Take the Pain out of Gardening!

Spring is round the corner – Gardening Time – How to do it without pain!

You need to think more about how you use your body when you are  gardening – not like this!

You are probably fed up with all the storms and cold weather that stop you going out into the garden – but let’s hope that now it is March, we can start planning what we can do to make our gardens look great this year!

The problem is, we have been sitting – probably badly – for so many months for far too long and obviously this can have been made worse if you have had to work from home which has meant you haven’t even had to walk anywhere on our way to work.

The means your muscles, ligaments and joints in your back, neck and shoulders are just not used to being active and you really do need to take this into account before you get out there and start digging and lifting big bags of compost or redesigning the patio.

It is much better to remember that you have probably become deconditioned and prepare yourselves for a while, rather than develop pain from a strain, sprain or tear of tissues that could take weeks or months to recover and will mean you can’t do much gardening at all!

What should you consider before you start to garden?

  1. Warm-up before you start.
  2. Consider that you may benefit from wearing a back support, particularly if you already have experienced back pain.
  3. Take frequent breaks rather than wait until you start to feel uncomfortable
  4. Get support from kneelers and chairs so that you are not bending and twisting as much as you might
  5. Add cushioning with knee pads as kneeling is better for your back but not great for your knees particularly if you already have knee problems
  6. Garden while standing as much as you can and brace your middle so that you don’t twist too much.

Which parts of your body are you most likely to irritate when gardening?

  1. Low back
  2. Neck
  3. Shoulders
  4. Knees


  1. Your low back is usually held in a forward curve or lordosis. In this position, the discs, muscles and ligaments are not overloaded. Most gardening involves bending over and often twisting – both actions put strain on those tissues and also increase the pressure on the discs.
  2. Your neck is also held in a lordosis and therefore subject to being irritated by bending forwards.
  3. When you are digging or pulling at things overhead or reaching to pull up weeds or lift heavy bags or plants, your shoulders are put under a great deal of stress.
  4. If you kneel down to plant things or just to try to relieve pressure on your back, your knees can easily be irritated.

Gardening involves putting all of the above areas under unusual stress and also often makes you use your body in awkward positions, when you start bending, lifting, twisting, pulling and pushing and squatting.

Do not reach forwards like this with a forward curve in your back

The most important thing to remember is that when you are gardening you often use quite heavy equipment to do those activities, such as shovels, rakes, hoes, and gardening shears, even before you start adding soil to these or lifting bags of compost etc and that these increase the pressure going through the neck, shoulders and low back significantly, which can cause damage.

You need to remember the 10:1 ratio which means lifting an object weighing 10 pounds and holding it in your hands, puts 100 pounds of pressure on your lower back.

When you add in the 105 pounds of the average human upper torso, you see that lifting a ten pound object actually puts 1,150 pounds of pressure on the lower back. Do you know whether your back is capable of withstanding such pressure? Especially if you have just put on your gardening clothes and gone out into the sunshine with no preparation at all?

A great idea is to do some stretches and then some muscle strengthening exercises a few days before you start to work in the garden and every time you are about to go out into the garden to work.  Recent research shows that tight hamstrings do contribute to low back pain and if you are bending plus you have tight hamstrings there is potentially a lot of stress on the low back joints and ligaments.

Stretches to do before gardeniing

Before you start gardening – AND when you have finished – it will really help to prevent a problem developing if you perform these stretches.

The aim is to stretch your back, knees, arms, shoulders, and neck so that they are prepared for what is coming and also to help prevent soreness after gardening.

Spend 10 minutes doing this warm-up including brisk walking for 3-5 minutes and stretches that target your neck, lower back and shoulders.

  • Lying flat, double knee to chest stretch – Hold for 20 seconds three times.
  • Lying flat hip rotator stretch – One knee to chest and stretch the knee towards the opposite shoulder.  Hold for 20 seconds three times. Switch sides.
    Hip stretch with rotation
  • Standing up – arms at 90 degrees and bend elbows with your hands up – stretch your pectoral/chest muscles – Hold for 20 seconds three times.
  • Same position as above but a cross-body shoulder stretch – Hold for 20 seconds three times. Switch sides.

