Spring Stretch!

The Limber Gardener

HELP!  I've done my gardening and I can't get up!

contortionist5.gif (120x206 -- 7236 bytes)Fed up with the annual spring ritual of crippling yourself from the yearly garden chores?  Or maybe you have that large undertaking like putting in a new contortion.jpg (240x168 -- 5998 bytes)patio ahead of you?  Well here are some stretching and limbering-up exercises to do before, during and after your garden work to help prevent injuries and muscle cramps.  Ok let's get started! 

In the pictures at left and right here, are some sample warm-up exercises...  Just kidding!  If you can do these, you should run away from home and join the circus!  

But, some great stretches are described below that are a little less er, acrobatic.  

Before we start, let's take a moment to look at gardening safely in general.

Work smart!

Let your body weight do the digging, don't lunge into the earth using arm or back muscles.  Stand on the shovel with one foot - or two if there is a sturdy support you can hold onto nearby.  Better yet, if you plan to dig, make sure the area has been deeply watered 2-3 days in advance to make the soil easier to penetrate (good tip for clay soils!) but will no longer be wet and heavy.

  • When digging with hand tools, lean forward over the tool to use your upper body weight to push the tool into the soil.  Don't stab at the soil putting strain on wrist and elbow. 

  • Always bend your knees and squat to grab hold of anything heavy that you will be lifting. Straighten your legs to lift, never lift with your back.

  • Wear shoes with good support and solid soles - floppy footwear accounts for a large percent of gardening related injuries.

  • Wear comfortable loose fitting but not too baggy clothing - baggy clothes can easily get caught up in garden tools or snag on garden structures and plants.

  • Wear a broad brimmed hat to protect your face and eyes from the sun.

  • Good quality gloves provide dexterity and protect your hands - avoid large loose gloves except when working with rocks or lumber.

Never underestimate the power of labor-saving tools! 

Where possible, use ergonomically designed tools, and the right tool for the job.  Use sharp shovels, spades, hoes, and pruners, clippers and other hand tools.  Repair or replace tools to ensure that springs are working and handles fit tightly.

The Stretchercises

Remember when you do these, NO LUNGING and no sudden jerking!  These are stretches that have to be done gently and the important thing is to hold the stretch.  Watch your breathing too.  Always move on the exhale.

The hamstring stretch

hamstring_stretch.jpg (150x150 -- 3839 bytes)Sit on the ground, with legs at a comfortable distance apart, straight out in front of you. If it is more comfortable for you, bend your left leg while you do the stretches on the right leg, and vice versa. Inhale through your nose into the sides of your ribs. Begin to exhale as you keep your back straight and lean forward from the hips. Lean over until you feel a good stretch in the backs of your thighs. It helps to keep your back straight if you keep your head looking forward when you do this. If you want to get a calf stretch going too, flex your feet. Breathe normally while holding the stretch for 30 seconds. Inhale again and as you exhale, deepen your forward lean to get a bit more stretch - remember to keep your back straight and face looking forward. Hold for 30 seconds. Take one last breath and straighten up as you exhale.  Repeat three times.

For a deeper stretch, you can try reaching your arms forward to grasp your lower leg, ankle or foot (depending on how limber you are) - but do not lunge forward, just lean forward.

The calf stretch

calfstretch.jpg (150x159 -- 4314 bytes)Put your hands on your hips or out to your sides, and stand with the right leg ahead of your left leg, with your right foot about 24-36 inches ahead of your left foot - find a comfortable distance for YOU.  Keep both feet pointed forward.  Bend your right knee, keep your left leg straight, and keep your back straight.  Now move your hips forward as if there was a string attached to your belly button pulling it forward, until you feel a nice stretch in your left calf muscle. Your right knee will also bend a little deeper when you do this.  If you feel a tensing in your lower back, you did it wrong - remember the belly button string and to keep your back straight - don't let it arch backwards.  Exhale slowly as you move your hips forward.  Hold the stretch for 30 seconds while breathing normally.  Inhale, and as you exhale slowly, pull that belly button string a bit further forward to deepen the stretch - your right knee will bend a little deeper yet.  Hold for another 30 seconds as you breathe normally.  Inhale, and as you exhale, straighten and put your feet together.  Repeat with opposite legs.  Do 3 sets of these for each leg.  It may help to be near a wall, counter or sturdy chair to steady yourself if you get a bit "tippy" during this exercise.

