Gardening Relief: Back and Shoulder Stretches

Gardening in the same position for too long can strain your muscles and joints. Try these back and shoulder stretches for instant relief.

Gardener's Fitness by Barbara Pearlman, published by Taylor Publishing

“Gardener’s Fitness” by Barbara Pearlman provides a complete guide to keeping fit and staying healthy while making your garden grow.

Cover Courtesy Taylor Publishing

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Gardener’s Fitness (Taylor Publishing, 1999) is a practical, easy-to-follow manual  for gardeners that includes conditioning exercises, postural guidance, therapeutic stretches and more designed to relax tired muscles and restore energy after laboring the garden. Gardening takes a toll on the back and shoulders. Take breaks between hard garden work and try these back and shoulder stretches to relax and restore your muscles. This excerpt is taken from chapter 3, “Stop…Stretch…and Smell the Roses.”

Pacing yourself, and knowing when to take a break for a stretch or breather, is far more important than knowing the Latin name for lamb’s ear or the difference between hot and cold compost. So here’s a horticultural mantra to chant while you plant: “Don’t kvetch. Stop and stretch!”

While you work at your chores, your body (not unlike your plants) sends out signals—these signals should be heeded. Instead of holding out until you can’t straighten out (or up) because you’ve been locked in a position for too long, garden sense says stop for a stretch from time to time.

Gardening without occasional time-outs can potentially tax your muscles and joints; this is true even if you’re agile and limber. Just think about it: some of the twisted and distorted positions you end up in (often with your end up) are nothing less than acrobatic feats. But these positions can stress and strain your body.

That’s only part of the problem. Muscular fatigue and soreness also result from remaining in one position for too long or from repeating the same movement over and over, such as clenching your hand when you weed. And that’s exactly why my rule of thumb (green or otherwise) is this: from time to time stop gardening and start stretching.

Time-Out: Back and Shoulder Stretches

Let’s begin with back fatigue that results, for instance, when you work in a forward bend for an extended time. I don’t mean only when you’re standing up; strain occurs as well when you work close to the ground with your back rounded for too long, or when you actually work on the ground, stretching and reaching too far for too long in any direction.

To keep your back from protesting while you garden, it’s important that you occasionally stop to give it a break (well, not a “break,” a good stretching out). One way to do this is to stand up with your feet slightly apart, hands placed in the small of your back, your fingertips pointing down for support. With your knees slightly flexed, gently press your chest forward to lift your breastbone upward just a bit.

If you do this motion correctly, you should experience a welcome stretch in your lower back. There’s no need to take this motion to an extreme arch of your back. In fact, it’s not recommended; excessive hyperextension (overarching) of the spine can compress the lumbar disks. Just hold the stretch for about eight to ten seconds while breathing naturally and comfortably.

How else do I relax my back? When taking a break to run into the house to make a phone call or grab a snack, I do an exercise that my friend Debbie taught me when I first began to garden years ago. For this stretch, you need a door frame. Stand in the door frame with your toes about twelve inches back from the floor line. Hold on to the frame at about shoulder height and lean back slightly to extend your arms. Make sure that you grasp the door frame with your thumbs down (no dirty gloves, please!) so that your fingers wrap the frame to support your weight when you pull back. Bend your knees as though you are about to sit down, keeping your rib cage and your pelvis vertical, one directly above the other. That’s just the starting position.

Now for the stretch: Pretend someone has pushed a big rubber ball into your belly. The stretch happens when you pull back, tucking your buttocks under and rounding your back slightly. You then hold the position as long as necessary to release the tightness in your lower back. For me, it takes as little as thirty seconds, after which I’m ready to return to the garden with a back that’s ready, willing, and able to take on more work.

Another soothing stretch I do for my garden-weary back is the cat stretch. You might be familiar with this back-soothing movement, perhaps from an exercise or yoga class, but never considered doing it in the garden. Why not? You’re already on your hands and knees for much of your work anyway! It’s just a matter of staying there, pulling in your belly and rounding your back, not unlike a cat’s long, slow stretch after a nap. Just make certain that you lower your head and tuck your chin into your chest so there’s no strain whatsoever on your neck.

To stretch your lower back still more, you can go directly from the cat stretch into a follow-up stretch by lowering your buttocks until they rest on or near your heels. Keep your head low and arms stretched in front. This two-part back-relieving stretch is one of my favorites, particularly after I’ve been weeding for too long on my hands and knees.

