One of my favourite times of the year is the start of spring. Melbournians all seem to come out of hibernation when spring hits and for many that means lots of time in the garden. Unfortunately it also means more people with low back issues.
If you spend lots of time in the garden then you may be familiar with the low back aches that come with time in the garden. This however can be minimised or potentially even avoided if you follow some basic rules.
Good technique in the garden is based around good posture. The problem is when gardening we need to get into low or awkward positions and we tend to lose ideal posture. Thus the best way to protect your spine is to hold a neutral spine position. Unsure what that means? Keep reading.
If you think of gardening you can probably imagine spending lots of time in a bent forward position, little to no bend of the knees, and a heavily flexed low back. Do this for a little while and many will feel their low back muscles start to tighten. Most will put this down to weak muscles or a “poor core” which is somewhat true but the often overlooked aspect is the skeletal misalignment that occurs when in prolonged low back flexion. It’s really easy to pull vertebrae out of alignment in this position and not just in your low back. Your mid spine and neck are also easily misaligned and they themselves can create pain in those areas or set up imbalance that result in low back pain. If you want to minimise damage in the garden then you must avoid this position.
Tip 1. Do your best to hold a neutral spine position.
If you can, stand up right now. Feel your low back. Notice the c-shaped curve (hopefully you have one) when you’re looking at it from the side. Now arch your back by pushing your belly button forward. From there round your spine by doing the opposite and pulling your belly button back into your abdomen. A neutral spine and pelvis is when you’re balanced within that middle section. In any position you adopt in the garden you should be thinking about bracing your body in a neutral spine position. If you think that’s hard then you’d be correct. Core strength is essentially about building strength in this position and it’s something you need to work on (see tip 3).
Tip 2. Avoid positions that round the low back by using your legs.
Most of the time in the garden is spent at ground level. Rather than bending forward at the low back a better option would be to use the squat position. Most of us drastically under utilise the squat position in our lives. If however you look at children they can spend lengthy periods playing in a squat position (see picture). As we age we use this position more infrequently. Eventually we start to lose that mobility and then it’s very hard to get back. If however you’re reasonable at sitting in a squat position I would consider this great conditioning and practice to use it when in the garden.
I’m aware that many of you will think that is ridiculous. There is no way you could sit in a prolonged squat and you’d be correct. Therefore a better option for you is lunging or kneeling (see photo). If you are in this position you should be able to see how much easier it is to hold a neutral spine position described in tip 1. The best and most stable position is with one knee at 90° in front and weight on the other knee. You can switch legs regularly as you go. Some may find it easier to kneel on two knees and whilst this is better than bending forward through the low back it will harder to keep the spine in neutral when leaning forward. If you knees are prone to getting sore then get a foam pad to kneel on. You can get them in all garden shops.
Tip 3. Learn to engage your core muscles.
Learning to activate and control your core muscles will significantly prevent skeletal misalignment from occurring. To do this the best and most simple tip is to gently pull your belly button back into your spine, ensuring that you can continue to breathe normally through your diaphragm. Next you actively squeeze your buttocks. Whenever you’re working in the forward position (remember best in lunge or squat position) then actively engage these muscles and protect yourself.
If you’re de-conditioned and weak through the core then it’s up to you to get yourself on a program to build that strength, it will pay dividends I assure you. Here is a link to some basic exercises I wrote about in a previous post (http://www.martinandcoupechiropractic.com.au/two-exercises-improve-core/).
You can actually use gardening as core strength training though by actively using these muscles when in the garden and you minimise injury at the same time!
If you’re unsure of any of this or have further questions please ask your chiropractor when you’re next in.
Dr Ben Coupe is an owner and principle chiropractor at Martin & Coupe Chiropractic. He is an international technique instructor for Advanced BioStructural Correction and a founding board member of Advanced BioStructural Correction Australasia. Dr Coupe sees ABC as the evolution of chiropractic and his passion is seeing tangible, long term results for all his clients. Personally his interests lie in CrossFit and nutrition and spending time with his young family.