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Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Golfer's Guide to Shoveling Snow

After all the "shoveling" the media has done over the last few weeks, I suppose it's a relief to have plain old snow to deal with. But it occurred to me as I dug out the driveway today that too many golfers have back problems... and not enough know the correct way to shovel snow. This post is a quick lesson in the art of shoveling. (Snow, that is. Media types are on their own.)

Since you can shovel left- or right-handed (wow, just like swinging a club!) I've chosen to use the terms front and rear for this lesson instead of right and left. This seemed to be the easiest way to describe it since you'll be switching from one side to the other during a shoveling session; that's part of the way you avoid straining yourself. Just remember that your front foot is on the same side of your body as your front hand, and your rear foot is on the same side as your rear hand. Got it?

Ok, the keys to avoiding back injury when shoveling are:

Use a wide stance with both knees bent. You want at least 24 inches between your front foot and your back foot, and you want most of your weight toward your front foot. In fact, your front shoulder should be located over your front foot; this puts you in a strong position to make the most painless use of your muscles.

The back hand holds the shovel grip (at the end of the shovel), and the front hand is close to the head of the shovel. I don't like to have my front hand more than about 8 inches from the shovel head, and I'll slide it even closer if the shovelful of snow is particularly heavy. Doing this will give you a long lever between your hands, and put the snow's weight very close to the fulcrum (your front hand). This gives you maximum power with minimum effort.

Don't bend your front elbow. This is where most shovelers mess up. Bending the front elbow forces you to use upper body muscles in a way that strains your back. Use your back hand and arm to raise and lower the shovel, while your front arm remains steady. Try it; you'll be surprised how little effort this takes.

Use your legs to lower and lift the shovel. Your legs are the strongest muscles for the job. I like to squat slightly as I push down on the handle with my back hand and arm (remember, the front arm remains steady), then I lift the loaded shovel with my legs. You won't feel much pressure on your back at all.

Dump the shovel by turning your back hand, not your front. Use your legs (not your arms) to turn your body, then use your back hand to tip the shovel sideways so the snow will fall off. (Let the shovel just rotate in your front hand. Trust me, by using the front hand and arm as little as possible, it takes a HUGE amount of pressure off your back.) If you need to throw the snow, don't use your upper body. Use your legs to swing back a little, then use that momentum to swing the shovel forward and twist the shovel as you reach the end of the "arc." The twist gives the throw a little extra "oomph" on the end.

Change sides every few minutes. This will give some of your muscles a break while fresher muscles take over. I like to take a minute to straighten up, walk around a little, and stretch before resuming work.

The key that you're getting too tired to continue is tired legs. When you need to narrow your stance in order to keep working, you need a break.

And don't forget to consider wind and temperature. Breathing cold air constricts the air passages in the lungs, which affects how soon you get tired, which affects whether you might strain yourself. Today, the temperature got up to about 38 degrees here, which was warmer than expected, and there was little or no wind. I was dressed warmly enough that I worked up a sweat, but I didn't get chilled and I didn't have trouble breathing. If the conditions had been bad, I wouldn't have gotten nearly as much done.

Trust me, this works. Shoveling is no fun, but this technique makes it much easier. I'm 51 and not in as good a shape as I'd like to be, but I shoveled out an area about 10 feet wide and 30-35 yards long today. My upper back is a little tired, so I'll sleep good tonight, but I don't ache and and I don't hurt. In that sense, a good shoveling swing is like a good golf swing; repetition shouldn't hurt unless you do way more than you should.


  1. How cool that you mention front and back for left and right, ha! However, this lefty won't be shoveling snow any time soon - I hope. If there is snow in my driveway in Los Angeles then I'll know the center of the Earth has frozen. Now don't get me wrong - snow in L.A. County is very possible and there is snow on the mountains but would be quite remarkable here on the coast.

  2. I'm just trying to give you lefties some equal time, Apryl. Of course, since we're talking snow, it would have been "cool" either way, wouldn't it?;-)