How to Use a Shovel? (Protect your Back!)

Using a shovel might seem completely self-explanatory, but there is actually more to it than meets the eye. If you have to dig a post hole, a trench, or a hole to plant a tree, then getting the right technique down is important to avoid a back injury.

If you’ve ever done a little DIY landscaping, then you’ll know how labor-intensive and strenuous using a shovel actually is. Just a few minutes of hard digging and your entire back will be aching and calling out for a hot bath.

There’s really no getting around the fact that digging with a shovel will strain your back, arms, and legs. The key to doing it right is to transfer as much of the load from the back onto the legs and core. These muscles are better suited to handle heavy loads and have a much lower chance of injury than the injury-prone lower back.

I’ll break down the best techniques to use when using a shovel – so you can dig to your heart’s content without injury.

How to Use a Shovel – Guide

Anytime you’re digging a hole, trench, or whatever, it’s important to plan out your dig in advance. This will help the whole process go smoothly and prevent a situation where you need to make changes halfway through digging.

Step 1: Plan the Hole Location

Just like when you’re cutting a workpiece, the old adage measure twice and cut once holds true. Carefully map out the hole location and diameter before starting.

Of course, the level of accuracy needed will depend on what type of hole you’re digging. If you’re transplanting a shrub, then accuracy doesn’t matter too much, alternatively, if you’re digging fence post holes, you’ll need to be highly accurate and measure and mark your hole locations carefully.

Whenever you need to make a series of holes in a line, such as when digging fence post holes, use a string line. This simple technique will give you near-perfect accuracy and is very easy to do with just some string and a few stakes.

hole location marked with string line
A string line is a simple and highly precise way of marking hole locations.

Step 2: Prepare the Area

If there are any obstacles in the way of your plan hole(s), remove them from the area in advance. Branches, shrubs, large rocks, etc. will all slow down your progress so clear them well in advance of digging.

If your digging a hole in your lawn or garden, then consider setting aside the topsoil or turf for use somewhere else.

Step 3: Plan for Excavated Dirt Disposal

This one is where a lot of people get into trouble. If your digging multiple holes or one large hole, you’re going to be left with a large volume of dirt that needs to be put somewhere.

Piling it up on your lawn without a plan to move and dispose of it is a bad idea. Not only will it be difficult to deal with, but it will kill the grass underneath it if you leave it there for too long.

If you have a wheelbarrow, then this is the optimal way to deal with excess dirt. You can load the excavated soil directly into the wheelbarrow as you dig, or pile it up and wheel it away when you’re done.

contractor bag with dirt pile

If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, there are a number of household objects you can use to move dirt around. The classic one is simply piling the dirt up on a section or tarp or canvas and then dragging it to your dumping location. You can even use a heavy-duty contractor-grade garbage bag for this, which I’ve done successfully multiple times.

Other things you can try are loading up a kid’s sled or a hand cart/dolly with a plastic storage container.

Step 4: Start Digging

Ok, now that all the prep is taken care of, it’s time to get digging.

Before you begin, you’ll ideally want to have both a shovel and a spade on hand. A shovel has a rounded blade and is best for moving earth, while a spade has a flat blade and is used for creating the hole’s edge.

At this point, you can start digging your hole. Use your spade to create the hole’s edge before switching over to the shovel for moving a greater volume of dirt.

As far as technique goes, you generally want the shovel blade to be as close to perpendicular to the ground as possible. When the blade is at a straight angle like this, place one foot over the blade’s shoulder and use your leg power to drive the blade into the dirt in one powerful motion.

With the blade driven all the way into the dirt, you then pull the shovel handle towards you to pry the blade free of the soil. When the dirt feels loose, bend at both knees making sure to keep your back straight, and lift using your leg power rather than your back.

A trick to make this easier is to keep the shovel blade as close to your body as you can comfortably. This gives you better leverage over the dirt and will reduce the load on your body.

When you dump the shovelful, rotate your entire body rather than twisting your trunk. Tighten your abdominal muscles while doing this as well to further reduce the chances of back injury.

Step 4: Dispose of Excavated Dirt

When it comes to digging holes and trenches, an often-overlooked task is what to do with all the dirt you just dug up?

If you planned this out in advance, then this step should be no problem, otherwise, you’ll be left with a large dirt pile that needs transporting to your dumping location.

Denis Gardner

I've loved tinkering and fixing things for as long as I can remember. So, naturally, I gravitated towards DIY and home improvement when I bought my first home. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or messing around with my newest tool!

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