By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Cycling does a lot of great things for your body, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes a pain in the neck… or shoulders… or back. Back pain is one of the most common complaints we hear from cyclists, whether new or experienced, young or old. Here are some practical tips and exercises you can use to build a better back for cycling.
Your back isn’t just your back
No part of your body operates in isolation, least of all your back. As the crucial link between your powerful legs and your upper body, your entire core has a lot of work to do. When your back gets sore from cycling but is generally pain-free during activities of daily living, you have to consider the whole system – hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, glutes, core muscles, spinal extensors, and on up into the upper body.
Back pain, particularly lower back pain, is a sign there’s something or several different things wrong, but the solution is often difficult to pinpoint. As a result, the exercises included later in this article are purposely conservative because – depending on the person – aggressive exercises can matters worse instead of better.
Bike Fit and Physical Therapy
To really get to the bottom of bike-related back pain, your best bet is to invest in professional help from a bike fit specialist and a physical therapist (or a physical therapist who is also well trained in bike fit). An examination can reveal how you move, what muscles may be underdeveloped, and what limitations you currently have in range of motion.
Bike fit and physical therapy work well together. Initially, your bike fit will reflect your current condition. If you have tight hamstrings you may sit on the bike with your pelvis posteriorly rotated, which will result in a more upright cycling position. If you have tight hip flexors your pelvis may be – or want to be – anteriorly rotated, and you may benefit from a saddle with a cutout to reduce pressure on your perineum.
As you work to increase range of motion and address muscle imbalances, your cycling position will likely change, hopefully to the point you are able to keep a more neutral spine and use core muscles to support a greater portion of your upper body weight. Your sore shoulders and numb hands may be partly due to forcing your arms and shoulders to hold up almost the entire weight of your upper body, particularly as you get tired during long rides.
Bodyweight or Heavy Weight?
When it comes to exercises to strengthen the back, the best exercises activate the entire posterior chain. Squats and deadlifts are the classic exercises that come to mind for most people. Renee Eastman, a longtime CTS Coach and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist made a great point to me, saying, “The problem is, you can only lift the amount of weight tolerated by the weakest link in the chain, and in many cyclists the lower back is that weakest link.” As a result, cyclists who are inexperienced with squats and deadlifts, and overconfident about the amount of weight they can handle, can end up hurting their backs instead of strengthening them.
Make no mistake; those classic exercises are excellent and highly effective, as long as you know how to do them properly. The exercises described below are more conservative, but also highly effective for strengthening your weakest link so you are better prepared for heavier weights later on.
Four Exercises for Your Strengthening Your Back
There are hundreds of different exercises you can use to strengthen your core and lower back. The four described here are a good representation of the types that work well for cyclists, but they are by no means the only exercises you can or should do.
Start on all fours with your arms directly under your shoulders, knees under your hips, and your back straight. Engage your core to keep your spine in a neutral position and lift one arm in front of you as you simultaneously lift the opposite leg straight back. Lift both your arm and leg until they are level with your back, but don’t aim to lift higher than that. Instead, reach with both your arm and leg as if you’re trying to touch two walls just out of reach.
View Video of this exercise.
Reverse the movement to return to the starting position and repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Complete two sets of 15-20 reps to each side.
Hooklying – Opposites Extension
View Video of this exercise.
Lie face up on ground with arms pointing to the ceiling and hips and knees both flexed to 90 degrees so your feet are in the air, kind of like a dead bug (which is another name for this exercise). Engage your core and slowly lower one arm above your head while straightening the opposite leg.
It is important to keep your core muscle engaged during this exercise so your back doesn’t arch and lift off the floor. Reverse the motion to return to the starting position and repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Don’t worry if you can’t fully extend your arm and leg so they hover just above the floor. You’ll get there, and it’s more important to stop before your back arches. Complete two sets of 15-20 reps on each side.
In the previous two exercises you were either on all fours or on your back. For the next two, you will be on your feet. There will be more of a balance component, and your back and torso will be supporting a greater load.
Single legged touchdown squat
View Video of this exercise
Stand on one foot with your arms by your sides. Bend at the knee and move your elevated foot behind you to begin lowering your hips into a partial squat. Simultaneously bend forward at the waist to bring your upper body down over your thigh. Keep your hands pointed toward the floor throughout the movement. The goal is to touch your fingers to the floor a little bit in front of your foot.
Reverse the movement to return to the starting position, but be careful to extend the hip and knee at the same time. This shouldn’t be a two-step movement where you raise your upper body first and then extend your knee to stand straight up. Complete two sets of 15-20 reps on each side.
Warrior 3 is a classic yoga pose that can be great for cyclists. Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms by your sides. Put all your weight on one leg and, keeping that leg straight, hinge forward at the hips as you raise your unweighted leg straight behind you. Keep your arms by your side to begin with and your elevated leg straight, so there’s a straight line from your shoulders to your heels. Keep the movement slow and controlled. You can also reach your hands over your head, with the goal of creating a straight line from fingertips through your heels.
Reverse the motion to return to the starting position. Your goal is to eventually get to the point you can hinge forward enough for your arms, torso, and elevated leg to be parallel to the ground. This will take practice. Initially, a slight bend in your supporting knee can be helpful. Complete 2 sets of 15-20 to each side.
These exercises will no magically eliminate lower back pain, but will start you down the path toward building a stronger and more fatigue-resistant back. For a more comprehensive plan, consult coach or your physical therapist. Either professional will incorporate additional exercises as well as stretches to improve range of motion.