  • Stretch your body each side and then do some shoulder rolls.
  • Ear to shoulder stretch – Hold for 20 seconds three times. Switch sides
  • Hamstring Stretch – Hold for 20 seconds three times. Switch sides.
  • Stand and grab your right foot behind you and feel your quadriceps stretch – Hold for 20 seconds three times. Switch sides.

When you ARE gardening – Things to think about all the time

Whether your neck, back or shoulder pain began before you took up gardening or because of it, you can start taking better care of your back while you garden by following these tips:

Retract and depress your shoulder blades:

Keep the shoulders down and back as you reach forward and up. The shoulder joint works best when your scapulae remain depressed and retracted. Maintaining this position engages the lats – a very large muscle! – which will give your pulls more power and endurance. The thoracic and cervical spine are better braced in this position reducing neck and shoulder injuries. Also – as the nerves can operate better when the shoulder capsule and spine are more open – you are less likely to suffer elbow and wrist problems as all those smaller muscles can be more effectively innervated.

Keep loads close and maintain a neutral spine:

Maintain a neutral spine as much as you can


When digging or lifting heavy bags of soil or potted plants or reaching up or trying to get into any awkward position, always think and engage your hips, legs, and core. Maintain a neutral spine and exhale to increase your brace as you lift. Keep the load close to your body and avoid twisting while moving.

Bend from the hips and brace your core:

Initiating bending down from your hips and simultaneously engaging your core will reduce risk of low back pain and strain. Also, starting to squat or bend from the hips before you bend your knees, ensures your glutes stay involved and will help your knees track properly. Long-handled tools that allow you to garden while standing and are ergonomic and easy to use and reduce bending.

Invest in a gardening stool or pad. 

Short legged stools are great to use particularly if you have knee problems. If you can kneel a piece of heavy duty foam will help cushion your knees.

Vary activities and postures:

Remember your muscles can only sustain a static position for so long before losing integrity and therefore efficiency and safety of the contraction. So, get up and move around often. Mix up light work low to the ground with heavier standing work. This will tax certain muscles while others take a break. Will serve to remind you of adopting ideal postures more often. And will add a cardiovascular benefit to the workout as the heart gets nicely stimulated when we alternate dynamic positions frequently

Rotate, but don’t twist:

In fact, avoid excessive twisting during all your gardening activities. You can safely engage the core and rotate about 10-12 degrees to the right or left – exhale as you rotate – and bring your entire rib cage, shoulder girdle, and neck/head with you as you rotate. If you need to reach beyond that small rotation, take a moment to reposition your lower body instead.

Balance your wheelbarrow and use it as much as you can rather than lifting and carrying things:

When using a wheelbarrow, keep the load moderate and evenly distributed throughout the barrow. Brace your core as you lean slightly forward from the hips. Draw the shoulders down and back and bend the knees slightly as you grasp the handles. Straighten the legs, keeping the shoulders down and back, and keeping a slight lean forward. Brace your core and step forward, flexing both glutes and the muscle through your lower abdominals as you begin to move the wheelbarrow forward.

If you’re at a Garden Centre, ask for employee assistance within the store and at your car.

Use wheelbarrows and garden carts to wheel heavy items like pots and watering cans from one place to the other rather than staggering along with heavy items in one hand – or carry two smaller items – one in each hand so that you are balanced – and remember to brace your abdomen while you are carrying things.

Check root depths

Before pulling weeds or small shrubs. Underestimating deeply rooted plants can put unexpected and added pressure on your back and spine. Your body needs to anticipate a load in order to be able to cope with it – so brace before you try doing anything like this and it will really help to prevent injury.

Squat as much as you can

Plan your tasks within the garden and take frequent breaks to stand, walk, or sit. Moderation is the key. After every 20-30 minutes of work, take a break.

Be aware of proper positions and postures while you are gardening.

It is important to change positions regularly while gardening to avoid unnecessary stress/strain on the body and to avoid muscles from getting tight and sore. You should alternate between sitting and standing positions every 30 minutes and limit any overhead chores to 5 minutes or less at a time. Maintaining your spine in neutral alignment is also very important to avoid excess stress on the muscles and ligaments of the neck and back.

Stand upright as often as possible with your back in a neutral position and use long handled tools to reach instead of bending

Neutral alignment means that your spine stays in a straight line and you are not hunched over or looking down or up for an extended period of time. Planting or weeding in a half-kneeling position or sitting on a gardening stool are the best positions for spinal alignment.

