Phone: 03 8822 3723

Preventing Back Pain With Cycling Is All About Pelvic Position

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 09 August 2021
Hits: 1970

In one of my recent articles about daily habits that ruin spinal health I went into great detail explaining how simple, everyday daily movements we make contribute to creating chronic injuries with the back, hips, and neck. One activity I wanted to include in this article was cycling! While this is a great sport or hobby to undertake for improving fitness and endurance it can come at a high price to your overall health and posture if you are not aware of the potential dangers it poses. I myself have been a keen cyclist with road bikes and mountain bikes for over 20 years and love the challenges this sport provides. However, I also acknowledge the damage this unnatural position can cause to my body if I do not look after my joints and muscles effectively. In this article I will explain 3 key areas all cyclists need to pay attention to, and why the pelvic position is of such great importance.

All endurance sports demand incredible levels of fitness and mental strength to sustain long periods of physical exertion with cycling being one of the toughest on the body. It is not unusual for a cyclist to ride for several hours uphills and in extreme weather conditions that test both mind and body. Many training programs as a result are designed to enhance the areas of the body needed to improve performance and cycling economy with a strong focus on leg strength and cardiovascular fitness. This all makes sense and sounds very logical, however, my approach is slightly different as I place a larger focus on areas of weakness instead of strengths.

The reason most cyclists come to see me for help is due to injury preventing them from riding to their potential or even cycling at all. Most of the time it is for lower back pain, neck pain, and occasionally for knee pain. What all of these people failed to recognize is that cycling, like all endurance sports is very repetitive by its very nature. This is what allows your body to become extremely efficient and adapt quickly to heavy training loads. But it also has the potential to create enormous amount of stress on joints and connective tissue, leading to muscle imbalance and poor movement strategies that eventually lead to injury and pain.

Strength training is extremely important for the cyclist to ensure the body remains optimally balanced and free from damage to the knee and lower back.

How the cycling position damages the discs in the lower back

When designing strength training programs for endurance sports I tend to prefer using exercises to counter the damage from this repetitive action first rather than finding ways to enhance strength and performance.

The horrible position cycling places the body in for long periods of time under incredible fatigue and stress can cause serious damage to the spine and in particular the discs in the lower back.

Spinal flexion as shown in the picture below is the most common way people develop disc injuries.

The lumbar spine comprises of many bones known as vertebrae, each of which is separated by a disc. The disc comprises many layers of strong connective tissue wrapping around the disc. In the middle of the disc lies a soft jelly-like substance which is capable of changing shape. When this jelly-like substance protrudes from the disc due to a tear in several layers of the connective tissue, this is known as a lumbar disc bulge.

Once you have a herniated disc, fitness is no longer a priority to you and your new goal is to restore your health and repair the damage. Pain will prevent you from riding and if you choose to ignore this you will elevate your problem to a new level that can potentially ruin your body for good!

It makes perfect sense to prevent the onset of this problem in the first place so what can you do?

Prevention is always better than a cure

Ensuring you have a great bike set up is the first thing to do and many novice riders create numerous problems by making the mistake of skipping this important step. Sometimes something as simple as a minor adjustment to the riding position can make all the difference. The total reach of the rider from the seat to the handlebars is called the virtual top tube length and it is important to get this distance right to prevent the onset of low back pain.

Unfortunately, there is no set formula for finding the magic fit for every rider and this is why you should seek help from expert at the bike shop to do this.

The most important factor in riding position is that the forward lean should come from the pelvis rotating at the hip, rather than bending the back, which should remain as straight as possible. This is the same problem we see with basic sitting positions in the office that also lead to back problems.

Handlebar height plays a role in rider comfort as well. Handlebar height should be even with, or just slightly lower than, that of the seat. Setting the handlebars lower than four centimetres below the seat places increased pressure on the low back unless you are extremely flexible and able to rotate your pelvis forward.

An interesting study completed by researcher at the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre in Israel found that an increased pelvic angle could also be achieved by tilting the saddle angle forward 10° to 15° from horizontal. Using fluoroscopy, they evaluated 10 healthy adults on different types of bicycles using different seat angles. They found that tilting the seat angle 10° to 15° increased the pelvic angle and decreased the forces at the lumbar spine and pelvis. They then adjusted the seats of 40 volunteers from a local cycling club who reported low back pain. Follow up after using the new saddle position for six months revealed that 72% of the cyclists no longer had back pain, and 20% reported a significantly decreased incidence and intensity of pain.

Reference: 7. Br J Sports Med, 1993;33:398-400

While this appears to have a good effect it is always best to get fitted correctly at a bike shop and to make adjustments to the flexibility of your hips, instead of adjusting the seat to unusual riding positions. For this may not solve your problems for what if you already have a good bike set up and still have back pain? What else should you do?

The secret is to use corrective exercises to counter the repetition of spinal flexion and even allow your body to avoid it altogether.

Back pain and neck pain are created as a result of being in the hunched over position for excessive amount of time. The massive amount of time being stuck in this position is what causes muscles at the front of the body to shorten and tighten, with the muscles at the back of the body being overstretched and weakened.

