By Lex Gidley and Kevin Neeld
There are a myriad of sources in print and on line which explain the ins and outs of why a cyclist’s back and neck hurt. Many proclaim that proper bike fit, technique, and even helmet fit can be the sources of the pesky pains we suffer as the season wears on. And while these and other sources may be the reason our seasons feel so long sometimes, let’s face it, even if we followed all the recommendations we would probably still have pain. The human body was not meant to be in one position for so long. This article will not be a synopsis of all the literature telling fellow riders what to do to decrease the pain, but it will address what the pains are and how one can help ease the pain. Many of us don’t have the money to get all the “best” equipment, the best bike fit, or have time to really work on technique; we just get on and ride. So, how can we fight the pain? With a few corrective exercises!
What are the pains? Simply put, it is muscle and/or nerves. Sometimes the muscles are stressed due to what is termed “over-use” injury, and based on the positions we sit in for hours on end we can be pinching nerves. Our necks are held in hyper-extension as we try to look up to see where we are going, shoulders are usually held in a forward position as we stretch forward bracing ourselves against our handlebars and to make things worse we are stuck in this position unless we make the effort to relax our arms and use our core for support or shift from the hoods to the drops periodically or get off our bike. So, as we slowly chip away at easing the pain by paying money for proper bike fitting appointments, buying new helmets, handle bars, and for massages to release the stress, we can also participate in some exercises that may ease our body and make our seasons more enjoyable.
The hunched over biking position we all adapt to rather quickly can lead to some specific postural changes. Notably, the shoulder blades (scapulae) drift outward, the upper spine (thoracic spine) becomes more flexed and loses mobility, the head sits forward, and the arms become internally rotated. First, the most important thing to remember when addressing these problems is that you need to avoid this hunched over position throughout the rest of your day. Most of us practice this “biking position” throughout our normal activities: at the computer, talking on the phone, even walking can be altered due to our new “relaxed” upper back position. While many of the changes will need to be conscious: “I will sit up straight!” some may be prevented by changing your surroundings. For example, if you spend a considerable amount of time in front of a computer, use a chair with a supportive backrest and armrests. You can also take care of yourself at work or home by changing your posture constantly and by taking frequent breaks to stand up and stretch out, e.g. microbreaks.
Additionally, there are a few exercises that can be performed quickly that can help minimize the discomfort associated with these undesired structural changes. If performed in a circuit these exercises shouldn’t take more than 8-10 minutes. These exercises should be used in conjunction with (not as a replacement for) a structured resistance training program.
Chin Retractions 2 x 20sec
Simply put, with a support for your head and shoulders, like a wall or the floor, forcibly try to push your neck flat against the surface. Think of “tucking” your chin or making a “double-chin.” You should feel the muscles in the front of your neck working. It may help to push your tongue against the roof of your mouth. While stretching your neck after a long ride makes your neck feel better, this exercise is more active, retraining your neck muscles to keep your head in alignment through muscular activity.
Lie on a foam roller placed just below your scapulae. Spread your shoulder blades apart by pulling your elbows up. Use your hands to support your head. While keeping your butt on the ground and your core tight, arch your back over the roller. Hold this position for 5 seconds, then move the foam roller slightly up your back and repeat. Perform this exercise in 3 positions for 5 seconds each. All three positions should be within your shoulder blades (not too high up your neck or too low on your back). This stretch just feels really good. Don’t get spooked when you hear/feel your upper back crack, it will the first time, but the second and third time will be good stretches and feel really good on the stiff upper back.
Using a broom handle, golf club, ski pole, etc. grab it with both hands more than shoulder width apart. Slowly raise your hands above your head, proceeding carefully behind your head until the stick reaches its lowest point nearest your hips. When the “stick” is overhead, pin your shoulder blades together and keep them pinned until the end of the movement. Return to the starting position and repeat. This exercise will increase the range of motion in your shoulders which can be reduced by the limited motion experienced while sitting in the saddle.
Just as the name implies, this is a stick-up! Put your back against the wall and put your hands up. Use the starting position as a clean start to not arching your back and trying to keep your scapulae flat on the wall. As easy as that sounds, be sure to not arch your back to help put your arms flush with the wall. Keep your core tight to keep your back from arching, pulling your stomach muscles towards your spine. Pull your elbows in tight to your side, and then raise your arms straight overhead.
From a push-up position, lift on hand off the ground, shift your weight and place it on top of the other hand. Return to the starting position and repeat with the opposite hand. Make sure to keep your core tight throughout the whole movement! This exercise helps awaken some of the muscles around the scapulae that can become problematic from being in the same hunched over position for too long.
While keeping your heels on the ground (toes in the air), squeeze your glutes (butt muscles) to raise your hips off the ground. Try to maintain a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Hold your hips off the ground by tightening your glutes, not by arching your back. Keep your hands on your stomach to make sure these muscles stay tight! Muscles can become weakened when they’re in a stretched position for too long. Sitting all day and biking all night keeps your glutes on stretch for most of the day. This exercise is helpful, when done correctly, to help restore the functioning of these powerful muscles.
These drills are designed to develop core strength and stability, but they have the capability of strengthening the whole body like a push-up would, without the upper body stress. Place your two arms (front plank) or either arm (side plank) with your forearm flat on the ground. During the front plank, it is alright to have a slight bend in your waist in order to keep your hips from sagging. Notice on the side plank, the body is fairly straight, without a break between the upper and lower body. Arm is straight in the air, not pulling you backwards. Neither of these exercises should cause strain in your shoulders or neck. Using your core will relieve the stress in your shoulders and neck. Brace your midsection during these exercises as if someone was going to kick you in the stomach. Although your core (in the front AND the back!) is tight, you should still be able to breathe normally!
In these exercises you will lie face down on a workout bench. Initially you will make an “I” with your arms (up and out in front of you), keeping the arms down, hands grazing the floor, then lift the arms up as high as possible. Then proceed to making a “Y” (arms out at a 45° angle) and then a “T” (arms straight out to the side) and lifting from each position. Think of initiating each of movement at the scapulae as opposed to just moving your arms and keep your thumbs pointed up. This exercise will help keep your scapulae from sliding forward and closing your chest, the way cycling can tend to do because of the position in which one remains for hours: hands out in front, arms stretched out, back hunched. Especially when we get tired and tend to lock out the elbows this position becomes accentuated and the muscles in the upper back become weak and can no longer keep the scapulae in place.
This article was originally published on SportsRehabExpert.com, an athletic development website where some of the world’s experts in strength and conditioning and sports rehabilitation print their articles and discuss current issues.
Lex Gidley, MS, is currently a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst studying biomechanics. She is a level 3 ski instructor and clinic leader in the PSIA-Eastern division and actively competes in cycling, mountain biking and triathlon events.
Kevin Neeld, BSc, MS, CSCS is the Director of Athletic Development at Endeavor Fitness in Sewell, NJ and the author of Hockey Training University’s “Off-Ice Performance Training Course,” a must-have resource for every hockey program. Through the application of functional anatomy, biomechanics, and neural control, Kevin specializes in guiding hockey players to optimal health and performance. Kevin developed an incredible ice hockey training membership site packed full of training programs, exercise videos, and articles specific to hockey. For a FREE copy of “Strong Hockey Core Training”, one of the sessions from his course, go to his hockey training website.
Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He’s currently the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ, the Strength and Conditioning Coach and Manual Therapist for the Philadelphia Flyers Junior Team, and a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s National Team.