plants can get their roots established and be watered in by the winter rains. Do you have any tips for digging large planting holes without strain?

Hi, Gen!

There are two points to think about with digging and shoveling.  First, they are what I call one-legged activities.  One foot is on the spade, which means both knee and hip joints will be bent for a good part of the time.  The other leg will be straight and should be “planted” into the ground to stabilize your digging actions.

Many of us are what I call “accidents waiting to happen”.  What this means is that because of strength and flexibility differences on either side of, or between front and back of the pelvic structure, we may be closer to a back or hip injury than we realize.

Add to this the fact that most people favor one side or the other when doing routine tasks, and you can see how it’s possible that one day you may be doing the same thing you always do, but something gives and you get injured.  It’s like the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.  Not that you will break your back, but the use of one leg for one part of the task and the other leg for the other part of the task over and over again results in some muscles getting really strong while others get stiff and weak.

So two suggestions here: First, try to include some kind of core strengthening and body alignment work at least once per week.  Yoga and Pilates are great!  Feldenkrais, while not a strengthening program can help you rediscover your natural pelvic and body balance.

The second tip is, and I want to emphasize that you should really get started with the first tip before trying this, is to switch out the sides from time to time.  So if your right foot is usually the one on the spade, then try the digging action with your left foot and “plant” the right for stabilization.

The other thing to remember is that with a heavy task such as this, you want to find ways to avoid muscle and joint strain.  Explore how you can use your body weight as leverage.  For example, when the foot is on the spade, instead of pushing or thrusting the shovel into the ground, can you lean your weight in towards the ground? If you’ve ever done Tai Chi, this is Tai Chi in action.

Another time to use your body weight is once you’ve gotten the dirt onto the spade and you are ready to lift it out. Can you lean back with your body weight, and with the help of your foot, leverage the dirt out from the ground?

Finally, when you dump the dirt, try to get out of the habit of throwing it over your shoulder, which inevitably twists the spine.  Research has shown that it’s very easy to herniate a disc by lifting and twisting at the same time.  You have to train yourself at first, but walk the shovel around to where you need to dump the dirt.  In other words, turn your whole body, not just your spine.

With my last thought I’d like to bring you full circle, back to the beginning.  Preface your digging activity by establishing a relationship with your shovel. Plant it lightly into the soil right in front of your body.  Ideally the spade will be level and parallel with the (imaginary) line going across your two front hip bones.

***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:

How to Weed Without Strain: Effortless Gardening with Cathy Butler

Your Gardening Body: Using Loppers Safely Without Strain or Pain

13 responses to “Your Gardening Body: Digging Without Strain or Pain”

  1. I get blisters on my thumb and palm every single time I use a trowel. Wearing gardening gloves helps slightly, but I still get blisters after about five to ten minutes of trowel use. Winding several layers of first-aid tape around my thumb before I put on the gardening gloves helps quite a bit with the thumb blisters (which tend to be the worst), but the tape doesn’t stay as well on my palm. I never get blisters from shovel use, but some digging tasks really don’t work so well with a shovel. What else can I do that might help prevent blisters? Is there a special type of gardening gloves that would protect my hands better?

  2. Gayle, thanks for commenting! I’ll ask Anne to address your question, but what I am wondering is if your gloves might be a loose cloth kind rather than a fitted kind? I use either the atlas or flex tuff gloves with cloth that are dipped in a rubbery substance so your grip doesn’t slide, or if you like a thinner gloves the atlas nitrile gloves can work. I’ve gotten blisters from the normal cloth ones sold at hardware stores because the extra fabric chafes, and there is nothing grippy to keep your trowel from sliding in your hands.

    A more fitted glove with a grippy surface might solve your problem from two angles.

    Let me know if that helps at all, and I’ll ask Anne for another opinion.

  3. No question, just a comment to let you know I like the post. I started seeing a chiropractor this year for persistent, low level shoulder pain. I thought I was fairly well educated on health and wellness, but I’ve learned so much about how interconnected the body is and how easily it can stop functioning at peak levels. I’m much more thoughtful about how I go about certain tasks now (plus much more disciplined about working my core).

