It snowed last night. There have been flakes in the air a few times this season, but this was the first morning of the year that we were greeted by a heavy blanket of white. After a brief moment to enjoy the beauty of it, I dutifully grabbed my shovel and set about cleaning off the driveway. As you likely know, shovelling is truly a full-body event. You bend down as your arms drive the shovel into the snow, your legs lift you back up as you throw it aside, often twisting as you go. You take a step or two forward and do it again, moving quickly because you're cold, or late for work, or just sick of shovelling. Sweat starts to drip, the jacket comes off, and you're usually pretty tired after. Strength and cardio elements all at once? Sounds like a good workout to me. So are there any drawbacks?
I think that depends on you. Every year there are people who get injured while performing this routine task. Shoulder and back injuries, as well as heart attacks, are fairly common, especially in men over the age of 55. We don't suddenly become more fragile at 55, but heart conditions become more common, and general fitness levels often decline as we age. Regardless of your age or sex, launching into this task without taking your physical condition into account is just asking for trouble.
The irregularity of a large snowfall makes it tough to think of shovelling as a reliable addition to your workout regimen. It's more an activity that needs to be trained for, rather than a training activity. I often use the term “functional conditioning,” by which I mean working out to improve our performance of real-world tasks. Shovelling is a perfect example of this. Doing deadlifts, biceps curls, triceps extensions, medicine ball torso rotations, trap shrugs, and a variety of core strengthening exercises will all work towards making you a better shoveller, and will make the chore easier and less likely to result in injury.
So the snow hits the ground and you head outside. As with any workout, you can get the most out of shovelling by preparing properly and using good technique. Make sure to warm up before you start, which can mean doing the easy parts first (the steps, the sidewalk, etc) before tackling the main area. Any other dynamic movements you want to do are great here, including arm circles, torso twists, and touching your toes a few times. Once you start, try to periodically switch the position of your hands on the shovel to keep the work balanced. Keep the weight of each shovel-full as consistent as possible, and try to throw the snow forward rather than twisting to the side. Take breaks as needed, make controlled, mindful movements to prevent injury, and take a few minutes to stretch once you're done.
You may not find it fun to clear the snow from your driveway, but with the proper preparation and precautions, you can certainly use it as a safe and effective full-body workout. If it's work that needs to be done, it may as well work for you.
Ryan Casselman is a personal trainer, musician, and the founder of Real Trainers. Stay tuned as he finds out what he's going to write about each week or so!