Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
Just as spring is the time baseball players get ready for their season, so should you get your body ready for the gardening season. Unless you’ve been shoveling lots of snow and participating in vigorous winter outdoor sports, your body is probably out of shape. Beginning easy exercises indoors now will help prepare you for gardening activities outdoors later, and reduce the chance of body discomfort or injury.
When you bend over to pick up something, you’re doing a “deadlift”. Think pulling weeds, lifting a bag of compost or potting mix, or picking up rocks. Practicing deadlifts now will strengthen your legs and lower back. You can do these using dumbbells—those hand weights you can buy in sports stores— or anything similar. Make sure, when you bend over, to keep your back straight. Bend with your knees and at the hip joints but not at the waist. Squat, don’t stoop or hunch over when lifting. Use your thigh muscles when lifting. Keep your head looking forward. When lifting properly, toes, knees and shoulders should be aligned.
The “front-loaded squat”, along with deadlift, is one of the best exercises you can do to build strength for the gardening season. The squat helps your thighs, buttocks, and body core in general. It will help you too in lifting, as well as in carrying bags of compost, mulch, rocks and the like. For the squat, hold the dumbbells or weights up by your chest. Then squat down, bending and keeping the posture as with the deadlift. Begin with light weights, increasing the weight as you get stronger.
A variation on the dumbbell lift is the “wood chop”. Think of swinging an axe to chop wood, or the rotational motion used in weeding with a hoe and raking. With this exercise, squat (remember, back straight) and lift a dumbbell or weight diagonally from the outside of one knee diagonally up and over the opposite shoulder as you stand, then back down. Do a few repetitions on one side, then the other. Your body should rotate, but your feet should remain flat and in place. As you build up to more repetitions, this can be a good cardiovascular exercise too.
What is called the “farmer’s carry or walk” will help you get ready to carry watering cans and pails of compost around the garden. This exercise helps strengthen your grip and forearms. When you leave the grocery store with a bag of groceries in each hand, you’re doing the farmer’s walk. At home you can use jugs of water. A gallon of water weighs just over 8 pounds, so a half gallon would be just over 4 pounds, a 3-gallon jug about 25 pounds. Focus on keeping the abdominal muscles tight, and keeping the weights by your side with no big swings as you walk.
Push-ups help get you ready for pushing wheelbarrows and mowers about the yard. There are variations if you don’t feel up to the full traditional push-up. With a modified push-up you have your knees resting on the floor, but when pushing up shift your weight off your knee cap and onto your lower thigh muscle. As you push up and lower, keep your back straight.
Partial pushups also decrease back strain. Lying on your stomach, hands under shoulders, elbows bent, push up. Raise the top half of your body, keeping hips and legs on the floor. Hold for a couple seconds, slowly return, then repeat, doing this several times a day if possible.
Just as push-ups get you ready for pushing, “renegade rows” gets you ready for pulling rope, vines off of trees, and pulling cords to start engines. Start with a dumbbell in each hand, in the position as if doing a full push up. But this time, with your weight on one arm, raise the other holding while holding the weight. Raise it to about shoulder height, elbow at about a 90-degree angle. Repeat one side, then the other. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart to maintain balance.
Lunges are a great workout for your buttocks and thighs, and help train you not to arch your back in other activities. Examples of lunges are when you get down on one knee to tie a shoelace, or when someone proposes. Start with one leg in front of the other, then (with back straight) bend the knees, going down then up in a smooth motion. If you can’t bend the back knee all the way to the ground, go as low as you can comfortably for now. Make sure not to bang the knee against the ground. Lunges are great practice, too, for balance.
A back bend is simple, helps decrease back strain, and is a great warm-up. Standing with your feet apart, place hands in the small of your back and bend backwards, keeping knees straight. Hold for a couple seconds, return, then repeat.
To help strengthen your back and legs, practice wall slides. Stand with your back against a wall, your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly slide your back down the wall, into a crouch position, with your knees bent at 90-degree angles. Hold this for 5 seconds, then slide back up the wall, and repeat.
Leg raises also help strengthen your back and legs. Lying on your stomach, tighten the muscles in one leg and raise it from the floor. Count to 10, then lower that leg. Repeat for the other leg, then repeat both in this manner.
Another exercise for back and leg muscles is similar, only lying on your back. Raise one leg off the floor, count to 10, then lower and raise the other leg, then repeat. If difficult at first, keep the leg not being raised bent with foot flat on the floor.
Knee lifts while lying help decrease back strain. With feet flat on the floor, knees bent, raise knees to your chest, put your hands under them and pull toward your chest. Lower legs back slowly, but do not straighten them.
For stomach muscles, do repetitions of partial sit-ups. Lying on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, slowly raise your head and shoulders and reach both hands to your knees. Count to 10, then relax and return.
To help your back, do leg raises while seated. Raise legs at an angle to the floor, then raise one waist high. Slowly return, then repeat with the other leg, and repeat.
For hip and back muscles, do repetitions of leg swings. Standing behind and holding onto a chair, lift one leg back and up, keeping it straight. Return slowly, then repeat with the other leg.
Keep in mind some key points and tips that relate to any exercises or gardening later.
–Start with easy or lighter weights, and work up gradually as your body gets in shape. Add a pound or two at a time, rather than doubling the amount of weight lifted. Be careful not to lift objects too heavy if the weight is unknown.
–For most, 12 to 15 repetitions of an exercise is sufficient for strengthening. If this seems too easy, try more weight or repetitions. If too exhausting, back off until you are stronger.
–Work opposing muscles, such as working on both the front and back of shoulders.
–Don’t do the same exercises each day, rotate them so you’re working on one set of muscles one day like arms and shoulders, another set like the legs the next day.
–Don’t ignore pain. The saying of “no pain, no gain”, doesn’t apply here. Try the exercise again later, another day, or with less weight. Take time to rest if your body calls for this. If you have health issues, make sure and check with your doctor on appropriate exercises and activities.
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