University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
SPRING TRAINING FOR GARDENERS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Just as spring is the time baseball players get ready for their season, so
should you get your body ready for the gardening season. Unless you’ve
been shoveling lots of snow and participating in vigorous winter outdoor
sports, your body is probably out of shape. Beginning easy exercises
indoors now will help prepare you for gardening activities outdoors later,
and reduce the chance of body discomfort or injury.
When you bend over to pick up something, you’re doing a “deadlift”.
Think pulling weeds, lifting a bag of compost or potting mix, or picking up
rocks. Practicing deadlifts now will strengthen your legs and lower
back. You can do these using dumbbells—those hand weights you can buy
in sports stores— or anything similar. Make sure, when you bend over,
to keep your back straight. Bend with your knees and at the hip joints
but not at the waist. Squat, don’t stoop or hunch over when lifting.
Use your thigh muscles when lifting. Keep your head looking
forward. When lifting properly, toes, knees and shoulders should be
The “front-loaded squat”, along with deadlift, is one of the best exercises
you can do to build strength for the gardening season. The squat helps
your thighs, buttocks, and body core in general. It will help you too
in lifting, as well as in carrying bags of compost, mulch, rocks and the
like. For the squat, hold the dumbbells or weights up by your
chest. Then squat down, bending and keeping the posture as with the
deadlift. Begin with light weights, increasing the weight as you get
A variation on the dumbbell lift is the “wood chop”. Think of swinging
an axe to chop wood, or the rotational motion used in weeding with a hoe and
raking. With this exercise, squat (remember, back straight) and lift a
dumbbell or weight diagonally from the outside of one knee diagonally up and
over the opposite shoulder as you stand, then back down. Do a few
repetitions on one side, then the other. Your body should rotate, but
your feet should remain flat and in place. As you build up to more
repetitions, this can be a good cardiovascular exercise too.
What is called the “farmer’s carry or walk” will help you get ready to carry
watering cans and pails of compost around the garden. This exercise
helps strengthen your grip and forearms. When you leave the grocery
store with a bag of groceries in each hand, you’re doing the farmer’s
walk. At home you can use jugs of water. A gallon of
water weighs just over 8 pounds, so a half gallon would be just over 4
pounds, a 3-gallon jug about 25 pounds. Focus on keeping the abdominal
muscles tight, and keeping the weights by your side with no big swings as
Push-ups help get you ready for pushing wheelbarrows and mowers about the
yard. There are variations if you don’t feel up to the full
traditional push-up. With a modified push-up you have your knees
resting on the floor, but when pushing up shift your weight off your knee
cap and onto your lower thigh muscle. As you push up and lower, keep your
Partial pushups also decrease back strain. Lying on your stomach, hands
under shoulders, elbows bent, push up. Raise the top half of your
body, keeping hips and legs on the floor. Hold for a couple seconds,
slowly return, then repeat, doing this several times a day if possible.
Just as push-ups get you ready for pushing, “renegade rows” gets you ready
for pulling rope, vines off of trees, and pulling cords to start
engines. Start with a dumbbell in each hand, in the position as if
doing a full push up. But this time, with your weight on one arm,
raise the other holding while holding the weight. Raise it to about
shoulder height, elbow at about a 90-degree angle. Repeat one side,
then the other. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart to maintain
Lunges are a great workout for your buttocks and thighs, and help train you
not to arch your back in other activities. Examples of lunges are when
you get down on one knee to tie a shoelace, or when someone proposes.
Start with one leg in front of the other, then (with back straight) bend the
knees, going down then up in a smooth motion. If you can’t bend the
back knee all the way to the ground, go as low as you can comfortably for
now. Make sure not to bang the knee against the ground. Lunges
are great practice, too, for balance.
A back bend is simple, helps decrease back strain, and is a great warm-up.
Standing with your feet apart, place hands in the small of your back and
bend backwards, keeping knees straight. Hold for a couple seconds,
return, then repeat.
To help strengthen your back and legs, practice wall slides. Stand
with your back against a wall, your feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly
slide your back down the wall, into a crouch position, with your knees bent
at 90-degree angles. Hold this for 5 seconds, then slide back up the
wall, and repeat.
Leg raises also help strengthen your back and legs. Lying on your
stomach, tighten the muscles in one leg and raise it from the floor.
Count to 10, then lower that leg. Repeat for the other leg, then
repeat both in this manner.
Another exercise for back and leg muscles is similar, only lying on your
back. Raise one leg off the floor, count to 10, then lower and raise
the other leg, then repeat. If difficult at first, keep the leg not
being raised bent with foot flat on the floor.
Knee lifts while lying help decrease back strain. With feet flat on
the floor, knees bent, raise knees to your chest, put your hands under them
and pull toward your chest. Lower legs back slowly, but do not
For stomach muscles, do repetitions of partial sit-ups. Lying on your
back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor, slowly raise your head and
shoulders and reach both hands to your knees. Count to 10, then relax
To help your back, do leg raises while seated. Raise legs at an angle
to the floor, then raise one waist high. Slowly return, then repeat
with the other leg, and repeat.
For hip and back muscles, do repetitions of leg swings. Standing
behind and holding onto a chair, lift one leg back and up, keeping it
straight. Return slowly, then repeat with the other leg.
Keep in mind some key points and tips that relate to any exercises or
--Start with easy or lighter weights, and work up gradually as your body
gets in shape. Add a pound or two at a time, rather than doubling the amount
of weight lifted. Be careful not to lift objects too heavy if the
weight is unknown.
--For most, 12 to 15 repetitions of an exercise is sufficient for
strengthening. If this seems too easy, try more weight or
repetitions. If too exhausting, back off until you are stronger.
--Work opposing muscles, such as working on both the front and back of
--Don’t do the same exercises each day, rotate them so you’re working on one
set of muscles one day like arms and shoulders, another set like the legs
the next day.
--Don’t ignore pain. The saying of “no pain, no gain”, doesn’t apply
here. Try the exercise again later, another day, or with less weight.
Take time to rest if your body calls for this. If you have health issues,
make sure and check with your doctor on appropriate exercises and
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