Cart pushing: How to prevent muscle aches

Hey Alice,

I am 21 years old and have a job pushing carts. They each weigh about 15 pounds and I usually have about an eight hour shift (I recently got a pedometer and it says I average ten miles a day walking, during a normal shift). We have a cart machine but I still have to push about ten of these carts at a time (or more). I do a lot of twisting and turning, and since I only weigh about 110 pounds myself, I usually have to put my whole body into moving these carts.

I've read a few of your answers to athletes on how to prevent muscle soreness and you mentioned a 48 hour break for muscle groups. Since I can’t do that (its my job, I have to be there at least 30 hours a week), and since I can't really change the muscle groups I use, what is a good way (besides stretching every 20 minutes to an hour) to prevent damage to my knees/hips and to make muscle pain less or get rid of it altogether? I've been doing the job for about six months and have just recently been having trouble with pain because of snow making it harder to push.

Thank you for your time,
The Cart Pushing Professional

Dear Cart Pushing Professional,

Work life may get tough, but when push comes to shove, don't put your back into it! Your attention to your body is an excellent first step in pain prevention. While there are some things you may do to reduce your pain, it may be relieving to know that your employer is also expected to provide a safe working environment for you, free of conditions that cause injury.

Pushing motions tend to affect muscles in your torso the most. The four pectoral muscles, which sit over the front of the chest, do most of the heavy lifting. Though you mentioned leg pain is plaguing you the most, the muscles of the body rely on each other for movement, so the pain in your legs may be related to stress on the spine from pushing motions. Strengthening your pectoral muscles can help alleviate the pressure on the spine and the rest of your body and will likely make pushing the carts a bit easier. It's also best to keep proper form when pushing, the same way weight lifters are instructed keep good form while working out at the gym. 

When pushing carts or other heavier items, try to bend from your legs and hips rather than your waist. You'll know you're doing this right if your back is straight and you feel yourself using your legs. If you have a "hump" when you bend or if you find yourself hunching as you move, it means you're probably putting more stress on your back. Try to move from your lower core, putting your weight on your glutes (butt muscles). Flexing your stomach muscles while cart-pushing may add more support from your core, as well, hopefully helping to take pressure off your knees. Taking smaller steps may also help keep pressure off of your spine. Try to avoid twisting and turning your torso while pushing, and use your body weight to lean on the carts to relive some of the stress from your legs.

Staying well hydrated throughout your shift may also help prevent soreness, and healthy snacks and meals may help you sustain your energy levels. Just as you would before an exercise session, stretching before and after your shift is a good way to help to prevent soreness, as is going to the sap for an occasional massage. Unless you know someone, professional massages can be costly. If funds for spa days aren't in your budget, consider trading massages with a friend or locating a massage school where you may be able to get discounts with massage therapists in training.

You also mentioned that the snow makes pushing carts more difficult. One thing that may help is a device consisting of rubber straps that stretch over the soles of your shoes. Lining these rubber straps are small, metal rings that dig into ice and snow, creating friction and reducing or eliminating slippage. Runners and hikers often use them to stay active in the winter months. Many outdoor and sporting goods stores have them available at a low price. Make sure to use the kind that has studs on the entire sole, rather than ones only of the ball or heel. Given that these would be for work-related use, you may consider asking your employer to cover the cost or give you a discount if they're sold in your store.

Implementing these personal tips to help ease the soreness and pain you're feeling is a great option. To complement the effort you’re putting in to your well-being, you may want to check in with your employer to see if they can provide you with some type of support belt to help distribute the pressure more evenly and support your lower back. Speaking of which, your employer has a legal responsibility to provide a safe working environment for you, thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Any employee of a private company may make an anonymous complaint and request an investigation. Even if your employer were to somehow find out it were you, they're legally prohibited from firing you, refusing to promote or give you a raise, or otherwise punish you from making the complaint. For more information, check out the OSHA website or call 1-800-321-OSHA.

Lastly, seeing a health care provider may help rule out serious injuries as the cause of your soreness and may be able to provide you with more information and resources for pain relief and injury prevention.

Working hard can be a good thing, but ensuring that you stay healthy in the long run may be even more critical. Try some of the precautions, exercise self-care, and flex your employee rights — work shouldn't have to be back breaking!

Last updated Sep 23, 2022
Originally published Sep 03, 2010

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