The risk of injury while shoveling snow is high. Here's the right way to dig out after a snowstorm—and even build muscle in the process.
Clearing the driveway after a snowstorm isn't only a pain in the butt, it can actually be dangerous if you don't do it carefully. Moving a heavy shovel full of snow repeatedly without proper form can put you at risk of injury.
"Most people don't use long levers, like shovels, to lift and throw weight," says Michelle Lovitt, an exercise physiologist in Los Angeles (who grew up shoveling snow in the Midwest). "Shoveling snow increases a person's risk for low-back and shoulder injuries because of the weight and imbalance of snow and generally poor posture when shoveling."
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The physical exertion required to haul weighty, wet snow also isn't for the faint of art: Research has found that risk of heart attack is higher in the few days after heavy snowfalls.
Why is the winter chore so tough on the body? "The intense aerobic work is a tremendous stress on the heart, and the cold is an additional stressor," says Christine Lawless, MD, a sports cardiologist in Chicago. "Your blood vessels constrict because your body is trying to conserve heat, and now the heart has to work even harder to try and pump blood through those constricted blood vessels."
Another big mistake people make: throwing a jacket over thin pajamas and heading outdoors immediately. "It's absolutely a horrible idea to jump out of bed and start shoveling snow," Lovitt warns. "Your body needs time to increase blood flow before beginning activity," she explains. "This will allow you to move and bend more easily, reducing risk of injury."
Adds Dr. Lawless: "You also get some people who are not necessarily in shape or used to doing aerobic exercise, and suddenly they go out in the snow and they perform at their maximum level, which is incredibly dangerous."
With these scary snow situations in mind, apply the following advice next time you head out to shovel.
Do a proper warm-up
If you just woke up, wait 45 minutes to an hour before shoveling. But before you shovel at any point in the day, move through a quick dynamic warm-up to "wake up" all the right muscles, says Lovitt. "A great warm-up people can do is knee grabs—standing and pulling each knee to your chest alternating—for 12 to 15 reps on each side and large arm circles forward and back for a few reps," she says.
Dr. Lawless also suggests getting your heart pumping by walking at 2.5 miles per hour on the treadmill for one mile before you head outside.
Fire up the right muscles
"When you think about the biomechanics of shoveling snow, the biggest challenge of the movement is taken on by the muscles and joints of the back of the body," explains Cris Dobrosielski, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. The neck, shoulders, and low back in particular get pulled forward as you drive the shovel into the snow, and they have to work together to stabilize your body. "It's really a form of resistance training," Dobrosielski says.
Just before you lift a shovel full of snow, think about two main things: keeping your knees slightly bent at all times, which takes some of the tension off of the low back, and hinging at the hips. "Draw in the navel slightly, keep your back straight and abdominals engaged, and shift your hips back slightly, which will help turn on the glutes and hamstrings, where most of the power should come from," Dobrosielski explains. "Then brace your body from this position while you drive the shovel into the snow and lift and throw."
While you're in this position, you want to remind yourself to constantly keep your core engaged, Lovitt adds. "Brace your midsection as if you were going to take a punch to the stomach."
Hold the shovel correctly
Keep a wide grip on the shovel handle—with one hand near the top of the handle and the other close to the actual shovel full of snow—so that you have better control of the heavy load. Also, keep the shovel as close to your body as possible as you carry it.
"You have a mechanical advantage when you keep the lever arm of the shovel and the weight of the load close to your body," Dobrosielski says. "The closer the load is to your center of gravity, the less strain and discomfort you are putting on every muscle and joint involved in that movement."
Don't twist and throw
What does bad form look like? To start, you shouldn't be rounding your shoulders and dropping your back to lift the snow without engaging your legs and glutes—or using your lower back to lift the snow in the shovel (but you know that now). But another huge mistake is twisting or hyperextending your back to propel and throw the snow off the shovel.
"You may need to twist your torso a little bit to maneuver the snow, but you should really be thinking about turning your entire body with the shovel in the direction that you want to drop the snow and gently tip the shovel for the snow to drop off," Dobrosielski explains. "You shouldn't have to twist a lot, and you should never be throwing snow from the shovel up by your shoulders. The shovel can stay at or below your waist."
And when you can, don't even lift the snow; just plow it to the side.
"When fatigue sets in, this is when injuries tend to happen," Lovitt cautions. So keep your snow-shoveling intervals short and sweet, taking breaks whenever you need to.
"I wouldn't suggest going outside for more than 40 minutes at a time," Dobrosielski says. "And I would break that up until two 20-minute periods for fit people, and even four 10-minute intervals for more sedentary people."
Another tip: Keep the scoops small. "You may think it makes more sense to scoop these huge heavy piles to move more snow more quickly, but this will tire most people out faster than just doing more reps with little piles," he adds.
Strength train regularly
If you want to shovel more efficiently and protect yourself each time you do it, it makes sense to build up your total body strength in general. "If you break the snow-shoveling movement into different parts, you'll actually probably recognize a lot of traditional functional movement exercises," Dobrosielski points out.
The foundation of the shoveling movement is a squat, he notes. "So adding squats and lunges to your workout routine is excellent for building up your lower body strength for shoveling, and for any lifestyle activity that involves heavy lifting," he continues (such as lifting a suitcase into the overhead on a plane, or carrying a heavy laundry basket up the stairs).
While you shovel, you also experience slight torso rotation as you move around carrying the shovel. "So doing a standing torso rotation with a dumbbell or using a cable machine is another exercise that can help you build strength and stability for shoveling," Dobrosielski says.
Other strength moves to add to your routine that will help make you the best snow shoveler in your neighborhood: deadlifts, standing bent-over rows, lateral dumbbell raises, and standing hay-balers with a medicine ball.
Do three to five sets of eight to 12 reps of each move when you add them to your routine, Dobrosielski recommends. "But even doing a single set of 15 reps of any of these moves once per week would have value," he says.
Make shoveling snow a workout
If you're shoveling snow properly, you'll work your glutes, hamstrings, quads, abs, low back, upper back, and shoulders. "It's the absolute best workout," Lovitt says. Once you get into the swing of things and nail your form, you can really start to make it a double-duty chore and up the fitness factor.
"Do lunges or squats into each shovel of snow," Lovitt says. You can also carry the piles of snow farther down the driveway to get extra steps in if you're feeling ambitious.
One caveat: If you're recovering from a heart attack or have known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, do not shovel snow without clearance from your doctor.