These Are the Best Stretches for Back Relief After Shoveling Snow
Your body isn't used to all that twisting. Take some time to properly decompress.
According to an unhelpful tweet from NBC News two days ago, the Northeast could see as little as two inches of snow this weekend, or as much as 20. Let’s hope it’s closer to the former, but either way, expect to get some shoveling in over the next few days.
Shoveling is an awkward action that most of us perform fewer than five times a year. We’re low on practice, yet always determined to get it done as quickly as possible. Bad combo. So we attack the chore with harried, autopilot intensity. Get a pile going, pick up snow, fling it, repeat. But that rhythm generally comes at the cost of any devotion to good form.
I know what I should be doing, in theory. Assume a wider stance than usual, bend the knees a bit, engage the core, tilt the hips forward. It’s an athletic endeavor — just like yardwork — so I should be in an athletic position. But it’s also cold out there, I’ve got other stuff to do and the shovel keeps colliding with that uneven lip on the pavement.
Now, when I walk around a gym, picking up weights and putting them back down, my mind tends to play sound bites from old trainers. I think about breath, patience, form. For instance: there’s a correct way to pick a weight up off the floor or rack. The body’s natural inclination is to twist, sourcing momentum and power from the low back, but that only invites soreness. You should actually hinge at the hips, grab the weight, then use your legs to get set up before performing the move.
It’s time we took the weight and risk associated with shoveling as seriously as we take the heavy stuff at the gym. A light load on a shovel is somewhere in the 10-pound range. But after a potentially heavy storm, some shovels can easily fill up with 25-50 pounds at a time.
If you aren’t careful out there and you strain something, it could take a while for the pain to go away. It’ll likely outlast the snowbank. Fortunately, there are failsafes for getting your back … back. After you put in a good session on the sidewalk, try out some essential stretches explicitly designed to mitigate irritation and prevent injury in the “shoveling muscles.” Below, we’ve assembled five of our favorites, with a description of how to perform each.
The Kitchen Sink
A couple summers ago, we wrote about the magical benefits of hanging up from a standard pull-up bar. Doing so for anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute helps stretch the shoulders and decompress the spine. That advice still stands — but assuming you can’t access a gym (or jungle gym) at the moment, your next best option might be in your kitchen. Grab onto the corner of the sink, where it meets the countertop, and stretch out in full, tucking your head in line with the posterior chain. Breathe in and out through the nose as you “hang” there. Why such an odd corner of the house? The countertop’s usually locked in there pretty solid. You can give it a full tug and not worry about anything coming loose.
A favorite trick of exercise physiologists. They generally recommend this to combat tech neck and poor office ergonomics, but it applies after shoveling snow, too, when you spend an extended period of time hunched over the ground. Simply tilt your head directly back and look at the ceiling. Hold that for 10 nasal breaths. Do the same to the right, then do the same to the left. Repeat the whole cycle. This makes sure the neck goes through its full range of motion. And as far as stretches go, it feels amazing.
One of the most efficient, turnkey yoga poses you can do, and highly effective at addressing soreness in the back. Get on all fours, making sure your shoulders are over your wrists and your knees are under your hips. As you inhale, your form should resemble a “cow” (back arched in, belly toward the floor, butt out); as you exhale, it should morph into a “cat” (back arches out, rounding your body shape). Another way to think of it: look up when you’re a cow, look in at your belly button when you’re a cat. Proceed gently through these poses. It’s pretty much the exact opposite to tossing snow around like a madman. For more instruction, check out Yoga With Adrienne’s full tutorial here.
You want to stretch your back? Don’t forget to stretch your legs. Towel hamstring stretches, also known as “supine hamstring stretches,” involve lying on your back and pressing your foot into a wrapped beach towel. Hold it taut to tilt your leg back. Keep your other leg bent. Hold, then switch. Here’s a diagram. Another straightforward option is to just elevate one leg at a time on a chair or table. Grab your toes if you can. Maintaining that pose for a minute (with your toes flexed up and out) will work wonders.
Knee to Chest
While you’re on the ground, toss the towel to the side and pull your knees to your chest, one at a time. Hold. This stretches the hips and the muscles in your lumbar spine. Bring each knee up five times, holding for at least 10 seconds per repetition. You might associate this one with the hardwood floors of middle school gym class, but it’s a classic for a reason.
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