Dr. Wayne Westcott gives advice on how to avoid those nagging lower-back pains while perfoming yard work.

It is important to avoid injuries while performing yard work or gardening, so consider the following guidelines so your work goes as safely as possible.


Mowing the lawn: If you use a push mower, do your best to stand up straight because leaning forward places greater stress on your lower-back muscles. Adjust your mower handles so that you can grip them comfortably with your elbows bent and relatively close to your sides.


Your hands should not be above chest level, and your arms should not be straight, as this position places greater stress on your shoulder and neck muscles. Walk with normal, medium-length strides.


Finally, if you have a pull-start engine, be careful. When using the starter cord, bend your knees and pull by first extending your legs, then extending your trunk, and finally by flexing your arm.


This sequence of movements places more stress on the larger muscles of the legs and trunk, and less stress on the smaller muscles of the arms and shoulders. If you have difficulty with the ignition system, switch sides every three pulls to reduce the risk of overuse injury to either side of your body.


Grass raking: Raking is a vigorous physical activity that requires repetitive actions of the arm and shoulder muscles. Use short to moderate pulling movements. Keep a stable base with your feet and, again, stand straight to reduce stress on your lower-back muscles.


Although it is fine to rake diagonally, do not twist your midsection excessively at the end of the pulling movement. To avoid overuse of either side, do five pulls to the left, then five pulls to the right, with a brief rake break every five minutes.


Hedge trimming: If you do it wrong, hedge trimming can place considerable stress on the neck, shoulder and lower-back muscles. To avoid these problems, keep the trimmer below chest level, with your elbows bent and relatively close to your sides. Do not lean forward, and do not straighten your arms for more than a moment. For taller hedges, be sure to use a sturdy ladder rather than raise the trimmers above chest level.


Take a short break every five minutes.


Hoeing: Like raking, hoeing can be physically demanding and must be performed with proper technique to avoid undue musculoskeletal stress. First, select a hoe that you can hold comfortably with your top hand well below chest level. Second, establish a stable stance from which you can pull the hoe while keeping your balance.


Third, stand straight, and fourth, use short- to moderate-length pulling actions. Do not overreach or fully extend your arms. It is better to hoe shallow than deep, even if it takes two or three passes to attain the desired row depth. Switch sides every five arm movements and take a short break every five minutes.


Planting: Planting seeds seems simple, but the way you position your body can make a big difference. Bending over from a standing position places stress on your lower-back structures, so try not to do it. Planting from a squatting position is better for your back but may produce shearing forces across your knee joints. I recommend a kneeling position with one foot on the ground and one knee on the ground (kneepads are helpful). Switch legs every few minutes.


Following these guidelines should help you maintain your yard and garden comfortably throughout the spring and summer.


Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy and author of 21 fitness books.