By Jordan Tesluk
Every planter does this. You step forward with your right leg- your right hip glides easily forward, and as you bend to plant the tree, your right leg muscles tense up to bear the load of your leaning torso. Meanwhile, your left leg, somewhat straighter behind you, relaxes just slightly, and your left back muscles do the work to maintain the balance of your hips as you overload your right leg and left back muscles. Your left hip remains fixed to your pelvis, and you relax your right back muscles somewhat as the leg takes the load. Meanwhile you slightly pivot your torso to push the shovel handle forward to open the hole, and your left shoulder dips down as you punch the tree into the ground. (Reverse the sides if you are left-handed)
Familiar as this may be, it is nevertheless a highly complex movement. One that you refine by training your mind to send the right signals to your muscles, optimizing your movement. You painstakingly micro-train yourself to be more efficient, and faster at this movement thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times per week, per month, per year, focusing on the fractions of pennies you gain from this refinement of movement. There is a physical aggravating factor, in the form of a bag of trees that is almost always heavier on one side of your body than the other. At the point that you empty your draw bag, your shovel side bag is at least twice as heavy as your draw side, loading your shovel-side leg even more.
How can this not breed deep imbalances in your body, and in that part of your brain that sends signals to your muscles to tell you how to move? Of course, after even a few years of planting on only one side, you will likely develop some assymetrical body issues, perhaps pain, perhaps tightness, maybe you pull up sore after running for only 15 minutes and have to stretch your hip. You may find your left hip doesn't want to glide forward as you move because it is so used to being locked in place with your leg behind you as you plant trees. You may find your right leg is prone to tremendous knotting in the muscles due to the exaggerated load that it bears with each tree planted. Maybe you get back tightness when you exercise hard, but mainly on one side. In many activities, you merely compensate, as your body adjusts its tilted axis to what you are doing. Mountain biking, dancing, rock climbing, soccer, and other sports seem to pose little problem. Of course, you're strong from working so hard and it is easy to overlook the physical issues that you have accumulated. However, in a more controlled environment, such as riding a road bike, you certainly notice you don't feel as fluid or balanced, or equally strong in one leg as the other. As you age, these issues, if not corrected, may develop into something more inconvenient than mild discomfort. Maybe you get joint degradation, maybe nerve impingement, maybe just a less than optimally healthy posture and musculature. At work, this may manifest in various diffuse muscle pains that seem more than the impact of exertion. Maybe you plant in pain for a week, maybe you need an extra day off sometimes, maybe you just have the feeling of fighting against your body as you move some days. Not enough to stop you in your tracks, but ask yourself honestly if your body is really moving as well as you would like it, and if you feel balanced in the way you move.
So, don't plant and avoid all this. Or, better yet, LEARN TO PLANT WITH BOTH HANDS. Be an ambi-planter. The benefit of ambi-planting is not just reducing the chance of tendinitis that may affect your production for a few weeks. Ambi-planting seems to be brought up whenever someone has a hand injury in one hand and switches sides as a last resort to stay working. Should we really be waiting until this point in time to balance our movements? Ambi-planting is about equally distributing the many loads and motions of the planting action, and teaching your mind flexibility in movement, and balancing your muscular development. To be sure, planting ambidextrously will still exert some negative (and many positive) influences on your body. However, planting on only one side has virtually no positive influence except for the perceived advantage in production-- and maybe even this is false. If you grow equally strong on both sides, and your body performs better, should this not amount to better production? Maybe fewer of those days that you miss just because your back hurts and you can't quite put your finger on it? Add to this reduced likelihood of extensive physio and massage to straighten out those nasty imbalances. Can you even put a price on your health?
So why don't more planters ambi-plant? Mostly because we don't want to pay the temporary price of slowing down. As planters we are obsessed with speed, and keeping up, and making the most of every second we have on the ground. However, perhaps this mindset is really borrowing from the future, and the actual cost is greater than what you gain. Why don't more companies encourage or teach ambi-planting? Maybe because they want that extra perceived production also, and maybe because of the independence of the job, and maybe because we (as an industry) have not yet realized the potential benefit of making this adjustment.
So, even if it is just a few bundles a day, bit by bit, teach yourself to ambi-plant. It will cost you virtually nothing to do this. If you're on dayrate- ambi plant. If you're helping someone bag out, ambi-plant. If you're down to your last bag on a part day, ambi-plant. Use every chance you can to bring balance back your body. Do it for yourself, and the kind of body you want to have 5, 10, 20 years from now. Don't try to switch over all at once, as new motions can create problems for your body. So just ease into it as gradually as you can, and certainly don't wait until one part of one side of your body breaks down completely to make this adjustment. As a company owner or crew chief, start your rookies off ambi-planting. They're going to be pretty slow that first week anyway. Get them going in the right direction from the start.