With warming weather and brighter days, gardeners already are starting those early-season cleaning tasks - raking leaves, cleaning flower beds, moving stones and flower pots, and cleaning out the garden shed or garage. After a long, cold winter, many of us are more conditioned to sipping coffee by the fire and not lifting, bending or stooping. So if your weekend plans ahead include physical labor, take a few moments to warm up, stretch out and get ready to garden.
The body is a powerful machine. However, its parts can be delicate and fragile. Muscles, in particular, are prone to pain and injury if not treated with respect and care. Cold, they are stiff, slow and not ready for work. Warm, however, they are strong, limber and able to accomplish great tasks. There are several main muscle groups in the body, and the key to success is knowing how to make them work in unison with no one group bearing the brunt of the load.
The lower back is the leading cause of pain in most gardeners. Weak muscles and improper lifting can lead to a lifetime of discomfort. To strengthen this muscle group, try these exercises:
¢ The cat stretch. Position yourself on your hands and knees, arms and legs comfortably under your shoulders and hips. Slowly raise your head to look straight ahead and allow your back to arch down and your belly to drop. Hold for a count of three. Complete the exercise by slowly moving the spine and head in the reverse direction. Drop your head and pull your chin in and arch the back as high as comfortable. Hold again for a count of three. Repeat this complete exercise 10 times.
¢ Upright pretzel stretch. Seated on the floor with legs out front, toes pointed up, slowly lift the right leg and cross it over the left so that the right foot is on the floor to the outside of the left knee.
¢ Next, slowly twist the upper torso at the waist and place the left arm outside or across the right leg. Using gentle pressure from the left elbow against the right leg/knee, slowly twist your head and back to see what is behind you. Hold for a count of three. Complete the stretch by reversing the arms and legs - right arm outside of left leg/knee and left foot outside of right leg. Perform this a total of 10 times each side.
¢ Lower back pull. Lie on your back, legs out and arms at your side. Slowly raise and pull your left knee to your chest while at the same time grabbing behind the knee with both hands. Gently continue to pull the knee in and up and hold for a count of 10. Complete the exercise by extending the left leg and repeating the exercise with the right leg. Both legs should be stretched and held 10 times each.
¢ Lie and twist. Lying on your back, slowly lift the left leg and cross it over the right. Bend the left knee and slowly pull the leg up with the right hand. Both the left knee and foot should be touching the ground. Twisting the upper torso in the opposite direction, try to lie flat on the ground with both right and left shoulders touching. Hold for a count of three. Slowly untwist and repeat by crossing the right leg over the left. Repeat a total of 10 times each direction.
As a final warmup, stand tall, feet together, arms relaxed at your side. Slowly bow and allow the arms to hang loose. Allow gravity to pull you down as far as comfortable. Hold for a count of five.
Raise slowly and repeat the exercise 10 times.
Remember the old adage "no pain, no gain"? The new one is "no gain with pain." To prepare your lower back for active duty, try these stretches and warm-up exercises. Likewise, once finished with a hard day's work, take a few moments to repeat them again before hitting the shower. Remember to perform each exercise slowly, steadily and mindfully, and stop the motion when there is pain.