Upper back mobility and cycling
Cyclists as you probably know spend a lot of their time adjusting their bikes to find the most comfortable position for themselves. When cycling you are in that fixed hunched over position for quite a long time no wonder why we get a lot of cyclists coming in complaining of upper back and neck ache. You can keep on adjusting your bike but we are going to give you some quick easy exercises to follow to hopefully ease your discomfort. Cyclists suffer from neck pain at relatively high rates with research showing this is linked to athletes having deficits in thoracic (upper back) mobility (Wilber et al).
Our thoracic spine compared to other portions of the spine is already a lot stiffer due to having the ribs joining onto it. Due to the thoracic spine being stiff in general it’s important that we keep the little movement we have in this area to avoid us loading other areas of our back and neck.
Thoracic mobility affects…
- Our posture
- Upper limb
- Lower limb
Good upper back mobility vs. poor upper back mobility
When we sit on our bike the typical cycling position is sitting on the seat and then bending forwards.
This is a picture taken of Elanor Cadzow who is member of Bishops Stortford Cycling club. In the picture you can see Ellie is in a comfortable neutral position, this is a typical cycling position where you sit on the seat and bend forwards. Her back is nice and straight and she looks comfortable.
When we pick up speed we bend a lot further over the bars to get more power output through our legs and this also make us more aerodynamic.
Good vs. bad positioning…
Here Ellie is able to see straight forwards without putting too much tension on her neck, as her load whilst sitting on her bike, is evenly spread between her neck, thoracic spine and lower back.
Benefits of this position:
- Decreased pain
- Load balance between neck, upper and lower back
- Improved breathing
With poor upper back mobility here you can see Ellie is in a more rounded position.
Disadvantage to this position:
- More pressure being put on the neck as its forced into neck extension so Ellie can see forwards whilst cycling
- Increased pain
- Decreased efficiency in cycling due to position not being as streamline
- Decreased air capacity in lungs due to poor postural alignment when cycling
Upper back mobility for cyclists is very important. You want to be as streamline as possible right? Looking at the pictures above you will see that Ellie in the poor positioning looks uncomfortable. In the position she is placed in, the poor positioning isn’t down to her bike. It is actually due to her upper back. She will be feeling this a lot also in her neck. Our aim is to get the load through the spine equal when cycling to ensure we aren’t putting too much pressure on certain areas of our back. When we put too much pressure on certain areas, the obvious happens… we feel pain. Feeling pain whilst cycling will decrease your performance due to your physical and mental state being affected.
Breathing is vital which we all know, but in sport it is important that we allow enough oxygen to be able to expand our lungs to give enough oxygen around our body to therefore, be able to perform the exercise as efficiently and effectively as possible. Try sitting on a chair now then slouch forwards then take a deep breath… difficult? Now sit up into your neutral normal sitting position and take a deep breath… easier? The stiffer the thoracic spine or the more rounded the posture affects how much the ribs are able to expand. We want to allow cyclists to get in the best position possible which in this instance will be done by improving thoracic mobility to allow themselves to breathe freely which will benefit their cycling performance.
Feeling less pain and able to breathe easily means a happy cyclist, decreased risk of injury, improved performance and increase longevity in their sport.
Exercises to improve upper back mobility
Try to rotate as much as you can towards your body and away from your body.
- Lunge with upper back rotations
With this exercise try to rotate you head towards your hand. Think of this as a mobilisation not a stretch. Keep it moving!
- Thoracic extensions over a foam roller
Check out the link below to see Ellie perform this exercise. She is concentrating on the upper thoracic but you can work your way down the thoracic spine ensuring you are keeping you core tight to ensure your lower back doesn’t extend as we are trying to improve mobility of the upper back not the lower back!
- Cat Camel
Begin with the back in neutral then arch your upper back then repeat this, again keep the upper back moving.
Aim to repeat these exercise 10-12 times with a couple of repetitions.
It is important to highlight; these exercises don’t have to be just for cyclists. Upper back mobility is important for everyone!
Thank you for reading!
BSc Hons Sports Therapy MSST