Shoveling snow

It has been a mild autumn, many warm days with beautiful autumnal colors leading into a bit of a cloudier and less colorful November. We have had our first snowfall and it was not much to write home about.

In a couple weeks, or sooner, it is going to happen. It is really going to snow. In years past, we have gotten up to 112 inches. That’s a lot of snow. If you don’t have a snow removal service or a snow blower, you are going to have to shovel all that snow.

In an article by Watson, Shields, and Smith(2010), they point out that snow shoveling injuries are common in the United States. Their study found that 195, 100 individuals were treated in the United States emergency rooms for snow shoveling injuries. This data came from analysis conducted from 1990-2006. Muscle strains were the most common followed by slips and falls. Cardiac related issues accounted for 6.7% of the cases which came out to 1647 deaths.

This article is going to address specifically muscle strains of the lower back and things you can do to mitigate risk. First off, let’s look at the muscles involved in shoveling snow. You will be working your glutes, hamstrings, quads, abs, lower back, upper back and shoulders.

Let’s look at mechanisms of movement. The traverse plane is the plane of motion utilized for snow shoveling.

In this plane, you are are going to engage in the rotational and bending movements that occur with snow shoveling. If you have any imbalances or instability in any of the muscles of lower back, shoulders or hips, your are more prone to strains and tears. Also as you age, your tendons become less plyable, leading too to tears and strains. I have already written an article on glutes, so take a peak at that.

Specifically, the old adage, “lift with your legs” applies to snow shoveling. The other piece I would add would be “don’t over extend”. The ideal motion would be bend over, push snow with your shovel, squat slightly, lift the shovel and push/throw the snow off the shovel without over rotating your body. Your left or right shoulder should not come to your center line of your body. It is important to lift less than what you think you can. The following list was borrowed from an article by Angie Horjus, NBC- HWC(2020):

  1. Bend your knees, lift with your glutes first, then your legs. Let them do the bulk of the hard work. Your lower back will thank you for it.
  2. Lift correctly. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart for balance and bend at the knees rather than at the waist or back. Keep the shovel close to your body rather than extending your arms all the way. Tighten your gluteus maximus, core and abdominal muscles—then lift with your legs as if you are doing a squat.
  3. Put your chest and upper back into it. Your chest and back are the next largest muscle groups after glutes and legs. Think about the muscles you should use for the task at hand and squeeze them as you lift heavy. Your smaller muscles in the shoulders and arms should not be the main movers and only help a little.
  4. Maintain good posture. Stand tall with your proper height shovel, soften the knees, draw your navel in and up toward your spine while bending down, scooping, then lifting. If possible, eliminate the twist or keep it to a minimum by tossing the snow more to the front of you. As you lift the snow, keep the shovel blade close to you, to reduce low back strain.

Other pieces of advice. Stay hydrated; you actually lose as much or more water in the dry winter air than you do in the summer. Layer – it is okay to be cold, you can always warm up, once you are sweaty though, that is when hypothermia sets in. Finally, if it hurts STOP DOING what you are doing. The old doctor’s advice rings true- Patient -” Doc my arm hurts when I lift this weight” Doc: “Stop doing that”.

Stay safe this winter.


Horjus, A (2020, February 24), Shoveling Tips for a Safe Snowy Workout. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from

Watson DS, Shields BJ, Smith GA. Snow shovel-related injuries and medical emergencies treated in US EDs, 1990 to 2006. Am J Emerg Med. 2011 Jan;29(1):11-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2009.07.003. Epub 2010 Mar 25. PMID: 20825768.

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