Back Pain Cycling? Here’s the Best Upper Body Position!

by Alpine Fit PT, Cycling, Fitness, Physical Therapy

Neck, shoulder, and back pain cycling are very common complaints we see here at Alpine Fit. With most rides being longer than an hour, the upper body is tasked with maintaining the same position for an extended period of time which over time can lead to tightness and pain. 

While much attention is usually given to lower body mechanics, the position of our upper body and arms is also vitally important.This article aims to highlight the significance of proper upper body positioning and provides valuable tips to optimize cycling performance and reduce injury, especially in our neck, shoulders, and back pain cycling.

Why is our upper body position important to reduce neck, shoulder, and back pain cycling?

  • Promotes Efficient Power Transfer: A balanced upper body position and alignment contributes to effective power transfer from the core and lower body to the pedals.
  • Reduces injury risk: By adopting the correct position, stresses on joints, muscles, and tendons are minimized, reducing the risk of injuries during or after cycling sessions.
  • Enhances Aerodynamic Efficiency: Maintaining the correct upper body position helps to reduce wind resistance, allowing cyclists to move through the air more smoothly and efficiently without wasting energy that can lead to overuse injuries especially back pain cycling.

Three key positions to check when considering upper body positioning:

  1. Relax those upper traps: While cycling you may find your shoulders drifting up towards your ears. Throughout your ride check in with your shoulder position and keep your shoulders out of your ears. Over time this position can cause pain in your shoulders, tightness in your upper traps, and even back pain cycling.

A slight squeeze of your shoulder blades will help engage the stabilizing muscles of your scapular region, which will help prevent your upper traps from taking over. In addition, add in a light squeeze of your lats by pulling back on the handlebars to help engage the posterior aspect of your shoulders and spine. Bonus: you will also encourage increased core activation with a lat squeeze – further reducing back pain cycling.

  1. Elbows bent and wrists straight: While cycling your elbows should maintain a slight bend. This will help improve shock absorption as you ride over any bumps or gravel. Your wrists should be straight as they come into contact with the handle bars. This will minimize stress to structures within the wrist such as the carpal tunnel.
  1. Core engagement and spinal position: We all know about the importance of the core when it comes to just about any sport. Cycling is no different. When we think about the core, I want you to consider everything between your hips and your shoulders as your core. This area should be engaged as you cycle which will increase the muscular output your legs are able to provide. 

Spinal position is also important to consider for preventing pain, especially back pain cycling. For the recreational rider maintaining a spinal position close to neutral or in slight flexion is generally recommended. This means there should be a fairly straight line between your hips and your shoulders without there being a valley between your shoulder blades. For more advanced riders the flexion (forward bending) angle may increase – let’s just not get into any angry cat poses while cycling.

Next, let’s talk Bike Fit!

Not only do we want to be aware of our body’s position, but we also want to check in with the bike’s position. From an upper body perspective, we should make sure our handlebars and saddle are adjusted to the proper height. 

Having too much drop or reach in the handle bars can lead to excessive weight forward into our arms, which may cause hand pain or numbness over the carpal tunnel region. Improper bike fitting could also lead to low back pain cycling from improper spinal position. 

Where further assessment is needed, we recommend heading over to the amazing team at FULL CYCLE in Boulder, CO for a proper bike fit evaluation. With the mention of this article, you can get a $25 gift card with any full priced bike fitting!

Upper body strength and mobility:

If your body and bike are both in optimal alignment, what else can be done? Over time, there are a few key areas found in cyclists that may become weak or stiff. In general, we find many cyclists to be weak in their deep neck flexors and demonstrate stiffness into neck flexion due to the slight extension of the neck required to keep their eyes on the road. 

We also tend to find weakness in the posterior musculature of the spine and stiffness into thoracic (mid-back) extension due to cycling being more of a flexion (forward bending) than extension (backward bending) based activity of the spine. This mid-back stiffness is one of the primary causes of back pain cycling. The good news is these areas can be easily addressed with some corrective exercises. I’ve demonstrated a few of my favorites below!

Thoracic extension mobility with foam roller:

Prone Snow Angel:

Chin Tuck with Lift:

Chin Tuck and Cervical Retraction:

Putting it all together:

Cycling is a fantastic way to stay active. The position of our upper body is an important factor to be addressed in order to stay healthy and out of pain for the long term. Keeping these tips in mind while cycling will increase your efficiency as a rider and reduce your injury risk. 

This article is only half of the picture. If you haven’t already read Dr. Charlotte’s article on lower body positioning and driving through your glutes, check that out HERE. It’s a fantastic read, especially if you’ve been experiencing knee pain cycling. 

If you’ve been experiencing pain or stiffness during cycling, or are focused on your longevity as an avid cyclist, we here at Alpine Fit can help evaluate and treat your specific complaints. Happy riding!

Next steps (for some):

While most people will get a lot of helpful information from this article, this is just a brief overview of how to get out of back pain cycling.

If you’ve had back pain cycling for a while, you might need a little extra help. Click here to apply for a FREE Discovery Visit with one of our expert Doctors of Physical Therapy today to discuss how we can get you back to pain free and living your life.

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Hi, I’m Dr. Kyle

I started Alpine Fit because I saw how broken health care including physical therapy is today. As a society we’re waking up to a new solution that frees us from dependence on pills and unnecessary surgery.

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