Your back doesn’t have to hurt when you ride your bike!
Long bike rides, and sometimes short ones, often cause riders to end the day with a sore back, specifically the low back and neck. Why is this? In most cases the answer is simple. If you get a sore and tight back when you ride, then you ride without keeping your spine (back) neutral. A neutral spine is relaxed and tension free. A non-neutral spine is loaded and tense. Let me give you an analogy. Imagine you were to hold a 3 lbs weight over your head with your arm. At first the weight seems light, but over time it will get heavy as the arm struggles against this constant load. If you ride with your spine in a non-neutral position it may not seem like much of an issue at the beginning of your ride, but as the ride goes on the initial manageable load becomes unmanageable. Keep your spine in a neutral position during your ride and the only sore parts of your body at the end of the day are the muscles in your legs and hips.
Here is what you need to do:
Be clear on what constitutes a neutral spine. The spine is divided into 3 sections, the lumbar spine (low back – bottom 5 vertebra), the thoracic spine (upper back – 12 vertebra where ribs connect to spine), and the cervical spine (the neck – 7 upper most vertebra). In neutral the lumbar spine has a slight extended position called lordosis, the thoracic spine a slightly flexed position called kyphosis, and the cervical spine a slightly extended position called cervical lordosis. If either of these curves is exaggerated or reversed then the spine is no longer neutral. Muscles then are loaded and struggle to counter the non-neutral position. Typically the problem for many riders while on a bike is that the lumbar spine is flexed (curvature reversed), the thoracic spine is overly flexed, and the cervical spine is overly extended. This bad posture is a function of the position of the pelvis and the need to reach to hold the handlebars, along with the effort to keep the head level and the gaze forward.
First and foremost, spinal position is a function of pelvic position. When the pelvis is moved in the direction of an anterior tilt (sticking your tailbone out) the low back is pushed into a position of extension. Reverse the pelvic position in the direction of a posterior tilt (tucking your tailbone underneath) and the low back goes into flexion. When you sit on a chair you will typically and passively allow your pelvis to drop into a posterior tilt. The force of gravity compels you to do so unless you make the effort to perch on your chair. The same goes for sitting on a bike, except that there is also the added incentive to avoid pressure in the groin, which is achieved by a posterior tilt. A flexed low back means that the pelvis is not positioned correctly. The correct position is to have the pelvis in sufficient anterior tilt to allow the lumbar vertebra to sit in a slightly extended position. Your seat is most likely preventing you from doing that comfortably because you will increase the pressure in your groin when you tilt your pelvis in the anterior direction. In all likelihood you are drifting into posterior tilt in an effort to relieve pressure from your groin. You need a seat that will not put pressure on your groin, so the seat needs to be modified. Seat modification is another topic for another day, but nonetheless tremendously important (link to seat modification article). A game changer if you will. Nonetheless, without the correct amount of anterior tilt the game is lost, you will never win the battle. Therefore it is imperative that you position your pelvis correctly to allow for a neutral low back.
With the low back in the correct position you can now adjust the upper back by improving the thoracic extension. Again, typically the upper back is too flexed as it adapts to the bad posture of low back flexion in your attempt to reach the handlebars. Now that the low back is correctly positioned you can more easily move the upper back in the direction of extension thereby reducing the hyper flexed position. Note, in order to maintain the reach of your hands to the handlebars you will now need to protract your shoulder blades (scapulae), meaning draw the shoulder blades forward around the sides of your ribcage to enhance your reach as opposed to flexing your spine to enhance your reach. Big difference!!
Finally you can now adjust the position of your neck. Up to this point the neck has always adjusted to a hyper flexed thoracic spine by itself going into hyperextension. The primary objective of the head is to find a way to sit level in an effort for you to maintain your gaze forward. Therefore you are compelled to tilt the head back causing extension of your neck when you are on a bike. However, now that your low back and upper back are properly positioned, you can now position your neck correctly by pushing your head backward – different from tilting your head back - as you simultaneously nod your nose downward toward your chest. The effect is that you will reduce the hyperextended position of your neck to ultimately position it in neutral. And now in an effort to keep your gaze forward you will not tilt your head back, but instead you will turn your eyeballs upward!! Another big difference. Voila, now you have a neutral back from bottom to top.
Here then are key concepts summarized along with other issues associated with a neutral spine and proper bike posture. Some of these are topics for another day.