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Every winter, like clockwork, Boulder-based physical therapist Dr. Nicole Haas hears from clients who injure themselves shoveling snow.
“As soon as it snows, I know people are gonna pop on my schedule,” says Haas, a doctor of physical therapy and founder of Boulder Physiolab. In fact, the day after Haas spoke with 5280 for this article, she saw three patients for shoveling-related ailments, including wrist, elbow, and low back issues.
Even the strongest, fittest Coloradans aren’t immune to these injuries. Getting hurt while heaving the white stuff can happen to “just about anyone,” says Haas. Case-in-point: She recently treated a CrossFitter and a former professional mountain guide for shoveling-induced pain. “Sometimes, the stronger people are, the less they worry about proper mechanics, unless they’ve had an injury in the past,” Haas explains.
With this month’s snow totals higher than average for January—and more fluff expected in the days ahead—we tapped Haas for expert intel on common shoveling errors and exactly how to nail proper form.
The biggest mistakes, according to Haas, include rounding the spine (instead of keeping a neutral spine position), not using enough leg and hip strength to scoop snow, and using just your wrist to flip snow off of the shovel (versus using your entire body to complete this motion).
The first two errors can place undue stress on the back and the latter can strain the elbows and wrists, Haas explains.
Instead, use correct technique by hinging at the hips to recruit your glutes and prevent a hunched-forward posture, and bending your knees into a squat position to help grab hold of the snow. The right amount of knee bend depends on how heavy the snow is: The greater the load, the deeper you’d want to bend your knees and vice-versa, explains Haas.
In terms of upper-body stance, the wrist will inevitably “move a little bit” when you dump snow from your shovel, “but it shouldn’t be the only thing moving,” says Haas. Grip the shovel with both hands and stay in a slightly squatted position (instead of standing all the way up) so that your legs and hips can assist in tossing the snow. (Check out this Instagram video from Haas for an example of A-plus form.)
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Also important: Frequently switch which side you throw the snow to, especially if it’s heavy snow, says Haas. She jokingly references a Missy Elliot lyric—“I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it”—when emphasizing this point. “If you keep flicking it the same way, it’s a repetitive pattern,” says Haas, which could lead to over-straining one side of your body. Instead, try tossing snow to the right five times, then to the left five times, and continue that pattern.
Additionally, if you’re shoveling a big driveway, take regular breaks to stretch out your back with standing back bends, says Haas. Here’s how: From a standing position, place your hands on the small of your back and lean back as you arch your spine up and over. This helps unload some of the strain on your body, she explains.
It also pays to be mindful of how much weight you’re lifting with each shovelful. Following especially heavy storms—like the one that dumped 7 inches of wet, dense snow on Denver in late December—don’t try to scoop all the way to the pavement on your first pass. Instead, remove a top layer and then clear up the rest during a second pass, says Haas. This will help divide the weight so you’re not lifting too much at once.
Lastly, if you have a large amount of shoveling to do—say, you’re tackling a sprawling driveway, or even a single modest driveway that’s buried in snow—break it into parts to give your body a breather. According to the American Heart Association, research shows shoveling heavy snow could increase the risk of a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest for many people both with and without previously known heart disease—so it’s important to listen to your body and take breaks as needed.
Haas, for her part, encourages people to think of snow shoveling like a workout and ask yourself: How long is this going to take me, and would I work out for that long?
“If you haven’t done squats all year, and then you’re about to do an hour and a half’s worth, that’s pretty aggressive,” she says, adding that it’s a “good way to increase your likelihood of landing yourself in a physical therapy clinic.”