The Best Exercises For Gardening Fitness


It’s gardening season! Undoubtedly one of my favorite times of year – the cool spring breezes, the early bulbs blooming and adding some color to the gardens, the satisfaction of cleaning up the winter debris and getting the garden beds ready for some new plants, the lower back pain…

The Importance of Gardening Fitness

Yes, that last part. Let’s talk about it. Gardening and yard work can be tough on the body, especially the first few times out there for the season. In fact, if you search “gardening fitness” you’re going to find a lot of articles about how gardening IS exercise.

But most of us don’t treat it that way, do we? We don’t warm up beforehand, we don’t stretch afterward, we probably don’t adequately hydrate, and we push ourselves probably harder than we would in the gym.

Those 40 pound bags of mulch won’t move themselves, and our neighbors will probably complain if we leave them sitting all over the place. No one notices if we leave the gym before our workout is finished though, right?

The Benefits of a Lifting Program

One thing that really doesn’t get talked about is how a lifting program can be helpful for gardening, and that if you regularly do yard work of any kind, how important it can be to keep those muscles strong to prevent injury. We say gardening is exercise, but we don’t talk enough about how we should exercise for gardening! So let’s get into it.

As an avid gardener myself, I have spent the last few weeks thinking about this article every time I was out in my garden prepping the beds for the season. Noticing what I was doing, paying attention to what parts of my body felt discomfort first, thinking about my own lifting program and what moves correlate the most to the work we do in the yard.

I’m going to break down the different moves we do the most, the muscles they utilize, and then outline a basic workout routine that targets these muscles. 

Understanding the Movements

So much of gardening and yard work involves lifting and moving heavy things. Bags of mulch, compost, shovels, wheelbarrows, garden stone, heavy stone pots – so naturally the first thing that comes to mind are lower body exercises designed to help us get better at that.

Lower Body Exercises

Deadlifts are number one here, but variations of squats and lunges also help tremendously. These exercises all improve our strength and stability when picking things up and putting them down. Deadlifts target our core, glutes, and hamstrings, while squats add in the quads, and of course a bit of glutes and core as well. Making sure to do these movements in various ways, like single-leg versions, and lateral versions, help out our balance overall.

By improving balance and stability, we’re less likely to fall while carrying something heavy, but we’re also less likely to get injured if we do fall, because our muscles are used to moving in all those various directions!

Upper Body Exercises

And of course, the upper body – all that weed pulling, digging, planting, watering, carrying, and shooing away squirrels really pulls in all of the upper body musculature and tests your gardening fitness. We need to make sure our shoulders, back, chest and arms are sufficiently strong so these chores feel like a breeze, and not something we need a deep tissue massage to recover from.

Movements like bent over rows help a ton with back strength by strengthening the lats so we can pull even the most stubborn weeds without breaking out the heavy duty tools. Keeping our shoulders strong and stable will also help prevent injury while we’re lifting things, so lateral raises, rear delt raises, and overhead presses are a vital part of a good gardener’s workout.

Throwing in some work for the biceps and triceps never hurts to keep the arms stable overall! But these can be considered accessories, and left out if you’re pressed for time.

Core and Grip Strength

Finally, we are nothing without a strong core, and gardeners are nothing without a strong grip! And a good pair of gloves, of course. Rounding out a routine with something like a farmer’s carry is such a great way to accomplish both.

I mean it’s literally named for this task, so how can we not include it? I do love adding in something that works the lower back as well here though – machine back extensions/reverse hyperextensions are fabulous ways to improve lower back strength and stability.

You can mimic these at home if you don’t have the equipment with exercises like Supermans and Bird Dogs, so don’t neglect that lower back! The stronger it gets, the longer you can work without pain, and the more you can brag to your friends and family that you didn’t need Advil after your last yard clean-up session.

Creating a Gardening Fitness Workout

So now that you know what muscles should be worked and why, let’s put it all together with a sample program!  I will list several options for each target muscle/exercise. Picking one movement from each section will give a fantastic well-rounded workout, and give you lots of options for mixing things up in the future to create new workouts.

  1. Dynamic Warm-Up: 5-10 minutes to get the blood flowing – to be done before the workout, but also before gardening of course!
    1. A few minutes on the treadmill walking at a comfortable pace
    2. Arm Swings
    3. Shoulder rolls
    4. High knees/butt-kicks (you can do these marching in place, no jumping required)
    5. Lunges with twists to warm up both the hips and back
  2. A Squat Variation, 3 sets of 8-12, such as:
    1. Goblet Squats
    2. Barbell or Dumbbell Squats
    3. Front Squats
  3. A Deadlift Variation, 3 sets of 6-8 or 8-12
    1. Dumbbell or Barbell Deadlift
    2. Romanian Deadlifts: either two legged, or single-leg variations
    3. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts: either two legged, or single-leg variations
  4. A Lateral Movement, 3 sets of 8-12
    1. Lateral Lunges
    2. Curtsy Lunges
    3. Clamshell Side Plank Hip Thrusts
  5. A Chest Press Movement, 3 sets of 6-8 or 8-12
    1. Bench Press: Dumbbells, Barbell, on a bench, or on the floor!
    2. Wall-Pushups, Knee Push-Ups, or Regular Push-Ups
    3. Machine chest presses or flyes
  6. A Row Variation, 3 sets of 8-12
    1. Bent over Rows, Barbell or Dumbbell
    2. One-Arm Rows w/ Knee On Bench
    3. Cable or Machine Rows, Seated, Standing, or even one-armed
  7. A Shoulder Movement, 3 sets of 8-12
    1. Overhead Press (Dumbbell or Barbell)
    2. Lateral Raises
    3. Front Raises
    4. Bent-Over Rear Delt Raises
  8. (Optional) Biceps/Triceps Movement: 2-3 Supersets of 8-12 where you complete the bicep movement, move directly into the tricep movement, and then rest before repeating
    1. Bicep Curls & Tricep Kickbacks
    2. Hammer Curls & Tricep Overhead Press
  9. Farmer’s Carries: With Dumbbells, Kettlebells, or anything heavy: Either for a certain number of steps like 8-12 steps each leg for 3 sets, or for a certain number of time: 3 sets of 30-60 seconds.
  10. A Lower Back Movement, 2-3 sets of 8-12
    1. Machine Back Extensions
    2. Supermans
    3. Bird Dogs
  11. Cool Down and Stretch, 5-10 minutes: again, both after the workout, and after gardening! Hold each static stretch for 30 seconds to really release the muscle tension. It’s longer than you think…
    1. Standing Quad Stretch
    2. Standing Hamstring Stretch
    3. Lying Lower Back Twist
    4. Shoulder Stretch
    5. Standing Bent Arm Chest Stretch

Wrap Up

And that’s it! A good full-body workout, 2-3 times per week, will have your gardening fitness in great condition to get out in the garden. Feeling stronger, less sore and more productive is a great way to start this season off right!

And even if you use these tips to turn gardening itself into a workout, by adding in your warm-up and cool-down, you’ll be able to tackle more projects with less fatigue and soreness overall. Happy Gardening!

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