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Why You Struggle with Low Back Pain on the Bike and What You Can Do to Fix It

Derek Teel on February 14th, 2022

Struggling with low back pain on your bike is a common issue amongst riders – especially when in a TT position, or while downhilling or on a hard cross-country ride. I'll tell you from my own experience, punchy XC rides are the thing that used to get me the most with low back pain. 

That’s why I want to explain what the heck is happening on our bike when we experience low back pain and what we can do to correct it.

What is happening?

The most common reason for low back pain is lack of lower abdominal strength

and glute strength. 

When you’re on your bike and your low ab activation has fatigued, you naturally recruit the muscles in your lower back as opposed to your glutes, because most of us don’t have the glute strength we need.

Another common occurrence with cyclists is having a shorten rectus femoris. This is the main quadricep muscle out of the four quadricep muscles we have and is also a primary hip flexor. The others are the vastus medialis, the vastus intermedius (deep to the rectus femoris), and the vastus lateralis. All four parts of the quadriceps muscle attach to the patella (knee cap) by the quadriceps tendon. 

Why does a shortened rectus femoris cause issues with our back? Well, it’s the only muscle in the quadriceps group that crosses over the head. And when it gets tight, it pulls your hips down into an anterior pelvic tilt, which starts yanking on your low back. 

What can we do ease our lower back pain on the bike? 

Step number one is to focus on strengthening your core and glutes.

The best exercise to increase the strength of both at the same time is going to be your Bulgarian split squats. I know I talk about these a lot and also program them into workouts a lot, but for good reason. I don’t like them just because I like them, I like them because of how effective they are for strengthening the abs and glutes and preventing that low back pain on the bike. 

To dive deeper, Josh, Dialed Health Corrective Exercise Specialists, recommends doing your split squats with a slow tempo – taking 3-5 seconds to lower and another 3 seconds to push back up.

It’s also important to keep your hips pushed forward the entire time while performing the exercise.

Since the tight rectus femoris is pulling you into an anterior pelvic tilt position, you need to be extra careful to ensure you reverse the position with a posterior tilt. I like to think about it like keeping my belly button facing forward throughout the entire movement, at no point does my belly button point downward. You can also think about it like keeping a slight arch in your lower back.

Step number two is going to be focusing on lengthening your rectus femoris. 

Performing your exercises and actively moving with posterior tilt is extremely important to concentrate on when your rectus femoris is shortened. With that, foam rolling is great way to give that muscle some length.

One thing to note is that foam rolling and stretching is great, but when you are struggling with serious pain, it gives you a temporary fix. In order to reverse the pain, you need to incorporate corrective exercises into your strength training workouts.

Josh and I dive way deeper into the corrective exercises for lower back pain, along with knee pain, upper cross syndrome, and shoulder impingement in episode 109 of the Dialed Health podcast. You can tune into the whole episode here:

109: Josh Rasmussen: Corrective Exercises for Knee, Shoulder and Back Pain

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