How to Prevent a Back Injury from Shoveling Snow

snow shovelling tips

Original 02/2010. Updated 12/13/2016

Vancouver recently received the heaviest dose of snow it's had in several years; with that comes the task that many people are unprepared for snow shoveling. This article was original published after we dismantled the Biathlon venue at the 2010 Olympics. In Metro Vancouver the snow is not the typical white and fluffly downhill skiers enjoy shredding through after a fresh snowfall. No, it is wet and heavy! 

Back injuries are common from shoveling snow.  There are few ways to prevent these that include warming up properly and following good lifting techniques.

I participated in the Olympics as an Anti-Doping escort for the athletes throughout the games. After my job was done, I heard that the stage crew had plans to take down the range and stadium in an hour and a half — a sizable task. Volunteers ranged from the fit who were used to manual labour to the unfit who were not used to lifting tasks. Even though I was not part of the stadium or range crew, I stuck around to give everyone an extra set of hands and make a further contribution to the Olympics.

The enthusiasm of the volunteers really struck me. We all bonded together and, unified in our goal, worked really well as a team. Some of things we had to move were awkward wooden scoring tables, v-boards (blue lane course markers) and 6 x 4 feet pieces of wooden fencing which had to be carefully packed and stored in a hut down a hill for future events. While I was participating, I observed that many of the other volunteers didn’t seem to know how to lift, push, or pull properly, thus putting themselves at risk for injury. My concern for their well being inspired these lists.

3 Quick Ways to Warm-Up Before Shovelling Snow

  1. Hip Circles: Start slowly to warm-up your torso and hips by circling your hips in both directions, gradually increasing the size and speed of the circles.
  2. Torso Pivots: Stand on no ground that is not slippery. Let your arms hang loosely by your sides. Pivot your feet left and right until your feet are point left or right with your hips. Your arms will swing freely.
  3. Multi Directional Arm Swings:  The idea is to get blood flow to your arms and loosen up your shoulders.  Focus on easy, free movement from the shoulders to the fingers. Lift your arms overhead. then reach back behind your, complete 10x.  Now gradually change the directions so that your arms cross over each other infront and then at the bottom reach behind you point to the left and left ground.

Now that you've warmed up you are ready to clear the sidewalk and drive way.

10 Tips to Prevent a Back Injury from Lifting

1. Keep Close: The farther the item that you are lifting is away from your body, the greater the effort and strain that is placed on your back. Change positions so that you are as close as possible to what you are lifting.

2. Bend Your Knees: Always try to use the bigger muscles in your lower-body to do most of the lifting, and keep your spine in a neutral position. Deadlifts and Stiff Leg Deadlifts are great training for this. Seek professional help learn the proper technique.

3. Stay in the Box: To reduce the stress on your body, carry heavier items between your mid-chest and mid-thighs. Use a step-stool or ladder if you need to lift something over your head. This will keep the heavier items close to your body.

4. Use Both Hands: If you can, use both hands when lifting or pushing heavy or awkward items. This splits the load on your spine and engages muscles on both sides of your body.

5. Limit Twist: Rotation of the spine is a natural movement used in many sports and occupations, but if you are not used to twisting that much or have a limited range of motion, it can place you in harm’s way. Try to make sure that your body is directly facing whatever you are lifting or pulling

6. Pivot Hips: If you have to move something from one side to another, shift it by rotating your hips. For example, lift your right heel to pivot your hips if you’re moving the item from right to left; lift your left heel if you’re going from left to right. Your hips will shift with the object you’re moving, reducing the risk of injury

7. Take Breaks, Change Tasks, Change Positions: Muscle and ligament fatigue is one reason we end up with an injury. Many jobs are highly repetitive — for example, someone loading warehouse shelves all day or an iron worker bent over in one position for long periods of time. Repetitive motion causes the tissue to fatigue in the same way that bending a twig over and over or simply holding it in a bent position for several minutes will cause it to eventually break.

8. Ask for Help: It is better to distribute the effort between two or three people rather than trying to lift something that is very awkward or too heavy for you. Another option is to use pulleys, a cart or machinery like a winch or a snowmobile rig. Unless you are trained, 45lbs is the maximum weight that the general population should be lifting at one time, to reduce the risk for injurie

9. Engage the Core: Core strength comes from the ability to activate the proper sequence of muscles for the intensity needed. This creates the appropriate amount of intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the spine when pushing, pulling, lifting or rotating. The outer muscle layers like the obliques are used for movements like rotation and side-bending.

10. Keep the back straight. Flexion, extension and rotation are natural ranges of motion for the back. We also have natural curves in our backs. Many people I see have trouble differentiating hip flexion/extension with spine extension/flexion. Stand tall, keep the vertebrae still while tilting your pelvis back and forth like a bowl. It rotates around your femurs (thigh bones). Keep the back straight (with the crown of your head reaching away from the tailbone in a straight line) and in neutral (restoring the natural curves in your spine)

Bonus Tip

11. Use Small Loads: Limit what you lift to what you capable of. Try not to always make it your maximum ability. Shoveling snow is a repetitive movement and our tolerance for this activity reduces over time. Try make the shovel about 1/2 to 3/4 of what you can comfortably handle.

Keep these tips in mind to reduce your chances of a back injury. If you are recovering from a back injury, or want a Lifemoves Kinesiologist to show you more ways to move properly so you can stay active, please fill out an assessment request form.

We had chain of people who were about two feet apart handing each other wood blocks for the load out. Other groups pushed the sleds the last few feet after they were dropped off by snowmobiles. To my knowledge, this all happened without injuries.

Alfred Ball

CEO | Practicing Kinesiologist | Certified Fascial Stretch Therapist. He founded Lifemoves in 2007. He has been a Practicing Kinesiologist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach with the NSCA for over 15 years. When he isn't helping people regain their strength and confidence to move with ease he is hanging out with his wife and young son, writing, or training for his next endurance running race. His big audacious goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

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