How to Shovel Snow Properly Without Hurting Your Back

Shoveling snow is both an aerobic exercise and weight lifting exercise being done at the same time and if done wrong can hurt your back.

This might sound ridiculous to some, but one of the main causes of back pain and back injury is doing something as simple as shoveling snow the wrong way. Many people who never exercise and wouldn’t consider lifting weights go out and shovel thousands of pounds of snow numerous times each winter.

Shoveling snow is both an aerobic exercise and weight lifting exercise being done at the same time. The constant motion is the equivalent of walking on a treadmill or riding an exercise bike, and the lifting of the heavy snow is every bit the equal of lifting weights. Being done by people who wouldn’t even consider doing these exercises.

How Much Weight Are You Shoveling

How many pounds you are lifting when you shovel snow will depend on the type of snow, depth of the snow, water amount in the snow and the amount of sidewalk and driveway you have to clear. Light fluffy snow might weigh as little as 5 pounds per cubic foot. Compacted snow can weigh 20 pounds per cubic foot. Heavy wet snow can weigh even more and feel like you are shoveling wet cement.

The amount of water can be stated as a percentage. According to the National Snow and Ice Data center, the average snow in the US is between .04 and .10 percent of water per inch. The fluffy powder snow is between .01 and .05 while the heavy wet snows can be .40 and higher. You can calculate how much weight you lift shoveling snow.

If you have a double car driveway, it can be 800 square feet (40’ x 20’). The weight of a cubic foot of water is 62.418 pounds. You have to convert inches to feet. So 6” = .5 of a foot (6/12 = .5). We will use 10% (.10) amount of water in this snowfall.

Cubic feet of snow = square foot of driveway (800) x the amount of snow (.5 of a foot) = 400 cubic feet of snow.

Multiply the amount of water in the snow (.10) x 62.418 = 6.242 pounds of snow per cubic feet of snow.

Multiply the weight of this cubic foot of snow (6.242) by the cubic feet of snow you will be shoveling (400 cubic feet). 6.242 x 400 = 2,947 pounds of snow on the driveway you will be lifting and shoveling [1].

It helps to shovel a couple of times during a storm instead of shoveling a foot or more of snow at the end of the storm, since freshly fallen snow will weigh less than compacted snow.

Proper Ways to Shovel Snow

That is a lot of weight to lift in a short time and a lot of stress on your back and your body. Shoveling snow is equal to a hard workout so you should stretch before you shovel snow. Do stretches of the lower back, arms, legs, hamstrings and shoulder muscles.

When you shovel, keep your back straight and bend your knees. Your knees should be shoulder width apart. Bend at the knees and straighten your knees when you lift. Lift with the legs and not your back. It is best if you don’t twist and throw the snow, if possible try and place the snow where you want it or throw it forward. Space your hands apart; this will give you better leverage lifting the snow. Twisting while holding the weight of the snow can hurt your back. If you want to throw the snow, don’t load up the shovel with a ton of snow. Take smaller scoops of snow. Take breaks and catch your breath occasionally. If you feel any kind of pain, stop shoveling.

The Snow Shovel

A lightweight shovel will weigh less than an old metal one, and the snow is already heavy enough. The shovel should be about chest high. If the shovel is too short, you end up bending too much. If the shovel is too long, that causes the snow to actually weigh more and the lifting that much harder, not only hurting your back, but also your wrist and forearms.

If you’re going to buy a new shovel, look for one that is the bent staff or ergonomic type like the one pictured called the Back-Saver® from Life With Ease. The bent handle type of shovels prevents back pain and strain by allowing you to bend less while shoveling. Most people say that this type of shovel prevents the soreness in their backs after shoveling snow.

Photo courtesy of Life With Ease

Wet snow sticking to the scoop increases the weight and frustration level every time you try to shake it off and can also hurt your wrists. For an older shovel, you can try car wax, ski wax, floor wax or silicon spray on the scoop to prevent the snow from sticking. Others spray the shovel with PAM or WD40. A good blade also helps you to get the packed snow instead of having to chop with the shovel, which further stresses the back.

Other Safety Tips for Shoveling Snow

Emergency rooms are always more busy during and after a snowstorm as people dig out. Most emergency calls are related to back injuries, sprains, broken bones due to falling on the ice, heart attacks and frostbite. Dressing in layers is important and will keep the muscles warm and keep you from getting frostbite. As you heat up, you can take off a layer if needed. Shoveling snow in the afternoon could be better for your back. Studies show that more spinal and disc injuries occur in the morning when there is increased fluid pressure in the discs because the body has been at rest all night. And walking into the house has its own risks. Wet shoes and wood or tile floors can make for a very slippery condition. It is helpful to have a mat right inside the doorway on a wood or tile floor so you can take your shoes off.

© 2009 Sam Montana


[1] Math formula - Anchorage Daily News

Occupational Health and Safety


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Colin Dovey
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Sam Montana
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