qaudstretch.gif (88x150 -- 4571 bytes)The quadriceps stretch

Standing near a wall, counter or sturdy chair for support, bend your right knee and bring your heel to your bottom.  Grab your foot with your right hand and hold the stretch for 30 seconds.  You will feel the stretch in the muscles on the front of your thigh, and maybe in the lower front of your hip too.  Repeat with the left leg.  Do 3 sets of these stretches on each leg.

Inner thigh stretch

innerthighstretch.jpg (150x119 -- 2601 bytes)Stand straight with feet about 30" or more apart.  Inhale.  As you exhale slowly, bend the right knee and point it slightly outward as you lean your body to the right until you feel a nice stretch in your inner left thigh.  Hold for 20-30 seconds while  breathing normally.  Inhale and as you exhale, return to starting position.  Repeat on left side.

If you are relatively limber, you can try to deepen the stretch by bending the knee a little more and leaning a little further.  Remember to inhale first and deepen the stretch on the slow exhale.  Don't do this if you aren't already relatively limber, as you will end up with aches and pains in that poor underused inner thigh muscle.

Outer thigh stretch

outerthighstretch.jpg (146x149 -- 3354 bytes)Sit comfortably with your legs out in front of you and feet about shoulder width apart.  If it is more comfortable for you, you can bend the leg that is not being stretched so that the knee points out and the foot is in front of your hips.  Bend your right leg and place your right foot on the outside of your left thigh as close to your hips as you comfortably can.  Inhale.  As you exhale slowly, grasp your right knee with both hands cupped around it and pull it to the left until you feel a nice stretch down the outside of the thigh and maybe into the hip muscles.  Breathe normally while you hold for 30 seconds.  Inhale.  Exhale as you release your knee.  Repeat with the other leg.  Do 3 sets on each leg.

The torso stretch

torsostretch.jpg (175x101 -- 3452 bytes)Lie on the floor on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.  Flex your pelvis up and down to find a comfortable position for your lower back.  Keep your arms straight and out to your sides at shoulder level. Inhale.  As you exhale, lift your right leg and foot off the floor, keeping the knee bent. Let your legs fall over to the left as far as they will comfortably go.  At the same time, turn your head to the right.  Hold for 20-30 seconds as you breathe normally.  Inhale, and as you exhale, roll your legs back up to the starting position and straighten your head.  Repeat with the left leg up, rolling legs over to the right and turning head to the left.  Do 2-3 of these stretches on each side.

Over time, you will probably be able to deepen your stretch so that the knee of the raised leg will touch the floor on the opposite site.  Don't strain to do this, let those old muscles loosen up gradually.

Shoulder and chest limbering

Stand straight but relaxed, imagining that there is a string tired to the top of your head and pulling it up, keeping your arms hanging comfortably by your sides.  The following arm swings are designed to be done as a set, moving smoothly from one into the other.  Repeat 3 times.  Do not strain or lunge with your arms.

Swing both arms forward up to shoulder level, and then back down to your sides. Now swing arms forward and up so they are pointing straight up over your head, and back down to your sides. Then swing them forward and up and into an arc, circling down and behind you as far as you can comfortably reach.  End up by circling arms back to the front at shoulder level, with palms facing each other when they meet. Now keeping arms at shoulder level, swing them out to your sides and as far back as they will comfortably go.  Bring arms back to hanging position at your sides.