To counter flexion you need to use exercises that encourage extension that will strengthen the muscles that are constantly being overstretched and weakened from your riding position.

A good corrective program for cycling will include three key components.

  1. Mobilize the thoracic spine.
  2. Mobilize the hips to maintain anterior pelvic tilt.
  3. Learning to bend correctly.

Thoracic Spine Mobility

Firstly the thoracic spine is often overlooked with corrective programs but this area plays a crucial role with the stability of the neck and shoulder. When it is locked into one place for long periods of time the thoracic region can become rigid and stiff losing the ability to rotate your trunk and head. This is terrible for a cyclist as they will be unable to turn their head to look behind them to check for traffic or even reach to grab food from their jersey.

Descending mountains and hills for long periods ruins the muscles and facet joints in the neck as the head must be tilted upright to see where you are going. There is nothing you can do about this as it is the nature of the position you are forced to ride with. The only thing you can do is prepare your body for these demands with corrective exercise to minimize the damage.

Below are some great videos featuring several exercises to mobilise this area.

 

Hip Mobility

The hip is a ball and socket joint designed to be able to handle the forces of weight-bearing (walking, running, jumping etc.) throughout the day. Because of this, it is inherently strong and stable. The ball portion is the head of the femur and the socket portion is part of the pelvis known as the acetabulum.

The postural changes from long periods of cycling in a hunched over position can have a direct impact on how your hip moves and greatly inhibit your ability to align the head of the femur within the hip socket. This will also affect your ability to strengthen the glutes and once the hip dysfunction becomes your automatic way of moving, it is just a matter of time until you develop a nasty injury.

Releasing stiffness in the posterior chain will allow your body to drive more anterior tilt with the pelvis in your riding position helping you to maintain a neutral spinal position.

Below are videos of exercises you can use to achieve this.

 

Learn To Bend Correctly

Mobilising the tight areas is great but if you fail to address the weak areas you will not get very far. One of the best ways to do this is with the deadlift exercise, in particular, the Romanian deadlift where the hips are taught to complete the bending movement without flexing the spine. The deadlift is by far the most effective exercise for helping the cyclist to rotate pelvis forward therefor enhancing the bending posture and reducing pressure in the discs and spine. The best news it is also the best way to increase gluteal strength! A cyclist with strong glutes will develop considerable power for climbing and sprinting as these muscles are the engine room of the legs.  

It is also a great way to prevent many unwanted hip problems. The most common hip problems encountered by cyclists are femoral acetabulum impingement (FAI) and Piriformis Syndrome. In both cases you will find weakness in the posterior muscles of the glutes and the beginning of what is referred to “anterior femoral glide syndrome". This is where the femoral head has moved excessively forward and is overly compressed in the acetabulum, creating the impingement feeling at the front of the hip and a reaction of trigger points in the glutes to try to restore the lost stability. 

The Romanian Deadlift and especially the single leg RDL work perfectly with this problem to realign the femoral back deep into the glutes by releasing the hip and strengthening the glutes. The anterior pelvic tilt is essential for this to happen and allow the glutes to generate their full capacity for strength.

Below is a great video to watch of the Romanian deadlift in action.

Instructions:

  1. Position the kettlebell on the floor between your legs so that you cannot see your shins in a mirror from the side.
  2. Standing with feet a comfortable width apart. Reach down keeping the natural arch in your low back, and neck tucked.
  3. Touch the kettlebell keeping good posture.
  4. Inhale and engage your core before you begin to stand to the top position, exhaling and when at the top and gently rolling your shoulder down and scapula apart.
  5. At the top repeat the inhaling process before lowering to the ground.

Do You Need More Help?

Before jumping straight into a corrective program make sure you have seen a qualified Health professional for an accurate diagnosis and assessment of your condition. I cannot stress this enough as self-diagnosing can potentially lead to more problems. We often refer out to Doctors, Chiropractors, and Physiotherapists before implementing our program to know exactly what we are dealing with. Being certain on where to start is crucial to the success of the program.

If you have seen a health professional and are now looking at implementing a series of exercises and stretches this article will provide you with many great ideas on how to do this. As many people struggle to implement this into a gradual progression I created a detailed step by step program for both back pain and hip problems associated with piriformis syndrome. These include a 85 page PDF report 60-90 minute video with exercises, stretches, mobilizations and in an easy to follow format. This can be done at home or in the gym and we cover everything about your condition in great detail from eliminating the cause to best strength exercises, even nutrition to speed up the healing process!

Click here or on the image below to get a copy.

  

Summary

While there are many great exercises and training methods to improve performance for the cyclist we must always recognize the damage the sport can have on our body. By adopting mobility and strength exercises shown in this article you will be able to counter the potential muscle imbalance and postural problems cycling poses to your body. This will enable you to fully enjoy your rides free of pain and even improve your overall performance.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program. You can also subscribe to our free email newsletter where you get access to all of the latest tips and secrets relating to health and fitness.

 

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx