Trying to Garden Without Lower Back Pain


Gardening season has begun here in Maryland and it took no time at all for me to hurt my lower back doing what for me is the riskiest gardening move of all – bending over.

So my first question for readers is – have you found a way to avoid bending over?

When in Pain, What to Do?

My typical pattern is to overdo, spend a few days of pain not gardening at all, finally giving in to the itch to bend over and dig or pick stuff up and re-injuring my back, in a frustrating cycle.

This time, I decided to get serious about the problem – by Googling it, of course. Here’s what I’ve learned from a few trusted sources.

Medline has some fine suggestions but I have trouble doing these:

  • “DO NOT exercise in the days right after the pain begins. After 2 to 3 weeks, slowly begin to exercise again. A physical therapist can teach you which exercises are right for you.” (Seriously?)
  • “DO NOT do activities that involve heavy lifting or twisting of your back for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins.” (For me this could mean no lifting or twisting for 9 months of every year.)

But yes, I do take it easy and pop some Ibuprofens. The hardest for me may be reducing the time I spend sitting at my desk. You know, blogging and stuff.


Here’s my real frustration – I thought I was already doing every damn thing I’m supposed to to prevent back injury: daily stretching, Pilates-type core stuff, aerobics, good posture, and bending the right way. But my back tells me I’m wrong, so I’m on a tear to do even MORE so I can do a bit of weeding without regretting it for days on end.

From the Mayo Clinic: Cat Stretch and Seated Side Rotation

The Mayo Clinic recommends:

  • “Regular low-impact aerobic activities.” (Check.)
  • “Build muscle strength and flexibility. Abdominal and back muscle exercises, which strengthen your core, help condition these muscles so that they work together like a natural corset for your back. Flexibility in your hips and upper legs aligns your pelvic bones to improve how your back feels.”

I’m already doing most of the exercises the Mayo Clinic recommends but I’m determined to add the cat stretch, seated rotation and shoulder blade squeeze.

Illustrations at WebMD

After checking with WedMD I’ll be adding these exercises they recommend: the hamstring stretch with towel, wall sit, press up back extension, bird dog, pelvic tilt and bridging. Except for the wall sit, they all feel great to do, so there’s instant reward.

Is the Core the Key?

The Mayo Clinic mentions the “core,” a concept we’ve only recently been told to care about, thanks in part to Pilates. Mayo says to “Do exercises to strengthen your abdominal muscles. This will strengthen your core to decrease the risk of further injuries.”

From Self: Bird Dog (L) and Dead Bug (R)

So to avoid expensive Pilates classes I took to the Internet and found lots of exercises recommended by Self Magazine, from which I’m adding these to my routine: dead bug, bird dog, reverse lunge, and plank.

Again, they all feel great, except for the plank.

Speaking of which, have you noticed the plank getting more than its 15 minutes of fame lately? It’s partly due to the Plank Challenge, but viral photos of 86-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg doing it sure helped.

I take inspiration from anyone that much older than me who manages to do what she does. So she’s my workout hero now and my fan-girl worship of her is complete

Credit for aching back graphic. Photo credit for RBG doing plank.



  1. This is such a frustrating thing for me too. I have a herniated disk in my lower back that protests vigorously when I abuse it. I’m getting severe arthritis in my knees, so kneeling is getting problematic. I can’t squat because of the knees. I’m starting to think that a mechanic’s creeper may be my only remaining option!

  2. My tactic – I place the yard waste bag a bit of a walk away from where I am working. I walk back and forth frequently and this seems to help the back, the knees, the hips.

  3. All the new exercises look great – when will you have time to garden? My pain tends to be knee and hip located; I benefit tremendously from chiropractic adjustments periodically as well.


  4. I sit on a plastic crate, overturned. I am short so likely taller gardener’s wouldn’t like it. I suggest you get PT, since I have done that, years ago for knee pain, and more recently from sciatica. It really helps. If it’s hot, I stop weeding when I’ve filled one yard waste bag, I take a break and drink water.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing these! I spend most of my time in the garden and I tend to have back pain when I tend to my plants.

  6. Such an important but often overlooked topic. I try not to bend over constantly. I have cut up pieces of thick, cheap exercise mat that I kneel on. I also sit cross-legged on the ground when working in my raised beds. Most of my gardening is now in reachable, raised bed areas so this is feasible. Yoga is a great exercise for gardeners.

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