Shocking Snow Shoveling Secrets

Got Snow? Well it’s that time of the year again. We are all shoveling snow. Except our friends on the lower left and right coasts and anyone with a grapefruit tree in their back yard. Snow shoveling wrong could really ruin a perfectly good day… or week… or several. Or it could be one of those ‘life-changers’. Don’t let that happen to you as it could have easily been avoided.

Here’s a list of pointers on how to not hurt yourself:

  • Most of us are more comfortable shoveling one way, right hand on handle at the top and the left hand on the shaft lower down closer to the blade. Or the reverse hand position. The point is we should switch sides to shovel. Do not stay with one grip; switch it up periodically to use your muscles as symmetrically as possible.
  • If the snow has high water content, it is going to be heavier to lift than drier fluffy stuff. Lift only what you can comfortably lift, knowing that you are going to do it over and over again…
  • Lifting with you back is a big mistake! Your lower back is not designed for exertion in a bent position. And it gets worse when you twist to the side to put the shovel filled snow down. Horrors if you attempt to throw it in a twisted position! The straight legged, bent over, twisting the lower back to one side or the other is THE optimum posture to strain your back muscles, sprain the back ligaments and even tear and rupture low back discs.
  • Best way is to push the snow without lifting as far as you can comfortably push it, then shove it aside or lift the pile (depending on how much it weighs) in bite-sized pieces out of the way.
  • When lifting a loaded shovel, bend your knees, tighten your stomach muscles, grip the shaft of the shovel comfortably close to the blade (don’t over-reach), lift with your legs and step towards where you want to place the snow.
  • Spray WD – 40 on the blade of the shovel. The snow will not stick to the shovel and will slide right off.

When I practiced Chiropractic I saw many people with injuries from shoveling snow. I wrote and taught bio-mechanics in my profession throughout my career. It is not just an exercise in physics and physiology. Proper mechanics can be the difference between a healthy light workout and a trip to the hospital ER.

I want to give you some bullet points (above) on how to stay safe shoveling and explain the mechanics of snow shoveling. (Really the best way to shovel show is to get someone else to plow while you stay inside with coffee and the paper.) However, we all need exercise, even on cold winter days. We need exercise and activity to keep us, well, active! The body, brain and emotions all work so much better with moderate exercise. It even boosts your immune system – just in time for the flu season! Shoveling snow is a great exercise, if you are in good enough shape. It is weight lifting, it is aerobic and cardiovascular. But it must be done correctly! Shoveling seems to be a simple task that anyone with a strong back could do naturally but we don’t shovel regularly enough to get good at it.

Think of it: you decide to go to the gym after not being there in a year. You go to the weight rack and pick up something moderately heavy. Then you bend over where the stress is centered in your low back and work out for 30 to 60 minutes. Any trainer that recommended such a program would be looked on as crazy, but that is what we do when we go out to shovel snow.

In the spirit of “teach a person to fish”, I always thought it necessary for long-term learning to understand the “why” behind any list of bullet-pointed facts.

I want to explain three things.

  1. Doing something physical after not doing it in awhile is pretty straight forward. It doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Either stay in shape as a daily habit or start two months ago to be strong enough not to hurt yourself pushing and lifting snow.
  2. We sit way too much (which also causes us to be out of shape) “Out of shape” to gravity AND “out of shape” in being fit. Rounded back syndrome creates poor general posture, weakened structural muscles in the shoulders, stomach, hips and low back as well as compressed discs.
  3. Lifting snow and twisting with low conditioning and poor general posture is a recipe for injury. We need to understand how our low backs were designed. They were not designed for shoveling the way most people throw snow!

#1. Is self-explanatory.

#2. Sedentary work and sedentary lifestyle rob us of so much.

Evolution 1a We lose the active lifestyle and vertical posture for which our bodies were designed. It also compresses us under gravity and that compressed posture stiffens us and that becomes our normal body position.  So the short answer is stay flexible and active!






#3. We are not designed to function like a crane.

Tension - compression 1 Lifting the snow weight in the blade or scoop of the shovel with bent back and relatively straight legs puts all the tension in the low back muscles and ligaments while the compression forces build up in the bones and discs of the low back. We need to look at the orientation of the joints in the low back. The small joints (called facets) towards the back of the vertebra dictates which way that part of the spine can move or travel safely.

Even cranes subjected to overwhelming force can fail… crane collapse small




You ever see a judo submission hold?

fingerlock closeup The hold locks a joint at the end of its range on motion, beyond muscle effort of the victim to pull it back, so a small person can immobilize a much larger person with this technique. Well, lifting and twisting puts the back at risk of a submission hold on the joints of the low back by the combined forces of the weight of the snow, gravity and the shoveler’s unknowingly placing their joints at the end of the joint range of motion.  Mr. Miyagi would not be pleased that you created your own submission hold.

Did you ever think of why you can move like you do? It starts with how the joints of the spine are positioned. They are the hinges that allow you to pivot; like the door hinges allow for swinging motion but not up and down motion. Your neck joints, also called facets, allow for the largest range of movement. That is why you can turn your head, tip your head, nod your head, etc. Your midback facets allow for side to side motion. Think of a baseball batter, golfer, tennis player and how they swing. Your low back facets only allow for forward (flexion) and backward bending  (extension). If you twist your low back to the side, all the low back facets lock and stiffen like a crowbar and put all the pressure on the very end joints by the tail bone (sacrum) or the pressure can rip disc tissue. So don’t lift (increased weight) and twist (submission hold) yourself into low back misery.

There are excellent blog posts and web pages that have pictures of proper shoveling. Here are a few examples.

So enjoy the winter season, get some exercise, be safe shoveling so you don’t spend your winter with back trouble that could last long after the snow has melted!