How to Rake Leaves Without Hurting Your Back

A little know-how can prevent aching — or injury
man and woman raking leaves

Those glorious crimson-hued sugar maples and bronze chestnut oaks. Not to mention the golden yellow aspens and poplars. Yes, Mother Nature’s autumn display is surely a delight to the eyes. But when all of those leaves hit the ground, fall can also leave us with a big pain — literally.

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When it comes to minimizing our risk of suffering a leaf-raking injury, chiropractor Andrew Bang, DC, says it’s best to avoid twisting your back.

How to get ready to rake leaves

Raking your yard, no matter how big or small, involves more than just grabbing a rake, a bag and going at it. There’s necessary preparation involved that will avoid injuries and unnecessary discomfort while performing your seasonal chore.

Just make sure you’ve got the correct size rake for you. If the rake is too large or too small, you could wind up pretty sore from exerting more effort.

Wear protective clothing                                                                                                               

An important factor for your fall raking session is wearing the proper clothes. Besides dressing appropriately for the weather, the proper clothing can protect you from things like sharp chunks of sticks, thorns, plants that can cause an allergic reaction or anything else that might lurk under those layers of leaves.

Some of the clothes you should consider:

  • Gloves. Gloves not only protect you from unpleasant surprises like thorns and bugs but help prevent blisters when handling your rake.
  • Long sleeves. Like gloves, it’s all about protection.
  • Long pants. Yes, long pants, too. When you’re picking up leaves, you don’t want to scratch up your legs.
  • Thick socks. You might be standing and moving from spot to spot for a long time. Besides protection from scratches, you’ll want to prevent blisters, too.
  • Comfortable shoes. Besides keeping blisters from forming, comfy, supportive shoes are good for your back while you’re on your feet gathering leaves.

Stretch before you start

While raking isn’t as strenuous as running or lifting weights, it still engages your muscles, says Dr. Band. Stretching before you rake can help prevent any potential strains or extra soreness. Loosening your arms, shoulders, neck and back are most important as those are the areas that will do the most work during your raking.

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Follow the proper raking technique

Many physical activities require a proper form and technique that prevent injury and raking leaves is no different. From posture to movement, it’s important to maintain the proper form to keep from tweaking muscles. Of course, depending on how many trees you have in your yard, you may be raking so long that feeling sore is inevitable.

  1. Keep your back straight while raking.
  2. Keep the rake close to your body. Reaching it out to grab leaves further away can cause you to strain muscles in your back.
  3. Avoid turning your back as you rake in leaves around you. “Focus your motion in your arms and shoulders, so that as you stand and rake the leaves, you’ll avoid the twisting and pulling with your back. Use your arms to twist and pull,” Dr. Bang explains. Twisting is the most dangerous, he says, because it can damage the protective coating of the discs in your back. Even just a 2º forced twist can cause injury to the fibers around the discs.
  4. Keep your knees bent just a bit and keep one foot just in front of the other. This stance helps distribute the weight evenly and can help prevent more unnecessary strain on your knees and back.
  5. Maintain one hand positioned at the top of the handle as you rake and occasionally switch hand positions to spread the workload evenly between your arms and shoulders.
  6. Stay hydrated. Don’t be fooled by cloudy skies and cooler temps. Even as chilly weather pushes in, you can still work up a sweat and risk dehydration unless you keep the water flowing.

Picking up leaves

There’s also a compressive motion that happens every time we bend over to pick leaves up, and a motion that occurs during the back and forth motions of the rake. Dr. Bang says any of these motions can result in different types of back injury, especially to the lower back. The lowest part of our back is the most vulnerable part of the spine because it gets the most amount of pressure as we bend forward, twist or move side to side.

To correctly pick up leaves:

  1. Bend at the knees while keeping your back straight.
  2. Securely grab your bag of leaves.
  3. Slowly stand up, maintaining a straight back.

It’s not the weight, but wearing yourself out

Doctors typically see fewer injuries from fall leaf-raking than winter snow shoveling — mainly because snow is heavier than leaves.

However, Dr. Bang points out that a yard is typically larger than a driveway. It’s not so much the weight, but the time spent cleaning up that increases fatigue and puts people at risk for injury.

The solution? He recommends splitting the job up over a couple of days.

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“If they rake one day, and then literally cover it with a tarp and go back and do all the bending and lifting the next day, this can reduce their chance for injury, especially if they have a history of low back pain,” Dr. Bang says.

It’s better to prevent than have to treat back pain

Dr. Bang says 40 percent of adults will experience some sort of back pain in their lifetime — and it usually happens more than once. Over time, a recurrent injury can cause post-traumatic arthritis, which can result in problems for life.

It’s better to avoid the pain rather than to try and treat it once it’s there, he counsels.

“There’s a couple of things to remember,” Dr. Bang says. “Number one: Rake with your arms — not with your back. Number two: Lift with your legs, not with your back. Number three: Use tools to help, like long rakes and leaf-blowers. And number four: Make piles one day, pick up the piles of leaves the next day to give yourself a rest and not overdo it.”

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