Biking and Low Back Pain – Smart Exercise Choices for a Healthy Spine
Question about Biking and Low Back Pain:
“I am looking for some pointers on using a spin bike. I am challenged with low back pain, use clip in shoes, and am very conscious of heels straight in line from toes, but need butt and back positions. Thanks for any help you can offer.” Dana
Answer from Aliesa:
In my opinion, spin class and biking is perhaps not the most ideal exercise choice if dealing with low back pain.
If you look at most bikers, the low spine is rounded with the pelvis and hips tucked under, creating a prime opportunity for discs to translate out of place to the back. You sit in this position for an hour or more, and when you get off the bike it may be difficult to stand up straight! Add to this the fact that the head and neck are cranked into extension to see where you’re going, and you’ve got flexion through most of the spine, and hyper-extension in the neck. A healthy spine can put in lots of miles in this position, but if you have low back pain, SI joint problems, or neck and shoulder pain, this body position for cycling may only make things worse.
There is nothing about cycling posture that puts the spine in a healthy neutral position. Riding a bike with higher handlebars in front so you can sit up taller might help some, but it’s not the best choice of activities for developing the strength and mobility needed to keep your back and neck healthy.
Seat height for cycling is also an issue. If the seat is too high your back may feel worse. If it’s too low you can end up with knee pain! When you walk, the hips need to un-level side to side for a healthy stride. But on a bike the pelvis should remain still. If the seat is too high there is more stress on your low back riding because you end up un-leveling the hips to push the pedals.
If it’s possible for you to cycle with a more “neutral” pelvis position, it might help take some of the stress off your lower back. But generally speaking cycling can be aggravating if you already have back or neck issues.
Let’s Look at WHY I Don’t Think Cycling May Be a Smart Exercise Choice for a Healthy Spine:
On the bike all the force and movement is in the lumbar side-to-side, with a flexed/tucked pelvis. The tragedy of this is that when spinning on a bike, the legs aren’t working thru a full ROM for good hip mechanics to strengthen your POS (Posterior Oblique System – X Support system, hamstrings, glutes, low back lats) like you get with walking, which is really what needs to get stronger to reduce or eliminate SI joint pain and low back pain.
Plus cycling also has the spine held in a stable and flexed position, so you lose out on the front X support and oblique work needed for spine rotation. Hold your spine still for an hour or more on a bike and your back is going to get stiffer and tighter, it will be more difficult even if you do try to do other exercises to reinforce your X-systems to keep them strong – you’ll have to do a LOT to un-train and re-train what’s not working well for you when you bike.
IF you decide to keep cycling in your training program, know that if your back hurts cycling may be a contributing factor to why you can’t seem to stabilize the issues.
Still Think You Want to Cycle? Get a Bike Fit!
While I don’t recommend spin class or cycling for clients with back pain, I can say that an important part of cycling and staying healthy is having your bike fit. It’s worth the investment to have your road or mountain bike professionally adjusted to fit your body and ensure optimal body mechanics for cycling. Pedals, seat height, the actual seat, stem height, handlebars…there are lots of things that can be adjusted on a bike to ensure your body will be sitting in the best position possible to spin safely. In a spin class at the gym, you’ll probably never get exactly the same “fit” as a personalized fit on your bike, but knowing what it feels like to be on your bike when it IS fit properly can hopefully help you adjust what you can on a stationary bike at the gym to get the best body mechanics possible.
Outdoor Cycling vs. Riding a Stationary Bike
Please realize that riding a stationary bike is not the same as being outside on the road. Outside the bike moves! It sways side to side and makes adjustments underneath your body, and your body has to make adjustments up top to stay upright. On a stationary bike you lose out on needing to recruit some of the smaller muscle groups that assist with stabilization, balance, and body control. Power muscles get stronger, stabilizers get weaker…
Answer this question:
What needs to be working better for a healthy back?
- Large power muscles
- Small stabilizing muscles
Still think riding a bike indoors is the best choice for your back? It’s up to you…
Cycling has lots of great benefits, just like every other type of exercise. But not every exercise is appropriate for every person. If you have low back pain, it doesn’t mean that you should avoid exercise altogether! In the long run it’s important to have the right exercises in your daily workouts to improve your strength, stability, and mobility. Making smart exercise choices to improve balanced muscle development and paying attention to improving your healthy movement habits is what will make the biggest difference in helping you alleviate back pain and feel better.
Make Smart Exercise Choices to Eliminate Low Back Pain
The goal is to pick the safest and most appropriate exercises to get your body 100% healthy and avoid exercises or activities that you know may be contributing to your pain. I may be that you avoid certain exercises or activities for weeks, months, or even years! But once your body has had the time it needs to heal, the pain goes away, and you know your back is healthy and stable, there’s a great chance you can do what you want and get back into activities like spinning class or cycling without aggravating your past low back issues.
Make smart, healthy choices, work on improving your functional movement habits, and you’ll be well on your way to eliminating low back pain.
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