Neck Stretch

Standing straight as for the arm and shoulder limbering above, put your right hand behind you with the back of your hand against the middle of your bottom.  Turn your head to the left as far as you can comfortably go until you feel a nice stretch down through the neck and into the shoulder.  Hold for at least ten seconds - 30 seconds is even better.  Repeat on the other side.  Do 5-10 sets of these on each side.

sidestretch.jpg (113x150 -- 3608 bytes)The side stretch

Stand with feet about shoulder distance apart. Lift your right arm up gracefully overhead arcing it slightly with palms facing left.  Inhale.  As you exhale slowly, lean to the left until you feel a nice stretch down the right side of your body.  Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds while you breathe normally.  Inhale.  Exhale slowly as you return to the starting position.  Repeat with a lean to the right.  Do 3 sets of these on each side.

Hand and forearm limbering

hand_exercise.gif (140x122 -- 1565 bytes) Sit or stand near a flat surface that is slightly higher than waist height, and with an edge less than an arm's length away. Sitting at a patio table is about right for this.  Straighten your arm with palm up so that your wrist is over the edge of the supporting surface. letting the elbow stay relaxed.  Let your hand drop downward over the edge of the supporting surface.  Now flex your hand upward bending only at the wrist (it should be roughly a 90 degree bend here) so that your fingers are pointing back at you.  You should feel a stretch in the back of the forearm and tension in the front.  Hold for 5-10 seconds.  Repeat 5-10 times on each hand.

handexercise2a.gif (140x145 -- 2925 bytes) Straighten your right arm out in front of you with palm up, or up over your head with palm facing forward.  Place the palm of your left hand across the fingers of your right hand and pull your fingers toward you until you feel a nice stretch in the front of your forearm.  Keep elbow straight so that you get a bend of about 90 degrees at the wrist.  Hold for 5-10 seconds and release.  Repeat with opposite hands.  Do 5-10 sets of these on each arm.

Hold your right hand, palm up, at about mid-chest height and a few inches out from your body.  As you do this stretching, find the most comfortable height and location for your hands.  With your left hand, wrap your fingers around your thumb and push the thumb down until you feel a nice stretch in the palm of your hand and in your thumb muscles.  Hold for up to 5-10 seconds, then relax.  Now do the same for each finger on your hand, pulling the finger down till you feel a nice stretch in your palm and finger muscles.  Repeat on the left hand.

Hold your hands as for the hand stretches above.  This time, grasp your right thumb with your left hand fingers, with the thumb and forefinger of the left hand at the base of the thumb on your right hand.  Gently but firmly twist the right thumb with your left hand back and forth, working from the base of the thumb to the tip.  Do the same for each finger.  Repeat on the left hand.

backrelaxer.jpg (83x150 -- 3034 bytes)Spine realignment relaxer

When working in a position where you are bending forward for long periods of time, take time to realign your spine about every 15-20 minutes. The forward bend for extended periods of time can cause the disc that is the padding between your vertebrae to slip out of place. Put down your tools and slowly stand up straight. Tie that imaginary string to the to the top of your head, and pull it upward.  Without straining or sudden movement, arc your body backwards gently to ease the muscles and let the discs slip back into place and slowly straighten up again.  You can do this with your hands behind your head, at your sides or on your hips. Repeat 2-3 times before returning to work.

Take the time to do a few of these stretches during your garden chores too.  

  • Do the leg muscle stretches during work that requires digging or squatting.

  • Do the torso, side stretch. spine realignment relaxer, and chest/shoulder limbering exercises during raking or hoeing work or any work that requires bending forward for long periods of time. 

  • Do the hand and forearm limbering exercises during pruning, weeding or hand-digging work (these are good to do while on the computer if you have been using the mouse a lot, or any activity that causes you to tense up your hands and fingers). 

  • Do the neck stretch whenever you are working with your hands higher than your shoulders for long periods of time, or having to hold your head in the same position (this is another good one to do if you've been reading or sitting at the computer for long periods too).

  • Do all of the exercises if you have been doing heavy lifting or pushing.

Happy Gardening!

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