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. Strength training and stretching can significantly reduce lower back pain associated with cycling. To get you started, here are some practical tips and effective back exercises 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 you develop back pain from cycling but are 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 back exercises for cycling 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 for back pain
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 Exercises?
When it comes to strength training, the best back exercises for cycling 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 with more back pain instead of a stronger back.
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.
Back Exercises for Cyclists
There are hundreds of different exercises you can use to strengthen your back and reduce back pain. The back exercises for cycling 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.
Suspension Bridge with Banded Reach
This isometric hold, with the hamstrings under tension and greater hip extension than traditional bridges, is a great way to strengthen your posterior chain. To get into the starting position, lie flat on your back with knees bent slightly. Dig your heels into the floor while lifting hips and keeping your knees bent. Now, apply tension as if you are trying to pull your heels toward your butt, and hold. Work up to a 30 sec hold. You can leave arms at your sides, palms up (to resist pushing into the ground). For a more advanced version of this exercise, lift and hold your hands straight above your chest, with a resistance band around both hands. Press your hands outward to maintain tension on the band throughout.
The goal of this back exercise for cycling is to release the psoas in a non “stretching” way. In other words, this is a more passive way to release a tension. Because the psoas muscle has attachment points from the femur and along the low back, reducing tension and facilitating a stretch can help with low back tension. Really nice to do this one after a kneeling runner’s stretch.
This is a nice stretch that focuses on the hamstrings, adductors and hips. It that can help reduce and relieve tension in tight muscles in the area that can contribute to low back tension and tightness.
Deadbug – Opposites Extension
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 (hence the 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.
The Braced Deadbug exercise can create a nice progression from the exercise above. Using a small ball, thick towel, or some other item of similar size that has a “sturdy squish” to it, come into a supine position where you would start a standard Deadbug exercise. Place the ball (or similar) against one quad and press the arm of the same side against the ball, creating tension as you press into the ball and the leg maintains opposite pressure. Keep your low back on the ground at all times and do not arch your back. Extend the arm and leg of the non-braced side, pause, and bring back together. Repeat for 10-12 reps on once side before switching sides.
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.
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.
These exercises will not 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.
Special thanks to Sarah Scozzaro, CTS Expert Coach, NSCA-PT, NASM PES for contributing her expertise and recommendations for this article.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS