Tips for Shoveling Snow
January 10, 2023
With the winter months upon us, we are now experiencing cold outdoor temperatures, windy nights, and snow! As beautiful as the snow is when it falls, it comes with many challenges, especially for those of us who may be struggling with health. Whether you have to scoop it with a shovel or push a blower through the piles, it requires some physical effort that can be challenging if you are having trouble with chronic back pain. Pain will prevent us from completing many activities or job duties, but for some of us, we feel we have no choice. If we don’t get the job done, who will? So what do we need to watch for when taking care of these more demanding tasks such as scooping snow?
Posture! Posture! Posture! This is the number one rule when completing any physically demanding task. We, as physical therapists, will discuss this all day long with our patients. Knowing how to maintain proper alignment through the spine, bracing your core, and utilizing the power in your legs will help prevent pain.
I always start at the neck. Keeping your chin tucked, or pushed back gently, will place your head in a neutral position and take strain off your posterior neck muscles. These posterior neck muscles start at the top of the spine and connect towards the middle of the back or near the shoulders. With these muscles strained, it is likely you will feel discomfort not only in the neck, but also in the regions the muscles attach. You can see the difference between the two diagrams below.
Next are the shoulders. Your shoulders should always be back! We tell our patients to think about positioning your shoulder blades back towards the spine and down towards the buttocks. This will allow for the chest wall to open up and the postural muscles near the spine to engage. Similar to the posterior neck, by keeping your shoulder blades back and down you are able to keep strain off of the muscles by the spine, allowing for improved function. By using your postural muscles when holding a shovel out in front of you, you may avoid over-utilizing the wrong muscles, such as your neck. Many patients will begin to feel tightness in their upper traps when they don’t have their shoulder blades properly stabilized. The next diagram portrays the difference between a “slumped” back and a “straight” one.
Now that you know how to obtain the correct posture, the next step is to brace your core. The core consists not only of your “six pack” muscles, but also the deep, inner muscles that sit under the six pack. These muslces are important as they assist in maintaining your posture and providing stability when you go to lift that heavy shovel or push the snow blower. During therapy treatments, we tell our patients to make the “s” sound. As you slowly release your breath and the sound, you will notice some tightening within the lower abdominal muscles by your hip bones. The first step is to practice with the sound. Once you have that down, you can work on engaging those muscles without the sound. The third step would be to complete this “brace” with leg movements. Try to hold it while you complete marches or kickouts. This will prepare you to maintain the bracing while you lift and toss the shovel. This is arguably one of the most important steps as it will protect the spine and allow for proper alignment, decreasing your risk of injury.
The last thing to keep in mind when scooping snow is to use your legs! We have two, and they are both made of large bones and muscles, allowing them to take on a great deal of load. In the midst of your manual labor, it is sometimes hard to stop and think about your body positioning. However, if you can get set in good posture before lifting the shovel, you will save yourself from pain or injury. Good posture involves all 3 steps listed above. Tuck your chin, pull your shoulders back and down, and brace your core. At this point, the legs take over the heaviest portion of the movement. Get into a squat position to scoop, and return to standing when transitioning to toss the snow. This allows for the spine to remain straight, the core to stabilize, and the largest leg muscles to work as they should.
So next time you have a job to do, stop and think about the task at hand. Picture your body positioning as it should be and imagine how completing the task with this body positioning will look. Take the time to get set so you can prevent injury and pain that has the potential to stick around for years. If you still aren’t sure on how to improve your posture or lift properly, discuss physical therapy with your primary doctor. Getting a script for therapy will allow a trained professional to get you on the track to better health not only today, but for years to come.