Why Bikes Are Hard On Backs…And What To Do About It!
The other day I had the wild idea of hiking to my friend’s house with 65 pounds of dumb bells (how appropriate) on my back. I was bent forward in the most unnatural position in order to not tip over backward.
When I looked at my shadow, I looked like Quasimodo…or a cyclist.
‘All hunched over’ certainly doesn’t seem like a very healthy position to be in when exercising, but that’s precisely the posture we assume when we get onto a bicycle (recumbent bikes excepted). When I first started competitive cycling, the position seemed like it was a real hardship. But as is so common in life, perspectives change, and before long even riding in the drops on my handlebars didn’t seem too difficult.
However, while my head got used to the idea, it’s not likely my low back ever did.
When Cycling, The Psoas Suffers
Now here’s a muscle that gets very little respect. In beef cattle, it’s the the king of muscles…labeled the Fillet Mignon. It’s the most tender of cuts for the table and highly prized by meat lovers the world over.
In cyclists, this muscle takes a real beating, and because it is in such an obscure part of the body it is largely unknown. The psoas (so-az) is located in the lower abdomen, tucked against the lumbar spine. It originates from the five lumbar vertebrae (the last five vertebrae in the spine), and goes down through the pelvis to attach to the femur (bone in the thigh)
When the psoas contracts (gets shorter), the leg is pulled forward toward the chest. When you stop to think about it, that position of the leg being forward toward the chest is precisely the configuration that the cyclist finds themselves in for very long periods of time.
If you want to a simplistic explanation of the problem of the psoas and cycling, here it is: short, tight muscles quickly become trouble makers.
What To Do About A Suffering Psoas
The more bent over you are on your bike, the shorter the psoas is. So…if it isn’t too critical that you ride in the most aerodynamic position possible (maybe you aren’t needing to win the Tour de France?), don’t set up your bike with the level of the handlebars below the level of the seat.
The bottom line message is: the more upright you are, the longer your psoas is.
Another trick you can do is to periodically stand up out of the saddle when you’re pedaling. When you stand up to pedal, the psoas gets the luxury of being able to lengthen and perform while it isn’t so cramped up.
When you aren’t on the bike, there are some excellent stretches which address this problem. The magic of YouTube makes learning just about anything easy and convenient. Learning how to stretch the psoas is no exception, and two easy, effective stretches can be learned by watching the video above.
Big Quads + Little Hams = Trouble
Remember when I said that short, tight muscles are a recipe for trouble? Well, here’s another exercise tenet…imbalance between muscle groups is also trouble just waiting to happen.
In the case of cycling, we’re talking about the quadriceps and the hamstrings. Bicycling is predominately a quadriceps sport. In fact you can see some freaky-big quads in the ranks of cyclists; no where more evident than among the bike sprinters.
But why is this such a problem?
Big, tight quadriceps tilt the front, top part of the pelvis forward and downward. When that happens the arch of the low back (lordotic curve) is exaggerated. An increase in the lordosis puts an increased compressive force on the back part of the discs, and it also ‘jams’ the sensitive facet joints. And if that wasn’t bad enough, an increased lordosis reduces the diameter of the openings between the vertebrae (foramin) through which the sensitive spinal nerve roots travel.
Of course, none of these scenarios is good for the low back.
Work To Maintain Balance In The Upper Leg
So what’s to be done?
For starters, if you have any inclining at all to do exercise beyond the confines of the bike saddle (you know…maybe some weight training), be sure to spend some time building up the hamstrings. The more balance there is in the strength of the quadriceps and the hamstrings, the less forward tilting of the pelvis occurs.
And then, of course, there is stretching. Once again, YouTube to the rescue…watching the video on the right (and actually doing the exercises) will do wonders for keeping the quadriceps from getting too tight.
Ride Pain Free With A Little Extra Effort
There are few cardio exercises that can match cycling for the sense of freedom and speed felt when screaming down the road on a well-made bike. Frankly, it can be pretty addicting…as evidenced by all of the cyclists you see going down the road dressed like rolling billboards.
But if any of them don’t take a little time to compensate for the awkward position a bike puts them into, they won’t be long around for long; victims of overuse injuries.
With some insight into the special stresses cycling puts on the body and with a determination to address them intelligently, cyclists will benefit from one of the best ways to develop a strong set of heart and lungs.
About the Author: Dr. Ron Fritzke is a Sports Chiropractor in Mt Shasta, California. He is a member of the Sports Medicine team at the College of the Siskiyous while maintaining his private practice. He writes cycling product reviews covering everything from indoor bike trainer reviews to reviews of car bike racks. A former marathon runner, he now uses cycling as his primary means of exercising.