Dig Safe, Plant Happy: Prevent Injuries in the Yard and Garden – Ask an Expert

By Gabriela Murza | May 3, 2024


Safe yard work

Whether you’re a weekend gardener or you spend time in the dirt daily, you have probably experienced working too hard and feeling sore. Soreness can stem from exerting a new or weak muscle, and it generally subsides after a few days. But pain that lingers can occur from overworking or doing a task incorrectly. These types of injuries can be considered “traumatic,” such as a rotator cuff injury, or they can be a “repetitive strain injury,” which occurs in muscles, tendons, and nerves from repetitive movement or overuse, mainly seen in the hands, wrists, shoulders, elbows, knees, and lower back.

Consider these tips to prevent injuries and minimize pain while working in the yard and garden.

  • Treat gardening like exercise. Warm up, stretch to loosen sore muscles and joints, and cool down. A warmup can be dynamic stretching, jogging, etc., but it can also include walking around the garden, which has the added benefit of you seeing areas that need work and determining which tools you’ll need.

  • Drink water before, during, and after gardening. Sports drinks are not necessary unless you’re working for more than 1 hour and sweating or doing strenuous work.

  • Wear comfortable, breathable clothing with long sleeves, tall socks if possible, and closed-toed shoes with ankle support, such as hiking shoes or sneakers.

  • Wear sunscreen and a hat, even if it’s cloudy. Wear sunglasses for eye protection. Look for broad-spectrum sunblock with an SPF30 or higher, and follow the reapplication instructions on the label to get the best benefit. Also consider mosquito repellant if needed, but avoid sunblock/repellant combinations because sunscreen should be reapplied more often than repellant.

  • Use ergonomic tools and equipment to make tasks easier. Ergonomic attachments, such as handles, can be purchased to retrofit existing tools.

  • Switch it up. If you’re doing a task that favors one side, such as raking or shoveling, switch to the other side every few minutes. If your task includes kneeling, have your next task focus on standing. Change tasks every 20-30 minutes to alternate the muscles used, and stretch as needed.

  • Take a break every 5-10 minutes when trimming tree branches and performing other overhead tasks that require looking up or having your arms at or above your shoulders. If necessary, use a ladder so your body is in line with the task.

  • When working low to the ground, kneel rather than crouching or squatting, and use a foam mat or knee pads. Kneel on one knee while keeping the other foot flat on the ground for support. This helps avoid hunching and keeps your back straight. Alternate legs every few minutes.
Use the proper techniques and posture to avoid injuries and strains to your neck, shoulders, knees, wrists, ankles, and back. Consider these three techniques:

  1. Squat—This exercise is used for picking up and putting down items. It engages the quads, hamstrings, hips, glutes, and abdominals and helps avoid strain to the back, knees, ankles, neck, and shoulders. 

  2. Pivot technique—This technique allows you to change directions without twisting. It works well for shoveling and dumping dirt or moving bags and other materials from one side to another. It also helps avoid strain to the back, knees, and ankles.

  3. Back-and-forth weight transfer—This technique is used to move items back and forth with a long-handled tool, such as a rake. This helps avoid hunching over, pulling, and twisting and uses larger leg muscles that prevent straining the back, shoulders, and arms.