Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor, UVM
Back injuries are the second most common of injuries, only to fingers and hands. Most back injuries come from improper lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, and carrying—all activities we perform in the garden. Here are some basic principles which apply to any means of lifting, lowering, and carrying, whether at the gym, home, store, or in the garden. They apply whether lifting bags of fertilizer off a shelf, bags of compost, lifting rocks or pulling weeds.
Start slowly, don’t rush, don’t jerk. Move weights or objects in an unhurried, controlled manner.
Using good form, or body position is more important than the amount you can lift. If you have problems keeping good form, decrease the weight or get help from another person or with some aid as a dolly.
Make sure to breathe; the tendency for some is to hold your breath when lifting.
Make sure to keep your feet all on the ground, don’t rock back onto your heels.
Lift with your legs and not your back. Not doing so is the main cause of back injury when lifting. Lift with your knees and waist bent, not your back. Keep your back straight. Knees should be directly above your toes, your shoulders above your knees. If this isn’t happening, try taking a wider stance with feet further apart, and toes pointed outward slightly.
You can look down at the object to lift, but when lifting keep the head in a neutral position looking forward—not up, not down. This creates less stress on your neck muscles.
Keep objects close to your body when lifting. Holding them at arm’s length increases the weight on your lower spine by 15 times. Stand close to the object when squatting down to lift.
If lifting an object, particularly if heavy, onto a shelf, keep the object close to you and walk toward the shelf rather than stretching your arms out.
Be careful when raising objects higher than your waist, as this can throw off your balance. Standing with one foot slightly ahead of the other may help with balance. If lifting higher than your shoulders, you may need to lift less (if possible), or use a step ladder.
Make sure you plan ahead when lifting where the object will go. This avoids twisting improperly, carrying around heavy items, or lifting too much too high.
Make sure you have good footwear to provide solid support, and that surfaces you’ll stand or walk on when lifting and carrying aren’t slippery, or with hazards such as cords, ropes, or stones.
If lifting large items that obstruct your full vision, make sure you know where you’re going first; that there aren’t obstructions below or above.
Don’t twist or turn at the waist while lifting; turn your whole body instead, leading with your waist and not shoulders.
Don’t ignore pain. The saying of “no pain, no gain”, doesn’t apply here. Take time to rest if your body says so.
If you’ve been sitting, stretch your muscles when getting up before beginning to lift.
As with any garden activities, do 15 repetitions or so, then rotate to another activity. Especially in the case of lifting motions, doing too many and getting tired often leads one to start using the back and lifting improperly.
Distribution of this release is made possible by the University of Vermont and New England Grows a conference providing education for industry professionals and support for university outreach efforts in horticulture.