As I was writing my Top 5 Tips for Gardening without Back Pain article, I realized how important talking about squatting and lunging is for gardeners. You can’t safely get up and down off the ground to dig in the dirt without being able to get up and down off the ground! And in some form or fashion this will involve the hips, legs and back having both the strength and flexibility to do a full, deep squat and deep lunge.
Are you training your deep squat muscles and lunging muscles in the gardening off-season? Or just expecting them to kick in and start working when you start doing the million-and-one deep squats and lunges you have to do when Spring arrives and it’s time to get out to the yard to start planting and pulling weeds?
How Low Can You Go?
Typically in life, there are very few things we do daily that involve a full squat. And I know when I was teaching in the regular fitness world, we actually encouraged clients NOT to ever squat past 90 degrees to avoid knee strain. This might be a good rule of thumb if you’re recovering from any sort of traumatic knee injury or have a physical reason to limit your range of motion, but our knees are supposed to bend and if we don’t work the range, we won’t have it! (Can you imagine what life would be like trying to get up and down off the ground, sit in a chair or climb stairs if we didn’t have knees…)
Getting to the Ground for Gardening
A full deep squat will keep your hips and legs working evenly to train in the lower and deeper ranges of motion. But when you’re working in the yard, chances are you’re doing more 1-legged lunging to get to the ground, than 2-legged squatting. Are you able to work both legs easily in the same full range of motion to get all the way down, and back up again? Ideally we should be able to do a “campfire” 2 legged squat to sit close to the ground, and also a deep 1 legged lunge (on both sides).
Pilates Exercises to Train the Back, Hips, and Thighs
Joseph Pilates has numerous deep, full squat exercises in the Pilates repertoire – the Squat on the Wall, the Squat and 1 Leg Squat with the Roll Dow Bar on the Cadillac, the transition to get in and out of a traditional Mat class (the cross-legged sit to the floor into the Hundred, and roll up to a stand out of the last Seal), all the Deep Plié exercises on the Pilates Chair, even the Frog with the leg springs, or knees to the chest for single bent leg and double bend leg in the Series of 5 are opportunities to bend the knees in a deep, full range of motion…
And for one-legged work the Pilates chair is fabulous! Going Up Front, Going Up Side, Mountain Climber….There are lots of exercises on the Pilates Chair and Reformer that can help you work on maintaining good hip alignment, and strengthening the legs for deep 1 leg squats and lunges.
Remember, our muscles only get stronger in the range of motion that we work them in, so if you avoid doing any exercises that take your knees past 90 degrees, or the exercises I’ve mentioned above aren’t in your Pilates training program (which for most clients I’d say they’re not) there’s a good chance that gardening will have you bending in deeper ranges of motion than you’re used to, so expect some muscle soreness!
Even though you’ve been doing Reformer and Matwork, and perhaps some Chair work to strengthen your hips & legs, getting down to the ground and back up again to pull weeds and dig in the dirt will have you challenging your fitness in new and different ways.
Be Prepared: Start Adding Squats and Lunges to Your Workouts
Get ready for gardening season, and be sure that you’re adding some deep squat exercises to your Pilates and fitness training workouts. Maintaining the right amount of both strength and flexibility in your hips, back, and legs will help reduce the shock to your system and keep your low back and knees healthy and happy when it’s time to head to the yard and get started with your Spring gardening.
It might sound silly to start pre-training for Gardening season, but by consciously adding squats and lunging exercises to your workouts, you’ll be developing the strength and flexibility needed to support your efforts to get down on the ground, dig in the dirt, and have will enjoy having healthy, pain-free knees, hips, and lower back when you get back up again.
Listen to Your Body!
I’ve shared that squats and lunges will be helpful exercises to get you in shape for gardening. But that might not mean you go out tomorrow and start doing full range of motion, deep, low exercises! (Think about it – that’s what you’ve been doing when gardening season starts… and how’s that been working out for you?)
It might take some time to progress your body safely into lower ranges of motion. Get with your Pilates teacher or trainer and make a plan. Know that the long-term goal is that your body can safely and easily execute a deep squat and low lunge. That might be full-range for your body, if you’ve got healthy muscles and joints. It might be a limited range if you’ve got injuries, or health challenges that you’ve got to work around. Be smart, and be proactive. To get to the ground and garden, we’ve got to get our legs strong in low deep squats and lunges. Progress with caution as it’s appropriate for you!
Have fun and stay healthy, use deep squat exercises and lunges to get strong and enjoy your Spring and Summer gardening season.