As I sit and look at the snow that should have surely been gone for the season, I am reminded of the approaching outdoor tasks that many of us jump into at springtime. It can be an abrupt change from winter’s dark and lazy days. Try these exercises at least a week before the outdoors tasks to get the blood pumping and move through some of the motions that gardening and yard work require.
Why it’s important: This is the most critical exercise in this entire list. Any lifting or carrying task should be performed with your abdominals active. Unfortunately, many people don’t do this and it is one of the reasons they strain their low back while lifting.
How to do it: The easiest way to learn abdominal bracing is while lying on your back with the knees and hips bent, feet flat. Place your hands at the sides of your stomach, just above the hard bones that stick out at the front of your pelvis. Imagine drawing your bellybutton toward your spine while tightening the abdominals. Your low back may flatten out a little, which is okay, but don’t overemphasize this. Hold the muscle contraction for 3-5 seconds and perform 10 repetitions. You must be able to breathe while holding the contraction so if you are holding your breath, keep trying. Once you have good control of these muscles lying down, try bracing while standing. After that is easier, try walking and light lifting while holding the abdominal muscles tight.
Why it’s important: Squats are great to get your knees bending under a repeated load and increase thigh strength. The strength will be necessary to lift yourself to and from the ground and while carrying or pushing heavy loads.
How to do it: Think of this as a slow way to get up and down from a chair. Preferably, do this without the help of your hands. Start with a stance slightly wider than your shoulders. Lower slowly to a chair over 2-3 seconds. As quickly as you can tolerate, stand back up from the chair over another 2-3 seconds. You’ll need to stay toward the front of the chair. If you can easily go up and down a couple times, try not to even bear weight on the chair, just use it as a reference point to lightly touch. Perform enough repetitions to make your thighs feel tired, about 10-20 times. As you gain strength and confidence, you could take the chair away to squat deeper but realize there will be no surface to rest on before lifting back up to a standing position.
Why it’s important: The golfer’s lift allows you to take strain off of your back when performing repetitive and lighter lifting tasks from ground level. This may be as simple as picking up a tool or placing a seed in the ground.
How to do it: Most people have seen a golfer reach to the ground for their tee or ball. You are going to mimic that motion. Starting in a standing position, pivot your trunk forward from the hip of the weight-bearing leg. The other leg raises up behind you for every same degree the body goes downward. Lower down and return to standing. Emphasize keeping your back straight. You may want to hold onto a countertop or table with one hand when trying this the first few times. Repeat 10-20 times. Switch sides. Once you have the motion down, try it without holding on for balance.
Why it’s important: Lunges are another way to build those thigh muscles that help with getting yourself up and down to the ground. They also work hip muscles that help when you push down onto a shovel or pitchfork.
How to do it: Take a step forward with one leg that is about 50% longer than your usual walking step. Drop your body straight down toward the ground over 2-3 seconds by bending both knees. The forward knee will need to bend more than the rear knee. Don’t go so far down the rear knee touches the ground. Keep your trunk tall the entire time. Push back up within 2-3 seconds and repeat. Perform 10-20 times. Switch sides.
Bent over rows:
Why it’s important: Bent over rows are a great method to build the shoulder blade muscles and the low back. It’s nearly impossible to do much gardening without bending over sometimes. And the rowing motion is a way to use the shoulder blade muscles you need to pull weeds, use a hoe or lift.
How to do it: You will probably want to do this with some light weights of 3-10 pounds in each hand. Bend forward from your hips, not your low back. In fact, focus on keeping the entire back from the neck down in a straight line. Once there, allow the weights to drop forward toward the ground and then pull the arms back toward you, as if you were rowing a boat. Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Do not shrug the shoulders up toward your ears. Drop the arms down and repeat. Perform 10-20 repetitions, or until fatigue begins in the back or arms.
Why it’s important: One of the most realistic exercises you can try is the farmer’s carry. As a gardener, you are going to frequently carry buckets of water, soil, and tools. And those are often carried on just one side of the body. This puts a large and awkward demand on the low back and abdominal muscles.
How to do it: This exercise will also require weights. You could use an actual bucket filled partially with water, sand or dumbbells or just hold a dumbbell of 5-10 pounds in one hand. Walk forward with the weight or bucket in one hand 10-20 steps. Turn around and switch the hand that is holding the weight. Walk back to where you started. That’s one repetition. Perform 5-10 repetitions. Start with easier weights and progress over a couple weeks.
Why it’s important: Deadlifts should mimic the technique you use when lifting anything from the ground that weighs too much to allow you to use the golfer’s lift. Imagine lifting a bag of potting soil, heavy water buckets and even when starting out the movement with a wheelbarrow.
How to do it: You are doing a deadlift as an extension of the squats mentioned before. These are more advanced. You should try this first without weight to get the technique and then try to progress to 5-10 pound dumbbells in each hand. Begin in standing with the legs slightly more than shoulder width apart. Your hands and weights will slide along your thighs while you drop slowly toward the ground over 2-3 seconds. The trunk will need to lean forward slightly from the hips at the same time. Once your hands have gotten to the middle shins, return to the starting point over 2-3 seconds. Try 10-20 repetitions.
None of this information is intended to be medical advice. Always consult a qualified medical professional before beginning any changes in your typical activity level. Information provided is suggested for healthy, active individuals.
Let me know if you have any questions about preparing your body for exercise at firstname.lastname@example.org.