Save Your Back, Bend at the Hips

I do not like to simply talk about another article and provide a link to it, but this is critical for anyone who bends over (so that’s pretty much all of us). This goes double for anyone who weeds, shingles, chops, uses shovels, or otherwise engages in physical work with anything on the ground.

A recent story on NPR put words to something I figured out this last summer while putting a cedar roof on the house and garage: bend at the hips instead of the waist. I was spending four to eight hours bent down, nailing shingle after shingle onto the roof. Sometimes I would kneel, using kneepads, but much of the time I would stand with my feet spread a little wider than shoulder width apart and bend forward from the hips, keeping my back straight. This was mostly to stretch my hamstrings at first and to vary the position of my body to avoid soreness, but I noticed that I could maintain this position much longer than kneeling or bending over like I normally do.

I started copying this posture while weeding in the garden and then just the other day I was reminded of this after I spent a morning dressing a timber for the chicken coop: one morning of bending at the waist and my back was sore, but after an afternoon of “hip hinging” I felt fine.

What is Hip Hinging?

When most Americans bend to pick something up off the ground, the movement starts at their head and shoulders, head looking down, shoulders scrunching forward, arms extended, the vertebral column curving forward in a tightening, downward-opening “C” shape. The back is rounded.

Hip hinging is exactly what it sounds like: the back is kept straight and the lowering of the upper body comes from bending at the hips, not the stomach. We can’t bend forward like a Greek Gamma: Γ. We’re subject to gravity and if you just bend at your hips, you’ll tip over, so your rear end sticks out as your knees bend. To most Americans, this looks funny and unnatural, but remember that this perception is a product of your culture, as we learn what is the “proper” way to move as children. Keeping your back straight maintains the position of the discs in your back and reduces the likelihood of pain and damage.

The NPR story suggests the following steps:

1. Place your feet about 12 inches apart.
2. Keep your back straight.
3. As you bend your knees, allow your pubic bone to move backward.
4. Fold over by allowing your pubic bone to slide through your legs, down and back.

Or you can turn to YouTube, as the hip hinge is well known to weight lifters and other athletes:

And find more strategies specific to gardening at Flamborough Health’s page on this topic.

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