Survive the Physical Rigors of Hardwood Floors

Hardwood flooring is rewarding work, providing the opportunity to produce a truly beautiful, unique product. However, it can be hard on the body. Fortunately, there are tools and techniques that can help.

Improper knee pads cause the lower back to compensate, producing lower back pain and knee/back degradation. It’s worth it to buy the Cadillac version of good knee pads. Poor pads are often uncomfortable and lead to removing them altogether. Pads with “stops” near the calf can prevent overstretching the knee ligaments when the lower leg is completely folded underHamstring and quadricep stretches can be good for the knees and a good idea for the flooring professional. First and foremost, ease into stretching: at most, aim for slight discomfort, not pain. Don’t rush it: over the course of a few weeks, you’ll get there. For quads, brace your opposite hand on a wall and, from a standing position, grab your foot at the ankle and pull up toward your backside; hold for 30 seconds. Breathe deep, and feel the muscle gradually relax, pulling higher as it does. For the hamstring, lay on your back, with one leg bent. Take a towel and loop it over the ball of the other foot, holding each end in your hands, and then gently try to straighten the leg. Hold for 30 seconds, and do two-four times with each leg. Alternate with quad stretches for best effect

Biking or stationary cycling are also great for balancing, strengthening, and promoting blood flow through the joints and ligaments of the knees. Be sure to adjust the seat and pedals to fit you, or you won’t be doing your knees any good. First adjust the seat horizontally: with the cranks parallel to the ground, your leading knee should be directly over the axle. Height: at full extension, your knee should be slightly bent (which means minimal “toeing,” or elongating the toes downward at the bottom of the stroke). If your hips rock from side to side, the seat is too high; go back and forth with height/horizontal alignment until you get it right.

Additionally, biking offers one of the highest cardiovascular workout potentials, with the lowest impact to the body. Hard floor work is not cardio. A good cardio workout, usually at a minimum of 20-minute intervals, elevates the heart rate to the aerobic level, and works the entire body, circulating blood throughout. It is a great “flushing” mechanism, helping to rid lactic acid and promote healing. If you go too hard, you’ll reach the anaerobic level, which will generate lactic acid; although a vital part of improvement for athletes, this is usually more than is needed to keep the floor guy “tuned up.” Be sure to ease into it; less is more when beginning any new physical/exercise regimen. And, always first consult with your physician before starting any exercise regimen.

Don’t forget proper sleep, hydration, and nutrition; neglecting these can torpedo your expected gains.


The back can take a beating, from moving furniture, carrying equipment in and out, and sanding and finishing.

We all know proper technique: keep the back straight, lift with the legs, not with the back. Follow this advice – it works. Additionally, often it is not lifting that injures, rather rotating and/or extending while lifting. Sadly, one bad choice can lead to a lifetime of coping, so it pays to play it safe. Do not be afraid to ask or wait for help – consider it a potential investment in the future of your back.

Another good idea is to wear a back brace or weightlifting belt. You can buy custom braces to fit your frame better and are more comfortable and effective than “one size fits all” options; look online or talk to your doctor. Consider wearing a brace when finishing, too – when feathering out on a back-out, especially at full extension, there is tremendous leverage at the pivot point: your lower back. Factor in a weighted T-bar or roller, the additional weight of wet finish in the applicator, and the fact that both are further leveraged by a 6’ pole, and it’s no wonder that a long back-out, or coating in general, can be so tiring on your lower back. If your balance is good, extending your back foot behind you while extending to feather acts as a leverage-eating counterweight.

Equipment and considerations that your back will like:

  • Lift gates or ramps on vans and trucks.
  • Higher-ceiling vans to minimize the “bent over” lifting of tools, equipment, wood, etc.
  • Electric, stair-climbing dollies to move big machines, etc. This is a tool commonly used by plumbers for installing or removing hot water heaters.
  • Consider hiring moving companies for customer furniture; factor them into your job bid.
  • Use the “high-wheel”/dolly attachments to move the big machine around, when needed. This also saves your sander wheels from entraining debris or premature wear.
  • Some guys swear by the rolling edger carts, whereby the contractor effectively lays on the cart while edging, eliminating strain on the back. Downsides may include not being able to maneuver into tight spaces and contractor ridicule for admitting that you use one.
  • Get the extension from your machine manufacturer, or modify the handle accordingly. I always had to bend slightly when running the big machine; after a week of sanding, this always made my lower back sore. Even a slight bend puts undue pressure on the lower back, which is magnified with a rougher grit, moving forward, wider drums, etc. Consider that the handle height needs to be corrected before using the belt that attaches you to the sander, or taller sanders will actually accentuate the stress on lower backs! Of course, wearing the belt too high will have the same negative result.
  • While this is much easier said than done, especially the older we get, decreasing girth literally “takes a load” off our lower backs since the lower back is forced to perpetually compensate for the added weight in front; obviously, this force is multiplied by the greater degree of bend. Cardio work, especially aerobic exercise, combined with proper nutrition and good sleep, can be an effective approach. Again, however, always consult your physician for approval and/or specific guidance, and expect it to take some time.
  • Consider some basic Pilates to strengthen your core muscles (the “deep” abdominal muscles that wrap around the spine). Forget situps – they only effectively work the exterior abdominal muscles and can aggravate your lower back. No need to buy a mat and run out to a studio – all you need is a carpeted area and a “for Dummies”-type book to get started. Just doing a few exercises like the “Hundred” and “Half Roll-Down” are enough to notice a difference, even after only one workout. Be sure to start with the beginner techniques, and only after having consulted with a physician, especially if you already have a lower back injury. As with doing any exercise, proper technique trumps reps every time, and ease into it!
  • It’s all connected: the imbalance between the quadriceps and hamstrings can cause imbalance and stress the lower back. This is where stretching will both reveal whether you have an imbalance (one will be tighter), and help to correct it.


We all know that wood dust is considered to be a carcinogen. Consider wearing respirators with the appropriate (usually organic vapor) cartridges when applying VOC-containing concrete sealers and glues, and stains, finishes, and sealers. It’s not so much that the chemicals are that harmful, but it just makes sense when you’re working with them every day or week.

Scraping, troweling, and running an edger all concentrate force on the interior forearm muscles. Consider reverse wrist curls to balance the opposition supinator muscles in the forearm, especially if you have soreness at the interior elbow (signs of “medial epicondylitis,” or “tennis elbow.”) Again, technique trumps repetition; ideally, stop each curl when the wrist is parallel to the forearm, to prevent undue stress on the wrist ligaments.

Consider wearing nitrile gloves when working with chemicals. Again, you’re doing this stuff five days/week for years. The same goes for stuff that you do around the house, like changing the oil, using toe-nail polish remover (~pure acetone = 100 percent potent VOC!), etc.

Hydrating and fueling

  • Avoid sugar-packed drinks, which offer minimal energy (aside from the caffeine), inadequate fuel, and a “crash.”
  • Drink more water! You’ll be surprised at how easy this is to do, and how much better you will feel. Seriously. If you like to drink alcohol or coffee, drink even more water.
  • Avoid heavy lunches, if possible, ideally reaching for
    higher-quality carbs, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, whole grains, etc. Along with foregoing soda and processed sugars, these will lower the “food coma” effect.
  • Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep/night, ideally with a
    consistent bedtime.

Flooring professionals work hard, demanding a lot more from their bodies than a lot of other trades. We should take better care of ourselves, and there are numerous tools and techniques that can help ensure our healthy longevity.

Ethan Erickson is a Chemist at Arboritec USA in Greenwood Village, Colorado and is passionate about health and fitness. He can be reached at

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