    P.S. Am heading outside now to spend some quality time with my shovel, now that I know the importance of the two of us establishing a relationship.

  4. Gen, what timely advice and suggestions on how to protect our bodies during our gardening activities. I know how I have hurt my back many times, and how easily I forget to bend forward correctly, or rather come up from a bend-forward posture to a straight back (especially when pruning my perennials, or picking up garden waste), and your suggestions on how to turn our whole body with the shovel instead of just twisting it when emptying it, came at a great time, now that I am going to replenish my mulch, shoveling it from the pile into the wheelbarrow and then distribute it in the beds. Thanks!

  5. Gayle, I asked Anne about your blister issue and she said:

    “The only thing I could add might be to watch how much pressure/hand strain you are working with when you dig with the trowel. Again, see if there might be a way to get power from your trunk/core body that you can transfer to your hand via shoulders and arms, rather than making the poor little ‘ole hand muscle through all that work. Think of the wrist as an unbroken extension of the arm – try not to work with it bent in any way.”

    Hope this helps!

    Susan and Christiane, thanks so much for commenting! Both of you guys’ experiences really echo mine. After years of barreling through my gardening, I’ve recently started having problems with a few areas (and definitely hurt my back a few times!).

    Taking the time to try and work certain muscle groups (stupid crunches!!) and learn how to move better has made such a difference in keeping me active. Thanks to Anne and Cathy I’ve really learned a lot.

  6. What a great post! Yes, the twist and bend motion is so dangerous.

    In addition to Feldenkrais, the Rolf Method of Structural Integration is an excellent way of finding alignment with gravity. Structural Integration practitioners release tightness in the connective tissue and help you feel more centered (the release can also help a lot if you’ve already hurt yourself).

    See for some information.

  7. Wow, Town Mouse, Thanks so much for the tip about the Rolf Method. I had heard about that in the past but didn’t know anything about it. I’m going to go check them out.

  8. Dear Anne,
    I’m not sure if I have pulled a groin muscle. I was doing alot of digging of sod at the beginning of the gardening season. The next day I felt sore and wanted to stretch, so I did some yoga excercises. As the day went on I felt more and more pain in my upper joint area thigh connected to my pelvic area. I find it difficult to walk up stairs , getting in my car. It has slowed me down. I am going on 2 weeks and thnking about making a doctors appointment. Any suggestions.

  9. Hi Anne,
    I did an extensive amount of gardening this spring & early summer, using a shovel to plant, move, & remove a lot of perennials. Since then, I have had severe pain in the arch & ball of my right foot. I was wearing some new garden crocs that did not have the best support. In the future, I plan to wear my husband’s heavy boots for any digging. What would you suggest now, for the pain in my foot? Could it be muscle or nerve damage? Massaging it has helped the arch, but the ball of the foot is still very painful. I am considering seeing a chiropractor.

    Thanks for any suggestions.
    Leanne 🙂

  10. Thanx for wonderful post. I did shoveling of 50 wheebarows of sand and same of gravel. After 2days felt alot of pain lower right side of belly abit into bladder area and on aback the waiste on right side its 2weeks and still on pain killers. Could it be adifferent problem from muscles. Thanks

  11. I have used the Majic Lift. It is a universal attachment with angle and leverage changing capacity. Simply attach to a shovel, snow shovel or pitchfork set the angle and save your back. After insertion into the soil, sod or snow simply press down on the garden tool handle to loosen the resistance of sod, roots, rocks etc. This eliminates the need to use force to break the resistance with lifting. The Majic Lift prevents the straining and injury to the lower back, shoulders, neck and cardiovascular system. It reduces the amount of energy and time needed to do a task!

    Inventor: Frank Amato Jr.,

  12. Hi Gen,
    I have developed tendinitis in my right hamstring, which is severely aggravated after digging. It’s mostly in my dominant leg and persists, despite constant daily hamstring stretches and a regular core exercise routine. I never realized gardening was such a workout! Any suggestions on how to make digging less painful? Thanks.