Shoulder Stretches

One of the first perennial beds I dug borders our little brook on the hill behind our house. When I planned and planted it, it never occurred to me that a garden bed on a hill could pose any problems whatsoever. However, every time I drag the hose or push the filled cart uphill to the bed, I question my sanity. Of course, at the time, I thought it was a brilliant idea to be able to stand at my kitchen sink and look out the window on a riot of midsummer color. And, indeed, my hilltop garden is really quite lovely to gaze at, that is, when the deer haven’t turned it into a salad bar.

Before I even begin to work on the bed (having dragged, pulled, or pushed whatever up the hill), I give my upper back a brief massage by doing a few backward shoulder rolls. I do this by slowly lifting my shoulders up, pressing them back, down, and finally forward. This easy movement, which I repeat several times, is one of my standbys for relieving tightness in the shoulder area.

Besides shoulder rotations, I also do slow shoulder shrugs, which gently but effectively stretch the trapezius and rhomboid muscles located in the back of the neck and upper part of the back. To do the shrugs correctly, you slowly raise your shoulders toward your ears as far as you can without straining (you can do this while standing or seated). The upward movement should take about five seconds, so don’t rush through it. Then let your shoulders slowly lower to their neutral position. Do three or four shrugs, making sure that you relax completely between each repetition, and bingo, the tightness is gone.

Another stretch for relaxing the upper back (I stop to do this when I’m turning the compost) is the following: With your feet comfortably apart and your hands resting on your waist, slowly press your elbows back bringing them as close together behind you as you can without straining. If you do this simple movement correctly and slowly, you will feel a pleasing stretch between your shoulder blades and across your chest. Again, it only takes a few repetitions.

To relax shoulder and upper back muscles that tire when you dig for too long, particularly when the ground is hard and dry, put your tool down and place the tips of your fingers on your shoulders, right hand on right shoulder, left hand on left. Keeping your hands in place, slowly bring your elbows together at shoulder level, trying to touch them in front of your chin. A slow closing and opening motion, repeated several times, does wonders for relieving fatigue in the upper back.

One chore I must take short breaks from (I also dread doing it) is winding in the hose at the end of the day. Reeling it in (why is it invariably a tangled mess?) can be tiring, particularly on the upper back and shoulders, not to mention the operative arm.

Because some of my garden beds are somewhat far from the house (on the hill) and because we do not have an irrigation system, by day’s end the long green monster is generally stretched to its utmost length. After lugging and tugging it down the hill or across the yard, I have to wind it up. (Of course, I could leave it out overnight, sprawled across the lawn like some of my less meticulous, well-adjusted friends do, but I don’t!)

To minimize the discomfort that results from winding in what seems to be never-ending footage, I do a simple stretch that works in opposition to the forward arm and shoulder rotation. I stand up from my usual squatting position (it’s a good idea not to squat for too long anyway) and place my fingers on my shoulders with my elbows extended out to the sides. I then form big, exaggerated backward circles with the elbows, which feels really good right between the shoulder blades. After four or five slow backward rotations, I’m ready and able (if not totally willing) to squat down and continue my hose retrieval.

In Hillsdale, we have an abundance of pine trees on our property, particularly behind the house. This is a plus during the winter months, for they create a veritable fairyland when laden with snow. But come fall, because I don’t want the needles to remain on the lawn all winter (I’m too tidy and they’re too acidic), I seduce Stephen into raking them up. The seduction goes as follows: For every hour he rakes, he earns a half-hour massage, redeemable that evening from the live-in masseuse.

Raking pine needles, like raking leaves, is tedious work that requires shoulder, upper back, and arm strength. Plus, there’s all that bending over to put the needles into the cart, unless of course you drag them on a tarp to a disposal site. Now, mind you, Stephen is in good shape (not necessarily from working in the garden!), but after thirty minutes or so of raking, he’s ready for a time-out.

So he temporarily stops raking, and upon the advice of his personal trainer (aka wife), he does the following stretch to ease fatigue in his arms and shoulders. With his hands interlaced behind him, he slides them up his back and holds the lifted position for a few seconds. After repeating this simple stretch a few times, he’s ready to take the rake in hand again.

Another raking relaxer I recommend is done by placing your right hand on your left shoulder, with your elbow raised at approximately shoulder level. Using the heel of the left hand, you pull the right elbow slowly across your chest toward the left shoulder, keeping the elbow parallel to the ground. You hold the stretch for about five seconds before you repeat it on the other side. This therapeutic stretch relieves upper arm and shoulder fatigue that results not only from raking but from hoeing as well.

Gardening Relief: Back and Shoulder Stretches has been reprinted with permission from Gardener’s Fitness: Weeding Out the Aches and Pains by Barbara Pearlman and published by Taylor Publishing, 1999.