Physio: Think of splitting wood as a whole body exercise

For many Lake Country residents, it’s time to stoke the wood stove or fireplace to heat the home.

The little goblins, ghouls and witches have had their night of searching for sweets, the lakes are quiet of boat traffic, and there’s now a dusting of snow on the hills.

It’s time to face the fact that the sunny, warm days of summer are over. It’s time to pack up the shorts and pull out the wool socks and long johns.

For many Lake Country residents, it’s also time to stoke the wood stove or fireplace to heat the home.

The process of chopping wood may be a chore to some, but it also can be a great exercise that gets your muscles working hard, and your heart rate elevated.

During the course of lifting up the axe or maul, and controlling its path down to split wood, many muscle groups are recruited of the arms, back, legs and abdominals—it’s a whole body exercise.

The activity involves both concentric and eccentric actions—the muscles being worked both shorten and lengthen, depending on the phase of the swing.

It also can be compared to interval training: chop the wood, haul it to where it’ll be stored, pile it in an organized way, and then do it again: chop, haul, pile.

Added benefits include: Being out in the fresh air, the potential of stress-relief, and also importantly, this kind of activity goes very well with a ‘Movember’ moustache.

Being a multi-joint interval exercise, the activity requires a whole body warm up (perhaps a hike to find the wood to be chopped) before, and a cool down that includes stretching after. Doing so, and following the tips below, can help reduce the chances of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and the risk of injury.

I will focus on prevention of common pains that can be sustained from overuse, but remember to take necessary precautions to avoid any traumatic injuries; for example, wearing safety glasses and gloves, avoiding wood with nails or many knots, and only doing the task if it is safe for you.

• Pains can commonly be felt in the lower back during and after the process of splitting and picking up wood. Raising the wood you are splitting will help ease the strain on your low back which occurs with repetitive bending. A 14-16-inch splitting block is an ideal height to decrease strain while keeping the wood within a zone where the axe or maul will exert a strong force; sometimes referred to as being in the “power zone.”

• Keep your knees bent and your back in as neutral (slightly curved) position as possible—both while doing the swinging and while picking up the chopped pieces.

• Another consideration for your back is the direction that the ax travels. Many people swing from one side and down toward the other, typically only in one preferred direction. This causes twisting in the spine and uneven use of muscle groups in the upper body between right and left sides.  By keeping the axe centred, you will limit the rotational forces and will also get more symmetric recruitment of abdominal muscles. Imagine always chopping down diagonally in one direction as being similar to doing bicycle crunches only to one side.

Forearm pain is another common symptom due to the use of the finger flexors with gripping and the wrist extensors.  Use of these muscles can result in tendonitis in the wrist or the elbow, especially if they are used a lot already with your job or hobbies.

Stretch each side of your forearms after your task is done to reduce the pain.

To stretch the top of your forearm (the extensors) hold your arm out so that your palm faces down. Use your other hand to bend your wrist so that it’s as though you’re bringing your palm to the underside of your forearm. Bend it far enough to feel a pulling sensation in the muscles, but not pain, and hold it gently for 30 seconds before releasing.

To stretch the flexors, start again with your arm held out, but this time pull up on the fingers and wrist the opposite direction.

If you do experience muscle soreness that doesn’t resolve a couple days post-activity, or if you get sharp, acute pain, seek a health professional for advice, such as your doctor or physiotherapist.

As the days grow colder and you don your flannel plaids to go outdoors, don’t think of wood splitting as a chore. Instead, consider it a whole body exercise that can build a strong core, arms and legs when performed safely.

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