In this post we’ll take an in-depth look at how to solve lower back pain from cycling.
We’ll highlight some of the differences between riders who get back pain and those who don’t and give you some exercises that will reduce your discomfort and make you a stronger rider.
Firstly, you’re not alone.
Although it may be of little consolation, lower back pain from cycling is
seemingly universal. In a recent study of professional road racing cyclists, 45% reported having back problems in their career. A whopping 58% said they had suffered from back pain in the last year.
Watch any professional cyclist getting off their bike after a long race and you can probably identify with their discomfort as they struggle to stand up straight.
I suffered from lower back pain on and off throughout my amateur road racing career. If I had the information I’m going to share with you now however, things would’ve been different.
So why does cycling cause lower back pain?
Essentially it’s the position you’re in and the amount of time you spend there.
There’s no getting away from that unfortunately. Unless you want to take on the properties of a sail, you have to bend forward.
Bending over for long periods of time has been implicated in back pain whether you do it on a bike or just sitting slumped in a chair.
It’s thought this causes something called flexion relaxation. Although it sounds like a hair product, it describes a situation where the muscles of the back simply turn off.
Instead you rely on passive structures such as ligaments to help maintain the position. This could be an energy preservation strategy by your central nervous system (CNS). Or it could be due to a lack of endurance in those muscles.
We can’t do much about the former but the latter can be improved. More on that in a moment.
Not all bending is the same.
The research shows that how you achieve your position on the bike can make a difference.
In the traditional cycling position you are dealing with two different types of flexion. Flexion of the hip and flexion of the lumbar spine.
Flexion of the hip is often thought of as bringing your leg up towards your trunk. But it can also be created by bringing your trunk down towards your leg.
Think of a straight leg deadlift where you pivot from the hip and bring a straight torso down towards the floor like a waiter bowing.
Flexion of the lumbar spine however, involves bending the spine itself. Notice the difference in the images below. The first rider (Peter Sagan) achieves the position from flexing more at the hip, whilst the second rider (Jan Ullrich) flexes more from the spine.
It’s the second position in particular that’s associated with lower back pain in cyclists.
Are you sitting straight?
This research group found there was a significant relationship between both increased lumbar spine flexion and rotation in their cyclists who experienced lower back pain.
Although their sample size was relatively small, all the subjects who developed back pain whilst cycling had weakness in muscles that rotated their trunk to one side or the other.
Personally I always found that when the pressure was on, or I was fatigued, I would rotate my trunk slightly to the right to gain more power.
That might explain why I couldn’t go around left handers. Obviously not an ambi-turner.
So it appears that lower back pain from cycling is associated with both increased lumbar spine flexion and perhaps also a rotation component.
That being the case, let’s take a look at some solutions to the problem.
If you think you’re more of a back bender than a hip flexor there are a couple of things you can work on.
Train your hip flexors.
Almost nobody recommends training your hip flexors for cycling. The general wisdom is that they must be tight and need stretching in cyclists.
This is based on little more than looking at the position cyclists spend their time in.
You can’t assess which muscles are tight and which are weak simply by looking at a posture however.
This is the equivalent of a car mechanic telling you what’s wrong with your car by watching you drive in to the garage.
It holds no water whatsoever.
This is also not my experience. In fact in many of the cyclists I see for back issues, their hip flexors are weak.
Check your hip flexion range.
Try this for a second. Lay on your back and slide your hands between your lower back and the floor.
Now bring a bent knee up towards your chest as far as it will go WITHOUT the pressure on your hands increasing.
That’s your available active hip flexion range.
Notice if you bring your leg further you have to round out your lower back to do so (as felt by the pressure increasing on your hands).
How far did you get? Get someone to take a picture or look in a mirror.
Now compare the angle between your thigh and your trunk, to the position you adopt on your bike when you get down on the drops.
If that angle is a lot smaller on your bike, then you’re breaching your active hip flexion range on the drops. That may explain why your lower back is flexing and causing issues.
Cable hip flexion exercise.
Use this exercise to improve the performance of your hip flexors. Make sure you match the position of the cable. This makes the exercise a little easier in the top position where it gets more difficult.
- Keep the exercise slow and controlled with a 5 second lifting phase and a 5 second lowering phase.
- Aim to get the leg as high as possible with each repetition.
- Don’t let your pelvis move.
- Choose a weight that brings about a mild fatigue around 6-8 repetitions.
- One set on each side is adequate.
Train your back extensors.
Another possibility is that the muscles of your lumbar spine aren’t capable of holding the flexed position for long periods.
There’s also a bunch of research to indicate getting these muscles stronger reduces back pain.
From a performance perspective, a stronger lumber spine will also help you transmit more power down to the pedals.
What’s not to like? Less pain and better performance. A win win.
The tricky bit is choosing the right exercise and pitching it at exactly the right level for your current capabilities.
The best results come from isolating the lumbar spine muscles as much as possible, particularly if they’re weak. This reduces the risk of your CNS using other muscles to compensate.
Without specialist equipment this is difficult to do however, as these muscles quickly become dominated by the larger hip extensors (glute max and the hamstrings). This is why exercises like the back hyperextension and the deadlift don’t always produce the best results.
If you don’t have access to one of these machines, use the following exercise which is the next best thing.
Seated cable lumbar spine extension exercise.
This exercise works well because you can effectively immobilise your pelvis by pushing it back into the seat with your legs. This increases the stimulus to the muscles of the lumbar spine.
- Keep the motion slow and controlled.
- Make sure the weight doesn’t take you into more trunk flexion than you have available.
- Keep your pelvis pushed back in the seat throughout.
- Extend your lower back over a pad or towel with each repetition.
- Use 1 set of around 6-8 repetitions to mild fatigue.
Assess your trunk rotation.
To check whether rotation of the lumbar spine might also be an issue, use the following range of motion assessment of your trunk (torso).
Sit tall in a chair with your feet planted firmly on the ground. Cross your hands loosely over your chest and slowly rotate your trunk to one side. Don’t allow your hips or your pelvis to move.
Note how far you went and repeat in the other direction.
If you are limited to one side, that’s an indication you have weakness in the muscles responsible for motion in that direction.
Try the following isometrics (muscle contractions without movement) to improve motion on the restricted side.
Unless you want to swop your road bike for something with a bell and a basket, you need to be able to tolerate the forward flexed position.
The exercises described above are designed to help you achieve that position for longer and with less discomfort.
They’ll also help you improve your performance on the bike. Awesome.