To decrease stress on your shoulders and back, you should avoid reaching out in front of you. Keep your work close to your body or use long-handled tools to aid in your activity to avoid over-stretching. If you are moving heavy objects such as bags of topsoil or rocks, consider using a wheelbarrow or a sled that you can pull or push them in to decrease stress on your joints. Lifting tasks should always be performed with the load close to your body and keeping a straight spine. Get someone to help you move heavy objects.

Consider purchasing high quality gardening tools that fit your body and are comfortable.

There are many ergonomic tools on the market which are designed to help you keep proper body alignment and to reduce how far you have to bend. Go to your local hardware store and try them out because there is no “one size fits all tool.”

When you have finished for the day – try these exercises

  1. Stand with your arms raised fully. Bend sideways from one side and then the other—it is important to feel the stretch.
  2. Stand with your arms out in front of you and stretch your fingers down and up – holding your fingers with the other hand – you will feel a stretch on one side then the other of your arms.
  3. Rotate your shoulders forwards and backwards.
  4. Lie on the floor, flat and bring your knee to your chest gently – one side then the other.
  5. Stretch your hamstrings by standing with one leg in front of you up on a small step so you gently feel the stretch for 10 seconds.

Why does my back, neck or shoulder still hurt after gardening?

You may have injured muscles, ligaments, joint or joint capsule (or disc material in the back)

Muscle strains typically heal with time, many within a few days, and most within 3 to 4 weeks. Most patients with mild or moderate lumbar strains make a full recovery and are free of symptoms within days, weeks, or possibly months.

How can you tell if the pain is muscular?

Symptoms include:

  1. Pain that gets worse when you move, especially when bending or stretching.
  2. Difficulty standing up straight or using your arms if it is shoulder pain that you have.
  3. Swelling or bruising in a specific area.
  4. Sharp or achy pain, usually limited to the lower back and buttocks area or the arm or shoulder joint area.
  5. Spasm-like pain or cramps.

How do you tell if lower back pain is disc?

The lower back and neck are the most flexible parts of your spine, and they’re also where most herniated discs occur. While pain in your mid-back may be related to a disc, it’s more likely caused by muscle strain or other issues. Your symptoms feel worse when you bend or straighten up from a bent position.

How can you tell the difference between a pulled muscle and a herniated disc?

In general, disc herniations hurt both with bending forward AND with returning from bending up to an upright position. Back strains or sprains tend to hurt less with bending forward, and more with returning from a forward bend.

What does a torn ligament feel like?

Pain that gets worse when you move. Muscle cramping or spasms (sudden uncontrollable muscle contractions) Decreased function and/or range of motion of the joint (difficulty walking, bending forward or sideways, or standing straight).

Back pain that spreads down one or both legs is something that should concern you as are weakness, numbness, or tingling in legs. Always seek advice it these sensations are occurring or if you are feeling pain that is keeping you awake at night or if you have difficulty passing urine or have no sensation when having a bowel movement.

Mechanical pain or pain in a joint is confined to one spot or region. It may be described a number of ways, such as sharp or dull, comes and goes, constant, or throbbing.

How do you fix a strained lower back or shoulder?

Treatment you can try yourself may include:

  1. Rest.
  2. Ice packs and/or heat and compression applied to the back.
  3. Exercises (to strengthen the abdominal muscles)
  4. Stretching and strengthening exercises (for the lower back as it heals)
  5. Education regarding the use and wearing of appropriate protective equipment.

Treatment at the clinic may include

  1. Massage
  2. Manipulation or mobilisation
  3. Traction
  4. Demonstrating exercises

But firstly you need an examination to ascertain what you have injured and whether you have problems moving that predisposed you to getting pain when you overload the area.

And finally!

The main thing is to know when to stop! It is never beneficial to push through pain when you are gardening. You should never garden for more than an hour at a time without a significant rest break. Muscles typically fatigue after a half hour of repetitive work, therefore you are at an increased risk of injury performing tasks with tired muscles. If you experience sharp pain or start to feel achy and sore, stop and rest. Ice is very helpful to reduce inflammation and sore/stiff joints. There is no rule that you have to complete a task in one day. Spread out manual labour over several weekends to avoid over stressing your body.
Overall, you need to be aware when you are gardening. It is important to listen to your body and ask for help when needed.