Lower back pain is one of the most common ailments among adults, with nearly 8 percent of the global population (or 577 million people) experiencing the discomfort, per the International Association for the Study of Pain. Cyclists are no exception. According to a systematic review published in a 2017 issue of Sports Health, over half of all cyclists report lower back pain. These aches can stem from both posture and the repetitive motion of pedaling.
“The biggest reason people have lower back pain, especially cyclists, is they get tightness in the muscles in their anterior hip—their quads and hip flexors—mostly from sitting,” says Brian Gurney, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a trainer, board-certified sports clinical specialist, and physical therapist at BeFit Therapy in New York City.
“That posture pulls your pelvis forward and creates a lot of tension in your lower back muscles,” Gurney explains. “When you get tight in the hips, your glutes stop working like they should. So, it’s twofold: tightness on the front, weakness in the back.”
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In fact, the shape of your body in the saddle can affect the quality of your standing posture, which may lead to even more discomfort. A 2022 systemic review published in Sports Biomechanics found that cyclists are more likely than non-cyclists to experience changes in the spine, like a rounded upper back and pelvic tilt.
These alterations can lead to back pain, both on and off the bike. “Most cyclists will feel lower back pain at some point, especially during hills—but you can continue cycling if the pain is intermittent and resolves after cycling,” says Peter J. Moley, M.D., a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
To keep lower back pain while cycling from actually ruining your ride, though, follow these five recommendations from our experts.
5 Ways to Address Lower Back Pain from Cycling
1. Check your bike fit
You may have gotten your bike properly fitted to your body when you bought it. But even if you did, pain is a good nudge to go visit a pro again. “Most low back pain on bikes is related to the lumbar discs—the load on the joints of the back is reduced, but disc loads are increased, especially at the lower two lumbar discs,” explains Moley. “A correct bicycle fit is very important. Seat height, crank arm length, and saddle fore and aft [or where your seat is placed] can all help to make a more comfortable ride.”
You may be tempted to just inch the handlebars up a bit yourself to address low back pain, and that could help if you’re pedaling safely in place on a trainer. But for all outdoor rides, and just in general, it’s crucial to have an experienced bike fitter make necessary and correct adjustments, at each check point of your bike—not just the handlebars.
2. Get in a stretch
The first part of fixing the pain in your back is loosening up the tightness in your front. Child’s pose and cat-cow are great exercises for cyclists to incorporate to counteract that constant rounded shape you’re in while riding, says Todd Sinett, founder of Tru Whole Care in NYC and creator of the Backbridge, a tool design to counteract a hunched-over posture.
Gurney’s favorite stretch tackles two tight spots at once, as it loosens up your quads and hip flexors. To do it, start facing away from a wall or chair. Get into a kneeling position, right foot in front and left foot behind. Place your left knee as close to the wall as you can, and place you left foot against the wall or on top of the chair. Squeeze your left glute and tuck your pelvis slightly forward. Hold 30 to 60 seconds. Then repeat on opposite side.
3. Find a foam roller
Along with traditional stretching postride, spending some quality time with a good ol’ foam roller can work wonders on your aching back, too. “Mobility in the spine and lower limbs is helpful for the cyclist to reduce stress to the low back,” says Moley.
To pinpoint your personal mobility issues, Gurney suggests taking a video of yourself riding on the trainer and having a physical therapist analyze it and prescribe you moves. But a few places that most all cyclists could benefit from self-massaging, he says, include your quads and IT band (both best tackled with a foam roller) and your psoas (a major hip flexor muscle, which you can loosen up better with a smaller tool, like a lacrosse ball).
4. Incorporate strength training
Because tight anterior muscles often leave you with weak glutes, those big muscles of your backside are the first ones you want to target when it comes to strength training. Gurney recommends starting by adding hip thrusts into your routine; they’re great for firing up your glutes and your hamstrings.
To do it, sit facing away from a chair, bench, or couch, which should line up with the bottom of your shoulder blades or just above that. Bend knees, plant feet, and place arms on top of the chair, bench, or couch. Drive through feet to lift hips, squeezing glutes as you go. Avoid arching back and make sure knees bend 90 degrees at the top. Keep chin down. Lower hips back down and repeat.
Hip tightness and glute weakness also means your core has to work harder to keep you stable, and while you want to build up those glutes and loosen up the hips, you also want to include core-stability moves in your routine. Plank variations and dead bugs should help.
5. Take rest days
Of course, no matter how much you’re doing to prevent and correct back pain, sometimes you need a little extra R&R.
Rest days are super important to include in your routine and while taking full days off is great, incorporating low-intensity walks into your schedule is also smart. A 2022 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that people with lower back pain benefitted from walking as opposed to no intervention for their back pain.
Finally, there are times when a cyclist should get a medical opinion on how to address lower back pain while cycling.
“Cyclists should be concerned if the back pain persists the day after riding or if the back symptoms are associated with pain running down one or both legs,” advises Moley. “And if you’re experiencing any weakness, you should definitely see a doctor.”